What Makes a Great Story Collection?
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“I don’t like short stories.” How often have I heard that in our book club and in the bookstore? Reading addicts often want to be entrenched in a long narrative, caught up in the rushing current of a strong plot, immersed in the heady waters of suspense and surprise, returning again and again to the new predicaments of favorite characters. And on to the sequels. Longer is better.
None of those are operating values in short stories.
The pleasures offered by stories are significantly different. A short story is like a crossword puzzle or an equation in algebra, a condensed and concise experience boiled down to its essence and fitted tightly together, a turning-point moment in a life, the essence of a character in a single incident or choice. A story is best read at a sitting, a concentrated experience, not in random chunks on the bus and in line at the supermarket.
If the story collections that I revere were gathered separately, they’d make a very short shelf. In my domain, the queen of all short story writers is Flannery O’Connor, and there’s no collection of stories that more bears re-reading than her Complete Stories. I’ve read it twice, and the second time I felt like I’d never read the stories before, they’re so rich. Who would I dare to place next to her? Well, everyone has their favorites, and I hear cries for Ernest Hemingway and Guy de Maupassant, for Grace Paley and Alice Munro, but none of them has had much impact on me.
The first contemporary collection that broke through my short story barrier was Robert Olen Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, those awesome tales of Vietnam. More recently, Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s thrilling collection of Thai stories, Sightseeing, in which every single story is a gem and ending with that superb novella. If the teller of the tales is a bright enough intelligence, that alone can be the unifying factor for my personal reading experience. If the stories have a theme, or all take place in the same location, or all deal with the same industry or nationality, so much the better.
Well, now I’m going to add one more collection to my very short list. Last night I finished reading the final tale in Sana Krasikov’s collection of Russian immigrant stories, One More Year. I’ll say this for starters: there’s not a single dull page in that book. Not only do all the stories have their major turning points and surprises, but there are dozens of fascinating women characters, hundreds of little delights sprinkled throughout, unforgettable lines like, “He was black and, like all cats, a little obnoxious.” Even a cat lover like me had to laugh at her wisdom. Or how about this: “She could not be bothered with small talk. To her, friendship still meant coming face-to-face with another’s unmediated existence. It was exhilarating, Lera thought, but also exhausting.”
Sana Krasikov doesn’t hesitate to call it the way she sees it. She’s a native of the Ukraine and grew up in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. She writes in English, with a Joseph Conrad-like precision but instead of ships and sailors she’s describing the interactions between husbands and wives, children and their parents.
I can’t remember the last time I encountered so many fascinating women characters in one book. I think that will be my next blog: all the multi-dimensional, unpredictable, unsentimentalized females that come to life in One More Year!