What I'm Reading (No. 90): story collections, old and slightly less old
My minor obsession with Civl War reading and my book club/work assignment of reading classic horror short stories collided in my reading of Ambrose Bierce's Civl War Stories. It was a jaw-dropping collection at times.
I also finished Hemingway's first commercially available collection of stories, called In Our Time. It is seen by many as his finest work, and I came away impressed. A few stories are, I believe, permanently and deeply embedded into my reading memory.
Let's talk about each:
Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce (1892, 132 pages)
"Bitter Bierce" is one of the more interesting characters in American literary history. He served the Union in the Civil War, including the brutal Battle of Shiloh — an experience which understandably scarred him, but also provided fuel for some of the most poignant, realistic stories on the Civil War ever penned.
While Ambrose wrote a variety of short stories (most in the horror/fantastical realm), novels, journalism, and hybrid pieces — like the remarkably witty Devil's Dictionary — his greatest work, in my opinion, are the Civil War stories collected here. While two of the pieces are short non-fiction remembrances of his wartime experience, the rest are fictional pieces that almost always have some sort of twisty ending.
The real strength of Bierce is in capturing the consciousness of soldiers — their fears, worries, courage; their grappling with death, their camaraderie, their innocence and, eventually, their lack thereof.
A few of the stories truly made my jaw drop at the end, either in the form of an unexpected conclusion, or simply an incredibly raw depiction of the sadness and weariness of war.
I also read a handful of Bierce's other work, and while some of the other stories are good, none approach the power of the 16 found here. While "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is his most famous story, I found "A Horseman in the Sky," "Chickamauga," and "One of the Missing" to be even more affecting. (All can be read for free online.)
All the stories can be read in under 10 minutes or so. If you're looking for a fright during this autumnal season, Bierce's collection offers a hefty dose, with perhaps too much realism; there's no need for the supernatural when the horrors of war are enough to bring a chill to your bones.
A Short Story Reading List
I've not read a whole lot of short stories, but the ones I have I've enjoyed immensely:
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson. One of the most famous story collections in American letters. I read "The Lottery" and a handful of others, and came away deeply impressed with her writing style. Chilling, but in a very subtle, almost domestic way.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I love Jhumpa's writing. The stories here convey the immigrant/emigrant experience in a powerful way, and also touch the heart in unexpected ways. This collection won her the Pulitzer.
Complete Tales by Edgar Allan Poe. I've read a lot of classic horror authors this month; Poe is probably my favorite. His writing contains a manic energy in which no character is trustworthy, and it's rather fun reading.
To Build a Fire and Other Stories by Jack London. London was one of the greatest writers of the frontier who ever existed. His stories are wild and outdoorsy and will make you feel like tramping off to the woods.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. One of Bradbury's most well-known works is actually a collection of connected tales about life on Mars after its civilization by humans. A sci-fi classic for a reason.
Out West edited by Jack Schaefer. One of my favorite Western authors edited this collection of great short fiction, featuring just 1-2 pieces per author. Hard to find, but very fun.
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway (1925, 160 pages)
As I briefly mentioned last week, while Hemingway is most well known in popular culture for his novels, his short stories are often found to be his strongest, most poignant works. This first collection, In Our Time, was largely written in Paris while he just a 20-something reflecting on his life experiences. It was very well reviewed when published and remains just as respected today. (Jim Mustich recommends three Hemingway works in his 1,000 Books to Read, one of them being this one.)
Appropriately, I started reading it at a trendy little cafe — small tables, lights strung over the patio, hefty mugs of black coffee and expensive pastries galore. It wasn't Paris, but I sure imagined it to be.
I was immediately drawn in to the stories. From the first sentence Hemingway captivated me. "Indian Camp," "Soldier's Home," "Big Two-Hearted River" — these stories are indelibly stuck into my memory not only for their masterful, concise prose, but for their lack of easy interpretations too.
In fact, Hemingway often cut the parts of the story that would have made their meaning less ambiguous; he made them muddier on purpose! I quite appreciated this, actually, and it's why his stories (and novels) have been talked about for nearly 100 years.
About half the stories feature the character Nick Adams — perhaps the most autobiographical protagonist that Hemingway ever wrote. These stories were particularly enjoyable for me; they feature Nick as a young boy, and then man, who has grown up the Midwest, chasing outdoor pursuits, with an interlude of war experience tossed in.
"Big Two-Hearted River," in particular, featured such vivid descriptions of Nick's fly fishing outing that I was damn near sure I could smell the fish while sitting in an adirondack chair on my front porch. There's underlying meaning to the story, sure, but it's really just about Nick enjoying the outdoors and recuperating. It made me want to go fishing(!), which is not a feeling I often have.
I'm so glad I finally got into Hemingway's short stories, and while they weren't all winners, I'll certainly be revisiting bits from In Our Time.
That's all for me this week. Thank you for the time and inbox space; I sure appreciate it. Let me know what you're reading!