The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story

Part Three, as continued from: https://elizabethbowensite.wordpress.com/1372-2/


Edited by John Freeman

My previous reviews of classic or older fictions: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/reviews-of-older-books/

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

16 responses to “*

  1. THE AMERICAN EMBASSY: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    “Her son had been killed, that was all she would say. Killed. Nothing about how his laughter started somehow above his head, high and tinkly.”

    A tale of Nigeria in the 1990s, a military coup, I infer, and the woman who is made to queue in the hot sun at the American Embassy for an asylum visa, her son having been killed, her husband already smuggled over the border in a wet boot, her own life in danger having jumped from her balcony, and I wonder how many more stories like this could be written today. Many more, perhaps not so vivid as this one, but such stories nevertheless are at this very second being written as I write this review. At least one of them will appear in a Best Of anthology in twenty years’ time. Perhaps not as powerful as this one. Or even more powerful, as there will be many more to choose from.

    “Her future rested on that face. The face of a person who did not understand her, who probably did not cook with palm oil, or know that palm oil when fresh was a bright, bright red and when not fresh, congealed to a lumpy orange.”

  2. THE CONDUCTOR: Aleksandar Hemon

    “I didn’t know what my poems were about, but I believed in them. I liked their titles (“Peter Pan and the Lesbians,” “Love and Obstacles,” et cetera), and I felt that they attained a realm of human innocence and experience that was unknowable, even by me.”

    This is a lively, compulsively written portrait of Bosnians during their War leading somehow into 9/11 America, satirising the pretentious poetry of passionate men,. poems that equally somehow turn out beautiful in the end after a lifetime of the narrator’s up and down, here and there, envious and scorning by turns, relationship with the somehow ugly Bosnian poet Dedo, whom he ended nicknaming that, as Dedo had once nicknamed and firmly damned him into being the Conductor even though the narrator was a pretentious poet, too, and not a conductor of Beethoven at all! It is all incredibly funny and passionate and politically, humanly tragic, and Dedo’s wife, I think this was her, or it may have been another woman whom either of the main male characters lusted after in outrageous poetry recitals and down the stairs into bars, yes, my own pretentiousness was also satirised by her only body part not being mentioned was the elbow! But everything ended up beautiful, even me. Pretentious enough again to mention myself in a review about a story that had nothing to do with me. A once downbeat writer, now reviewer, following other writers more famous than me!
    And so back to the lack of her elbow…

    “There were poems about her instep and her heel, her armpit and her breasts, the small of her back and the size of her eyes, the knobs on her knees and the ridges on her spine.”


    “I was wearing a white organdy dress with orange polka dots. Jeanette was wearing a mauve organdy dress with blue polka dots. Linette was wearing a red organdy dress with white polka dots. Mirabella was in a dark corner, wearing a muzzle. Her party culottes were duct-taped to her knees.”

    This is a revelation of fiction versions — horror genre fiction versus literary fiction as couched in the terms of very fine and evocative versions of either or both! A series of numbered and described stages to subsume one version in the other, but the other wins, or does it? But which is which you will have to judge for yourself!

    An incredible vision of the daughters of werewolves sectioned off to nuns as tamers to quell the girls’ beast natures by the human. This group contains individualised girls as well as a pack gestalt — evoked as much girl stuff in fiction is evoked with wild but tamed words to boggle — some girls more susceptible to what is taught, as told by one who is averagely susceptible and she narrates the developing experience and tells us about the two girls who are the least susceptible to being humanised, Jeanette and Mirabelle. Wonderful stuff, another story where I am forced to say: where has it been all my reading life?

    Additional recommended reading is a story collection by Anna Seghers that I once reviewed here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/07/21/the-dead-girls-class-trip-selected-stories-by-anna-seghers/

  4. THE LAST THING WE NEED: Claire Vaye Watkins

    “Like all our memories, we like to take it out once in a while and lay it flat on the kitchen table, the way my wife does with her sewing patterns, where we line up the shape of our life against that which we thought it would be by now.”

