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Check It Out

Courier Article by Becky Browning
Sunday, August 22, 2004

Short on Time?  Check out Short-Story Collections

In this day and age, with everyone frantically rushing around complaining about not having enough time, it would stand to reason that readers would go for short-story collections. After all, they're great for when you're in the doctor's office, for insomniacs who need a quick fix to get to sleep and for when you're put on hold for interminable lengths of time.

I have found, however, that short stories aren't requested much. That's too bad, because as master short-story writer V.S. Pritchett wrote, "The novel tends to tell us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that intensely."
Short stories home in on a particular action or incident that focuses the reader on "life moments" that may profoundly touch something deep within.

Here are some suggestions:

I Am No One You Know: Stories by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 2004).

Oates is one of the most prolific writers of fiction today. I would compare her to a "literary" Stephen King, as her subject matter is often shocking, distasteful and grotesque.

Oates, as is King, is a delver into the underbelly of the human psyche. These stories both fascinate and repel, and force us to ask, "Could this have been me?"

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Bantam Books, 2004).

The recently released movie of the same title, starring Will Smith, is loosely based on this great masterwork, which is by most critical accounts one of the most influential books in the science-fiction genre.

In these nine stories, Asimov describes a future society (2057) in which robots and human beings coexist, with the robots adhering to a moral and ethical code spelled out by the Three Laws of Robotics. Sound too technologically oriented for your tastes? Please reconsider. These stories are extremely readable and will introduce you to science fiction at its finest.

The Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

Byatt found herself in hot water some time ago when she wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that "the Harry Potter books are written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons." Oops! Naturally, there was outrage, even from the literati, of which Byatt may very well consider herself a part.

This collection will give you a taste of Byatt's prowess as a writer and why she might consider J.K. Rowling's "Potter" fiction "lowbrow." One story, "The Thing in the Forest," lingered with me for days. Two young girls enter a forest and see a monstrous, ghoulish form. The experience affects them for the rest of their lives, haunting each in a different way. In another, "The Stone Woman," a woman is literally turned to stone.

Byatt is a master storyteller whose multilayered prose is a mix of mystery and reality.

Distant Land: The Collected Stories by Wendell Berry (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004).

Berry's name keeps popping up, with recommendations coming from both librarians and customers.

Berry's 23 stories span the years 1880-1980 in the history of fictional Port William, KY, a town with a "hard history of love." (Berry is from Kentucky).

The rural flavor, blending with the connection between the people and the land, and one another, is ever-present. The writing is elegantly homespun and beautifully rendered.

Vintage Munro by Alice Munro (Vintage, 2004).

Munro has been compared to the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov. It has been said that 100 years from now, people will still be reading her books.

In contrast with the other authors mentioned here, Munro writes short stories only, and rather than the fantastic, she writes about ordinary lives.

This latest book is a compilation of past stories and includes some of her best work. The Evansville Public Library system has all of Munro's books in its collection; one of the most wonderful is Lives of Girls and Women.

Becky Browning is a readers' advisor at Oaklyn Branch and an avid reader.