Olive Kitteridge is enthralling and appalling, and it might cause novel readers to find themselves falling... in love again with short stories.
That's because Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer-winning novel consists of interlocking short stories that look at the title character from various angles. Several of the thirteen tales prominently feature Olive; the rest allude to her tangentially as they focus on other interesting characters. But all thirteen combine to give lucky readers a comprehensive picture of a small-town-Maine woman who's hilarious (not always intentionally), prickly and sometimes kind, and very self-centered yet easily hurt when people are irked by her.
As I enjoyed Strout's 2008 book this month, I realized I missed short stories. I've been on a novel-reading kick in recent years, and still prefer full-length books over brief fiction, but short stories do have undeniable benefits. You can read them in a single sitting, and the best ones pack a literary wallop more concentrated than offered by most longer-form novels.
My first encounter with "grown-up" short fiction was Edgar Allan Poe's fabulously macabre work. I later read O. Henry as a teen, and thought his stories were clever but kind of lightweight. "The Last Leaf," however, is a powerful piece of writing.
Also powerful are "The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant, the chilling "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, the hallucinatory "Rappaccini's Daughter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the tragic "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather, and the side-splitting "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" by Mark Twain.
The last three writers, of course, are better known for their novels -- as is Herman Melville. But his "Bartleby the Scrivener" story (which some call a novella) is out-of-this-world brilliant, and his "I and My Chimney" is wonderfully droll.
Contemporary novelists with canons that contain short stories include Margaret Atwood, whose Wilderness Tips collection is as good as some of her great books; Barbara Kingsolver, whose Homeland and Other Stories is one of my favorite books of short fiction; and Jhumpa Lahiri, who produced the stellar Interpreter of Maladies collection before The Namesake novel. It's a logical progression for some writers to move from short to long fiction.
Some short-story writers, of course, never make the leap to novels. Dorothy Parker -- who penned absorbing tales such as "Horsie" and "Big Blonde" -- is one example.
In the sci-fi genre, my favorite short-story collection might be Isaac Asimov's ultra-compelling Nine Tomorrows.
I'm also a fan of The Twilight Zone episodes Rod Serling converted into published stories, the ghost/horror tales of Ambrose Bierce, and the short fiction of Richard Matheson and Jack Finney. That last writer's best work is probably the haunting time-travel novel Time and Again, but his "Home Alone" story -- about a man who builds a balloon and then takes an exhilarating flight in it with a neighborhood woman -- is also superb. Perhaps a ride like that would have improved Olive Kitteridge's often-sour mood....
What are some of your favorite short stories and short-story writers?
Dave Astor's new book Comic (and Column) Confessional is scheduled to be published next month by Xenos Press.
The part-humorous memoir is about Dave's 25 years at Editor & Publisher magazine covering, interviewing, and meeting notables such as Arianna Huffington, Heloise, Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart, Ann Landers, and Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"); and notable cartoonists such as Gary Larson ("The Far Side"), Lynn Johnston ("For Better or For Worse"), Mort Walker ("Beetle Bailey"), Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Stan Lee ("Spider-Man"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury"), Berkeley Breathed ("Bloom County"), Scott Adams ("Dilbert"), Jim Davis ("Garfield"), Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"/"Steve Canyon"), and Herblock. The book also chronicles changes in the media, discusses personal stuff, and more.
The book will soon be available for online purchase. If you'd like information about ordering a signed copy, contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org
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