A Short Story Review Anthology: Hemingway, Williams, Babel, Alexie, Cunningham, Paley, Murakami, Kinsella

The train passed very quickly a long, red stone house with a garden and four thick palm-trees with tables under them in the shade.

I wonder how many graduate students have written papers on the use of railroads in the works of Ernest Hemingway. It’s striking how many of his stories are set on trains or in railroad stations. The railway journey as metaphor for the journey of life. It really seems like it would make a good paper to me. Fortunately, I do not have to write graduate papers anymore.

A Canary for One” is the story of three people on a journey across Europe. A married couple share a compartment with a woman who will be visiting her daughter. She is taking the daughter a canary. They are all Americans living in Europe so their conversation soon becomes easy and revealing, turning to intimate topics, the kind of things one can comfortable confess to strangers on a train. The two women do most of the talking which is about the woman’s daughter and the man she’s about to marry. Can an American woman find a successful marriage to a European man?

A Canary for One” is not a great Hemingway story but it’s good enough. There is, as always, undercurrent of tension in the dialogue, something else going on that we don’t find out until the very end of the story, that makes it much more compelling reading than it should be. Things happen on trains. Try to imagine three people having a conversation about something serious on an airplane. Two people, maybe, but not three.

You can find “A Canary for One” in The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway published by The Scribner Library of Contemporary Classics. Hemingway comes in and out of vogue, but he has to be considered a master of the 20th century short story.


The Inventory of Fontana Bella” by Tennessee Williams describes the last day in the life of Principessa Lisabetta. Having outlived all of her husbands, the Principessa is surrounded only by servants who take her to the summer house across the lake, the Fontana Bella, at her insistence.

Once there, they all gather on the terrace where the Principessa wanders about taking an inventory of all the objects in the house. The house is closed and empty, but the Principessa remembers every item in it, each item’s history, where it came from, what it’s made of, what it’s worth. She is both sharp as a tack and completely mad, just the sort of character Tennessee Williams loved, a very rich Amanda Wingfield, a successfully married Blanche Dubois.

In the end, the Principessa’s story touches the reader. In spite of how pathetic her situation has become, she maintains a strange sense of dignity that I found myself admiring. I don’t want to end up like her, but if I do, I hope to face it like she does.


In Isaac Babel’s short story “Awakening” a young boy rebels against his family and his community, but the rebellion is of a different sort. For a long time, it was assumed that the young would go to school to get a good career, become doctors or lawyers. Stories were written about children who rebelled against this life-path to become musicians or artists. In Mr. Babel’s story this situation is turned on it’s head. It’s every parents dream to have a musician for a son or daughter. Rebellion becomes skipping music class to pursue non-artistic interests.

This story comes from Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories which is an unusual collection to say the least. I often do not know what to make of the stories in it; sometimes I’ve been left wondering just how they qualify as short stories. “Awakening” is definitely a short story, that much is clear. But is it a serious one, or is it a spoof? Don’t ask me. I did find it kind of funny when the Russian Jewish father comes yelling after is son, ready to beat him for not wanting to be a musician like all the other good children in the town. I hope I was supposed to find it funny.


This review brings together two of my favorites, Sherman Alexie and The Horn Book magazine.

Sherman Alexie writes stories and novels about his experiences as a Native American. This year (2009) his first novel for young adults, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was published which is probably why he has a short piece in the current issue of The Horn Book magazine. If you’re not a teacher or a librarian, you’ve probably never heard of The Horn Book magazine and you’ve been missing out. The Horn Book covers what’s new and excellent in children’s and young adult literature. Each issue features many reviews, with starred reviews you can always trust to be a sign of excellence, and articles by experts in the fields of children’s and young adult lit. It’s consistently one of the more interesting magazines about books that I read.

This months issue is a back to school issue featuring many articles by different authors on the theme of school and books in schools. Sherman Alexie’s story “I Still Wish” is just a page long.You can read it here. I’m viewing this review as something of a test–how do you write a review of something that is just one page long? Can I do it without a spoiler. No. Consider yourself warned.

Plot summary? Popular in high school, Sherman Alexie sees the least liked boy in school blindsided by a bully. He is tempted to blindside the bully in retaliation but doesn’t because he believes it is better to be peaceful. He regrets this decision all of his life.

Character? Sherman Alexie, Edgar the nice but meek boy, Darren the stoner/bully. In just a few words, with only the briefest of plots, each boy is clearly drawn for the reader, each not just a character in a story, but someone we probably knew back in school.

Theme? Violence versus peace, revenge, social injustice. There’s a lot of meat in this very brief tale.

What I most like about this story, and about much of Sherman Alexie’s stories, is that it does not go where we expect it to but it is true. We’re supposed to value peaceful behavior over violent but we don’t want to. As a reader, I really wanted to see Sherman get revenge on Darren for Edgar, even though I know it probably would not have ended well. If I were the school principal, I’d have had no choice but to suspend both Darren and Sherman after all. That would be justice. But it wouldn’t satisfy as much as revenge.

I wonder what my students would have to say. Maybe I’ll find out….


“Ignorant Armies” by Michael Cunningham is about two gay men who grew up together. Tim and Charlie, the story’s narrator, are best friends in high school. In love with the same girl, who dates Tim, they form a friendly threesome until the girl leaves Tim, and Charlie kisses him.

