For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

The Short Form

Week n° 7: November 12, 2012

A short story offers a stark contrast to our baggy and meaningless lives which ramble on.

Author of Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island, Last Day On Earth: A Portrait of the NIU School Shooter, and Dirt

Grace Paley in “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” collected in Just as I Thought:

What I’m saying is that in areas in which you are very smart you might try writing history or criticism, and then you can know and tell how all the mystery of America flows out from under Huck Finn’s raft; where you are kind of dumb, write a story or a novel, depending on the depth and breadth of your dumbness. Some people can do both. Edmund Wilson, for instance — but he’s so much more smart than dumb that he has written very little fiction. When you have invented all the facts to make a story and get somehow to the truth of the mystery and you can’t dig up another question —change the subject.

Let me give you a very personal example: I have published a small book of short stories. They are on several themes, at least half of them Jewish. One of the reasons for that is that I was an outsider in our particular neighborhood — at least I thought I was — I took long rides on Saturday, the Sabbath. My family spoke Russian, but the street spoke Yiddish. There were families of experience I was cut off from. You know, it seemed to me that an entire world was whispering in the other room. In order to get to the core of it all, I used all those sibilant clues. I made fiction.

Our recommendations this week

The Moslem Wife

That very spring, perhaps because of the doctor's words, the hotel did get some maharaja trade—three little sisters with ebony curls, men's eyebrows, large heads, and delicate hands and feet. They had four rooms, one for their governess, who was Dutch, had a perfect triangle of a nose and said “whom” for “who,” pronouncing it “whum.” The girls were to learn French, tennis, and swimming. The chauffeur arrived with a hairdresser, who cut their long hair; it lay on the governess's carpet, enough to fill a large pillow. Their toe- and fingernails were filed to points and looked like a kitten's teeth. They came smiling down the marble staircase, carrying new tennis racquets, wearing blue linen skirts and navy blazers. Mrs. Blackley glanced up from the bridge game as they went by the cardroom. She had been one of those opposed to their having lessons at the English Lawn Tennis Club, for reasons that were, to her, perfectly evident.

She said, loudly, “They'll have to be in white.”

“End whayt, pray?” cried the governess, pointing her triangle nose. 

“They can't go on the courts except in white. It is a private club. Entirely white.”

Likely Lake

Now she waved a twenty as Buddy opened the door.

“That isn't necessary, Connie,” he said.

She thanked him with a nod for remembering her name. She said, “Don't give me any argument.” She came close and tucked the bill into his shirt pocket. “You see here?” she said. “This is already done.”

“Well, I thank you,” Buddy said. He stroked the pocket, smoothing the folded money flat. It was a blue cotton shirt he'd put on an hour earlier when he got home from having his hair cut.

She was still close and wearing wonderful perfume, but he didn't think he should remark on that. He kept his eyes level and waited as if she were a customer and he a clerk. He said, “So, are you still in the neighborhood? I rarely see you.”

“They haven't needed me.” She pretended a pout. “Nobody's needed me.” She stepped back. It was the first week of September, still mild. She wore a fitted navy dress with a white collar and had a red cardigan sweater over her arms. Her large shapely legs were in sheer stockings.

A Stranded Railroad Car

Mirza Sahib gently removed the spout of the hookah from his lips, opened his drowsy eyes, cleared his throat, and said, “Shujaat Ali, you shouldn't argue with these modern boys. What do these kids know about traveling! Especially the train—it's taken all enjoyment out of journeying. You blink your eye and you've arrived at your destination. But there was a time when kingdoms fell and governments toppled by the time you reached where you were going; and the toddlers you'd left crawling naked on all fours—you returned to find them fathers worrying their heads over a suitable match for their marriageable daughters.”