Life Pick: Favorite Short Stories

Our staffers choose their favorite short stories. What’s yours?

“Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff

This is the kind of story that sends chills down your spine. It’s about a book critic, Anders, in the final moments of his life after he gets shot in a bank robbery. The subsequent story mostly consists of what Anders does not remember about his life – things like his schooling, his wife, his child – and the one small thing that he does. This story is a must-read for anyone who wants to be a writer themselves; it’s masterful how much power and characterization Wolff punches into three and a half pages. – Nikki Barnhart

“A & P” by John Updike

Updike once said that his writing intends “to give the mundane its beautiful due,” and in this story he also gives the pathetic its comical due. It’s a narrative but its power is in Sammy’s inner voice, in his cynical yet somehow idealistic criticisms of menial jobs, the “sheep” shoppers and a petty clash between a “Sunday-school-superintendent” elitist and a new money “ice-cream coats and bow ties” elitist.

It’s a simple piece with broad implications, and Sammy is critically aware even of how pathetic his own actions at the story’s climax are. He does them anyway though, because “it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.” It’s a coming-of-age tale, and Sammy is the classic Holden Caulfield figure, just less whiny and meandering. -Christopher McDermott

“The Swimmer” by John Cheever

“The Swimmer” transcends the average short story. Cheever beautifully strings together a plot about main character Neddy Merrill’s swim across the county’s backyard swimming pools, while maintaining authenticity with an air of surrealism. Neddy swims from pool to pool where he stops to visit friends, to chat and have a drink. What began as an amusing afternoon turns dark with each new stop across the county, as ominous changes begin to occur. Time is passing but it’s not supposed to be. Friends shut him out, seasons go by, he feels aged and when he returns home he finds everything has changed. The question that remains is if his journey even occurred at all, or if it was simply a daydream of a life that passed him by. Either way, the readers find themselves empathizing with Neddy for what he has lost, or what he stands to lose. Suburban boredom and wealth have left Neddy with a life that is not whole, yet he still has so much. Cheever’s words give this dichotomy a profound realness that readers can closely connect with. -Ashley Maher

“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner 

William Faulkner is known for his lengthy novels, but his short story “A Rose For Emily” remains his finest work. Simultaneously satirizing small-town gossip, while illustrating the social dynamics between different classes. “A Rose For Emily” will definitely captivate its readers – especially with its shocking and well-built ending. Faulkner’s tale also exhibits his lexical mastery and his effective use of a layered multi-narrative, which allows for several nuances within the themes of the story. This allows for multiple enjoyable reads. I highly recommend it. – Anokh Palakurthi

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” By Joyce Carol Oates

This classic has to be one of the creepiest, most haunting stories out there, but in the best way possible. It’s the story of 15-year-old Connie, spoiled and self-absorbed, who meets the mysterious Arnold Friend one night. At first Connie is intrigued by this man, but then upon realizing that’s he’s much older than she originally thought, she begins to take his taunts of “I’m coming for you baby!” as more of a threat than a romantic gesture. The ending is spectacularly ambiguous – it’s a story in which you won’t really know quite what happened, but you’ll think about it again and again. The story has been interpreted as an allegory for coming-of-age, a biblical Garden of Eden retelling, a dream sequence and more. How do you interpret it? Does it matter when the story, at its most basic face value, is this good? – Nikki Barnhart

“Teddy” by J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger’s “Teddy” is a really messed up story about a boy genius whose parents don’t understand him because they are just average folks who can only see in finite dimensions. Their child prodigy Teddy sees the world differently, and has a knowledge of Vedantic reincarnation that has caught the attention of some professors. Although there’s some ambiguity about the story’s ending, 10-year-old Teddy probably kills himself or his sister on a cruise ship as his family is traveling back to America from Europe. – Molly Miller

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