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Pretty Story Bag: 7 Sweet Tales to Carry Along

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The thing that is most striking about this story, aside from its restrained, grave beauty, is that it should manage to be so moving. On one level it is a dryly detailed and topographically exact portrait of a small town in the American midwest, but on another it is a devastating threnody for lost love. Gass was one of the great prose stylists, and the writing here is typically smooth and pellucid, conjuring its effects by stealth and unflagging control. Simply, and by simple means, a masterpiece. John Banville “American Express” by James Salter (1988) Sarah’s father sends her from Canada to Grenoble as a way of ending her relationship with a married professor, but she ends up on the French Riviera. There she meets Roy, an ex-prison inspector, and rashly moves in with him. The story’s charge arises from a combination of wit, the awfulness of the relationship’s collapse, and Gallant’s profound grasp of the psychology of love affairs. She talks about her characters in a way that makes you feel your own perceptiveness is being worked like a muscle. “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

Machado takes a grisly campfire tale (“The Green Ribbon”), combines it with the purported medical practice of suturing a woman’s perineum with an extra stitch or two after childbirth to increase her husband’s pleasure, and creates a powerful modern fable about misogyny and motherhood. Before her wedding day, as Machado expertly builds the atmosphere of foreboding, the narrator notes that, “Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle”. “Madame Tellier’s House” by Guy de Maupassant (1881) A famous saying gets credited to the wrong person, but no one will believe them when they correct people. verifyErrors }}{{ message }}{{ /verifyErrors }}{{ A small community puts aside their differences to resist a corporation looking to make some changes to their town. Only afterwards did I discover that this was in fact a piece of densely textured reportage, but it taught me so much about how to write a short story that I will always see it as one. A young man, Werner Hoeflich, trapped by a fire, escapes by leaping from the window of his New York apartment, across the intervening gap and in through the window of the adjacent building. It has the richness of a novel, the raw and dirty grip of life and was, for me, a revelation. Fine language and a deftly conjured mood are all well and good, but fiction – of whatever length – should thrill. Mark Haddon “The Window Theatre” by Ilse Aichinger (1953) Mavis Gallant shows a profound grasp of the psychology of love affairs. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian “In the Tunnel” by Mavis Gallant (1971)

A kid attemps to ignore distractions during church after being promised an ice cream sandwich for good behavior. A family dynasty threatens to fall apart when an illegitimate child steps into the picture with a list of demands. This is a gloriously sensual story, narrated by a man who wants another’s wife – but the true star of the show is the moon. Calvino imagines it so close it risks dipping its scales in the sea. Fishermen gather lunar milk as the protagonist writhes in unrequited love. It is a great example of magic realism – full of texture and motion and mischief and longing. Leone RossCheever is known as a chronicler of the suburbs, but in this story the leafy neighbourhood of Shady Hill, a recurring location in his fiction, blends the domestic with something much stranger, almost magical. The story is comic (its title mirrors William Wycherley’s 1675 comedy of manners The Country-Wife), but darker currents work beneath its surface and it builds to a stunning finale that is one of the most rapturous passages Cheever ever wrote. “An Outpost of Progress” by Joseph Conrad (1897) Alice Munro once said: “I want the story to exist somewhere so that in a way it’s still happening … I don’t want it to be shut up in the book and put away – oh well, that’s what happened.” Atwood articulates the same position in this fun, thought-provoking story that begins with a man meeting a woman, then offers variants of what happens next. Any ending that isn’t death, she concludes, is false, and the interesting part of stories isn’t what happens, but how and why. “Going to Meet the Man” by James Baldwin (1965) As a petty thief in Renaissance Italy you must rise the ranks to become a crime Lord and steal the original Mona Lisa.

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