If these are some of the finest short stories ever written, I’ll eat my hat. And my gloves, coat and scarf.
I clearly do not share David Miller’s taste in literature or his understanding of what a good short story is. Of course it’s to be expected that no reader will love every story in a collection chosen by one person. In the introduction, literary agent David discusses the impossibility of pleasing everyone. However, the selection of stories was quite limited in content, perspective and genre. For example, there are a few ghost / horror stories in the earlier part of the book (the stories being in chronological order of authors’ lives except for a couple of odd blips) and none after that. There is a single detective story (Sherlock Holmes, surprise surprise). No science fiction. There are way too many stories about married men having affairs and too many stories about dogs. None of my favourite short story writers are included (Thomas Hardy, H G Wells, Daphne du Maurier, Ray Bradbury, H P Lovecraft), which I don’t mind so much as I’ve read most of their work already, but I wouldn’t want a reader who is new to short stories to think that what David Miller has chosen represents the best. I know it’s not always possible to include particular authors in an anthology, for various reasons, but this book could have been so much better. In addition, while some effort has been made to include authors from backgrounds other than white British, Irish or American, it’s still a rather conservative selection, with many of the ‘usual suspects’.
Out of 99 short stories (yes, I counted them three times and there is one missing in the edition I read), only 10 of them had the ‘wow factor’ for me. Some of the others were OK, some I absolutely loathed, and all the rest were mediocre. I like my short stories to have tension, interesting narrative perspectives, beginnings that draw you in and decent endings. Very few of those in this collection had that. I especially dislike stories which follow someone’s life over the decades. I don’t think it usually works very well in a short story. Several of the stories featured animal cruelty, which as you know, I can’t stand.
I made notes as I went, about whether I liked the stories or what they were about. I might as well use these notes here, so I’m going to list all of the stories. Those marked with an asterisk* are the ones I thought were great. You’re welcome to skip to the end of this post and see whether I recommend this book 😉
‘The Book of Jonah’ by Anon. A very odd choice. Problematic to designate the Bible a work of fiction. The language style is also hard to read.
‘The Deceitful Marriage’ by Miguel de Cervantes. Difficult to get into at first but became interesting. Not a proper ending, as if leading to another tale.
‘The Children of Hameln’ by The Brothers Grimm. Rather dry style compared to later retellings but it’s informative to experience the original.
‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe. Classic horror tale of madness and murder. *
‘The Nose’ by Nikolai Gogol. Absurd tale of bureaucracy. A statesman’s nose goes missing and threatens to upstage him.
‘The Signal-Man’ by Charles Dickens. Ghost story set in the Victorian railway tunnels.
‘A Simple Heart’ by Gustave Flaubert. Lengthy extraordinary narrative following a servant’s life.
‘Desiree’s Baby’ by Kate Chopin. Tragic story of marriage and racism on a Louisiana cotton plantation.
‘The Horla’ by Guy de Maupassant. Disturbing portrait of paranoia with a supernatural theme.*
‘The Lagoon’ by Joseph Conrad. Not enjoyed what I’ve read of Conrad so far and this was no exception.
‘Fleet-Footed Hester’ by George Gissing. Working-class realist romance.*
‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ by Arthur Conan Doyle. I’m not a Sherlock Holmes fan and this confirmed it.
‘A Lecture Tour’ by Knut Hamsun. Uninteresting. My first experience reading this Nobel Prize winner.
‘Cree Queery and Mysy Drolly’ by J M Barrie. Scottish tale of mother and son in poverty.
‘The Lady with the Dog’ by Anton Chekhov. Beautifully written story about a married affair between an older sexist man and a younger frustrated woman.*
‘The Cop and the Anthem’ by O Henry. Homeless New Yorker tries to get arrested so he has somewhere warm to live during winter.
‘The Other Two’ by Edith Wharton. Like a mini version of her novels.
“Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M R James. A scary story told in an unscary way.
‘Mary Postgate’ by Rudyard Kipling. Disturbing story about the effects of the First World War.
