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on June 2, 2004
Having never read one of the "Best American Short Stories" collections, I have no way to judge this latest edition to past efforts. The only thing I can speak to is how I felt about the stories contained in this collection and how good I think they are. There are some very fine stories in this collection with one in particular that I just loved.
Louise Erdrich has long been my favorite novelist, but I was still nervous about what she would make from the short story format. "Shamengwa" is a moving story which revolves around a violin and the effect it has had, in various ways, on the lives of several members of a community. Anthony Doerr has one of the better stories in the collection, "The Shell Collector". With such a deceptively simple title, one would not expect such raw power and an interesting story about a man who lives alone but has gained worldwide attention because of the poison in one particular kind of shell. Another standout is Ryan Harty's "Why the Sky Turns Red when the Sun Goes Down", a story of a family with a robotic son (literally, the boy is a robot, or, perhaps an android). This is a touching story.
The best story in the collection, and then one that blew me away is Dan Chaon's "The Bees". This one was completely unexpected and shocking. While this one would probably fall into the category of "horror", don't let that mislead you. This one starts out easy, just identifying a man and his family and we start to learn about his past. He wasn't a good man during his first marriage and he deeply regrets it. But as the story continues and we get snippets of revelation, the tension grows and so does this air of creepiness that I got while I was reading it. The tension does not let up until the end of the story, but rather it keeps building because we don't quite know what is going on and this is not what you would assume a typical "horror" story would be. It is a psychological horror and it is just gripping.
This is a very fine collection, but "The Bees" was the one story that truly stood out for me and it continues to be memorable.
-Joe Sherry
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on March 25, 2004
In last year's unsatisfying collection we got big name writers, big name magazines. For 2003 Walter Mosley chose to buck the establishment. The New Yorker, which in 2002 was represented by eight stories, has two stories in this collection (as does Callaloo). Of Mosley's twenty picks half are about minorities. Well, fine - most editors select with an agenda in mind (though it may be far back in their minds, where they don't have to acknowledge it). Unfortunately, this year's "new talent" does not come as a fresh breeze.
Four stories are deserving of being in an anthology called "best", though I am moved to mention only one of them: Ryan Harty's wonderful "Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down." Two stories are outright BOMBS.
Most of the work in 2003 suffers from a constricted cautiousness. At their core these stories are writerly exercises that lack the animating spirit of true feeling. There is also much shallowness in these pages, and the stories most guilty of this carry a solemn, earnest tone, indicating that their authors were aiming for deep and meaningful work. When you mix solemnity with superficiality you get pretentiousness. Under the surface gloss of the prose we get spurious emotions from contrived characters - and then a muddled complexity of reasoning is layered on, requiring the reader to make "connections" in order to arrive at "meaning." (Why bother, when what matters - authenticity - is missing?)
A link can be made between these faults and their source. Actually, Walter Mosley has only apparently bucked the system. Almost all the stories he selected are by authors who have attended prestigious university creative writing programs (and, often, currently teach at one). So the selection is still coming from the mentality of a MFA seminar room.
In these rooms there's an over-concentration (by disparate personalities with questionable literary perceptions and/or motivations) on picking something apart. Over-analysis leads to a cautious perfection. What survives is the intellectually obscure (because that is risky to criticize). Prose is scrutinized til not a hair is out of place. There's a undeclared pressure to conform to a uniform value system. Life experience - the experience of necessity - is limited.
Yet it is the products of such programs that get published in the leading magazines; they are what Katrina Kenison and the annual editors draw from for inclusion in BEST. In a way writing has become like the practice of medicine, where a diploma from a prestigious university must hang from the wall.
Maybe all literary magazines should reverse the prioritization process and devote an issue to authors who have never attended a creative writing program (and have the manuscripts evaluated by non-academics). Maybe then a fresh breeze would come flowing in.
Maybe... It won't happen. The status quo is entrenched. No, I would advise an aspiring writer to get into that seminar room. And once there, network, network, network. It's clearly the road to success. Who knows, one day you may appear in BEST.
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on December 14, 2003
I've been reading this series for a few years now, and I've found as a whole, it's a pretty mixed bag. Sure, you get some great stories, but you get some really bad stories, and many that are just middle of the road. Here's this year's breakdown:
I'm going to say that this year's introduction, written by guest editor Walter Mosley, was especially well-written--It's a great intro to an anthology such as this. Other highlights were Sharon Pomerantz's "Ghost Ship", ZZ Packer's "Every Tongue Shall Confess" (which has appeared in a few other of these 'best of' anthologies), Nicole Krauss's "Future Emergencies", Ryan Harty's "WHy the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down", and, what is the best story in the collection, Anthony Doerr's "The Shell Collector."
