The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story


Edited by John Freeman

My previous reviews of classic or older fictions:

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

31 thoughts on “The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story

  1. THE LESSON: Toni Cade Bambara

    “The only woman on the block with no first name. And she was black as hell, cept for her feet, which were fish-white and spooky.”

    Slick and sassy, this the flow-easy, grudging but happy narration by Sylvia of Miss Moore who takes these older kids and perhaps younger, black and bouncy, another called Sugar and the different names don’t matter but they are real kids nevertheless, with characters to spin out and a toy shop, things like a sailboat, a microscope, a paperweight, cost more than Sylvia’s family’s yearly budget to live, or did I get that wrong? Sylvia will put me right, if not Miss Moore, well, in this fable Sylivia is me, ain’t she?

    “And Sugar kept givin me the elbow.”


    “One week, while nodding through an Antonioni film, this boy was severely jabbed by the elbow of a stern and proselytizing girl, sitting beside him.”

    Apricots and nuts, and the chance of change.
    This fiction incident is included in a brainstorming discussion by a woman fiction writer with her own elderly father, a discussion about fiction itself in which they themselves live, I guess, and about telling stories that are plain and have duly happy endings or not, and they both seem to change as a result. As this fiction has changed me, too, in my not reviewing it the way I should have done. I shall be less abstruse, in future , and drink water instead of alcohol while I am doing it.

    “‘Oh, Pa,’ I said. ‘She could change.’
    ‘In your own life, too, you have to look it in the face.’ He took a couple of nitroglycerin. ‘Turn to five,’ he said, pointing to the dial on the oxygen tank. He inserted the tubes into his nostrils and breathed deep. He closed his eyes and said, ‘No.’”

  3. Pingback: A CONVERSATION WITH MY FATHER: Grace Paley  | Bowen KÔRner (The Circumflexing Elbow)

  4. The next story I reviewed earlier as follows, in its then context of the BIG BOOK OF MODERN FANTASY in which one of my own works also appeared:


    by Ursula K. Le Guin

    Is “walk” ironic, I ask? Especially because these odd defiant ones explicitly leave the bonny ville of Omelas by yearning towards the mountains at the end.
    This famous, beautifully couched, somewhat didactic story of a society with optimal happiness dependant on the forbearance of a sole nude child in cruel lockdown seems to be the nub of this book so far, just as this author’s story in the Big Book of Science Fiction (my review linked below) seemed (at its point of encounter) to be the nub there. Lo, same!


    “‘Good night,’ the boy said, hands behind his neck, elbows jutting.”

    The story of man giving up cigarettes, and then dealing with his own son’s possible misdeeds with others boys in the neighbourhood, an area of the neighbourhood the father had not seen before, an issue all about a bike, and his father later fights with another father as things get out of hand. The story is deadpanned with the boys’ various names, and with the parents’ names, often their names in full, with unnecessary specificity of names, and whether bodies can still smell of cigarette smoking after having given the habit up and even after having a bath days afterwards. And whether a boy can ask his own father to be the ‘shadowy third’, I infer, of himself as a boy and of the father as a boy as a boyhood friend with him in the past and that is an amazing coincidence with having read Elizabeth Taylor’s SPRY OLD CHARACTER short story this very afternoon and reviewing it HERE before reading this Raymond Carver story. It feels like I’ve been ‘rolling’ a bike without its rider just to see it fall and damage itself. Or to hopefully let it roll empty till it vanishes into the future to become the same empty bike for the same rider, now much older, to ride it again in a different neighbourhood. A bit like in a shortened ET?

  6. Pingback: Spry Old Character — Elizabeth Taylor | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  7. Pingback: BICYCLES, MUSCLES, CIGARETTES: Raymond Carver | Bowen KÔRner (The Circumflexing Elbow)

  8. THE FLOWERS: Alice Walker

    All in italics. About Myop, a small girl, I take it, on a fine summer day, tapping the fence with her stick, finding some strange blue flowers then like a character in Lilliput mis-stepping in a crack between a supine man’s brow and eyes, except it isn’t Gulliver. It is another modest proposal, though, to conceal exactly what his ‘naked grin’ meant. A ring a ring a rose. My opinion.

