The staying power of stories

I’ve written before about the impact of good short fiction, the meteorite punch in your heart, or mind – or better yet, both – as you read. But can anyone honestly say that they remember every single short story they’ve ever read? (Unless they’ve only read five, and have a photographic memory.) Some craters are punched deeper than others. Some stories are just a shower of pretty lights in the sky, enjoyed while the sparkle lasts, until eclipsed by other stories.

Bearing in mind that of course my opinion is entirely subjective, here is a selection of some of my favourite short stories, the ones that have stayed.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork: Helen Dunmore Ice Cream (Penguin 2001)

Set in a world where eugenic health means that natural conception is outlawed, and a lawful pregnancy needs a mortgage to fund it, it was perhaps a mistake to read this one when I was pregnant. It’s a powerful story, and a hopeful one, strongly told. I love it.

The Gernsback Continuum: William Gibson Burning Chrome (Grafton 1988)

A photographer is commissioned to document a future that was never realised, the science fiction utopia promised by 1930s American design and pulp fiction covers, the Hollywood gothic of Ming the Merciless. And then the veil between that lost future’s aesthetic, and the modern now begins to tear; Metropolis bleeds through. If you loved Neuromancer, read this collection.

Other Kingdom: E.M.Forster Selected Stories (Penguin 2001)

A girl is given the deed to a woodland by her fiance’s father. Her fiance does not understand her nature, seeking to possess her, fence in her freedom. In love as much with the silvan spirit of classicism as with him, she escapes her jealous lover in a way he will never understand. If you know your myths, think of Apollo and Daphne.

The Piper At The Gates of Dawn: Kenneth Grahame The Wind In The Willows (Egmont 1971)

Strictly speaking this isn’t a short story per se, but I read it originally in a long disintegrated animal stories anthology, before I was given my own copy of The Wind In The Willows in 1979. And it is beautiful, and mystical, and the poetic magic in it never fails to move me. Also, today is Midsummer, so it is only fitting that I should mention it now.

The Woman on the Dunes: Anais Nin A Model And Other Stories (Penguin 1995)

This was the first erotica I ever read, at the tender age of 23. My god but I was innocent then! But this is beautiful, tender, and poetic. And, obviously, erotic.

Kew Gardens: Virginia Woolf A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction (Vintage 2003)

An afternoon in Kew Gardens: impressionistic, Modern, beautiful, strange. It has haunted me, I think.

Pipes: Etgar Keret The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories (Toby Press 2004)

I read this on the train from Paddington. I cried. The girl next to me tried to pretend that I wasn’t there, despite the fact that I cried oh so discreetly. It’s about disappearing, and finding a way into happiness. It is hopeful, and wistful and, wonderful. And it breaks my heart.

The Cat Lover: Kate Atkinson Not The End Of The World (Black Swan 2003)

I love this whole collection, where the stories are set in the here and now, while figures from Greek myth wander about and interfere. In this one, a stray cat takes over a woman’s life, in so many mythological ways… Just fabulous.

Fifty Percent One/Fifty Percent Two: Nik Perring and Caroline Smailes Freaks (The Friday project 2012)

Two heartbreaks, a misunderstanding, a not-good-enough chance. In a collection about small  – and not so small –  strangenesses, this one, for me stood out. Tender and hopeless and hurting, yet I don’t think it does encapsulate the superpower it says on the tin, the power to amplify memories. It doesn’t need to. That kind of pain never goes away. But, read it, read all of it, and judge for yourselves. You won’t regret it.

The Tiger’s Bride: Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber (Vintage 2006)

A variant on the story of Beauty And The Beast, told in language so rich it’s almost distracting. Lusciously, seductively finessed.

Snow, Glass, Apples: Neil Gaiman Smoke And Mirrors (Headline 1999)

A retelling of Snow White, turned inside out and upside down, as only Neil Gaiman can, with a debt to Angela Carter. Beautiful and disturbing, by possibly my favourite living author.

So. I’ve shown you mine. It’s your turn to show me yours. What are some of your favourite short stories?
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Thursday March 7th, 2013

So yesterday was World Book Day (in the UK – think about it), a day for celebrating all things Book. It was Thursday. It was also a cold, dreary damp sort of day. The sort of day that makes people want to avoid going outside as much as possible. The sort of day that keeps even the weekday shoppers off the High Street. The sort of day when independent bookshops are quiet, unless the browsers are particularly hardy souls. (You can tell I was at work yesterday.)

But thinking about books, in both the professional and the hobbyist sense, set me wondering about my reading habits. At the end of 2011 I posted this. I was going to write a similar post at the end of last year, but when I gathered together the books I had finished, the books I am (still) reading, and the books waiting to be read, the only pile that had shrunk was the pile of books I’d finished. Which was depressing. But also, in a way, a significant achievement nevertheless, having spent so much of last year struggling to concentrate on anything. It still is a struggle. But in the spirit of celebrating reading, and because I enjoyed reading them so much, and because I think you all should too (that good, yes, although I had some reservations about the ending of Sweet Tooth), I herewith present the books I finished last year, and the ones finished this year so far.

Tadah!IMG_2537Not visible is Dan Purdue’s short fiction collection, Somewhere To Start From. That lives in my iPad. Do read it. In your own e-reader variant, of course. Also missing is Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, which is on loan to a friend.

Freakishly good.

In my continuing odyssey through all things short fic, I’m thrilled to be able to host a rather splendid example from Freaks (also available from any good independent bookseller; keep books on the High Street!), the cool collaborative venture from Caroline Smailes and Nik Perring, illustrated by Darren Craske. Fifty short stories about people who don’t quite fit, either cursed, blessed, or just getting on with that something that makes them different. Stories that will make you smile, make you laugh, make you think, and make you cry. I defy anyone to read Fifty Per Cent, for example, and not be moved.

So. Here for your delectation, I’m pleased to present,

Invisible 

[Super Power: The ability to make oneself unseen to the naked eye]

If I stay totally still,

if I stand right tall,

with me back against the school wall,

close to the science room’s window,

with me feet together,

pointing straight,

aiming forward,

if I make me hands into tight fists,

make me arms dead straight,

 if I push me arms into me sides,

if I squeeze me thighs,

stop me wee,

if me belly doesn’t shake,

if me boobs don’t wobble,

if I close me eyes tight,

so tight that it makes me whole face scrunch,

if I push me lips into me mouth,

if I make me teeth bite me lips together,

if I hardly breathe,

if I don’t say a word.

Then,

I’ll magic meself invisible,

and them lasses will leave me alone.

Buy it, read it, love it. This is what is looks like:

(Oh yes, and it also available as an e-book.)