This year's stories that don't belong in any best of anthology were written by: Marilene Phipps, Dean Paschal, Louise Erdrich, Edwidge Danticat, Kevin Brockmeier, and Dorothy Allison.
Everybody else's work just isn't worth mentioning, either as great work or as poor work--it's that middle of the road work i mentioned.
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on December 7, 2003
I don't think you can go wrong reading either the Best American or the O. Henry short story anthologies; I read both each year. It's somewhat surprising that they are not more popular, since they expose the reader to a wide variety of the best writers and writings, and since short stories can be easily fit into the busiest of lifestyles, especially plane and train rides.
Having now read both 2003 editions, I would give the edge to this year's Best American anthology. The collection of stories that guest editor Walter Mosley has chosen are, in general, more readable, more entertaining, and cover a broader range of human emotions, subject matter, and genres. I would also rate the 2003 Best American anthology as a better-than-average or even a vintage year.
I especially enjoyed the two "genre" stories included, a horror story and a science fiction story. Each is memorable not because of the aspects of their plots that classify them in their genre, but for what they reveal about human nature. Dan Chaon's "The Bees" shows the dangers of keeping secrets in an attempt to escape the past, and Ryan Harty's "Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down" contains a bizarrely fascinating plot element (a robotic child for couples unable to conceive their own), but what it actually illustrates is the difficult decisions parents make about their children, the immense power they have over them, and the changing relationships when a couple becomes a threesome by having a child.
Other highlights: Susan Straight's "Mines", which is a stark, realistic portrayal of the tough choices facing people on both sides of the U.S. criminal justice system; Mary Yukari Water's "Rationing", which illustrates the generational differences in Japanese society; and Anthony Doerr's "The Shell Collector", which is the only story chosen for inclusion in both the Best American and O. Henry anthologies (and rightfully so). Interestingly, there are actually two pairs of stories concerned with similar plot elements (robotic children, and father/son relationships after the mother has passed away), but each pair is very different. This shows why this collection is so strong: it's not so much due to the plot of each story, but rather to what each story says about the human condition.
Since choosing favorite stories is such a subjective process, each reader will no doubt have their own favorites. However, this year's Best American anthology provides plenty of good stories from which to choose your own favorites.
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on October 2, 2003
I've been a fan of Best American for years. This one is particularly great--I love Walter Mosley's choices. Mona Simpson's "Coins" is sharply characterized through a unique and memorable voice. Louise Erdrich's "Shamengwa," full of haunting music, has a quiet, beautiful ending. And Ryan Harty's "Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down," a heartbreaking story about a man faced with a choice between his wife and his very human (but technologically imperfect) android son, is like nothing I've ever read before--so terrific I had to go out and buy Harty's collection, "Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona," which was a knockout too. (Noticed that Tin House made the strongest showing here, with three stories selected. Guess what cool magazine I'll be subscribing to this year?) What a pleasure to read so much outstanding fiction. Very glad to see the short story thriving.
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on March 11, 2004
Let's face it, superlatives sell. Who is going to buy a short story collection entitled: "A Collection of Well Written Stories from a Bunch of Different People"? Not too catchy, is it? So I admit that the title sparked my interest. That being said, this is a very good collection of stories. I will admit, some bored me to death, some I didn't care to read, but there are quite a bit of worthwhile reads than there are useless ones. Some of the stories blew me away -- particularly E.L. Doctorow's "Baby Wilson." But there were some that I couldn't finish. But I'm glad I got to read this book. This collection introduced me to a number of writers I had never read before, some I hadn't read in a while, and some who I never miss out on reading. This collection, despite its few weak links, is strong and makes for enjoyable reading. I shall give the previous volumes a whirl.
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on May 8, 2004
I so look forward to these annual volumes of BEST short stories. These collections normally have such a variety of subject and style. Not this volume. The subject of nearly every story was the alienation of immigrants in America. For the first time ever, I didn't finish reading the collection. I mean, I love popcorn, but want variety!
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on January 3, 2004
I admit I haven't read this year's book, yet. But, this series is at the top of my list every year. The stories are thought prevoking and entertaining. Sure, each volume has one or two that don't catch my fancy. That's because I'm an individual, and that's why it's a collection.
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