‘The Loaded Dog’ by Henry Lawson. Dogs and dynamite. Very unpleasant.
‘A Cold Autumn’ by Ivan Bunin. Affecting life story of a Russian woman.
‘Sredni Vashtar’ by Saki. Cruel, distasteful and wordy.
‘Consequences’ by Willa Cather. Long-winded story about suicides and complacency.
‘The Three Horsemen’ by G K Chesterton. Didn’t understand it. David Miller mistakenly says ‘Tuesday’ instead of ‘Thursday’ when mentioning the author’s novel.
‘Mr Know-all’ by W Somerset Maugham. Amusing story set on an ocean liner.*
‘A Little Ramble’ by Robert Walser. Extremely short story describing a ramble.
‘Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend’ by P G Wodehouse. A Blandings tale. Not nearly so funny as a Jeeves and Wooster tale.
‘Forgotten Dreams’ by Stefan Zweig. Too descriptive for my taste.
‘Solid Objects’ by Virginia Woolf. Intriguing and unusual. I think it’s the first of her short stories I’ve read.*
‘Eveline’ by James Joyce. Well-written but I wasn’t keen on it.
‘A Hunger Artist’ by Franz Kafka. Depressing and disturbing (it’s Kafka, what else would you expect?). A man lives in a cage, making a career of fasting.
‘The Ring’ by Isak Dinesen. Didn’t enjoy this story of newlyweds on a farm.
‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ by D H Lawrence. Horse-racing and luck. Not my kind of story.
‘A Married Man’s Story’ by Katherine Mansfield. Meandering but intriguing.
‘The Fall of the Idol’ by Richmal Crompton. Not a fan of Just William.
‘My First Fee’ by Isaac Babel. Unlikeable story of a writer and a prostitute.
‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ by Aesop. A retelling with livelier language would have been better. Oddly placed.
‘Babylon Revisited’ by F Scott Fitzgerald. Uninteresting Americans in Paris.
‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote‘ by Jorge Luis Borges. Incomprehensible to me.
‘Sunday Afternoon’ by Elizabeth Bowen. Interesting although I’m unsure what it’s trying to say.
‘How to Write a Short Story’ by Sean O’Faolain. Doctor reminisces about a gay romance in Catholic Ireland.
‘A Family Man’ by V S Pritchett. Liked it but not inclined to agree with David Miller that Pritchett is the best 20th century short story writer in English.
‘Gimpel the Fool’ by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Compelling and bitter story about faith and forgiveness.*
‘Guests of the Nation’ by Frank O’Connor. A grim Irish tale that I didn’t linger over.
‘The Red Shoes’ by Hans Christian Andersen. Horrific punishment for a girl who thinks about her nice shoes in church. Again, oddly placed.
‘Love’ by William Maxwell. A sad story of loss.
‘Petrified Man’ by Eudora Welty. Appreciated the use of dialect but didn’t like the content.
‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever. Had to skim as it didn’t keep my interest.
‘The Blush’ by Elizabeth Taylor. Exploration of class and domestic life.
‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ by Delmore Schwartz. Liked the narrative style and sense of place.
‘Raspberry Jam’ by Angus Wilson. Eccentric story with a truly disgusting conclusion.
‘The Last Mohican’ by Bernard Malamud. Very wordy style and the story didn’t interest me.
‘Parson’s Pleasure’ by Roald Dahl. Not one of his best stories for adults.
‘The Red-Haired Girl’ by Penelope Fitzgerald. Didn’t enjoy the deliberately old-fashioned style.
‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson. Unsettling but predictable.
‘The Executor’ by Muriel Spark. Not as delightful as the two of her novels I’ve read.
‘The Smallest Woman in the World’ by Clarice Lispector. An oddity. Couldn’t decide if the views in it are racist or supposed to be ironic.
‘The Wedding Ring’ by Mavis Gallant. Intriguing narrative style.
‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor. Starts off comical but has a horrible ending.
