Weekly Spotlight On…The Short Story

tenth of decemberTwo books have been released recently that have drawn attention to that oft-neglected form of storytelling: the short story.  Tenth of December by George Saunders came out early in January, and drew attention when the New York Times Magazine boldly hailed it as the “best book you’ll read this year”.  Quite a statement for so early on into 2013.  As someone who enjoys the occasional short story collection, I joined the literary masses and borrowed Tenth of December from the library–and, unlike so many books that I read that receive so much hype, this one did not in any way disappoint.  There is something to be said about an excellent short story, an achievement that is made that no novel can make.  In fact, I believe that it is harder to write a single excellent short story thanvampires in the lemon grove to write a 500 page novel.  There is so much thought and feeling that needs to be expressed in a very limited amount of time, that sometimes one single ten page short story packs more of a wallop than an epic novel (two great examples of this are Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Ray Bradbury’s All Summer In A Day).  The second book that is making a splash on the literary scene today is Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove.  This is Russell’s second publication after her wildly successful debut novel Swamplandia!, and it is also a collection of bizarre, highly imaginative, and poignant short stories.  It has already gotten rave reviews and I am sure that we will see a growing holds list at the library in the next couple of weeks.  The best short story collections are also like the best music albums–each individual story and the order in which they are read contribute to the book as a whole.  In the spirit of the recent short story craze, I have provided a select list of other fantastic short story collections that are truly rewarding to read.

the pugilist at restThe Pugilist At Rest by Thom Jones

This outstanding collection of short stories was a National Book Award finalist in 1993, and is one of my personal favorites.  These mostly hard-luck stories are dark, gritty, existential, occasionally heartbreaking, and occasionally gruesome.  Yet despite the intensity of these stories, his characters are often portrayed with a sensitivity that allows the reader to empathize with each and every one of them.  Jones’ prose is abrasive yet refined, allowing stories that would ordinarily be interpreted as sensational and unrealistic instead be devastatingly real.  These stories have impact, and this collection is truly one of a kind.

amy hempelThe Collected Stories of Amy Hempel by Amy Hempel

Many short story writers attempt to write in the minimalistic style, but many do not succeed.  Or, they simply become a similar voice among many.  Not so with Amy Hempel.  While many of her stories are told in sparing, imagistic prose, she writes in a truly unique voice.  Hempel doesn’t waste a single word in describing the thoughts and feelings of those she portrays, and for this reason her stories are deeply emotional and affective.  While Hempel is known to active seekers of the short story, she is not as well known in larger literary circles.  If you have read George Saunders’ Tenth of December and loved it, then you’ll love these stories, too.

krikkrakKrik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

This was nominated for the National Book Award in 1995.  “Examining the lives of ordinary Haitians, particularly those struggling to survive under the brutal Duvalier regime, Danticat illuminates the distance between people’s desires and the stifling reality of their lives.  Spare, elegant and moving, these stories cohere into a superb collection.”

drownDrown by Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz earned major buzz in 2012 for his short story collection This Is How You Lose Her and for winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  If you haven’t read any of his books, you should.  If you’ve read the two that have received the most media attention and loved them, I highly recommend you go back to the beginning and pick up Drown.  This collection is slightly more academic in tone, but it still contains Diaz’s unique and gritty portrayals of life in the Dominican Republic and in the rough areas of New Jersey.

jesus' sonJesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

This set of short stories is unique in that they all share the same disagreeable narrator, a “lowlife of mythic proportions who abuses drugs, booze, and people with reckless indifference. But this eventually recovering slacker reveals in these deceptively thin tales a psyche so tormented and complex that we allow him his bleak redemption” (Library Journal).  Some people may recognize the title as a 1999 movie starring Billy Crudup–the short story collection is far more magnificent and moving.

things they carriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

This may seem like an obvious choice, but I couldn’t leave this one off the list.  While it was marketed as a novel when released, it is more of a hybrid of short stories/essays/recollections of the Vietnam War.  So, be warned, this is not light reading.  The novel itself is narrated by the writer 20 years after the Vietnam War, but the stories themselves center around a platoon of foot soldiers fighting in 1970.  This is a great example of short stories coming together as a whole–you shouldn’t read just one story from this collection, you should read the whole compilation from beginning to end.

Booklist Online’s Shelf Renewal blog also has a great list of short story collections that you should read.  Find it here!

Pat’s February Recommendations

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor AND Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

my beloved world“I am presently reading Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World and enjoying it to no end.  It is good to read about this woman who came from poverty and discrimination to become a Justice in our Supreme Court.  She tells of her alcoholic father, her devoted but overburdened mother and of the refuge she took in the home or her grandmother….I also just read Mortality…Christopher Hitchens’ last little tome.  Since mortality is on my mind these days, I wanted to see where he was going with this, as he was a confirmed atheist…and since I have read his other books and am his fan!”

Read about or request My Beloved World and Mortality from the library catalog!

3 Similar Reads for My Beloved World (Nonfiction)

Lazy B by Sandra Day O’Connor

Young Thurgood by Larry S. Gibson

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

3 Similar Reads for Mortality  (Nonfiction)

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Enjoy Every Sandwich by Lee Lipsenthal

Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes

Dorothy’s February Recommendation

In the Castle of the Flynns by Michael Raleigh

in the castles of the flynnsDorothy says that this is “A funny, poignant, bildungsroman about an 8-year-old orphan raised by his Chicago Irish extended family, grandparents, bachelor uncles, and the obligatory nun”.  Here is a partial review from Book List: “The McCourt brothers can move over.  The Chicago branch of the Irish mafia weighs in with a hilarious rendition of an Irish Catholic childhood, circa 1955…his [Raleigh’s] familiar, superior sense of place is here, but he adds an orphan, a family burdened by the love of drink and blessed with the gift of gab, a beautiful and brilliant nun, and a charismatic, slightly dangerous uncle”.

