A New Yorker Short Fiction Reading List

Literature

 

Mutant Eustace Tilley (The New Yorker's Mascot) by Charles Burns

Mutant Eustace Tilley (The New Yorker’s Mascot) by Charles Burns

As you, savvy reader, are undoubtedly already aware, The New Yorker has opened up some of its archive for the rest of the summer (to show off its website redesign, I guess).

Here’s a reading list of short fiction from the archives (admittedly, some of the stuff I wanted to put on here is still behind a paywall).

Some of the stories on the list are classics, some are pieces I’ve shared on this blog before, some are excerpts from longer works, and a few are stories I have yet to read myself.

“The Daughters of the Moon” by Italo Calvino

“Backbone” by David Foster Wallace

“1966″ by Denis Johnson

“My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age” by Grace Paley

“The Insufferable Gaucho” by Roberto Bolaño

“Victory Lap” by George Saunders

“Leopard” by Wells Tower

“Gorse Is Not People” by Janet Frame

“Rough Deeds” by Annie Proulx

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“Over an Absinthe Bottle” — W.C. Morrow

Literature

 

“Over an Absinthe Bottle”

by

W.C. Morrow

Arthur Kimberlin, a young man of very high spirit, found himself a total stranger in San Francisco one rainy evening, at a time when his heart was breaking; for his hunger was of that most poignant kind in which physical suffering is forced to the highest point without impairment of the mental functions. There remained in his possession not a thing that he might have pawned for a morsel to eat; and even as it was, he had stripped his body of all articles of clothing except those which a remaining sense of decency compelled him to retain. Hence it was that cold assailed him and conspired with hunger to complete his misery. Having been brought into the world and reared a gentleman, he lacked the courage to beg and the skill to steal. Had not an extraordinary thing occurred to him, he either would have drowned himself in the bay within twenty-four hours or died of pneumonia in the street. He had been seventy hours without food, and his mental desperation had driven him far in its race with his physical needs to consume the strength within him; so that now, pale, weak, and tottering, he took what comfort he could find in the savory odors which came steaming up from the basement kitchens of the restaurants in Market Street, caring more to gain them than to avoid the rain. His teeth chattered; he shambled, stooped, and gasped. He was too desperate to curse his fate—he could only long for food. He could not reason; he could not understand that ten thousand hands might gladly have fed him; he could think only of the hunger which consumed him, and of food that could give him warmth and happiness.

“Resolutions” — Franz Kafka

Literature, Writers

“Resolutions”

by Franz Kafka

(Trans. by W. & E. Muir)

To LIFT YOURSELF out of a miserable mood, even if you have to do it by strength of will, should be easy. I force myself out of my chair, stride around the table, exercise
my head and neck, make my eyes sparkle, tighten the muscles around them. Defy my own feelings, welcome A. enthusiastically supposing he comes to see me, amiably tolerate B. in my room, swallow all that is said at C.’s, whatever pain and trouble it may cost me, in long draughts.

Yet even if I manage that, one single slip, and a slip cannot be avoided, will stop the whole process, easy and painful alike, and I will have to shrink back into my own circle again.

So perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively, to make yourself an inert mass, and, if you feel that you are being carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step, to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction, in short, with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, that is, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that.

A characteristic movement in such a condition is to run your little finger along your eyebrows.

“Ubazakura” –Lafcadio Hearn

Books, Literature, Writers

“Ubazakura” –Lafcadio Hearn

Three hundred years ago, in the village called Asamimura, in the district called Onsengori, in the province of Iyo, there lived a good man named Tokubei. This Tokubei was the richest person in the district, and the muraosa, or headman, of the village. In most matters he was fortunate; but he reached the age of forty without knowing the happiness of becoming a father. Therefore he and his wife, in the affliction of their childlessness, addressed many prayers to the divinity Fudo Myo O, who had a famous temple, called Saihoji, in Asamimura.

At last their prayers were heard: the wife of Tokubei gave birth to a daughter. The child was very pretty; and she received the name of Tsuyu. As the mother’s milk was deficient, a milk-nurse, called O-Sode, was hired for the little one.

 

O-Tsuyu grew up to be a very beautiful girl; but at the age of fifteen she fell sick, and the doctors thought that she was going to die. In that time the nurse O-Sode, who loved O-Tsuyu with a real mother’s love, went to the temple Saihoji, and fervently prayed to Fudo-Sama on behalf of the girl. Every day, for twenty-one days, she went to the temple and prayed; and at the end of that time, O-Tsuyu suddenly and completely recovered.

Then there was great rejoicing in the house of Tokubei; and he gave a feast to all his friends in celebration of the happy event. But on the night of the feast the nurse O-Sode was suddenly taken ill; and on the following morning, the doctor, who had been summoned to attend her, announced that she was dying.

Then the family, in great sorrow, gathered about her bed, to bid her farewell. But she said to them:—

“It is time that I should tell you something which you do not know. My prayer has been heard. I besought Fudo-Sama that I might be permitted to die in the place of O-Tsuyu; and this great favor has been granted me. Therefore you must not grieve about my death… But I have one request to make. I promised Fudo-Sama that I would have a cherry-tree planted in the garden of Saihoji, for a thank-offering and a commemoration. Now I shall not be able myself to plant the tree there: so I must beg that you will fulfill that vow for me… Good-bye, dear friends; and remember that I was happy to die for O-Tsuyu’s sake.”

 

After the funeral of O-Sode, a young cherry-tree,—the finest that could be found,—was planted in the garden of Saihoji by the parents of O-Tsuyu. The tree grew and flourished; and on the sixteenth day of the second month of the following year,—the anniversary of O-Sode’s death,—it blossomed in a wonderful way. So it continued to blossom for two hundred and fifty-four years,—always upon the sixteenth day of the second month;—and its flowers, pink and white, were like the nipples of a woman’s breasts, bedewed with milk. And the people called it Ubazakura, the Cherry-tree of the Milk-Nurse.

The Book of Men (Book Acquired, 10.25.2013)

Books

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The Book of Men  is curated (and not, curiously, edited, which is the word I thought we used, but hey, whatever) by Colum McCann. Publisher’s blurb:

To help launch the literary nonprofit Narrative 4, Esquire asked eighty of the world’s greatest writers to chip in with a story, all with the title, “How to Be a Man.”

The result is The Book of Men, an unflinching investigation into the essence of masculinity.

The Book of Men probes, with the poignant honesty and imagination that only these writers could deliver, the slippery condition of manhood. You will find men striving and searching, learning and failing to learn, triumphing and aspiring; men who are lost and men navigating their way toward redemption. These stories don’t just explore what it is to be a man or how to achieve manliness, but ultimately what it is to be a human—with all of its uncertainty, complexity, clumsiness, and beauty.

With contributions from literary luminaries as diverse as the subjects they capture, and curated by the editors of Esquire, National Book Award winner Colum McCann, and Narrative 4, a global nonprofit devoted to using storytelling as a means to empathy, The Book of Men might not teach you how to negotiate a deal or mix a Manhattan, but it does scratch at that most eternal of questions: What is a man?

Lots of shorties here. Here’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s entry:

Our Sundays always tasted like peppers that flared hot in the rice and soups and stews. We sat in the kitchen, knees fresh from pews, and watched our houseboy pounding them in pairs. He held the phallic pestle—thump thump thump—while we coughed and spluttered with watery eyes. Nobody tastes them raw, it wasn’t wise. But we did, and then we’d shout and jump to the fridge for ice.
My mom sang an Igbo song about strong women. It wasn’t too trite, but it told of places she didn’t know, streams, goddesses, women who couldn’t read. Women like that would squeeze peppers, I heard, and force them between their daughters’ legs—“so they’ll stop following boys.” But Eros was good for sons. No peppers to curb sons’ paths to manhood.

 

Read “Fiction,” a Short Story by Carl Shuker

Books, Literature, Writers

“Fiction” by Carl Shuker

So there was a US novelist, permanently relocated to the UK some years back for an MFA, now mid-list, mid-career and “between books”, thirty-mid-something, author of two well-received novels and a less-well-received book of short stories, product of a labor of ten years on and off, and thus at the quintessential time and place to stall, creatively, who was that kind of writer who worked from emotion thence into intellect and, if he was successful, back once again into emotion, “evoked.“

And he came to the Lebanon looking to be bitten by the dragonfly.

Emotion > intellect > emotion. From the dream to the text to the dream. In practice this meant the not-so-youngish writer knew his subject when it hurt his heart, when it obsessed him and seemed too painful and the hardest thing at which to look. Then the writer knew he would have the dark, acidic energy it took to compose, edit, destroy, recompose, re-edit, polish and eventually finish, after years, a novel something like the kind of novels he loved and aspired to create, the books that made him want to become a writer in the first place. This method, which he fell into rather than chose, in the messy process of finding one’s way as a writer in his twenties, meant that by his early thirties the writer had published first one deliberately thinly veiled book of first-person late-adolescent horror, which counted, for its relative success, on the frisson of a patchwork of à clef-ish links with his own life and on making his own weaknesses—inexperience and naiveté—part of the material, and had published second one semi-immense “follow-up” or “sophomore effort”, as critics who hadn’t read the first book always wrote, a terrific shambling thing that during the long three years of its composition veered in his imagination from being a bloated, confused, constant evasion of a real book, a shadow of the kind of book it aspired to be, to being sometimes briefly the most amazing thing he’d ever read, like, ever; structured, strong, urgent, inevitable; the writer being thrilled and dazzled it’d come out of himself, then brutally depressed and miserable at its derivativeness and the puniness of his talent and by extension his soul, his self. And so how he’d done it (coming back to the MO thing), how he’d surmounted the hugeness and endlessness of the task and this bipolar crippling self-doubt and corresponding occasional massively inflated sense of self-importance was with the choice of a subject so tough, so big and hard, so new, that he had a kind of duty to it; a duty that transcended his own comfort and his own ego. A duty to the world. A subject that humbled and steeled. The second book was published to polite notices but bigger papers and a year or so of peace for the writer, and then the award of a one-year fellowship slash residency at a red-brick university like the one he’d graduated from (in crea writ, natch; the MFA) wherein the writer was immediately expected to write again. Having drawn on his childhood and his adolescence, having spent most of his twenties writing or thinking about writing while not publishing anything, the writer was immediately wary of being seen, by imagined peers, by his remembered brutal adolescent reading self with its impossible but definitive demands, of having sold out or trying to be commercially big, not cool or hard or true or essential, so he carved out a book of singular and odd semifuturistic short stories and a novella that linked them all, in a hazy darkness of second-novel-hangover and fellowship-paid-for Scotch, a clutch of one-night-stands compared to the love affairs of the first books, and worked really hard while never really, really loving these new small strange things, never adoring them like he did the books he’d had to summon forth forces for that were old and presymbolic and frightening. He had an office and stuff, and people knew he was a writer. This hadn’t happened before.

And then he got a job teaching creative writing.

“My First Romance” — Lafcadio Hearn

Books, Literature, Writers

“My First Romance” by Lafcadio Hearn

There has been sent to me, across the world, a little book stamped, on its yellow cover, with names of Scandinavian publishers – names sounding of storm and strand and surge. And the sight of those names, worthy of Frost-Giants, evokes the vision of a face – simply because that face has long been associated, in my imagination, with legends and stories of the North – especially, I think, with the wonderful stories of Björnstjerne Björnson.

It is the face of a Norwegian peasant-girl of nineteen summers – fair and ruddy and strong. She wears her national costume: her eyes are grey like the sea, and her bright braided hair is tied with a blue ribbon. She is tall; and there is an appearance of strong grace about her, for which I can find no word. Her name I never learned, and never shall be able to learn; – and now it does not matter. By this time she may have grandchildren not a few. But for me she will always be the maiden of nineteen summers – fair and fresh from the land of the Hrimthursar – a daughter of gods and Vikings. From the moment of seeing her I wanted die for her; and I dreamed of Valkyrja and of Vala-maids, of Freyja and of Gerda. . . .

She is seated, facing me, in an American railroad-car – a third-class car, full of people whose forms have become indistinguishably dim in memory. She alone remains luminous, vivid: the rest have faded into shadow – all except a man, sitting beside me, whose dark Jewish face, homely and kindly, is still visible in profile. Through the window on our right she watches the strange new world through which we are passing: there is a trembling beneath us, and a rhythm of thunder, while the train sways like a ship in a storm.

An emigrant-train it is; and she, and I, and all those dim people are rushing westward, ever westward – through days and nights that seem preternaturally large – over distances that are monstrous. The light is of a summer day; and shadows slant to the east.

The man beside me says:

“She must leave us tomorrow; – she goes to Redwing, Minnesota. . . . You like her very much? – yes, she’s a fine girl. I think you wish that you were also going to Redwing, Minnesota?”

I do not answer. I am angry that he should know what I wish. And it is very rude of him, I think, to let me know that he knows.

Mischievously, he continues:

“If you like her so much, why don’t you talk to her? Tell me what you would like to say to her; and I’ll interpret for you. . . . Bah! you must not be afraid of the girls!”

Oh! – the idea of telling him what I should like to say to her! . . . Yet it is not possible to see him smile, and to remain vexed with him.

