Why you should care

Because short stories can make a big impact. Author Peter Orner picks 12 that will change your life, as they have his.

Peter Orner is the award-winning author of Love and Shame and Love, Last Car Over Sagamore Bridge, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, and Esther Stories.

I’m not into lists. I’m always more interested in what’s been left off than what is on the list. Absence, Joyce says somewhere in Ulysses, is presence. So when an old friend asked me for a short list of my favorite short stories, I thought, “Impossible. It would number into the hundreds.”

Color portrait of Peter Orner sitting on steps with his hands folded looking into the camera during the day

Source Traci Griffin

But for my friend (and for you), I’ve whittled the list down to 12 stories — and if I had the list to do over again an hour from now, it would be completely different. I’m already thinking I should have included Kafka’s “First Sorrow” — how could I not include Kafka? — but here are a dozen I can’t imagine life without. I work every day in the shadow of these stories, stories I often re-read, stories that give me a little courage to try and do this myself. They’ve become so familiar to me they’re not even stories anymore but things that happened not only to these characters, but to me and my own.

The world is baffling. For me, only stories — fictional stories like these — address the mystery.

 

There’s this incredible pressure lately to read for information. As if reading for anything other than knowledge is a waste of time. I find it sad, inhuman. The world is baffling. For me, only stories — fictional stories like these — address the mystery. So much else is just noise.

1. “Guests of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor

No better story about the horror — and complete and total absurdity — of war. Every politician and general should read it before choosing to spill young blood when there are alternatives.

2. “Life” by Bessie Head

Head was born in South Africa but exiled to a small village in Botswana, and her stories are about life, from the perspective of both an insider and outsider. “Life” is the name of a character whose dreams can’t be contained by the village. The beer-selling women predict that she’ll eventually “settle down — intelligent girls got jobs in the post office sooner or later.” But Life will never work in the post office. Her murder — as swift, direct and no nonsense as the story itself, has haunted me for years.

3. “Welcome” by John Edgar Wideman

It’s winter in Pittsburgh and a man comes home after a long time away — to a family that has endured unspeakable tragedy. And yet there is so much light in the story, the kind that can gives you the faith to face another day.

4. “In the Basement” by Isaac Babel

Childhood and all its anxieties have rarely been better captured. Read this story and appreciate everything that makes your own family both wonderful and weird.

I work every day in the shadow of these stories … stories that give me a little courage to try and do this myself.

 

5. “Parting” by Heinrich Böll

This tiny story by a German author and 1972 Nobel Prize winner hones in on the moment when a train is about to leave: a whole world in a single moment. Proof that what matters isn’t the number of words but the level of emotion. Love, loss and leave-taking in three unforgettable pages.

6. “Wakefield” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

To my mind, the most mysterious ordinary story ever written in English. In busy London, a man leaves his wife and moves around the corner. He thinks one day he’ll go home, but for some reason he never does and the years pile up and pile up … and in the meantime he watches her get old.

7. “The Ice Wagon Coming Down the Street” by Mavis Gallant

About what I call the ”Country of Us,” that strange place created by two people that doesn’t exist on any map: coupledom. You know what I mean? How couples create their own reality? The couple in this story could be the most memorable ever written.

8. “The Bishop” by Anton Chekhov

Among Chekhov’s last stories, it’s about a bishop on his deathbed looking back and seeing, among many other things, that it was the small, seemingly inconsequential things, that constituted his life. Not the prestige of his office, which means nothing. I’d like to have this in my hand when I take my last breath.

9. “Goodbye and Good Luck” by Grace Paley

This story has a voice that never stops speaking to me. An entire life — an entire universe — in 10 pages. I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. By the end, she’ll be your Aunt Rose too. She’s been mine since I first read it.

BW Heashot of Grace looking into camera smiling

Source Getty

10. “Luvina” by Juan Rulfo

Considered by many to be Mexico’s greatest writer, Rulfo wrote just two books: Pedro Paramo, a novel so important to Garcia Marquez that he is said to have memorized it; and The Burning Plain, a collection of stories that includes “Luvina.” A bar story, set in a desert. One man’s on a quest; the other has already lived his life and is full of warnings. And outside night kept on advancing. Doesn’t it? For us all? Always?

11. “Idiots First” by Bernard Malamud

I’ll say it: This is the most moving American story ever written. (Until I change my mind.) A man who knows he’s going to die within hours has to arrange for the care of his grown son, a son so disabled he can’t take care of himself. The portrait of parental love and grief at its most raw.

12. “Carried Away” by Alice Munro

A multi-layered story about a lonely librarian and a soldier off at war. Full of so many unexpected turns that every time I read it I’m stunned all over again. Favorite scene: the hallucination at the end, when a moment remembered is far more visceral and real than whatever we call the present.

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