Top Ten Tuesday: Best Novellas and Short Stories

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

July 17: Favorite Novellas/Short Stories

515izn3gadl-_ac_us218_1. The Story of An Hour by Kate Chopin– Like Chopin’s famous novel The Awakening, this short story is an early exploration of how confining marriage could be for a woman at the turn of the century. It begins when Mrs. Mallard is informed of her husband’s death and follows her through the next hour, as she absorbs what that means for her life now.

 

51ugyhie53l-_ac_us218_2. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson– This is probably one of the more famous examples from the genre and for good reason. The more you think about what happens and the reasons for it, the more disturbing the implications become.  All the residents of a small town gather one summer morning to draw lots. Eventually, the residents are narrowed down more and more, until one is selected. What eventually becomes of the “winner” of this lottery will unsettle you.

41iob1yraol-_ac_us218_3. Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway– I’m not usually a Hemingway fan at all, but I feel like in this case, his spare, economical style served the material well. A man and a woman are waiting at a train station. We follow their conversation over several pages and eventually we can put two and two together and understand where they’re going and why. Without any narrative commentary, the reader still gets a sense of the emotional distance between these people, and the tension comes from what they’re not saying.

61g-wucnurl-_ac_us218_4. The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield- This poignant story deals with a wealthy family preparing for a garden party. When they receive the news that their neighbor has died, the daughter Laura wants to call off the party. She’s overruled by the rest of the family. But when Laura is sent to bring some flowers to the dead man’s grieving family, she’s forever changed by what she encounters. To me, it’s a perfect example of what makes the short story special. It covers what is really a tiny piece of the character’s life (only a few hours), but also a time that will change her in a profound way.

61l1afcvhtl-_ac_us218_5. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter- The title story in Carter’s collection of retold fairy tales, this story explores the classic fairy tale, Bluebeard, in which a girl marries an older man and is taken to his castle, where she’s given the keys to all the rooms and is told that she can’t open one room. Of course, she does open it and discovers the bloody corpses of her husband’s previous wives. Carter’s retelling explores themes that are prevalent throughout her work, but most particularly her fairy tale retellings. These themes include sexuality and maternal instinct.

31g7ovvubul-_ac_us218_6. Shopgirl by Steve Martin– This novella by Steve Martin (yes, that Steven Martin) focuses on Mirabelle, a department store salesgirl in her late 20s who becomes involved with an older man. But it’s not the typical older man/younger woman misogynistic fantasy that you’d expect from an older male author. The focus of the novel remains on largely on Mirabelle throughout; her loneliness, her frustrations, and the reasons that she becomes involved in this relationship. It’s funny and poignant at the same time.

51ktieauzl-_ac_us218_7. The Light in the Piazza by Elizabeth Spencer–  Margaret Johnson, a wealthy woman from North Carolina, travels to Florence with her daughter Clara in 1953. Margaret’s husband, Roy, stays home to work. In Florence, Clara meets Fabrizio Nacarelli, a young man with whom she falls in love. Clara isn’t quite as she first appears, which may be a barrier to her future with Fabrizio.  Margaret hates the thought of her daughter suffering the pain of love gone wrong. But she is not able to express her concerns to Fabrizio or his family due to the language barrier.  Or so she thinks. As Clara and Fabrizio’s relationship progresses Margaret realizes that while she’s afraid of what will happen if Clara’s secret is discovered, her fear may be overruled by her hope for Clara’s happiness. These dual maternal instincts tear at her, as she tries to figure out what is in her daughter’s best interests.

51q4ceca-kl-_ac_us218_8. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan– In 1962, Florence and Edward fall in love and get married.  Both are virgins. While Edward is nervous about his wedding night, he is nonetheless looking forward to marriage. Florence, on the other hand, is terrified by the little she knows is involved in sexual intimacy. Because they’re both young and unsure, they navigate this tension in a clumsy way. But the words they don’t say, and the gestures they fail to make, may ultimately be what determines the fate of their marriage and the course of their lives. The narration runs parallel to the conflict. What isn’t explicitly said about the characters is implied. And those are the things that may make all the difference. This book caused some controversy in 2007 when it was nominated for the Booker Prize. At less than 40,000 words, it’s technically a novella, but it was allowed onto the shortlist of novels by the panel.

41srw9zyjrl-_ac_us218_9. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. LeGuin– Omelas is a utopian city where all the residents live in peace and prosperity. As our unnamed narrator describes it, it seems too good to be true. In order to convince the reader that it is true, the narrator begins to speak of the price that is paid for the city’s happiness. It’s a price that’s initially horrifying to the residents once they learn of it. But most make their peace with it, knowing that it’s for the greater good. But some people aren’t able to accept it and end up leaving Omelas. The unasked question for the reader is, of course, “which would you be?” Would you live in paradise knowing that somewhere, an unseen injustice takes place all the time to keep you there? Or would you leave?