  9. GIRL by Jamaica Kincaid

    “…this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child;”

    Another vignette to match inversely or ironically that by Alice Walker just now, but this one being a listed HOW TO do or not do things, like singing benna even if she was also told how not to be bent upon being the slut she was otherwise destined to become.
    Feel the freshness of the freshly baked bread, although it was thrown out of the oven before it started baking.

    My previous review of Jamaica Kincaid:

  10. Pingback: Two consecutive reviews today… | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  11. THE RED CONVERTIBLE: Louise Erdrich

    “My little sister Bonita came out and made us stand together for a picture. He leaned his elbow on the red car’s windshield and he took his other arm and put it over my shoulder, very carefully, as though it was heavy for him to lift and he didn’t want to bring the weight down all at once. ‘Smile,’ Bonita said, and he did.”

    That is is the crucial moment in, I recall, the wilds of Canada, the elbow trigger, where the photo of the two brothers, going forward in time if not backward in other ways, acts as fulcrum between the relationship of the two brothers, Marty as narrator as well as a character actually called Marty, the latter a ‘shadowy third’, and Stephan who had been in the army at Khe Sanh, and then drafted out and the two of them continue to share ownership, having paid half each, of the eponymous vehicle as ‘shadowy fourth’, a vehicle that Marty as Marty rubbishes deliberately with a crowbar, I guess, and Stephan knows more than Marty knows if not more than even the author or the author’s first person narrator — and the ending is the drowning of what or of whom? Who knows what goes on under the surface? Or under the bonnet of a thinking and tortured machine like this convertible story’s red engine?

    “He [Stephan] had a nose like the nose on Red Tomahawk, the Indian who killed Sitting Bull, whose profile is on signs all along the North Dakota highways.”

  12. Pingback: THE RED CONVERTIBLE: Louise Erdrich | Bowen KÔRner (The Circumflexing Elbow)

  13. THE REENCOUNTER: Isaac Bashevis Singer

    “You lead.”

    The engaging story of a seeming Jewish man who is informed at short notice of his ex-wife’s funeral and, later, he finds he has died, too, and is also lying in state in the same funeral parlour; they bicker, as ghosts, about the nature of Null Immortalis.

  14. TAKING CARE: Joy Williams

    “Has there ever been a time before dread?”

    The story of Jones the Preacher, a deadpan poetry of clipped prose in strands of seeming destiny, controlled by the transits and progressions of the planetary lights in the harmonics of Astrology beyond the God he preaches about, a story about his wife’s cancer and his daughter’s baby that he is responsible for taking care of — a mandala that needs to be accepted in full so as to fulfil its singular moment at the end, baby and cancerous tumour dealt with alike…

    “…a small silver egg. It opens on a hinge… […] Together they enter the shining rooms.”

    [Although completely different, this story’s soul, if not its style, somehow resonates with my recent reading of Zelenyj’s best fiction here: ]

  15. STORY: Lydia Davis

    “I try to figure it out.”

    Like I ever try to figure out Proust. Who the self is, the one writing this in streams of consciousness or the third person into which she at one point drifts, angry constructively or destructively about garage doors, about the message she leaves but not before thinking about what she writes more carefully than when writing this ‘story’, and about the chronology of phone calls and whether the man to whom she wrote the note is with his old girl friend or not, and, if so, why? What is truth other than a memory of it? Angry that she might indeed be ‘the old girl friend’ herself, perhaps?

  16. CHINA: Charles Johnson

    “He slid back and forth from sleep during the film (she elbowed him occasionally, or pinched his leg)…”

    …that bit in parenthesis above near the start — when this ‘Negro’ husband Rudolph and wife Evelyn (mostly via her narrative point of view), amid the popcorn sticky floors of a cinema, suddenly are exposed to a trailer for a Chinese king-fu movie where the fighting, flying actors seem to have trained on trampolines — absurdistly presaged the much bigger fight at the end, when Rudolph fulfils his own training to slough of both living and dying! Suffice to say, that his sliding back and forth in sleep in the cinema has been arguably altered by her elbowing him, eventually to see the trailer, and thus triggered Rudolph — in an over-aged mid-life crisis — to shrug off his hypochondria, and his real cancer, and to take on the world, not slowed by sluggishness, but fired by an equally slow spiritual epiphany, with all his new friends who teach him into a flight beyond trampolining. Please soak in his stages, slowly, yourself from the few quotations below ….while sympathising with Evelyn as she gradually loses her man, or does she gain a triggering herself by the end? So utterly well written and holy holistic. A black belt that is black because its whiteness gets dirty with sweat and effort? Or one that soaks in the flesh of the fruit before it rots on the ground? Bubble thoughts soaked up, too.

    “On the cover a man stood bowlegged, one hand cocked under his armpit,…”

    “I’ve never been able to give everything to anything. The world never let me. It won’t let me put all of myself into play. […] …that you get cancer because it sits like fruit on the ground and rots.”

    “…this built-in inability of man to square his performance with perfection. People were naturally soft on themselves. But not her Rudolph.”

    ‘…but something she could not identify made them seem, those nights on the porch after his class, like a single body. They called Rudolph “Older Brother” or, less politely, “Pop.”’

    “Muscles like globes of light rippled along his shoulders; larval currents moved on his belly. The language of his new, developing body eluded her.”

    “…the body as it must be in the mind of God.”

    “…for if the universe was infinite, any point where he stood would be at its center—it would shift and move with him.”

    “—as he slipped deeper into the vortices of himself, into the Void—“

    Or not?

  17. Pingback: CHINA: Charles Johnson | Shadows & Elbows

  18. 334DDA8A-FA1D-4D05-A00D-B9F0D0277F46

    Street Musicians of Prague – Karel Stroff

    At least three faces above seem, from their astonished or leering expressions, to indicate that the front of stage figure is flashing! A painting (entitled as above) is a significant prop (“The reflections of her beauty startled me.”) in the following story’s plot…

    PET MILK: Stuart Dybek

    “Pet milk was the cream.”

    Squirts of condensed milk as cream that are tactilely described, with touching homeland nostalgia, by this story of a young Czech couple in Chicago…where wireless stations…
    “…the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end of the dial.”

    “…repeated explosions, blooming in kaleidoscopic clouds through the layer of heavy cream.”

    And the story’s climax of their copulating, as an inescapable urge of sexual and national frustration, on a train (“She was moving her hips to pin us to each jolt of the train.”) that resulted in others, with the train flashing by and then halting in a station seeing their intimacy, including by himself as a schoolboy in his native land…

    “…but that arrested wave stayed with me. It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks…”

    “If he failed to float the cream, we’d get that one free.”

    “It was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with.”

    “‘To Europe!’ I replied, and we clunked shells.”

    A masterpiece of passion!

  19. Pingback: A Masterpiece of Passion | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  20. THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: Susan Sontag

    “….it’s not like that, it’s not the way you imagine, he’s not judging people or wondering about their motives, he’s just happy to see his friends.[…] it’s rather beautiful, I can’t help thinking, this utopia of friendship you’ve assembled around him…”

    An unnamed man at the time of the story is a gestalt as evolved from the coordinates or cells or selves of his friends’s reported speech to each other like a skein or cobweb of existence and he is dying of AIDS where such spreading by sexuality as a ‘chain of death’ makes one imagine being in the London Blitz; are you the next to be hit? An ongoing picnic of people morphing into a ‘maroon party’ around the single metaphorical sickbed. No restrictions on visitors, in pairs or not. Any diary a relic for the future… and St Sebastian carried his own skin… all of us side effects to each other.

