The Penguin Book of Modern American Short Story – 4/5 Stars
Its important to emphasize that this is a collection from about 1970 on, so while it’s “modern” it means contemporary and while it’s contemporary, it’s decidedly more recent than the normal break in American lit at WWII. This is important because it means that a lot of very well-known and established short-fiction writers like John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, John Updike, Flannery O’Connor, and Bernard Malamud are not considered. Otherwise it would seem to me an omission for most of them. It’s also strange because while some of the picks are inspired, a lot of them could have been picked by an AI scanning other anthologies. This philosophy is weirdly discussed in the introduction where the editor says he read like 2000 works for consideration, and then mostly picked the ones plenty of other people have picked before.
The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara – Most people read Toni Cade Bambara’s stories primarily through the much anthologized “Raymond’s Run” which because it’s narrated by a child, it’s often included in a lot of children’s anthologies. This one is also narrated by a child, but it’s clear very early on that it’s not for children.
A Conversation with My Father by Grace Paley – Almost any Grace Paley story could suffice for her inclusion and if you haven’t read her before this is really a great chance to.
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin – This for me is one of the weird choices because while this story is great, and it’s nice include some speculative fiction in the anthology, this is such a widely known story that I am not sure it belongs here. She wrote so many other, nonfamous, and equally suitable stories.
Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes by Raymond Carver – An odd choice for Raymond Carver, but a very good story nonetheless. Like Grace Paley, most any of his stories would suffice.
The Flowers by Alice Walker – Usually you pick this story or “Everyday Use” as many of Walker’s stories are much more lyric than narrative. This one still remains a gut-punch.
Girl by Jamaica Kincaid – Again, hugely famous story that is in every story anthology ever. I can’t fault it’s quality, but it’s so over-exposed.
The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich – By far my favorite story in the whole collection and hugely influential and rich to boot.
The Reencounter by Isaac Bashevis Singer – To me Singer, belongs to the group not anthologized in this collection, as he’s been writing since the 1930s, but this is one of his modern stories, so it more or less fits the theme, but feels antiquated.
Taking Care by Joy Williams – Another very good selection that really captures the feel of post-1970s short fiction.
Story by Lydia Davis – Another very good selection that really captures the feel of post-1970s short fiction.
China by Charles Johnson – A very rich story that feels like a mini-epic.
Pet Milk by Stuard Dybek – A solid entry, but not one of my favorite Dybek stories.
The Way We Live Now by Susan Sontag – Probably the only fiction Sontag wrote worth including, if anything.
Salvador Late or Early by Sandra Cisneros – A solid entry for short a piece.
Emergency by Denis Johnson – Next to Red Convertible just simply one of the best short stories ever.
Sticks by George Saunders – A truly devastating mini epic.
Fiesta, 1980 by Junot Diaz – Hmmmmmm.
Silence by Lucia Berlin – Another very good selection that really captures the feel of post-1970s short fiction.
The Twenty-Seventh Man by Nathan Englander – Another mini-epic of a story.
The Penthouse by Andrew Holleran – Another mini-epic of story. Feels like a novel for all we get here.
The Fix by Percival Everett – A mythic little story. I love Everett and I am glad he was included.
The American Embassy by Chimamanda Adichie — A story that justifies it’s otherwise odd inclusion.
The Conductor by Aleksandar Hemon – Another very good selection that really captures the feel of post-1970s short fiction.
St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell – Am I the only one who’s never enjoyed a Karen Russell story?
The Last Thing We Need by Claire Vaye Watkins – A story.
The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu – I still have no idea how I feel about Ken Liu as a writer, but this story is very good.
The Dune by Stephen King – Again, do we need this? I like the story, but still.
Diem Perdidi by Julie Otsuka – Another very good selection that really captures the feel of post-1970s short fiction.
The Great Silence by Ted Chiang – A beautiful little fable.
The Midnight Zone by Lauren Groff – A story
Anyone Can Do it by Manuel Munoz – A solid closing to the book.
Broken Glass – 2/5
The title of this late play by Arthur Miller comes from the English translation for Kristelnacht. In the play, we meet Sylvia and Gellberg, two 40ish American Jews. It’s the late 1930s and Sylvia has very recently had some kind of psychical break in response to hearing the news and seeing pictures from Kristelnacht, very specifically pictures of old Jewish men forced to clean streets with toothbrushes. She’s become paralyzed from this reaction and has been confined to bedrest and a wheelchair for the previous two weeks. Gellberg has been consulting a physician, Hymen (hmmmmmmm…hrmmmmm) who has recommended psychiatric help. He’s also more or less gotten the idea that Sylvia having sex (with him) and having orgasms (from him) would also be reasonable treatment. And so we go from there. In a way, the idea of facing trauma through radical presence through sex and erotics is not at all revolutionary or ridiculous. There’s a lot of great writing that explores that idea. This play is not, however, great writing. Like a lot of Arthur Miller it’s so serious that it’s laughable at times.
Agamemnon – 5/5
I have read this at some point, I imagine during the Early World Literature survey class I took my first semester of college. This play sets off the “Oresteia”, which discusses the revenge and justice of Agamemnon, and the blood feud within the House of Atreus, which is of course, and important and influential concept. The play itself tells of Clytemnestra awaiting the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War. What she does not yet know is that Agamemnon has ritually sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to earn favor for the gods in support of the war effort, which rubs Clytemnestra the wrong way. Upon his return she and her lover kill Agamemnon and declare themselves just in doing so. Fair enough. The issue of course is that blood requires blood and when we pop up for part two, this will be an issue.
The vast majority of this play involves interplay between Clytemnestra and the members of the chorus, who provide her a sounding board and a counselor in her decisions.
The Libation Bearers – 5/5
The title bearers refer to Orestes and his sister who are honoring their dead father, Agamemnon (uh oh!) with ritual. They get to talking and realize that if he had died in war that’d be one thing, but he was murdered, and they can’t agree that that seems fair. So Orestes challenges Clytemnestra, who admits her deed and is proud to do so, and he kills her. And now everything is fine!
Eumenides – 5/5
It’s not fine! A murder has gone unchallenged. Apollo and Athena hop down in order to try Orestes for his crime. The Ghost of Clytemnestra is called as witness, and it’s decided that now that Orestes has been judged (and really been punished enough) and that blood will only lead to more blood that they should leave things where they are and say the whole thing is done with. The ghost of Clytie is not happy. But the world is better off because otherwise the Furies would need to be constantly sated and we’d all die eventually.
Here We Are – 5/5
A short sweet and cynical play (or really sketch comedy bit) by Dorothy Parker about a married couple, now three hours deep into their marriage beginning to rethink things as it turns out that maybe both of them really could have stood to marry someone else, who happened to be at their wedding. It almost reads like a Beckett play with the terseness of the language and the impersonal characters dealing with their situation.
A Still Alarm – No rating
This very short play begins with an absolute pleading in the stage directions to please please please stage it with the tone and tenor of a very dry English manor comedy. The play, with this in mind, is only a few pages long as a fire in a highrise building catches fire and the residents of an hotel very high up seem less then urgent to get out of there. This is where the tone comes in.