Six Short Stories

 

 

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the following well-travelled quote many times:

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

You’ve likely seen it attributed to Mark Twain. Until recently, I would’ve thought that was correct. It was, in fact, originally written by French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer Blaise Pascal (thanks for that nugget of knowledge, Eric).

But let’s get back to the quote…

What does it mean when it’s applied to writing short fiction, as it regularly is? Well, if it isn’t obvious, it means short stories take a lot of time to perfect — they’re difficult. You need time to trim the fat, or kill your darlings as the literati like to say. Some of the greatest novelists who’ve put pen to paper didn’t, or don’t, have the skill (or, perhaps, the temperament) to write short fiction. Many authors over the years have said writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a novel; there’s less room to play, there’s certainly less time to say all that you want to say — basically, you’re more restricted in the short-fiction world.

I’ve been writing short fiction on and off for a number of years while working on a number of screenplays and a novel. Am I near as strong as I’d like to be when it comes to the shorter work? No, but the more I write the better I get. And I’m putting together a short story collection that I hope to publish in the future (out of all the titles I’ve created over the years, this one is my favourite).

I’ve also been reading short stories for a long time. Some writers I’ve been reading for years, some I’ve only discovered, and some I’ve known about but have only gotten round to devouring recently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few short stories worth reading written by American writers. I won’t go into much detail, as going in blind is always better. Of course, I do recommend buying the collections in which these stories feature.

So, here they are:

 

 

1. Nathan Englander — The Twenty-Seventh Man

From the collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’ (1999).

Englander 1

Nathan Englander made an immediate impact on the literary world with the release of his debut short story collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’. The first story in the collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, is an allusion to the Night of the Murdered Poets  the execution of 13 Soviet Jews on the orders of Stalin, on August 12, 1952.

The short story isn’t available online, but you can read the script for the play based on it here. Or, you could go buy the collection in your favourite second-hand bookstore (for you Irish readers, it’s gotta be Chapters on Parnell Street).

 

2. Jennifer Egan — The Stylist

From the collection ‘Emerald City’ (1993).

Egan - Emerald City 1

Jennifer Egan is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction ‘A Visit from the Good Squad’. I say ‘work of fiction’ because the book has been characterised as both a short story collection and a novel — Egan herself has stated that she doesn’t consider it to be either of the aforementioned.

What is unequivocal about her first published work ‘Emerald City’ is that it’s most definitely a collection of short stories. The Stylist, the first story in the collection, focuses on a divorced fashion stylist on a shoot in Africa with a photographer and three teenage models.

Read it here.

 

3. Raymond Carver — Errand

From the collection ‘Cathedral’ (1983).

Carver - Cathedral 1

Raymond Carver has inspired countless short and long fiction writers since he became one of America’s best-loved writers with the publication of his collections ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (the latter of which has had its title borrowed by a number of writers, including Haruki Murakami and Mr. Englander mentioned above).

One of the greatest influences on Carver was the great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. In Errand — a tribute to his idol — Carver re-imagines the final hours of Chekhov’s life, but brings the focus of attention on a young bellboy.

(Note: This idea has prompted me to develop a short story about Carver’s final hours, the same way he wrote about his idol. I’m still working on it…)

You can read Errand here.

 

4. John Updike — Pigeon Feathers

From the collection ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962).

pigeon-feathers

The American heavyweight John Updike is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the 20th century. He’s most famous for his ‘Rabbit’ series, which centres around the life of former high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Two novels from the series — ‘Rabbit Is Rich’ and ‘Rabbit at Rest’ — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In Pigeon Feathers, a young boy adjusting to life at the farmhouse he’s recently been moved to with his parents and ailing grandmother, faces a spiritual crises after reading a work by H.G. Wells.

Read it here.

 

5. Stephen  King — Premium Harmony

From the collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ (2015).