    “I’m playing leapfrog with myself, he is reported to have said,…”

    And it reminds me of the then future’s COVID, but how would the gestalt have changed by that dint, if visitor restrictions applied strictly without hope of a party gate? From a maximum picnic party-skein to a marooned cancerous lockdown nub?

    “Oh, no, said Lewis, I can’t stand it, wait a minute, I can’t believe it, are you sure, I mean are they sure, […] it seems impossible that someone wouldn’t have called Lewis; and perhaps Lewis did know, was for some reason pretending not to know already,…”

    My writing’ getting more spidery. But, still, it still shows I am still here. Blood transfusions may be contaminated, though. As may be words filtered into your eyes.

    This story’s words “everybody is worried about everybody now” have turned today into a selfish leapfrog inside the head?

  21. Pingback: THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: Susan Sontag | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

  22. SALVADOR LATE OR EARLY: Sandra Cisneros

    “…the elbows and wrists crisscrossing…”

    Probably the greatest vignette of fiction ever! It transcends any prose poem, it even transcends poetry or music. An essence of semantics and phonetics and syntax and the simple ‘look’ of the print evolving into a gestalt of a well-meaning boy who looks after his brothers at school and at home during an otherwise hard life, an even harder life if it were not for the promise of this involving vignette itself that iconises him with our own elbows and wrists crisscrossing, too.

  23. Pingback: SALVADOR LATE OR EARLY: Sandra Cisneros | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books


    “Imagination was a killer.”

    “He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there.”

    This is one of those great masterpieces of story-telling that startle you with its skill of communicating emotion as well as history, and gives you lightness as well as a pervasive weight, weights each often exactly measured, or a single weight equally often amorphous — like a love that has a “separate-but-together quality”, a quality that describes the letters that the Lieutenant carries around with him from Martha back home, the pebble she sent him, his assumed level of her virginity and love for him, and his potentially ‘being dead but never partly dead’ in the ‘dead weight’ BOOM. DOWN. of Viet Nam just prior to Than Khe. The chance of escape by a sleek, silver bird, notwithstanding.
    With much that they carry in their packs itemised…”a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” In and out of tunnels and tunnel vision. Carrying even diseases, and the dusty soil of Viet Nam. Carrying themselves. The guilt of loving someone. Scripting death. Ass, elbows and eyebrows. Beyond gravity,
    Please feel the thumb of this immeasurably tactile story, and feel it, too, in these bits and pieces of its weights I’ve chosen below…

    “…Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive. […] …certainly the legs of a virgin, dry and without hair, the left knee cocked and carrying her entire weight,… […] …along the Jersey shoreline when Martha saw the pebble and bent down to rescue it from geology… […] he wanted to sleep inside her lungs and breathe her blood and be smothered. He wanted her to be a virgin and not a virgin, all at once. He wanted to know her. Intimate secrets: Why poetry? Why so sad?”

    “He pictured Martha’s smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, more than his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her.”

    “They all carried ghosts. […] …tunnel complexes [……] imagining cobwebs and ghosts,…”

    “…and how you had to wiggle in—ass and elbows—a swallowed-up feeling—and how you found yourself worrying about odd things: […] …someone else would grin or flick his eyebrows and say, Roger-dodger, almost cut me a new asshole, almost.

    “Dense, crushing love. Kneeling, watching the hole, he tried to concentrate on Lee Strunk…”

    “He enjoyed not being dead. […] It was the burden of being alive.”

    “Some carried themselves with a sort of wistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good humor or macho zeal. They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it. […] Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.”

    “They spoke bitterly about guys who had found release by shooting off their own toes or fingers.”

    “They were flying. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear. […] …so at night, not quite dreaming, they gave themselves over to lightness, they were carried, they were purely borne.”

    “He loved her but he hated her.”

    Swallowed the pebble, burnt her letters? No spoiler greater Than Khe.

  25. Pingback: GIMPEL THE FOOL: Isaac Bashevis Singer | Nemonymous Night

  26. Pingback: Penguin Short Stories | The Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of Books

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