‘The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky’ by Stephen Crane. Good sense of place but I didn’t like the story.
‘Live Bait’ by Frank Tuohy. Fishing (yuck).
‘The Pagan Rabbi’ by Cynthia Ozick. Didn’t really get this one.
‘Broken Homes’ by William Trevor. Perceptive and vaguely cruel story about attitudes towards the elderly.
‘Dream Cargoes’ by J G Ballard. Interesting ecological theme.
‘The Children Stay’ by Alice Munro. Couldn’t get on with this style.
‘Under the Rose’ by Julia O’Faolain. Seems a bit pretentious but the imagery is striking.
‘The Wine Breath’ by John McGahern. Another story about Irish topics.
‘ToyFolk’ by Edith Pearlman. Children and toys, as observed by adults. The ending is lame.
‘Private Tuition by Mr Bose’ by Anita Desai. Charmingly told sketch of Indian family life.
‘Entropy’ by Thomas Pynchon. Made little sense to me.
‘Errand’ by Raymond Carver. Chekhov is a main character in this one.
‘The Dying Room’ by Georgina Hammick. I can’t stand dialogue without the quotation marks.
‘Lizzie’s Tiger’ by Angela Carter. Strange story but characteristic of what I’ve read of this author.
‘At the Beach’ by Bernard MacLaverty. Irish couple on holiday in Spain.
‘Report on the Shadow Industry’ by Peter Carey. Weird, wonderful and profound.*
‘The Teacher’s Story’ by Gita Mehta. Spiritual and sad.
‘Radio Gannet’ by Shena Mackay. Amusing tale of two sisters in a seaside town.
‘Marriage Lines’ by Julian Barnes. Thoughtful story of grief and memories.
‘Solid Geometry’ by Ian McEwan. Starts off interesting but it lost me on the way.
‘Emergency’ by Denis Johnson. Pill popping and grossness.
‘Let Me Count the Times’ by Martin Amis. Charitably, this is about male sexuality. Uncharitably, it’s filthy and not in a good way.
‘Cun’ by Nguyen Huy Thiep. Cleverly constructed tale of beggars and the literary imagination.
‘Unseen Translation’ by Kate Atkinson. Fabulous modern day Mary Poppins.*
‘D’accord, Baby’ by Hanif Kureishi. Man has affair while his pregnant wife is having one too.
‘The Tangling Point’ by Tim Parks. Rescued dogs. Psychologists. Sex. All in the same story.
‘The Cold Outside’ by John Burnside. Bittersweet story about a man with terminal cancer.
‘Summer of ’38’ by Colm Tóibín. Underwhelming.
‘Two Boys’ by Lorrie Moore. Disliked the style and characters.
‘Boner McParlin’s Moll’ by Tim Winton. Appreciated the narrative style but found the content very unpleasant.
‘The Wavemaker Falters’ by George Saunders. Horrible.
‘A Real Doll’ by A M Homes. Obscene, very disturbing, funny in a messed-up way. Memorable, that’s for sure.
‘The Toymaker and his Wife’ by Joanne Harris. Feminist fable in the Grimm style.*
‘Marching Songs’ by Keith Ridgway. Angry piece of writing with several mentions of Tony Blair.
‘Mixed Breeding’ by Nicola Barker. Oh dear. Another story about sex and dogs. This one is by an aptly named author.
‘Beauty’s Sister’ by James Bradley. A retelling of Rapunzel.
‘Nothing Visible’ by Siddhartha Deb. Too descriptive for my taste but the mining theme is interesting.
‘The Deep’ by Anthony Doerr. Historical setting. Not keen on the style.
‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Experience of Africans coming to the US. Told in the second person.
‘The Index’ by J G Ballard. Didn’t understand this one but no doubt it’s clever.
Not recommended unless most of these authors are your favourites, in which case the book may suit your taste. Don’t let the cosy cover design fool you; these stories are mostly grim fare.
First published in 2014 by Head of Zeus. This edition is from 2017.