    The narrator of this poignancy is poignant within himself, with a wife where the sorrows are as important toward a marital gestalt as its perhaps rare joys are — a man also with two daughters, one of them whom he calls ‘sweetheart’, Layla, still too young to go to school, and he finds, in a ghost town quite near where he lives, evidence of a car accident, with life’s residua inside, including medical prescriptions with an address of their recipient upon them … He then writes a series of letters to the one who surely must have left the car amid the ghostly residua of a town, writing these letters while real-time evidence sifting (including evidence derived from the prescription recipient’s love letters to M left in the car) and asking for a heart to heart as to the desperation needed for such an installation out here in the back of beyond, an installation whether art or not, this story or not, towards an inevitable gestalt… a gestalt that means as much meaning about the prescription recipient as it does to the letter writer himself. Well, they are both letter writers I guess, each with no recipient? Life’s prescriptions unprescribed. Something else, something lethal is evoked for me finding this story installation, something that happened in the past, during a wondrously word-by-word described grasshopper storm and this proves to me that at least one of these two letter-writers was an adept erector of stories, even ghost stories that feel like truth.

    “”Duane Moser, what I come back to is this: how could you have left M’s letters by the side of Cane Springs Road near the ghost town Rhyolite where hardly anyone goes anymore? (In fact, I have never seen another man out on Cane Springs Road. I drive out there to be alone. Maybe you do, too. Or you did, anyway.) Did you not realize that someone just like you might find them?”

    “That’s what happens when a town dies. Why? Because, sweetheart. Because.”


    “…I felt the words sinking into me, through my skin, through my bones, until they squeezed tight around my heart.”

    The story of a boy born to — and brought up in America by — an American man and an imported Chinese woman whom the father found in a catalogue of future wives. A boy born in the Year of the Tiger. She had a magic way with origami using used coloured wrapping paper and literally breathing life into creatures such as tiger and shark. The boy felt isolated because other kids had Star Wars toys… He begins to despise all the foreignness in her and the half in himself. And the sadness that ensues should not be foretold. And the transcendent outcome of the story should meaningfully remain within the paper it is written upon. It describes itself in the quotation above, to give you some clue…

  6. I suppose it was intentional that the next story below — with its “So some of the magic comes from me. It must come from me. The question is, how much?” — is contiguous with Ken Liu’s ‘The Paper Menagerie’ above, but then I realised that this anthology is in chronological order of The Penguin Book of The Modern American Short Story….so it was magic after all. But maybe half the reader’s own magic, too?

    THE DUNE: Stephen King

    “Over the years he has debated back and forth about whether the magic is in him or in the dune.”

    Kayaked back and forth, too. The story itself called The Dune and the dune within it which the respected and obviously retired nonagenarian judge still regularly kayaks out to. And this small island is in the Florida wilds south of what he considers as cold Tallahassee. He has done this palindromic kayak trip since boyhood. Addicted to such trips, and we learn why, as he tells the lawyer whom he calls in to alter his will, presumably to include something about this island. The dune, by the way, has outlived even the worst of hurricanes. A ‘stuffed string’ of a man according to one of the people who does the judge’s food back home. A string with a final mischievous twist at the end?

    I could continue here to rehearse the whole plot, the mischievous turkey buzzard, the judge himself, and what the dune somehow preternaturally means to him and why. But I won’t. Time is short, as the Judge says, short, too, even at my own septuagenarian age, especially as my kayak is rotted at bottom. My own name felt nigh writ upon — if not within — this classic hauntingly puckish story.

    “…wants no talk at his funeral about how, in his last years, a previously fine intellect was corrupted by senility.”


    My previous reviews of Stephen King: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/stephen-king-the-dark-tower/

  7. DIEM PERDIDI: Julie Otsuka

    “She remembers that you could not stand it when different-colored foods were touching on the plate.”

    You remember this ‘you’ is the reincarnation of the previous daughter who died shortly before you were born as an ostensible second daughter to this story’s ‘she’, a Japanese lady whose chequered life we infer from what you remember that she remembers (mainly long term memories) and forgets (mainly today’s minutiae) was, I guess, spent in America, through the war years, a refrain of trials and tribulations and niceties of supposed stoical happiness, an incantation, a recital of ‘she remembers this, she remembers that, she forgets this, she forgets that’ via, I sense, the Philip Glass music of words darkly. in search of lost time à la Proust’s nicety of, I infer, Japan’s tea while listening to such music till it stops…

  8. I reviewed the next story in August 2019 as follows:


    THE GREAT SILENCE by Ted Chiang

“It’s no coincidence that ‘aspiration’ means both hope and the act of breathing.”