Read about or request this book from the library catalog!

3 Similar Reads (Fiction)

Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

3 Similar Reads (Nonfiction)

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald

Mary Ann’s December Recommendation

I Used to Know That. Literature: Inside Stories of Famous Authors, Classic Characters, Unforgettable Phrases, and Unanticipated Endings by C. Alan Jorce and Sarah Janssen

I used to know that“[This book is] one of a series that includes History, General Science, and the Civil War.  This one contains facts about authors from Homer to J.K. Rowling.  The entries, with chapter headings like “Shot Out of a Cannon” and “Stranger Than Fiction” are a page or shorter, so it’s perfect for browsing.  Many facts give insight into the work and life of familiar authors”.

Read about or request this title from the library catalog!

3 Similar Reads (Nonfiction)

Curiosities of Literature by John Sutherland

Writer’s Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature’s Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes by Bill Peschel

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon

Ellen’s November Recommendation

Writing in an Age of Silence by Sara Paretsky

“I heard her lecture at Dominican and was really impressed.  I have always enjoyed her V.I Warshawski mysteries, set in Chicago, which clearly show her passion for social justice–in each book, V.I. tackles a social or political issue in addition to the central mystery.  Writing in an Age of Silence reveals how she found refuge and solace in books as a child (as did I), and traces the development of her characters, but most strongly addresses issues of social responsibility.  Challenging, and excellent.”

Read about or request Writing in an Age of Silence from the library catalog today!

3 Similar Reads (Nonfiction)

1) A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut

2) Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis

3) Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain

3 Similar Reads (Fiction)

1) The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman

2) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

3) The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid

Anna’s November Recommendation

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“An oldie, but a goodie–I just read The Grapes of Wrath for the first time this summer.  The bleak, but honest look at how the rejection of accountability and the dehumanization of corporations can affect the individual is a story that can still speak to us today–particularly in light of our still struggling economy.”

Read about or request The Grapes of Wrath from our library catalog today!

3 Similar Classics (Fiction)

1) Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

2) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

3) Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

3 Similar Contemporary Novels (Fiction)

1) The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

2) A Garden of Earthly Delights by Joyce Carol Oates

3) Sea Glass by Anita Shreve

Weekly Spotlight On…”Literary” TV Shows

Here at RFPL Reads, I talk a lot about books, not so much about other forms of media.  One category that I so woefully neglect, and really should not, are great TV shows tailored towards the reader in all of us.  I was inspired to write this post when I stumbled aross this article on BookRiot: Pop Culture Pairing: TV Shows That Should Be Books.  This article names TV shows and then pairs them up with authors that could write the book.  For example, Neil Gaiman was named as the author to write the book for Firefly, a great science fiction tv show that sadly only lasted for one season.  The author of the post said something that struck me: “People who…say they never watch television because they’re too busy reading…are missing out because there are some intensely literary shows out there”.  This is absolutely true–there are some shows out there that are superbly written and contain all the elements of a great novel.  Just to back myself up, check out this article from the Telegraph where author Salman Rushdie says that TV drama is the new literature.  Here are some shows that I would consider to be “literary”.  Click on the cover images to link to their records in the library catalog:


A show set in the late 1800’s, this series revolves around the characters of Deadwood, South Dakota,  a lawless town full of crime, corruption, and very colorful characters.  If Cormac McCarthy had written a TV show, it would have been this one.

Breaking Bad

In this good-guy-gone-really-bad tv series, when informed he has terminal cancer, an underachieving chemistry genius turned high school teacher uses his expertise to secretly provide for his family by producing the world’s highest quality crystal meth.  And yes, it is as good as everyone says.

Mad Men

A highly addictive tv drama about one of New York’s most presitigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960’s, focusing on one of the firm’s most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper.  Think The Great Gatsby in a different decade, with more character development.


This fantastical tv drama from HBO takes place during the Great Depression, in the midst of the Dust Bowl.  A fugitive named Ben Hawkins finds refuge within a traveling carnival, only to learn that he may be one of the key players in a proxy war between Heaven and Hell.

The Shield

The story of an inner-city Los Angeles police precinct where some of the cops aren’t above breaking the rules or working against their associates to both keep the streets safe and their self-interests intact.

American Horror Story

For the lovers of horror fiction–this is the television show for you.  Through a combination of the grotesque, the gothic, and even the humorous, this successful show started off as a mini-series on FX, but fans of the first season clearly wanted more, so it has been brought back for a second season.  The first featured a haunted house as the setting, while the second takes place in an insane asylum.  Acting talent such as that of Jessica Lange makes this an even more worthwhile piece of television to watch.

The Wire

Many people have called this HBO show one of the best television shows ever shown. Ever.  I, personally, would have to agree.  The show focuses on different aspects of the Baltimore drug scene, through the eyes of cops and drug dealers alike.  I believe what makes this show so universal is they way it portrays the characters and in the way that you end up sympathizing with both sides; there are characters you love to love and love to hate, and each episode is as compelling and engaging as the last.

The Sopranos

The Sopranos is often considered to be the show that set the standards for television as we know it today.  Doing away with the sitcom and the commercial breaks, The Sopranos proved the tagline “It’s not just TV, it’s HBO”.  It is a modern day morality tale about New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, as he deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life.

The West Wing

Created by Aaron Sorkin (screenwriter for movies such as Moneyball and The Social Network), this popular series which ran from 1999-2006 takes a look inside the lives of staffers in the west wing of the White House.  This show was hailed for its ensemble cast and its delightfully snappy dialogue.

What other television shows would you consider to be “literary”?  Leave a comment below and let us know!