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Read the American short stories George Saunders thinks will stand the test of time.


February 5, 2021, 11:37am

There’s so much contemporary fiction released every day, it’s hard to keep track—and it’s hard to know which works will still be remembered in a year and which will slip into obscurity. Luckily, we have George Saunders to guide us. In an interview with Los Angeles Review of Books, Saunders was asked to name a contemporary American short story that he considers as “teachable and destined for posterity” as the Russian classics featured in his recently released craft book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Instead of just one, he gave us several—and his list, of course, is full of heavy hitters.

 

Stuart Dybek, “Hot Ice” (from The Coast of Chicago)

The saint, a virgin, was uncorrupted. She had been frozen in a block of ice many years ago.

Her father had found her half-naked body floating facedown among water lilies, her blond hair fanning at the marshy edge of the overgrown duck pond people still referred to as the Douglas Park Lagoon.

That’s how Eddie Kapusta had heard it . . .

 

Alice Munro, “Dance of the Happy Shades” (from Dance of the Happy Shades: And Other Stories)

Miss Marsalles is having another party. (Out of musical integrity, or her heart’s bold yearning for festivity, she never calls it a recital.) My mother is not an inventive or convincing liar, and the excuses which occur to her are obviously second-rate. The painters are coming. Friends from Ottawa. Poor Carrie is having her tonsils out. In the end all she can say is: Oh, but won’t all that be too much trouble, now? Now being weighted with several troublesome meanings; you may take your choice . . .

 

Carolyn Ferrell, “Don’t Erase Me” (from Don’t Erase Me: Stories)

April 28, 1993

Gain some weight. Gain fifty pounds. Find somebody to cook dinner for. Don’t just make vegetables, don’t follow that Slim Dream Plan, the one you been on since you were a young fat girl. Make plantains. Molasses-fried pork chops. Cherry dump cake. Corncob supreme. Get rid of the diet pills. You were born fat, and now the sickness makes you want more fat, more all over so you’ll stay longer. Read the newspaper. Find out what’s going on in the world . . .

 

Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain” (from Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories)

The line was endless. Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed and now he was stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed . . .

 

Ha Jin, “Alive” (from The Bridegroom: Stories)

Liya’s letter threw her parents into a quandary. She informed them that she had been admitted by Sunrise Agricultural School in Antu County, to specialize in veterinary medicine. They didn’t mind her pursuing that profession. What worried them was that with a diploma from such a school she might remain in the countryside for good, as an educated peasant.

For three days her father, Tong Guhan, didn’t know what to write back to her . . .

 

Robert Stone, “Helping” (from Bear and his Daughter)

One gray November day, Elliot went to Boston for the afternoon. The wet streets seemed cold and lonely. He sensed a broken promise in the city’s elegance and verve. Old hopes tormented him like phantom limbs, but he did not drink. He had joined Alcoholics Anonymous fifteen months before.

Christmas came, childless, a festival of regret. His wife went to Mass and cooked a turkey. Sober, Elliot walked in the woods.

In January, blizzards swept down from the Arctic until the weather became too cold for snow . . .

 

Toni Cade Bambara, “Gorilla, My Love” (from Gorilla, My Love)

That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name. Not a change up, but a change back, since Jefferson Winston Vale was the name in the first place. Which was news to me cause he’d been my Hunca Bubba my whole lifetime, since I couldn’t manage Uncle to save my life. So far as I was concerned it was a change completely to somethin soundin very geographical weatherlike to me, like somethin you’d find in an almanac. Or somethin you’d run across when you sittin in the navigator seat with a wet thumb on the map crinkly in your lap, watchin the roads and signs so when Granddaddy Vale say “Which way, Scout,” you got sense enough to say take the next exit or take a left of whatever it is . . .

 

Miranda July, “Roy Spivey” (published in The New Yorker)

Twice I have sat next to a famous man on an airplane. The first man was Jason Kidd, of the New Jersey Nets. I asked him why he didn’t fly first class, and he said that it was because his cousin worked for United.

“Wouldn’t that be all the more reason to get first class?”

“It’s cool,” he said, unfurling his legs into the aisle.

I let it go, because what do I know about the ins and outs of being a sports celebrity? We didn’t talk for the rest of the flight . . .

 

Happy reading!

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