Below is a guest post from Mumbai-based writer-filmmaker—and longtime #longreads contributor—Pravesh Bhardwaj (@AuteurPravesh).
I’ve been doing this for some time now — seeking out short stories from free online resources, and sharing them on Twitter (#fiction #longreads). It’s now a habit: Every night after dinner, before I start writing (screenplays), I look around for a story and read it.
Starting with Upmanyu Chatterji’s “Three Seven Seven and the Blue Gay Gene,” from Open magazine, and ending with Callan Wink’s “Off the Track” from Ecotone, I ended up reading and posting 292 stories in 2016. Here are ten of my favorites, in random order.
“Ghosts” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zoetrope, 2004)
I love everything I read from Adichie, but this story set in Nigeria is special. (I also liked “The Arrangements”— set in the Trump household–that appeared in The New York Times in June. That story has acquired a new tanginess now that Donald Trump has won the U.S. election.)
Today I saw Ikenna Okoro, a man I had long thought was dead. Perhaps I should have bent down, grabbed a handful of sand, and thrown it at him, in the way my people do to make sure a person is not a ghost. But I am an educated man, a retired professor of seventy-one, and I am supposed to have armed myself with enough science to laugh indulgently at the ways of my people. I did not throw sand at him. I could not have done so even if I had wished to, anyway, since we met on the concrete grounds of the university bursary.
“The Bloodline of the Alkanas” (Cynthia Ozick, Harper’s, 2013)
Cynthia Ozick’s story is about Sidney and her relationship with her parents–her father, an antiquarian poet, and her receptionist mother who managed their lives with forbearance.
Cyrus Alkana was my father, and if you can recognize this name, you belong to an inconspicuous substratum of humanity — a coterie, if such things can still be said to exist. He had his little following, cranks and fanatics like himself, including an out-of-favor critic who once dubbed him the “American Keats.” If this was launched as a compliment, it landed as a disparagement. Keats was exactly the trouble, the reason for my father’s obscurity — and not only Keats, but Shelley and Wordsworth and Coleridge and Tennyson and Swinburne, all those denizens of a fading antiquity. It wasn’t that my father worshipped these old poets who had crowded the back pages of his grade-school spelling book. He regarded himself as one of their company, a colleague and companion.
“Suddenly, A Knock on the Door” (Etgar Keret, Guernica, 2012)
Etgar Keret is my favourite contemporary short-story writer. “Suddenly…” begins with a bearded man holding a gun demanding the author to tell him a story… I don’t know how to describe the remaining story, because it is easier to tell this story than describe it.
I try to explain to the bearded man that if he puts his pistol away it will only work in his favor, in our favor. It’s hard to think up a story with the barrel of a loaded pistol pointed at your head. But the guy insists. “In this country,” he explains, “if you want something, you have to use force.” He just got here from Sweden, and in Sweden it’s completely different. Over there, if you want something, you ask politely, and most of the time you get it. But not in the stifling, sultry Middle East. All it takes is a single week around here to figure out how things work—or rather, how things don’t work. The Palestinians asked for a state, nicely. Did they get one? The hell they did. So they switched to blowing up kids on buses, and people started listening.
“A Temporary Matter” (Jhumpa Lahiri, The New York Times)
This story about a young couple, Shoba and Shukumar, is from Jhumpa Lahiri’s first short-story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. She won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for it.
The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M. A line had gone down in the last snowstorm, and the repairmen were going to take advantage of the milder evenings to set it right. The work would affect only the houses on the quiet tree-lined street, within walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a trolley stop, where Shoba and Shukumar had lived for three years.
“A Sandmeyer Reaction” (Michael Chabon, The New York Times)
I found this lovely short story while reading the review of Michael Chabon’s Moonglow in The New York Times. He himself explains the connection of the story with the novel in the introduction.
Not long before he died, I jotted down the names of the devices and tools my grandfather remembered having contrived during the months he spent working for Stanley Lovell, the O.S.S.’s deputy director for special projects, in the basement of a building at 23rd and E. Lovell, a chemist and patent lawyer, had been personally recruited by “Wild Bill” Donovan to equip clandestine operatives in Europe, North Africa and the Far East. Lovell and his R&D team set to work devising the fountain-pen pistols, lipstick cameras and cyanide-filled shirt buttons that have since featured in the panoplies of movie and television spies. They found new approaches to infiltration, sabotage and secret communication. They hit on ways to kill the enemy with cunning and panache, with exploding pancake flour and incendiary bats.
