I’ve been on somewhat of a binge diet of short stories lately, consuming a few collections a week on average, as well as nibbling from the sundry literary journals floating around the house. The idea was to keep my reading sessions brief and uninvolved in order to maintain focus on my own novel, while at the same time absorbing and learning new styles and voices from writers of the highest caliber. But as I’ve progressed in my reading (everything from the classics – Gogol, Chekhov, Hemingway – to highly lauded contemporary collections – George Saunders, Karen Russell) I’ve stumbled upon some astonishingly brilliant, profound, mesmerizing stories that pack more punch in 20 pages than many novels do in 200. Some of these have left me awestruck, dizzied, unspeakably jealous. They’re too good not to share, to shout from the rooftops, “Read them! Read them! It takes less time than a rerun of Seinfeld!”
So in this new section, The Short Story Spotlight, I will do just that. No in-depth reviews – I don’t want to spoil these babies. Part of the magic of a great short story is that it sneaks up on you, often being buried in a collection without a blurb of its own or appearing in a journal without fanfare or press.
This first story I’ll feature is Karen Russell‘s, “Proving Up”
This story, first featured in Zoetrope under a different title, “The Hox River Window“, won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction, and I now know why.
In this spectacular, spooky tale, the 4th in Russell’s recent collection, “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” 11-year-old Miles Zegner narrates a harrowing and mesmerizing account of the struggles of his family of homesteaders in Nebraska in the 1800s.
My mother is thirty-one years old, but the land out here paints old age onto her
This is no ordinary Steinbeckian tale of the west: Russell is not exactly known for ordinary. Here she plucks an odd clause straight from the Homestead Act – the requirement for an abode to have a glass window – and uses it to astonishing effect, launching young Miles atop his beloved and spirited mare Nore on a mission through a blizzard to share the settlement’s single window between a few hardscrabble families in order to fool a government inspector. There are ghosts and madmen, inclement weather, dugout abodes carved right into the sod (with a hole left in one wall where the window goes), and the prose hits the perfect notes throughout.
I think Jesus Himself would cause less of a stir stepping off that train; He’d find a tough bunch to impress in this droughty place, with no water anywhere for Him to walk on.
This story alone is well worth buying the collection, but there are some others that will astound and confound as well. I’ll be checking out Russell’s Pulitzer nominated novel, Swamplandia!, on the strength of the writing in these stories alone.
Let me know some of your favorite stories in the comments below.