The recent news, here in Canada, of our great lady of letters, Alice Munro, taking the Giller prize for Runaway (excerpt), her latest collection of short fiction, gives us a chance to praise that wonderful literary form – the short story – and the authors who have practiced it with precision, humanity, and wit.Collected volumes of short fiction often provided me with an easy approach to the many writers who would become my favourites. Tight, economical writing, a whole world painted with just a few deft strokes – and I was hooked.And so it was that Welcome to the Monkey House became the book of my formative college years. In short order, I would devour all of Kurt Vonnegut’s marvelous works, but I still hold dear this short story collection. Even now, years later, the thought of “Harrison Bergeron” makes me simultaneously laugh and shudder at the alternate universe he inhabits – a world in which all citizens are subjected to absurd physical and mental “handicapping,” a leveling-out process that results in a form of institutionalized mediocrity. Sameness.For Ernest Hemingway, clarity and precision were his stock in trade, and nowhere is this more resonant than in In Our Time, a collection of early shorts. Hemingway can present Nick Adams to us and reveal more of his world in 5 pages than many writers would dare to in 500. “The Battler” stands out – a tale of young Nick’s encounter with a disfigured and psychologically damaged prizefighter while riding the rails. Equally powerful are the numerous vignettes that Hemingway intersperses between the stories, many of them harrowing slices of war.Hemingway’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gives us Jazz Age Stories. It’s within these pages that you can experience the remarkable “Diamond As Big As The Ritz“, an astonishing tale of money, power, fear (of losing it) and the complete moral bankruptcy that ensues. This is an unparalleled story of illusion and disillusion. It creeps up on you and will echo for years and years.While The Catcher in the Rye has become such an iconic cultural phenomenon, its often forgotten that J.D. Salinger wrote anything else. Unless of course you’ve read Franny and Zooey, or Raise High the Roof Beam. Or my personal choice, the collection Nine Stories. Then you never forget. This is dysfunction grounded in reality, not simply splayed out for shock value or a quick laugh. I recommend you revisit the extended Glass family in the deceptively simmering “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.”In recent years, I’ve come to regard Anton Chekhov as the master of the form. Any collection will do. Try Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories. I challenge you to find an unnecessary or misplaced word. Simple, perfect writing. These selections just scratch the surface, and of course there’s no shortage of good contemporary short fiction. But it serves us well to be reminded from time to time of “the greats” – not as an untouchable force that stomps on any newcomers, but rather as artistic touchstones that let you approach, and that remind you of first principles. These masters have given us a vital part of our literary canon.Also recommended: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce’s (surprisingly readable) Dubliners, and Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver
All of a sudden I’ve worked my way pretty quickly through the pile of books I have lying around, so I was digging through my shelves looking for what to read next. I dug up an old copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that I’d come across on a book finding expedition a while back. The Russians occupy a gaping hole among books that I have read. I have never read any of the 19th century classics, and I figure I ought to start sooner rather than later. However, staring at this brick-like copy of Karamazov, I became intimidated as I wondered if this was the best place to begin my education in Russian literature. Yet, I did not panic; instead I emailed my friend Brian, who I happen to know is a great connoisseur of Russian Lit. Here is what I wrote: I’ve never read any of the classic Russian writers, and I want to start, but I’m not sure which one to start with. Any ideas? I’ve got The Brothers Karamazov… so I’m thinking of starting with that. …and here is his response…the russians are my favorites — all of ’em, dostoevsky, tolstoy, chekhov, gogol, turgenev, pushkin, etc…my favorite russian writer is Dostoevsky (chekhov is second) and my favorite novel is definitely The Brothers Karamazov. it might be my favorite novel of all time, but i think you should start with Crime and Punishment a much more conventional and accessible book. not that i think you couldn’t handle The Brothers, but just think you might wanna ease your way in… check out Gogol’s short stories “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” [in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol] and Chekhov’s story “Ward No. 6” [in Stories] is a masterpiece, as are many (most) of his stories.Thanks, Brian… If anyone else has insights on the Russians, let us know by using the comment button below.Two Hot New BooksA couple of very different brand new books have been getting lots of attention from customers lately: The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley is part mystery, part memoir that is a story of life in post-colonial Africa, which must necessarily touch upon the history of colonialism as well as all too recent war and genocide. Here is an excerpt. Completely unrelated but also very interesting is Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987 a pictorial history of playground basketball and the footwear that accompanied it by Bobbito Garcia, writer for Vibe, world-class DJ, “basketball performer,” and world-renowned break-dancer. For pics of the hot kicks… go here.