MUST-READ IN YOUR FIELD
The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction
Lex Williford and Michael Martone, editors
This is a staple in my introduction to creative writing class. I’m obsessed with the craft of the short story, and this anthology features many of the modern masters, including ZZ Packer, Richard Bausch, Kelly Link, Mary Gaitskill, Junot Diaz, and Charles Baxter. Even though I’ve read many of the stories several times, they are so beautifully written, carefully constructed, and dense with meaning that I always find something new to appreciate and admire. The stories have always provoked discussion—especially A.M. Homes’ “A Real Doll,” about a kid who falls in love with his sister’s Barbie. We don’t have time to read all the stories in a semester, so I encourage students not to sell this book, hopeful they’ll keep reading.
FAVORITE BOOK TO TEACH
The Virgin Suicides
By Jeffrey Eugenides
I specialize in suburban literature and eco-criticism, so this spooky novel is right up my … cul de sac. The story, as the title suggests, is ostensibly about the beautiful yet quietly miserable Lisbon sisters who commit suicide, one after another. That’s a huge conceit, but really, Eugenides uses the suicides as a vehicle to provide social commentary on the tony suburb of Detroit where the girls live(d), and the ways in which their suicides offend the status quo. The literal and figurative borders erected in the suburbs become more visible—and ridiculous—as the suburban denizens fail to guard against the “real world” implications of the tragedies. This is symbolized by dirt, decay, and pollution. We see peeling paint, dirty walls, industrial fog, sand flies, and Dutch Elm disease. (The book is told from the perspective of a collective conscience, which is really cool.) Many of my students miss the loaded social and political commentary on the first read because they are so caught up in the “hook” of the suicides.
FOR PURE ENJOYMENT
All My Puny Sorrows
By Miriam Toews
My bookseller friend told me to read it, but he warned me not to read anything about it first, not even the book jacket copy, because I’d think it would be too dark. Now that I’ve read the novel, I see what he means. Yes, Toews explores dark themes, but the narrator, Yoli, is so real and funny, so well-intentioned but messed-up, that I sincerely ached for her to be real so we could be BFFs. I won’t say what the book is about, but I will say that it has incredible emotional range. One moment, Yoli’s sister Elf’s Italian boyfriend visits Elf in the hospital: “He spoke to her in Italian, ma cosa ti e successo, tesoro, but she shook her head, no, don’t, as though the language of her heart had no place here or that it reminded her of beauty and love and laughter and those things were bullets now, sharp teeth and shards of glass and cheap plastic toys you step on in the nighttime.” Look how much is accomplished in that sentence! One minute our heart breaks, and a few pages later, Toews makes us laugh. When Yoli buys a new home, she writes, “The house is close to a polluted lake, wedged in between a funeral home, a mental hospital, and a slaughterhouse. Something for each of us, said my mother over the phone when I’d described it to her.” Something for each of us, indeed.
BOOK THAT CHANGED THE WAY YOU THINK
Birds of America
By Lorrie Moore
This book changed the way I think about storytelling, and I have [professor of English] Shawn Gillen to thank for first recommending this writer to me. Moore is one of America’s most famous and admired short story writers, and, like Toews and A.M. Homes, she’s got a wicked but doleful sense of humor, like icing on a cupcake laced with arsenic. Not until I read this collection (and everything else she’s written) did I realize that stories don’t have to have big plots. I’ve always struggled with plot, maybe because I’m a peace-keeping middle child, but Moore shows how a lot can happen when a character experiences a moment where she sees the world a bit differently—a chord change instead of a bomb blast. Reading Moore helped me discover my own voice as a writer.