“Cathedral” (Raymond Carver, London Magazine, 1983)
Raymond Carver, one of the most celebrated U.S. short story writers, somewhere said, “It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things–a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring–with immense, even startling power.”
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-laws’. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing eye dogs. Blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.
“Experience” (Tessa Hadley, The New Yorker, 2013)
Tessa Hadley’s story is about recently divorced Laura’s experience while staying in the upmarket house of Hana — a friend of her friend, who is traveling to the U.S.
There were no curtains on the windows of that house, not even in the bedrooms. At first, I found this unbearable. I undressed for bed in the bathroom; I got into bed in the dark. But after a while I began to get used to it. This was how Hana lived her life—flamboyantly on display, careless of who might be watching. I didn’t flatter myself that anyone was watching me. Or if they were watching, they thought I was something I was not, so it didn’t matter.
“Hall of Small Mammals” (Thomas Pierce, LitHub, 2016)
This lovely story about a man taking his girlfriend’s son on a visit to the zoo to see a baby Pippin monkey is the title story of Thomas Pierce’s short story collection of the same name.
I watched him waddle off toward the bathrooms taking big bites of the bar. Maybe it was his flat dry hair or his tube socks or his white hairless legs, but Val already had the look of a middle-age government employee. I saw nothing of his mother in him, so he must have resembled his father, a man who lived in the same city but whom I’d never met and never would. I’d been dating Val’s mother for only a few months. She worked in the same building as me but for a separate company. Her department did something that involved cardboard tubes. The tubes were different sizes and lengths and colors.
“The Woman of the House” (William Trevor, The New Yorker, 2008)
When news of the great William Trevor’s passing came in November 2016, I read all his stories that I had posted over the years and reposted “The Woman of the House.” Looking back, I might have posted “The Dressmaker’s Child” but I chose this one, a mysterious story about an Irish man who hires two European men to paint his house, where he lives with his wife Martina. It can’t be called a mystery — I should find a better way of describing this moody story.
Martina drove slowly, as she always did driving back from Carragh. More than once on this journey, the old Dodge had stopped and she had had to walk to Kirpatrick’s Garage to get assistance. Each time the same mechanic told her the car belonged to the antique brigade and should have been off the road for the last thirty years at the very least. But the ancient Dodge was part of Martina’s circumstances, to be tolerated because it was necessary. And, driven slowly, more often than not it got you there.
“Fatherland” (Viet Thanh Nguyen, Narrative Magazine, 2011)
(Registration required.) I am dying to read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer for two reasons, first is that it won the Pulitzer Prize of fiction in 2016, and second is that I loved reading this story, about Mr. Ly’s two families, where the daughter from his first marriage, who lives in the U.S., visits his second family in Saigon.
It was a most peculiar thing to do. Everyone said so who heard the story, of how Phuong’s father had named his second set of children after his first. Phuong was the eldest of these younger children, and for all her twenty-three years she had believed that her father’s other children were much more blessed. Evidence of their good luck was written in the terse letters sent home annually by the first Mrs. Ly, the mother of Phuong’s namesake, who recorded in bullet points each of her children’s height, weight, and accomplishments. Phuong’s namesake, for example, was seven years older, fifteen centimeters taller, twenty kilos heavier, and, from the photographs included with the letters, in possession of fairer, clearer skin; whiter, straighter teeth; and hair, clothing, shoes, and makeup that only became ever more fashionable as she graduated from a private girls’ school, then from an elite college, followed by medical school and then a residency in Chicago. Mr. Ly had laminated each of the photographs to protect them from humidity and fingerprints, keeping them neatly stacked on a side table by the couch in the living room.
“The Proprietress” (Yiyun Li, Zoetrope, 2005)
Yiyun Li writes such graceful prose — “The Proprietress” is a story about Mrs. Jin, who gives shelter to Susu after the execution of Susu’s husband and a woman journalist who comes from Beijing to take Susu’s interview.
She had lived all her life in Clear Water Town and had watched its young children grow up, some leaving like her son, others staying and marrying to produce the next generation for her to watch; she herself had been watched by older people, though the number of those who remembered her as a young girl with two pigtails, or as a new wife with a plump and desirable body, was dwindling now. In a few years the memory of her youth would be gone with the oldsters, and nobody would contradict her even if she told the wildest lies about her life. Mrs. Jin sighed. She stood up and checked herself in the mirror. Her hair neatly tucked into a tight bun and her eyebrows newly plucked, she examined her face as if studying a stranger; after a while she decided that she was still a presentable woman. Not many women could age as beautifully and regally as she did, a fact that Mrs. Jin was proud of, though there was no one to whom she could boast.