Stephen King 2

Stephen King. He’s probably the most famous author around; the man who’s seen countless stories and novels he’s written find their way onto the big screen, who’s been on the bestsellers list more times than he can remember. He’s not someone this writer has read very often (honestly, I just haven’t been able to get into his books), but he has written a short story in a similar vein to Raymond Carver, which is probably why I like it so much. In his introduction to Premium Harmony in the collection, King confesses that he’d only discovered the work of Carver shortly before writing the story, which is quite surprising since the work was published in 2009 — some 21 years after the short-story master’s death.

In Premium Harmony — which is unquestionably a pastiche  a car ride to a birthday party takes a turn when a couple stop off at a gas station to pick up a gift. This one is darkly comic, and hugely enjoyable.

You can read it here.

 

6. S.J. Coules — Photographs

From the collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’

photographs-3

You’re damn right I’m plugging my own work.

My short story collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’ is definitely a work in progress. Out of all the short stories I’ve completed, four, maybe five will feature in this collection. The rest are to be written  many have been fleshed out and partially developed, some I haven’t even thought of yet. Of the completed works that I plan to include in the book, one has been published, the others have either been submitted to literary magazines, or are sitting on the laptop, eagerly waiting to be read.

In Photographs — my first published short story  a crotchety man who’s found himself old and with nothing but pictures, alcohol, and television to pass the time, encounters an irritating local kid.

You can read it here.

 

Anyway, last orders have been called.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

 

Thoughts on the Work of Book Cover Designer Chip Kidd

When I was a kid my brother would regularly draw football (soccer) kits: jersey, shorts, socks — the works. With him being older, I would usually copy whatever it was he was doing (including asking for the same Valencia CF home jersey one Christmas, which understandably infuriated him – “We’re not twins, dickhead!”). So, I picked up a variety of colouring pencils and began to draw (or to be more accurate design) my own kits. (Yes, brother, you and I were in fact practising fashion design.)

Alas, my designs weren’t up to much; there was a subtle art to designing a football kit — get too carried away and you’d wind up with something more appropriate for an LSD trip than the football pitch (although some goalkeepers jerseys over the years have definitely sparked thoughts of tripping balls).

My desire to draw didn’t end with football kits: extraterrestrial sketches, bubblified cartoons, watercolour paintings… I would attempt to tap into the creative well that existed on my mam’s side and show what I could do (for the sports genes, see the old man’s side)… which, clearly, wasn’t very much. My brother, however, certainly had a talent which he never fully pursued (although he’d tell you he wasn’t very good, which is inaccurate to say the least).

Anyway, I had tried my hand at it, and I learned early on that I definitely wasn’t going to be the next Edward Hopper, Ilya Repin, Todd McFarlane… or Vivienne Westwood.

Which leads me to the following statement: I’m hardly an authority when it comes to the visual arts.

But I do have an uneducated opinion I can share, kind of like someone on the TV who has zero understanding of basic economics talking about minimum wage and price controls — it’s an opinion we really shouldn’t take too seriously.

But if I may indulge myself, I’d like to share my unqualified thoughts on the work of someone I greatly admire, the one and only Chip Kidd.

Now, when I say share my thoughts, I mean I’m gonna share some of my favourite works by Mr. Kidd — i.e. his book cover designs I admire most — and scribble a few words underneath each design, basically something like, “I dig this because the colours are nice. Isn’t the picture he used here really impactful? Don’t I sound like I know what I’m talking about?

Chip Kidd is probably one of — if not the — best-known graphic designers around, and he’s created book covers for major names in literature including Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Crichton, Jay McInerney, Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, John Updike, and David Sedaris. His designs have also graced the covers of the perennial publications Rolling Stone and TIME.

So, let me share my most-loved works by this master designer, complete with uninformed thoughts on a subject I know nothing about…

1. Imperial BedroomsBret Easton Ellis

BEE Imperial Bedrooms

The rather disappointing sequel to Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms was released in 2010 to mixed critical response. Apathy, narcissism, violence, and debauchery are regular features in the author’s work, and this novel doesn’t shy away from delving into hedonistic territory. Kidd’s design does a good job at capturing the superficiality and overindulgence that permeates Ellis’ oeuvre.