Anyhow, I do not feel inclined to talk. For thirty-eight hours I have not eaten anything; and my romantic dreams, nourished with tobacco-smoke only, are frequently interrupted by a sudden inner aching that makes me wonder how long I shall be able to remain without food. Three more days of railroad travel – and no money! . . . My neighbor yesterday asked me why I did not eat; – how quickly he changed the subject when I told him! Certainly I have no right to complain: there is no reason why he should feed me. And I reflect upon the folly of improvidence.

Then my reflection is interrupted by the apparition of a white hand holding out to me a very, very large slice of brown bread with an inch-thick cut of yellow cheese thereon; and I look up, hesitating, into the face of the Norwegian girl. Smiling, she says to me, in English, with a pretty, childish accent:

“Take it, and eat it.”

I take it, I devour it. Never before nor since did brown bread and cheese seem to me so good. Only after swallowing the very last crumb do I suddenly become aware that, in my surprise and hunger, I forgot to thank her. Impulsively, and at the wrong moment, I try to say some grateful words.

Instantly, and up to the roots of her hair, she flushes crimson: then, bending forward, she puts some question in a clear sharp tone that fills me with fear and shame. I do not understand the question: I understand only that she is angry; and for one cowering moment my instinct divines the power and the depth of Northern anger. My face burns; and her grey eyes, watching it burn, are grey steel; and her smile is the smile of a daughter of men who laugh when they are angry. And I wish myself under the train – under the earth – utterly out of sight forever. But my dark neighbor makes some low-voiced protest – assures her that I had only tried to thank her. Whereat the level brows relax, and she turns away, without a word, to watch the flying landscape; and the splendid flush fades from her cheek as swiftly as it came. But no one speaks: the train rushes into the dusk of five and thirty years ago . . . and that is all!

. . . What can she have imagined that I said? . . . My swarthy comrade would not tell me. Even now my face burns again at the thought of having caused a moment’s anger to the kind heart that pitied me – brought a blush to the cheek of the being for whose sake I would so gladly have given my life . . . But the shadow, the golden shadow of her, is always with me; and, because of her, even the name of the land from which she came is very, very dear to me.

“Fear” — Guy de Maupassant

Books, Literature, Writers

“Fear” by Guy de Maupassant

We went up on deck after dinner. Before us the Mediterranean lay without a ripple and shimmering in the moonlight. The great ship glided on, casting upward to the star-studded sky a long serpent of black smoke. Behind us the dazzling white water, stirred by the rapid progress of the heavy bark and beaten by the propeller, foamed, seemed to writhe, gave off so much brilliancy that one could have called it boiling moonlight.

There were six or eight of us silent with admiration and gazing toward far-away Africa whither we were going. The commandant, who was smoking a cigar with us, brusquely resumed the conversation begun at dinner.

“Yes, I was afraid then. My ship remained for six hours on that rock, beaten by the wind and with a great hole in the side. Luckily we were picked up toward evening by an English coaler which sighted us.”

Then a tall man of sunburned face and grave demeanor, one of those men who have evidently traveled unknown and far-away lands, whose calm eye seems to preserve in its depths something of the foreign scenes it has observed, a man that you are sure is impregnated with courage, spoke for the first time.

“You say, commandant, that you were afraid. I beg to disagree with you. You are in error as to the meaning of the word and the nature of the sensation that you experienced. An energetic man is never afraid in the presence of urgent danger. He is excited, aroused, full of anxiety, but fear is something quite different.”

The commandant laughed and answered: “Bah! I assure you that I was afraid.”

Then the man of the tanned countenance addressed us deliberately as follows:

“Permit me to explain. Fear—and the boldest men may feel fear—is something horrible, an atrocious sensation, a sort of decomposition of the soul, a terrible spasm of brain and heart, the very memory of which brings a shudder of anguish, but when one is brave he feels it neither under fire nor in the presence of sure death nor in the face of any well-known danger. It springs up under certain abnormal conditions, under certain mysterious influences in the presence of vague peril. Real fear is a sort of reminiscence of fantastic terror of the past. A man who believes in ghosts and imagines he sees a specter in the darkness must feel fear in all its horror.

“As for me I was overwhelmed with fear in broad daylight about ten years ago and again one December night last winter.

“Nevertheless, I have gone through many dangers, many adventures which seemed to promise death. I have often been in battle. I have been left for dead by thieves. In America I was condemned as an insurgent to be hanged, and off the coast of China have been thrown into the sea from the deck of a ship. Each time I thought I was lost I at once decided upon my course of action without regret or weakness.

“That is not fear.