Dear Match Book,
Instead of leading a book group, I sometimes enjoy getting people together to discuss paired short stories, a format that doesn’t require a big time commitment.
I’m seeking character development, contemporary language, nondisturbing plots (so many stories end in death) and, yes, political correctness.
One of my first ideas was to read “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, alongside “Mr. Know-All” by W. Somerset Maugham. While this might be a great pairing for junior-high-schoolers, I don’t think it’s sophisticated enough for adults.
My next idea was a trick pairing. First I’d have the group read Dorothy Parker’s “The Standard of Living,” about how to spend an inherited $1 million; then, once my dinner guests were properly focused on what to do with their windfalls, I’d have them read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The problems here: The Parker is dated and slight, and “The Lottery” is dark and many folks would find it too upsetting for a friendly get-together. I originally thought “Wakefield” by E. L. Doctorow might work with “Above and Below” by Lauren Groff, but neither story is uplifting, and neither protagonist is likable.
Though Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Secret Miracle” are well-matched on plot and theme, they don’t meet my criteria because their language isn’t contemporary and they both end in death. On the other hand, “The Third and Final Continent” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “Roy Spivey” by Miranda July are wonderful together: They’re very different stories that capture their protagonists at transitional times in their lives.
Can you recommend some other pairings?
RYE BROOK, N.Y.
Your innovative plan for literary fellowship is uncommonly lovely, but it has a fatal flaw: Isn’t tepid fiction a drag? The difficulty in the task you have given yourself lies in finding some short fiction that moves your dinner guests — but not too much.
Haven’t you ever left a theater after watching a horror movie feeling relieved that you aren’t being chased by an ax-murderer? A story that makes you feel something provides the ultimate uplift, making you grateful to be alive.
That said, I sympathize with your desire to be a good host. With that in mind, I’ve selected a wide variety of stories, most of which don’t end in death.
Words to the Wise
The image of a social gathering put me in mind of Raymond Carver’s dialogue-driven collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” as well as Nathan Englander’s homage “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” The stories all share a common situation — the two couples in each story get together, get drunk, become hungry and confabulate — though the sharp divergence in the specifics of their conversations would leave readers with plenty to say.
Talk among friends also anchors “The Region of Unlikeness” by Rivka Galchen, a (loose) riff on “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges. Both are also linked by, among other elements, their engagement with the life of the mind and unexpected turns down speculative paths.
Two more fantastical story sets would change the tone of your evening. First, you could serve reinterpretations of “Little Red Riding Hood” two ways: Angela Carter’s short folkloric creeper “The Werewolf” (with a special connection to “The Lottery,” sorry) and Helen Oyeyemi’s more comic take, “Dornicka and the St. Martin’s Day Goose.” Next, plumb the supernatural depths of love, family and the thrall of storytelling that tie Kelly Link’s novelette “The Faery Handbag” to the collection “East of the West” by Miroslav Penkov, both bittersweet tales of love and loss.
Coupling and its complications also anchor two elegant stories that similarly feature tantalizing, vivid asides about science: “The Mysteries of Ubiquitin” by Andrea Barrett and “Honeydew” by Edith Pearlman. The narratives also share compassionate views of flawed women and men who satisfy your search for likable characters.
I saved the saddest stories with the most innovative constructions for last. Julie Otsuka’s urgent, rueful “Diem Perdidi” — inspired by her own mother’s dementia — takes a hypnotic form (“she remembers” and “she does not remember”) that’s easy to read quickly, but hard to forget. The story shares a repetitive style and a quietly insistent tone with the title story in Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam War collection, “The Things They Carried.” The rhythmic quality of the prose in both beg to be read aloud — the best way to appreciate each detail in these tender accountings of ordinary yet luminous lives.
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Check out Match Book’s earlier recommendations here.