2. Jurassic ParkMichael Crichton

Chip Kidd - The Lost World by Michael Crichton

Every now and then Kidd takes a minimalist approach to his designs. For Michael Crichton’s sequel to his now legendary Jurassic Park (arguably thanks to Spielberg’s blockbuster adaptation), Chip’s minimal execution works quite effectively: Black, white, red. Unglamorous font. Menacing T-Rex gonna bite ya… Simples.

3. FasterJames Gleick

Chip Kidd - Faster by James Gleick

This one speaks for itself. So clever. One of my favourites beyond Kidd’s work, that’s for sure.

4. The Dark Knight ReturnsFrank Miller

Chip Kidd - The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Maybe it’s because I purchased Miller’s iconic graphic novel years ago and it’s been on my bookshelf since, but this cover instantly screams “You know you want to read this. You know it, you bastard. Now OPEN ME!!” Mr. Kidd has designed many graphic novel/comic book covers over the years, including Watchmen, Before Watchmen, Rough Justice, and All-Star Superman.

5. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Chip Kidd - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I could have included this purely because The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is my favourite Murakami novel. But there’s something mysterious, magical, and alluring about the cover, prompting the potential reader to pick up the book and become a curious cat. (Murakami fans will appreciate that last line).

6. Villain by Yoshida Shuichi

Chip Kidd - Villian by Yoshida Shuichi

Various human bones positioned to form the shape of a pistol + hot pink. I’m sold… Even the position of the text feels right.

7. Reporting by David Remnick

Chip Kidd - Reportings by David Remnick

The long-time editor of The New Yorker and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Remnick published Reporting in 2007 — a collection of his writings from the aforementioned mag. Again, Chip’s execution is simple and, in my opinion, perfect in its simplicity.

8. The Little FriendDonna Tartt

Chip Kidd - The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Oh dear God — Kill it! Kill it!! (Now that’s an effective book-cover design).

9. GulpMary Roach

Chip Kidd - Gulp by Mary Roach

It could be down to this cover bringing out my inner perv because it reminds me of the poster for Inside Deep Throat, or it could be that it’s simply pretty cool.

10. Seek My FaceJohn Updike

Chip Kidd - Seek My Face by John Updike

This is just one of a number of pieces Chip Kidd has designed for the late American great John Updike. This painting-style (if it isn’t actually a painting), brush-stroke cover implores us to — as the title asks — seek a face. It’s somewhat suffocating, almost haunting, certainly striking.

11. What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningHaruki Murakami

Chip Kidd - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Okay, so maybe I’m a little biased towards this one for two reasons: 1) it’s Murakami, and 2) he took the title for his memoir on long-distance running from one of my favourite collections, What I Talk About When I Talk About Love, by the hugely influential short story writer Raymond Carver. But besides all that, Kidd’s once again simple design finds a way of being effortlessly striking: The formidable font towers above the minuscule figure of the Japanese author on one of his many runs, giving us an idea of the mammoth tasks he regularly faces when tackling marathons, triathlons, and ultra-marathons, even well into his sixties. Which is all the more impressive when you consider he was a heavy smoker until his early thirties. Oh, Haruki, we’re not worthy!

12. No Country for Old MenCormac McCarthy

Chip Kidd - No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

The great American author Cormac McCarthy originally wrote No Country For Old Men as a screenplay (which begs the question: Did the Coen brothers read his draft before writing their own for their faithful 2007 Oscar-winning adaptation?). Anyone familiar with either the novel or the film will know the pickle Llewelyn Moss finds himself in having stumbled across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong — and a bagful of cash. They’ll also be familiar with the seemingly unstoppable monster who pursues Moss, the truly terrifying Anton Chigurh. For me, Kidd manages to convey the feeling of helplessness — of being hunted — as the lonely silhouetted figure traverses the red-hot, baking terrain, as the sun goes down… possibly for the last time.

There you have it — some of my favourite Chip Kidd book cover designs. And now I’m hearing the call for last orders.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .