Top Reads 2009: Short Stories

It's that time of year again--time for retrospective lists of all sorts, and bibliophiles seem to be particularly prone to the temptation. I'll be continuing the tradition of my 2008, 2007, and 2005 reflections, with a new twist: an installment on short stories read in the past year, and maybe an installment on poets/poems.

Rather than a comprehensive list, let me begin by highlighting five short stories I read in 2009 (not necessarily published in 2009--though the selections will be New Yorker heavy). I don't pretend to make any claims about these being the "best" stories of the year; instead, these are the stories that, for various reasons, stuck with me, made an impact on me, or otherwise made a dent in my consciousness that, even now, still lingers.

  • Jonathan Franzen, "Good Neighbors," New Yorker, June 8 & 15, 2009. Fabulous flaying of Volvo-driving urban-gentrifying liberals (i.e., us, minus the Volvo).
  • William Styron, "Rat Beach," New Yorker, July 20, 2009. A war story in the spirit of Sassoon that includes this unctuous account of snails: "I couldn’t shake the memory of one ambulance that stalled, then jerked back and forth, jostling its poor passenger until the voice from within screamed “Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!” again and again. Poetry was no remedy for such a sound, and so I’d close the book and lie there in a trance, trying to shut out all thought of past or future, and focus on the tent’s plywood deck, where there was usually at least one huge brown snail, with a shell the size of a Ping-Pong ball, propelling itself laboriously forward and trailing a wake of mucilaginous slime with the hue and consistency of semen. Giant African snails, they were called, and they slid all over the island, numberless, like a second landing force; they woke us up at night and we actually heard them sibilantly dragging their tracks across the flooring and colliding, with a tiny report like the cracking open of walnuts."
  • Alice Munro, "Save the Reaper," in The Love of a Good Woman. Set in my old haunts near Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario, this is Munro at her Southern (Ontario) Gothic best.
  • Sherman Alexie, "War Dances," New Yorker, August 10 & 17, 2009. Explores the dynamics of Native American displacement in the Pacific Northwest, with charming (Adn knowing) references to country music, and an undercurrent of deep longing.
  • Honorable mention: Jonatham Lethem, "Procedure in Plain Air," New Yorker October 26, 2009. This is a supercharged story on several different levels, exploring the dynamics of complicity with a kind of realistic surrealism (that is, the kind you experience when something real is happening, and you say to a friend, "This is surreal.") It also regularly tempts the reader to read it as an allegory (say, of Gitmo). In these ways, it reminded me of Ursula K. LeGuin's, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."