The Best American Short Stories 2010 has been edited this year by Richard Russo. The collection contains a wide range of stories selected from some of the most well-known and most obscure magazines and anthologies. The stories, on the whole, are impressive and I was spellbound by many of them. Usually, in a collection of this sort, containing twenty stories, there will be five or less that really speak to me. In this anthology, there were nine.
In the foreword by series editor Heidi Pitlor, she speaks eloquently and poignantly about her belief that "it is indisputable that American literary journals are in danger". She encourages readers to "subscribe to one literary journal, either on paper or online. Buy a short story collection by a young author. We must support our smaller magazines if we are to support our talented new writers." The stories selected for this anthology were all written between January 2009 and January 2010 by American or Canadian authors. Pitlor narrowed her selection to 250 stories and Richard Russo selected the final twenty.
The stories take place in different parts of the world and in different eras. Some are serious and some are laugh out loud funny. What the best ones have in common is that they stop you in your tracks and make you think and feel deeply, long after you have finished reading the story.
My favorite story in this collection is All Boy by Lori Ostlund. Originally published in the New England Review, it is about a precocious, effeminate boy who is a voracious reader. His mother can't see him for who he is and describes him as `all boy' to the other mothers in his school. Harold, eleven years old, is very lonely and has no friends. Recently, his babysitter was fired and Harold believes this was because she locked him in the closet so she could watch television undisturbed. In truth, that is not the reason she was let go. She was wearing Harold's father's socks when her feet got cold and he can't stand other people touching him or his things. Harold's mother thinks that being locked in the closet develops inner resources. Harold likes the closet. It makes him feel safe. "The familiar smells of wet wool and vacuum cleaner dust, the far-off chatter of Mrs. Norman's television show..." make him feel safe. For a child as lonely as Harold, he can find a whole world in his closet.
Lauren Groff's short story, Delicate Edible Birds, is loosely based on the life of Ernest Hemingway's third wife. Just before the German invasion of France during World War II, reporters unknowingly knock on a cottage door belonging to Nazi sympathizers. The reporters need food and gasoline and offer to trade gold, watches and diamonds in exchange. The peasant who is the head of the household wants only one thing in exchange - a night with the female reporter. He plans to hold all of them hostage and turn them over to the Germans until she consents. How this situation impacts the relationships between the reporters is a stunning piece of writing.
Rebecca Makai's short story, Painted Ocean, Painted Ship, is about a female professor who makes a huge politically incorrect mistake. She assumes that an Asian student who is silent in her classroom is from Korea when she is actually ethnically Chinese. Additionally, she believes that the student's silence is due to the cultural differences of new immigrants. Actually, the student's family has lived in Minnesota for generations and files a grievance against the professor. This story is sad, poignant, and laugh out loud funny.
The Laugh, by Tea Obreht takes us to the Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania. A woman has been killed by a hyena and her husband and child are left to cope with her death. Her beauty and her laugh are juxtaposed with that of the hyena's in a chilling story of revenge and guilt.
Into Silence by Marlin Barton is about a woman named Janey who lost her hearing when she was ten years old. Her mother is emotionally abusive and, for all intents and purposes, has stolen Janey's life. Her mother refused to let her finish her education, makes her spend her days working around the house and has her wait on her all the time. Into this small mid-western town wanders a WPA photographer who asks Janey to assist him with his work. This experience opens Janey's eyes as to how life could be different. We hear Janey speak through her silence.
This anthology shows us that the art of the short story is very much alive. Despite the economic downturn causing several anthologies to go out of business this past year, new anthologies have started and the web has taken on a larger role that it ever has. New writers of great talent abound and, for the short story lover, they are as close as your fingertips. Whether you love that piece of paper in your hands as I do, or you love your Kindles, podcasts, and web anthologies, there are beautiful short stories to be found everywhere.