An eventually moving account or appeal, given by our world’s fading parrots, factored into by the Fermi Paradox — why do we humans strive to awaken the dead universe for ulterior life, when these parrots are here, so close to hand, already? By rote or wrote, the parrots perhaps still fashion us from within, I wonder. The message is in repeating it.



    Cross-referenced this review with Storm Humbert’s VERUM here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2019/07/18/interzone-282-black-static-70/#comment-16592

    “: ‘om.’ It is a syllable that contains within it everything that ever was and that will ever be.”
– from Chiang’s The Great Silence

    Today it becomes even more than just a paradox but now a sibilant truth…
    Like Jean Sibelius’ ‘silence of Järvenpää’…

    “it’s likely that we’ll die before our time and join the Great Silence.”


    THE MIDNIGHT ZONE: Lauren Groff

    “I lifted my body onto my elbows.”

    The moment of elbow-trigger when I already sensed her human-bodiless experience and when time becomes ‘animal’ and her skin a dead but silky ‘pelt.’ As if this was her first person singular narrative retribution (a woman defeated by death but somehow victorious) against her absent husband, with him finally returned after a temporary emergency back in the city that he had needed to deal with, her retribution against being ever kept from ‘adventure’ by just having to do lunch for the kids. The story of the family’s ‘holiday’… and, when her husband is absent, she falls from the ladder when changing a bulb and does her head in! In this lonely place with her two small sons who try hard to help her…
    “Safety was twenty miles away and there was a panther between us and there, but also possibly terrible men, sinkholes, alligators, the end of the world.”
    A story that sort of tore me apart with its style and prose chutzpah. With a sense of nursery rhyme nonsense as backdrop.
    With elements of the above ‘remembering’ in the Otsuka (here in the Groff: “and could not remember more than a few floating lines”) and the above great silence of Chiang. Here the noise of rain is a barrier of safety. And Sibelius’ Järvenpää again.

    “They told me about a fish called the humuhumunukunukuāpua’a, a beautiful name that I couldn’t say correctly, even though they sang it to me over and over, laughing, to the tune of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’”

  10. ANYONE CAN DO IT: Manuel Muñoz

    “When Delfina saw the first shadow rise in defeat, she thought of the private turmoil these other women felt in the absence of their men,…”

A kindred tale (with its own sacred silence and precarious ladder climbing), kindred to the previous Groff tale above, here featuring migrants from Mexico via Texas to California, I infer, with Delfina (against the selfish(?) advice of her mother and older sister back home) migrating together with her husband and small son in their Galaxie car, her husband, now, taken away for investigation by the Californian authorities. She is duped into allowing her small son to be looked after by a female neighbour’s daughter while she and this woman neighbour go fruit picking (the neighbour duping the employing foreman, too, that they are sisters) …. and just as her son shoplifts a toy green car, the neighbour steals the Galaxie. The foreman the only real gentleman Delfina had ever met…
    Fiction is its own confidence trick, I guess. And it duped me with its own truth and many striking paragraphs, two sampled below…

    “Her own husband had sometimes broken the sacredness of a Sunday silence and she was oddly thankful for the calm of this orchard moment that had been brought on only by his absence. Delfina looked down the row to soak in that blessed quiet and the longer she looked, the emptier and emptier it became. The empty row where, she realized, Lis had disappeared like a faraway star.”

    “No, it was a quiet like the porch of the house in Texas when she and her husband had driven away, leaving her sister and her mother, a stillness that she was sure held only so long before one of them had started crying, followed by the other.”

    The little boy push-drives his toy car beyond the edge of this fiction prose into a real future.
    And this remarkable book itself comprising fiction samples is now silent with its own gestalt still haunting us readers over here. Truths and Lies: ‘Tentacles Across The Atlantic’.


  11. For further interest?—

    Edited by Philip Hensher

    My serial real-time reviews of every single story in these three mighty anthologies, in this order…

    Penguin Books of British Short Stories

    Penguin Books of British Short Stories (2)




    Kingsley Amis, Mason’s Life


    The Penguin Books of the British Short Story

    The Penguin Books of the British Short Story

    The Penguin Books of the British Short Story


    The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story
    Edited by Philip Hensher

    The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story

    The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story — part two

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