So I was nerding out a couple weeks ago, and started another database. This time, I wanted to compile a list of all the stories written by as many well-regarded authors as I could think of. It started off with just novels, but quickly grew to include short stories. Which means the database got out of control pretty quickly. I knew that many (most?) authors publish a lot of short stories – but when you actually see them all lined up…..
It made me realize that I almost never read short stories. I mean, I’ve read a few collections by Stephen King, but beyond that, I’ve read almost nothing.
But it’s a new year. So my plan for 2020 is to read a short story every day.
What?! Surely that’s not possible, you exclaim. Well, I hear you. I doubt I’ll be able to maintain it all year – but it’s my current obsession. I’m going to try and do it for January, and we’ll see where it goes from there. It makes it harder to read books, though. I have two books to review, and I haven’t even started them.
Besides, is this cheating? Me writing 366 short story reviews isn’t the same as vel veeter doing it for actual novels.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (5 stars)
There is an oppressive dread that permeates this story. But also an eagerness. Every year in June, townsfolk gather to draw slips of paper from a worn and tattered black box. *Spoilers for those who haven’t read this story* Whoever draws a slip of paper with a black mark on it is stoned to death by the rest of the town, as a sacrifice for a better harvest.
I have never read this before, despite the apparent ubiquity of this story in high schools across the country. I don’t know what I would’ve thought about it if I’d read it so many years ago, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, now. It’s so precisely written, and the conflicting dread and eagerness is masterfully balanced. I didn’t really know what was going on until just before the big reveal, and I was blown away by it.
I can’t imagine the impact of this story if I read it upon it’s initial publication in 1948, but I can see why there was so much controversy. I doubt most people in 1948 America had ever read a story like this before. This is a landmark story in horror fiction for a reason.
Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami (5 stars)
I never know how to review Murakami’s books, and I constantly feel as though I’m missing out on subtle but important clues. They are a lot like life, in that way. I always feel, in interactions with other people, that I don’t really know what’s going on. Like there’s an entire world just out of my reach. Other people know about this world, and interact with it, but I’m constantly left out.
But I’m still drawn to Murakami, even though I feel like I don’t always know what’s going on.
This story is fairly simple. An unnamed man (Murakami loves unnamed characters) befriends a strange and unknowable woman quite a bit younger than him. There’s no indication this friendship is romantic, and the narrator is married and apparently has his life in order. He is just drawn to her carefree nature. With his encouragement, she takes a trip to Africa, where she meets a mysterious and wealthy man. One day, the narrator and this man smoke marijuana together, and the man confesses to burning down barns (which I took to mean sheds) for pleasure – and he does it often (every couple months, if I recall correctly). The narrator becomes obsessed with this, and diverts his typical daily run so that he runs passed all the barns in his neighborhood. He does this for months without ever seeing one burned. Running into the man again, he learns that the man did, in fact, burn down a bard, but the narrator must have missed it. Also, he never sees his friend again. Her new boyfriend seems unperturbed by this….but also a little uncomfortable with the conversation. He shrugs off her disappearance as something she’s done before.
And that’s the story.
I’ve done some reading about this story, and there seems to be this notion that the boyfriend is a representation of evil. The narrator is drawn to him, and is captivated by his barn burning – so much so that he contemplates burning one himself because he is so impatient for the man to do it himself. The girl’s disappearance at the end is, obviously, interpreted as her being murdered.
I get all of that out of the story. But I don’t really need it to enjoy what I read. As usual with Murakami, I just need the stillness of his writing.
Mastiff by Joyce Carol Oates (4 stars)
Again we have unnamed characters…for most of the story.
A man and a woman, dating, are hiking. Near the beginning of their hike, the pass a giant mastiff pulling at the leash of its owner. Most of their journey is told from the woman’s perspective, and we hear her inner turmoil over the relationship. She’s struggled with dating, is in her early 40s, and wants more out of her relationships than she’s been getting. The man, too, has been unlucky in his love life. He has a career he is passionate about, but doesn’t think he’s ever been in love. And he wants children dearly, but is in his 50s now.
On the return journey, they come across the mastiff again. This time, the dog attacks. The man, named Simon, jumps in front of the woman, named Mariella, and is mauled horribly. He is rushed to the hospital, where he spends considerable time. Mariella stays with him, and her previous insecurities and uncertainty are largely abandoned.
I loved how seamlessly Oates covers the inner turmoil of both characters. I feel like this is largely a story about Mariella, but I think we have a good understanding of Simon, as well.
A Village After Dark by Kazuo Ishiguro (3 stars)
I’ve talked before of my aversion for literature, of how I’m intimidated by having to understand what I’m reading on a level deeper than sheer enjoyment of the story. I say that even after praising “Mastiff” and anything by Murakami – but it still generally holds true. I was always bored in the few English classes I took (I never took a lit class in college), and I’ve never sought out stories that weren’t enjoyable on a superficial level.
So, for me, Kazuo Ishiguro has always been unobtainable. I’ve tried a couple of his books, and they always seemed so…esoteric.
This story, therefore, didn’t do much for me.
I’m writing this about a week after reading it – so the details are a little sketchy. From what I can recall, a man called Fletcher is reflecting on his life, and is confronted with some deeds from his past that were fairly horrible. But we never find out what those deeds were. He hasn’t lived a good life.
And I just really don’t care. If anything happened here, I’m too dense to see it.
King of the Elves by Philip K. Dick (4 stars)
Shadrach Jones is the elderly owner of a gas station. One night, he rescues a bunch of elves from the rain, and this simple act of kindness eventually ends with him becoming the king of the elves. The elves are at war with trolls, and Shadrach must see them to victory, despite his reservations and utter lack of aptitude.
I thought this was a fairly entertaining story, if more clear-cut than I expected from a PKD story.
The Second Bakery Attack by Haruki Murakami (3 stars)
Shortly after getting married, a man and woman find themselves in their apartment with almost no food. They are starving. The man tells his wife of a time he and a friend robbed a bakery, giving them enough food to last a few days. She is convinced that he is cursed, and the only way to lift the curse is to rob another bakery. They drive around Tokyo trying to find an all night bakery, but are unsuccessful. So they rob a McDonald’s.
This isn’t my favorite Murakami. The man and the woman are quintessentially Murakami characters, and the fact that they are newly married but barely seem to know one another seems perfectly in-line with his brand, as well.
I just wasn’t really grabbed by this like I normally am.