The two boys drift apart but never completely lose touch with each other. As adults, they meet again in Chicago where they both live. Tim has gone from man to man until ending up with Mark, a stable guy twenty years his senior. Charlie, still single, still largely in love with Tim, again becomes part of a friendly threesome. He watches Tim and Mark’s relationship deepen to the point where they exchange rings. Mark does not want a ceremony, the story was written in 1994 so a legal marriage was unavailable, but he does want the visible symbol of rings.

Michael Cunningham never leaves a happy ending alone. As he does in his early novels he takes the characters of “Ignorant Armies” to their happy ending and then keeps going. Tim and Mark have found a true, lasting love. Charlie is well integrated into their family, he views Tim as a brother and Mark sees him as a brother-in-law. Things are great. But life keeps on going and it has only one ending. Mark dies from AIDS. Tim and Charlie are allowed to attend the funeral, but Mark’s family will not let him be buried with his ring. So afterwards Tim and Charlie visit Mark’s grave and bury the ring in the ground of his grave as best they can. Tim, who is now sick, makes Charlie promise to bury him with his ring on and Charlie does. But in the end, he cannot. Charlie has always loved Tim, always wanted to be for him what Mark was. He is by Tim’s side at the end, but it is Mark’s name Tim calls. Charlie takes the ring from him afterwards and keeps it.
“The Pale Pink Roast” is a good example of why I like Grace Paley so much. The plot is a simple one–two former lovers meet after many years apart. Anna has just begun to show her age, while Peter has just begun to come into his own.

A year ago, in plain view, Ana had begun to decline into withering years, just as he swelled to the maximum of manhood, spitting pipe smoke, patched with tweed, an advertisement of a lover who startled men and detained the ladies.

(“A year ago, in plain view,” I love that.) Anna is married and has a daughter; Peter is still single and still a little bit in love with Anna.

Grace Paley’s heroines, at least the one’s I’ve read about so far, are in charge of their lives and are do not hesitate to go after what they want. Anna wants to have sex with Peter one more time. She quickly contrives to make this happen by asking him back to her new apartment to help put up a set of venetian blinds. Afterwards, Peter is disappointed to discover that Anna is happily married and has no intention of leaving her husband for him.

“Why did you do it? Revenge? Meanness, Why?” he asks.

“Honest to God, listen to me, I did it for love, ” she replies.

There’s not much story after this point, but I have left one delightful surprise for you, should you choose to read “The Pale Pink Roast.” Ms. Paley’s women, and her men, are full of surprises.

If you’ve read a story or two and would like to leave a link to them you can use Mr. Linky below. This month I’m giving away one copy of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. For one entry, become a follower. For five entries leave a link to a short story review on your blog. Each review earns five entries. Dakota will be selecting the winner on Tuesday, June 30.


 No one wants to give away the ending in a review. This guiding principle is much more difficult to follow in a short story review than it is in a book review. It’s even more difficult when reviewing a Haruki Murakami story.

Haruki Murakami’s use of magical realism sneaks up on his stories. He lulls the reader into the everyday and then adds a, sometimes very small, dose of the improbable. Without noticing it, several paragraphs or pages later, the reader believes in the impossible things that are happening. To give anything away risks spoiling the magic. In his short story “Birthday Girl” a young woman has to work at her restaurant job on her 20th birthday. During her shift she meets an old man who says he can grant her one birthday wish. If I say anthing more, I might give something away.

If you’re willing to play along with Murakami, you’ll not regret it. That may be the best way to view reading Haruki Murakami, not as reading but as playing along. It’s lots of fun.


Al Tiller is not a bad team manager. Through his long career in baseball he has managed all levels of players, from bush league minors to big time professionals. By big time professional I mean the Chicago Cubs, a team notorious for losing season after season. It’s hardly Al Tiller’s fault that he gets his job with the Cubs years before they finally made it to the series ending a 100 year title drought, the longest of any team in professional baseball.

When the Cubs start to do well, when it looks like they might make it to the playoffs, might actually win the pennant, Al begins to have dreams and to encounter odd interviews on the late-night sports radio call-in shows. These dreams and signs lead Al to a disturbing conclusion– if the Cubs win the pennant, Armageddon will arrive. Just when Al should be enjoying what looks like a sure shot at the World Series, he begins to wonder if he should start throwing games in order to save the world.

In 1984, when W.P. Kinsella’s collection of stories about baseball, The Thrill of the Grass, was first published, this was probably a delicious old joke. Many a Cub fan, many a Cub foe had probably made just such a remark after a brief winning streak. Maybe will win the pennant this year. Sure, but if that happens won’t the world end. Today, Mr. Kinsella’s stories offer a kind of nostalgia, a vision of what baseball used to be like when professional sports still had a kind of innocence about them. It’s easy to like his characters, to root for them even when they are bound to fail.

There’s something about baseball, or at least about baseball stories, that looks backward to a simpler time, a lost age before we all had to face reality. I suspect this is, at heart, a form of escapism. If so, just take me out to the ball game.


All of these reviews first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  as part of Short Story Sunday or Short Story September (2008-2009).   I confess that I first started reviewing short stories as a way to come up with content for by blog day after day.   There was no way I could read enough novel length material to post every day, so I figure why not do a short story once a week.  

I came up with the content I needed and ended up becoming a fan of short stories. As an added bonus, I got to read a bunch of great writing, too.

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