Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Year of Reading: Best Short Stories of 2015

2015 Best of the Shorts (Not Talking About Boxers)
by Jodi Paloni

’Tis the season of lists. That time of year when morning shows and radio programs, magazines, newspapers, on-line journals and blogs bring us the “top tens” and “best ofs” from the most tasty whitefish recipes to sought-after child-friendly cities. We list the over-rated and the under-rated; leather boots, micro-brews, and on-demand TV series. By nature, lists are a structure to help us to pare down an otherwise unwieldy glut. They’re the drive-through version of critique. The term list when used as a verb—a nautical term I became familiar with this past summer when my husband taught me how to sail the hard way—means to lean to one side. For me, the year 2015 (like most years) was about short stories. Each year, I give my reading list a particular slant because I love to list.

In January, we relocated from a wooded hillside in Vermont to the end of a peninsula in Maine where the word remote took on a new meaning. Yes, January. We not only wanted to be cold, we wanted to be cold, damp, and alone. (Not really.) One way to get a friendly feeling from a raw landscape is to read the writers who live here. So for what-to-read in 2015, Maine writers rose to the top.

While Bill Roorbach’s latest novel, The Remedy for Love got me through a February storm that dumped three feet of the white stuff, his story collection, Big Bend, published a dozen years ago accompanied my morning coffee ritual. Lucky for us, Bill has a new story out through a delightful invention from Ploughshares—a top-notch literary journal based out of Emerson College—called the Ploughshares Solo series. For $1.99 you can hold a paperback single, like Roorbach’s “Confession,” in your hand or download it to your e-reader. You never have to throw off the blanket or leave the house! “Confession,” like all of the Solos, is a “longer” short story. It’s about a first date between a pastor and a skeptic and a conversation held in a bar. “Confession” maintains what we’ve come to expect from Bill’s work—great heart, brainy wit, and down-to-earth sexiness, all wrapped up in prose that’s music to the ears. If a story could be a hot toddy, well, this is the one to drink.

And while we’re on the subject of cold weather in Maine, this summer, at a fund-raising event for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance at Richard Ford’s place, I met one of my all-time list favorites, Elizabeth Strout, master of fiction, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning linked story collection, Olive Kitteridge, and part-time Mainer. I fawned. She gave me a generous hug. Liz (as she is referred to by locals) published “Snow Blind” in the Virginia Quarterly Review, where I first read the beautiful story in print. “Snow Blind” was subsequently re-published by the U.K.’s Sunday Times Review where you can read it on-line. As well, “Snow Blind” deservedly became one of the The O. Henry Prize Stories of 2015. It’s another winter-weather story, another sterling heartbreaker. But then again, I’m a sucker for opening lines such as these:
Back then the road they lived on was a dirt road and they lived at the end of it, about a mile from Route 4. This was in the north in potato country, and back when the Appleby children were small the winters were icy and snow filled and there were months when the road seemed impassably narrow. Weather was different then, like a family member you couldn’t avoid.
You begin to see the ways in which I list.

The availability of short stories on-line lends all of the advantages that we know of, and then some. For instance, The New Yorker brings authors straight through the ether and into your kitchen to read their stories aloud to you.

Ann Beattie is sure to entertain with “Major Maybe” from her 2015 collection, The State We're In: Maine Stories, and from the November 23rd issue of The New Yorker, “Save a Horse, Ride A Cowgirl,” a story I streamed from my phone through the dashboard of my cute little car on a Thanksgiving trip back home to Vermont.

Ann Beattie stories are a story-o-phile’s (made that up) staple. They’re regular fare, domestic and worldly. They cover outlet centers, college essays, weddings, divorce, neighbors, wind, cliffs, and death. Readers and listeners can grab hold of something—a character, a situation, some banter—if not all of the above. If you haven’t read Beattie, take a listen. You’ll be fortunate enough to get her voice stuck in your head.

Did I mention that I subscribe to The New Yorker to counter the hip hop pop tune Pandora station my daughter has programmed on my phone, making the audible feature a required category on my 2015 list? If you get the audio bug, too, try: “All You Have to Do” by Sarah Braunstein, checking off the Maine writers box on the list; and, “Chicken Hill” by Joy Williams which opens with two sentences, one short, one long, both beckoning you to jump into the fictional world:
She didn’t know what had possessed her to participate in such a thing. A little boy had been run over by a sheriff’s deputy, and there was a memorial fund-raiser at the Barbed Wire, a biker bar in a somewhat alarming part of town, and Ruth had gone and bought a beer and put thirty dollars into an empty terrarium, for funeral expenses.

Try “The Weir” by Mark Haddon (remember him from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time?), about a recently-divorced man who in saving a life may have saved his own: “She listens better than anyone he knows. Or maybe it’s just that she doesn’t interrupt. And maybe that’s enough.” Haddon also brings us more cold weather and cold water. Ahhh.

All three of the above-mentioned read-alouds involve an unlikely pair, the important stranger archetype—another strong draw for this “lister”—and youth parading as balm.

But before I travel too far from Maine and leave the tug of the tides, consider flying under the noisy national radar to discover regional writer Jim Nichols, whose quietly moving book, Closer All the Time, classifies as a novel in stories. Each chapter bears the title of the multiple POV characters’ names. Though it’s difficult to choose, a particular favorite is the story “Early,” perhaps because I heard the story read to me by the author at the Thomaston Public Library, but more likely because it includes a chase scene, Maine-style—by boat, with fugitives fueled by coffee, and involves poaching. If you can’t get to Maine anytime soon, read Jim Nichols. He’s a Mainer from way back. These stories will give you a true-to-life experience where small town trouble simmers beneath the everyday façade of getting by.

Besides Maine writers, and audio availability, I list towards unlikely pairs, and particularly pairs that involve coming-of-age themes. Enter, a new discovery by me, Lisa Gornick, author of the linked story collection, Louisa Meets Bear. While Louisa Meets Bear compels as both parts of a whole and a sum of all its parts, the book deserves a full-blown review of its own. I’ll tempt you with a fabulous sentence from an excerpt found here:
At the time, I still suffered considerable confusion about where my mother stopped and I started and a terrible anxiety about being apart from her (Off, off, my little kangaroo, my mother ordered those first days of school when, at the kindergarten door, I clung to her belly), so that the changes that took place in my mother seemed to me bigger than a person—more like weather or a sea shift, akin to lying on a hot, still beach when suddenly there are black clouds overhead and a wind lifting sheets off sand and soon people are packing their bags, glancing every few seconds at the dark sky and the water whipped with whitecaps.
Gornick earned her doctorate in clinical psychology at Yale and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU and the psychoanalytic training program at Columbia. She brings her considerable chops from both of her degrees to her opening story, “Instructions to Participants.”

In the same vein, add to the coming-of-age stunners “The Carnation Milk Palace” by Melissa Pritchard in the ten-year anniversary issue of Ecotone.
Charlotte had visited the Carnation Milk Palace once when she was ten, a time when a mansion with opulent rooms unfolding in every direction and a green, wandering estate still meant the pleasure of discovery and eluding the vague, condescending gaze of grown-ups. She remembered sitting beneath a broad valley oak, small moths cupped and panicking in her hands, the dark gold dust from their wings leaving smudges on her white palms and party dress. She couldn’t remember if she had been alone or with other children.

In the spirit of winding things up and bringing the list to a manageable baker’s dozen plus two, or a straight-up “15 Best Shorts in 2015,” I’ll end long before I’d like to with “The Kontrabida” by Mia Alvar, lead story from In the Country, recently long-listed for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction; “Nocturnes” by S. K. Kalsi, The Gettysburg Review, Spring 2015; “Snake Canyon” by Joseph Scapellato, appearing in Third Coast, Winter 2015; “The Speed of Sound” by Elizabeth Gonzalez, originally published in Hunger Mountain, Issue 16, December 2011, and this year, collected in The Universal Physics of Escape published by Press 53, winner of the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction; and finally, “Cicadas” by Sara Reish Desmond found at Kenyon Review Online—another story you can hear the author reader aloud, another coming-of-age tale, another story that will break your heart.

Each of the final five stories on the list takes me out of my comfort zone, shows me a new place, a hard fact, some sorry state of affairs, and combines with a writing style that leaves an indelible mark as I consider my own work.

I read for the sake of the pleasure that stories afford me, but I also read for the sake of writing. The authors I listed towards this year made the cut because they became memorable. They kept me company during my venture from the quiet mountains to the rocky shoreline. They buoyed me on the days I tread the waters of crafting my own works-in-progress. They made me laugh. They made me cry. They taught me that compassion lives any place you can get your hands on a list-worthy short story.

Jodi Paloni’s debut linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, was a runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and will be published by Press 53 in March of 2016. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize and placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. Her short stories appear in a number of on-line and print journals. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, serves on the fiction committee for the Brattleboro Literary Festival, and is an active member of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. She lives and writes in Maine.

Related posts:
A Year of Reading: Best Books From Other Years
A Year of Reading: Best Poetry of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Gift Book of 2015 for Bookworms
A Year of Reading: Best Book Cover Designs of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best First Lines of 2015

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