Things to Read - Five Great Short Story Books (for Grown-Ups) - Murakami, Mueenuddin, Lahiri, Kanafani, & Munro

1. The Elephant Vanishes: Stories

I first discovered Haruki Murakami about nine years ago, when I came across his short story "U.F.O in Kushiro" in the New Yorker. The story was unlike anything I'd ever read before and the cleverness, combined with a certain cold, ambiguous chill produced by his work seemed so original that I immediately went to the store and purchased one of Murakami's novels. I've now read almost everything written by him (that has been translated) and I believe The Elephant Vanishes: Stories contains some of his best work while displaying a nice mix of his surreal, alienated prose, depicting quirky, yet believable characters. Unfortunately, The Elephant Vanishes does not contain "U.F.O in Kushiro" (rather, the story resides in a shorter collection, After the Quake: Stories), which is also quite good.

2. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonderss operates as one of those great story story collections in which most of the stories interconnect in some way. Mueenuddin paints portraits of different socioeconomic classes in modern day Pakistan, from the story of a landowner whose servants are slowly defrauding him to to the subtle love story of a maid's affair with the house valet. Despite the characters' wide ranging perspectives, Mueenuddin allows you to empathize with everyone, while still assuring that you see their nastiness. I especially liked the story "Lily", about a party girl's attempt to change her ways.

3. Unaccustomed Earth: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)

Lahiri received critical acclaim (and a Pulizer Prize) for her first short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, but really it is her second collection, Unaccustomed Earth: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries) that truly solidifies her greatness. Every story in this book amazes me, in that Lahiri always includes the perfect details for creating complex, believable characters, while at the same time keeping her prose sparse enough that these details never seem irrelevant, nor do they weigh her stories down. After finishing this book, I felt a huge sense of loss, as if I wasn't sure what to do with myself now that these characters were out of my life.

4. Palestine's Children: Returning to Haifa & Other Stories

About a year ago, the New Yorker (yes, I'm sort of a New Yorker addict) published a great summary of current middle eastern fiction (the entire article is available online here), which introduced me to the author Ghassan Kanafani. According to the New Yorker (or, more specifically, to Claudia Roth Pierpont who wrote the piece), Kafani's novel, "'Men in the Sun' is a classic of Palestinian writing, and mentioning it among recent Arabic books is a bit like mentioning a work by Hemingway in a discussion of up-and-coming Americans, except that Kanafani remains almost entirely unknown to English readers." This intrigued me. I still haven't read "Men in the Sun" (the New Yorker's description of the novel, linked above, was so depressing I haven't been able to pick it up), but I have read his short story collection, Palestine's Children: Returning to Haifa & Other Stories. And the book's sparse, exacting prose made for some of the best literature I've ever had the pleasure to read. Kanafani's haunting portraits of a people with no place and no future will chill you to the bone. Obviously, this IS NOT a pro-Israel book, so please take that into consideration (and trust that I'm making no political statement in recommending it, I'm just a lover of literature).

5. Runaway

If every generation had a prize for "short story master" than Alice Munro would surely win today's (past winners would include Chekov and Carver). I've read quite a bit of Munro and I think it's safe to say that Runaway is her masterpiece. But beware, these stories will break your heart (sorry for the cliche). I'm having a hard time describing what makes Munro so awesome, so I relied on the powers of google to help me. Apparently even New York Times' book reviewers have a hard time pinpointing her magic. According to Jonathan Frazen's review in the New York Times "Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I've made, the things I've done and haven't done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I'm immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being. . . . But suspense and purity, which are a gift to the reader, present problems for the reviewer. Basically, ''Runaway'' is so good that I don't want to talk about it here. Quotation can't do the book justice, and neither can synopsis. The way to do it justice is to read it."

How about everyone else? Read any good books lately? By the way, I'm writing this LATE on Wednesday night and I'm sure there are all sorts of typos, misused words, etc. So be kind people. Be kind. I also just realized that all the authors' names start with a K, L, or M - sort of funny, huh? or maybe I just need to go to bed.


  1. Darcy -

    I'm currently mired in several nonfiction books and the KJV Bible (which i've always wanted to read straight through), and I've been wondering lately how best to leaven the load. I didn't want to start either a mystery novel/page-turner or a full-length 'serious' work of fiction until making more headway in my other books. But then your serendipitous post made me think I'd do well to check out one of these short story collections!

    I read Runaway earlier this year and think Franzen has it about right. How any human being can craft such exquisite work, or get me to identify so penetratingly with her distant fictitious characters, is beyond me. I won't soon forget the story 'Tricks', about the girl who loses her purse at the theater, which leads to a love interest with an Eastern European immigrant.

    I will probably check out at least one of the above--they all sound worthwhile based on your comments. Thanks for the insightful post!


  2. Great ideas! I'm embarassed to say I've never read anything by Alice Munro. Always meant to, but never quite did. So it looks like I should start with Runaway! Meanwhile, I'm halfway through Emerald City by Jennifer Eagan and highly recommend it. It's one of her earlier collections of stories -- I've the more recent ones are great, too.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation Deb! And Saeed, I read the Bible straight through while I was in college, it's really quite fascinating, especially when you don't have to listen to everyone else's spin or have things taken out of context. I was surprised how much I liked a lot of the Old Testament. If you're interested, check out the gnostic gospels, I remember liking them a lot and being quite sad that they didn't make the final cut (makes you wonder how different christianity would be today).



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