1. A Christmas Memory – Truman Capote
Alright, I know Christmas is so over, but I have to give this story a mention because I think it’s pretty much perfect and I’m a sap, because the end always makes me cry a little bit. Sue me. (Text)
2. Good Country People – Flannery O’Connor
I love Flannery O’Connor. So much so that once when I was talking to a guy about books, I knew I couldn’t date him because when I mentioned Flannery O’Connor, he said “Oh yeah, he’s good.” Anyway, this is a great story, and you should read it if you haven’t. (I tried to find the text for you on the internet, but only found essays about it. Sorry.) Set in the rural American South, it’s the story of a girl with a prosthetic leg named Joy (who wants to be called Helga) and a smooth-talking Bible salesman named Manley Pointer. (That’s right — Manley. Pointer.) It is darkly comic and sharply insightful and more than a little uncomfortable and oh so good. O’Connor was a master, and — in case you haven’t picked up on this yet — one of my all-time favorite writers, and I had a hard time picking just one of her stories to put on this list, but I had to go with this one, because well, if that whole Manley Pointer thing doesn’t crack you up, then there’s obviously something wrong with you.
3. Gazebo – Raymond Carver
I’m pretty much in love with the entire collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (the edited version, as previously mentioned), and this may be my favorite story in the book. I was talking to someone about Raymond Carver and why I liked him so much, and I mentioned this story as an example. I said, “I got to the end and I felt like I’d been punched. And I couldn’t breathe for a minute.” And it still gets me that way. It’s just… perfect.
4. The Yellow Wall-Paper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
This is a classic short story, about a woman who is put on the rest cure, which makes her slowly go mad. It’s delicious — truly — and it has one of the best last lines of all time. (Text)
5. Going to Meet the Man – James Baldwin
I pretty easily selected the first four stories for this list, but had to debate with myself a little bit about which one was good enough to get this last spot. There were a few contenders which I dug up and reread, and finally, after having just finished this one, I knew it had to make the list. Angry and people-smart — an undeniably forceful combination — this story is about the psycho-sexual power a man derives from lynching and other brutality (it’s the only way he can manage to have sex with his wife). The prose seethes with a tightly-controlled rage, which I think shows what command Baldwin had as a writer. Great story, truly.