5 x 5 Books … is a recommendation of five books that appears in this space each week.
CAAF, who inaugurated this department, has asked me to do the honors this week. In honor of Harry Potter Month, I originally thought to oblige with a list of books I read with pleasure in childhood and revisited with equal pleasure as an adult. Then I remembered that I’d already done that, or something closely similar, so I decided to change course and serve up something completely different.
Like most of us, I don’t read enough short stories, and wonder why I don’t. After all, I have a special liking for the focus and concentration of art songs and small paintings, and short stories offer the same sort of microcosmic experience. Whenever I pick up a volume of favorite stories, I invariably put it down refreshed. I tossed the first book on this list into my suitcase the other day, read it on the road, and resolved for the umpteenth time to change my ways.
If you feel similarly inclined, start here:
1. “The Rich Boy,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (in The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald). This is the 1926 story in which Fitzgerald proclaimed that “the very rich…are different from you and me.” Ernest Hemingway claimed (falsely) to have retorted that the only difference is that they have more money, but Fitzgerald, as usual, looked more deeply into human nature, and this rich, longish, unexpectedly complicated tale tells what he saw there.
2. “The Alien Corn,” by W. Somerset Maugham (in Collected Stories). Now that I’m turning one of Maugham’s stories into an opera libretto, he’s much on my mind. “The Letter” is a good story, but “The Alien Corn,” in which we are made privy to the terrible fate of another rich young man who longs to be a concert pianist, is even better. Some find “The Alien Corn” anti-Semitic, and I can see why, but my old friend Samuel Lipman, who wrote of it with great eloquence in Music and More, thought it by way of being a minor masterpiece. Sam was particularly impressed by how Maugham spoke to “the vocation of the artist, to the role of money and power in art, and to the relationship between the artist and the world which makes his art possible.” Right on all counts.
3. “A Late Encounter With the Enemy,” by Flannery O’Connor (in Collected Works). One could almost pick at random from O’Connor’s stories–she was, I think, the modern American master of the medium–but this funny, biting tale of southern pride gone sour has always been a personal favorite of mine.
4. “Prince of Darkness,” by J.F. Powers (in The Stories of J.F. Powers). I doubt Powers will ever be popular, but he’ll always be on any top-five list of American short-story writers that I have occasion to draw up. I wrote about him at length in A Terry Teachout Reader, so I’ll say only that this story of a slothful priest who can’t see that his feet are cloven is one of the unknown treasures of our literature.
5. “The Beast in the Jungle,” by Henry James (in Selected Tales). All kidding aside, James really was the Master, and he never wrote anything more masterly than his parables of failure, of which “The Beast in the Jungle” is surely the greatest. The climax has haunted me ever since I read it in high school, and it haunts me still:
No passion had ever touched him, for this was what passion meant; he had survived and maundered and pined, but where had been his deep ravage?…He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened–it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.