5100vzgkz-l-_ac_us218_10.  The Landlady by Roald Dahl– Billy Weaver is a young man traveling from London to Bath on business. He stops overnight at a bed and breakfast. The landlady is an older woman whom Billy initially suspects might be a little senile.  When he goes to sign the guestbook he sees that two of the previous lodgers have names that seem familiar to him but he can’t quite place. The landlady gives him some tea and they chat a bit. Nothing that happens seems ominous but the feeling that something is “off” pervades the story. When the truth about the B&B is revealed the reader will go back and look through the story trying to spot the clues.

Top Ten Tuesday: American Classics

The Broke and the Bookish are taking a break from Top Ten Tuesday, but there’s no reason why I have to do the same. Dwell in Possibility had the idea of doing the Top Ten American Classics in honor of the 4th of July, and I liked the idea.

  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith– I related to Francie, the heroine of this coming of age story the first time I read it, and it’s definitely stayed with me over the years. It’s easy to say that it’s a sentimental novel about the days of youth, but those days we often remember as being “carefree” were really anything but. Smith doesn’t diminish the dramas of the schoolyard or the family crises with which Francie copes. 51fm3ylbgvl-_ac_us218_
  2. The Awakening by Kate Chopin- This is easy to see as an early feminist novel, in which the heroine struggles against the expectations of her family and New Orleans society. But you could also look at Edna as a narcissist who destroys her own life and that of those around her. I remember getting into an argument about this in my high school English class.51mlrlxawfl-_ac_us218_
  3. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell– Yes this book is racist. The characters are racist. I don’t excuse that, but I feel like there is a lot to enjoy in spite of it. Scarlett O’Hara is an interesting character precisely because she isn’t likable. She’s selfish, spoiled, entitled, and stubborn. In another book she might be a villain. But here, we find ourselves rooting for her, in spite of her actions.51vxh2jgv8l-_ac_us218_
  4. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison– On one level, this is the coming of age story of Milkman Dead. On another level it’s about Milkman’s family, and a century’s worth of secrets, ghosts, and angst. On still another level, it’s about the universal search for lost identity.413unpgvwyl-_ac_us218_
  5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck– This novel, described by the author as his magnum opus, tells the stories of two families. It’s about the relationships between fathers and sons and siblings (the biblical story of Genesis- particularly Cain and Abel is a recurring allusion). It’s also about choice and humanity. It’s on my list of books to reread at some point because I suspect that by reading it at different points in my life I’ll get more out of it.51yjn5lr6l-_ac_us218_
  6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner– The title of this novel is taken from Macbeth’s soliloquy: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more: it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” So right away Faulkner tells us that we are reading “a tale told by an idiot”. At first it seems like that’s a reference to Benjamin (Benjy) Compson, the intellectually disabled son of the Compson family, who narrates the first section of this novel. But it could also refer to the points of view of Quinton and Jason Compson, who narrate the second and third sections of the novel. Both display their own kinds of idiocy.  But the significant reference might lie in an earlier part of the soliloquy that the title alludes to: “all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death.” As a whole this novel is really about the “way to dusty death” of the Compson family.51uoptbnrgl-_ac_us218_
  7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey– From the time we’re children we’re taught to follow directions and stay in the lines. The people who don’t do that are often segregated from society. Randale McMurphy enters a ward of such people at a mental hospital, where he defies the stern hand of Nurse Ratched, the dictator-like nurse who runs the ward. It’s easy to sympathize with the fun loving McMurphy at the expense of Nurse Ratched, but when we remember that we’re getting the story from a very unreliable narrator (a schizophrenic in a mental ward) it takes on different (and perhaps darker) tones.51bcb3mckel-_ac_us218_
  8.  The Turn of the Screw by Henry James– this gothic, ghost story is notable because it’s hard to determine the exact nature of the evil the story hints at. An unnamed narrator is hired to be a governess to two orphaned children. One of the children, has recently been expelled from school for unknown reasons. The narrator fears that it might have something to do with the two figures that she sees around the state, or her predecessor, Miss Jessel. Through subtle hints, James makes us question our narrator’s sanity. Are the ghostly figures that she sees just her imagination? It’s arguably more frightening if the narrator is losing her mind than if the ghosts were real.  51zs71vreul-_ac_us218_
  9. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson– I love Shirley Jackson. A lot of people only read “The Lottery” in school, but this short novel of Merricat Blackwood and her sister Constance, expands on some themes that the story touches on, and is chilling in its own way. After most of the Blackwood family dies after being poisoned, Merricat, Constance, and their uncle, Julian live in the family home. Constance was acquitted for the murder of her family but the court of public opinion holds her very much guilty. We do learn what eventually happened to the Blackwood family, and the revelation is both macabre and darkly humorous. 5180ubrqqzl-_ac_us218_
  10. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates– this is a fictionalized novel that imagines the inner life of Marilyn Monroe. But throughout the book Marilyn Monroe’s identity is constructed by external forces. I think that this book is largely about the American obsession with fame. It’s about the destruction that an identity can undergo when it’s defined from the outside. We may not consider it a classic now, but I suspect we will someday. And since Monroe is a classic American icon, I think this belongs on this list. 51qypwi7ffl-_ac_us218_