The Best American Short Stories 2010 Paperback – Oct 5 2010
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"A short fiction juggernaut." (Wall Street Journal ) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
Richard Russo mentions in his introduction that he once heard Isaac Bashevis Singer say that the purpose of literature is to entertain and to instruct. Generally, the stories in this year's collection fulfill that purpose. I picked up the book to read one story at a time, and more often than not I walked away satisfied by what I had just read. There was very little "let me just muse and ramble about some vague, under-developed philosophical symbol for 20 pages," but a whole lot of STORY. It was deeply refreshing. Even the stories I didn't particularly care for didn't go so far as to feel like a waste of my time.
I didn't expect to enjoy Lauren Groff's "Delicate Edible Birds" when I started it, but it hooked me halfway through and didn't let go. It was creepy and thrilling.
Joshua Ferris has real talent and though I can't say I loved "The Valetudinarian," I am in love with his writing.
Steve Almond's "Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched" was the first story in the book; it reminded me of Roald Dahl, my favorite writer, and that made me happy.
The forewords of these anthologies always depress me -- short fiction is dying, etc. etc. I'm relieved to see that the collection itself suggests the opposite.
I usually enjoy short story collections by reading them bit by bit, between tasks, when travelling, or when tackling a hefty book just seems too daunting. I will often return to stories that made an impression after the first reading from time to time, kind of like looking at a photograph or listening to a CD. This edition is full of candidates for future review. It's a wide variety of styles and subjects that read well as individual pieces, but also seems to have a good flow when reading cover to cover. The stories take place in numerous locals and include people from across the human spectrum.
In his forward, Russo talks about a reading given by esteemed author Isaac Singer, in which someone from the audience inquired what defines great writing. Singer replied, the good writing entertains and informs. That idea sums up most of the stories in this collection. They pull you in and engage you, then teach you something about life and about yourself.
My favorite stories:
"Safari" by Jennifer Egan, involves a multitude of characters on a family safari in Africa. The work this story came from, "A Visit From The Goon Squad", won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
"The Valetudinarian" by Joshua Ferris, a terrific and weird sort of comedy focusing on a dying old man in Florida who is given a hooker for his birthday.
"My Last Attempt to Explain What Happened to the Lion Tamer" by Brendan Matthews, a very funny and depreciating story about a lovesick clown explaining his feelings and attitude toward the muscular lion tamer to the new trapeze artist.
"All Boy" by Lori Ostlund, revolves around a young boy who is basically frightened of the world, from his weightlifting father to his babysitter who locked him in the closet.
"The Cowboy Tango" by Maggie Shipstead, a ranch owner falls in love with his female ranch hand, but their relationship is eventually shattered by his awkwardness.
That's not the case with this 2010 edition. I found the stories to be without exception engaging and real. The authors seemed to understand and care about real people and why they do what they do. There just weren't any attempts at literary magic tricks. These are stories that are intended to be read, understood, and enjoyed by "regular" people, not just by literary specialists.
That is, I think, the result of having Richard Russo as the editor this year. He's a former student of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and he points out that one of Singer's principles that he took most to heart is the idea that the real purpose of literature is to entertain and to instruct its readers. And that's "instruct" in the "Oh, I see why this is important!" sense, not the "This is a good example of the latest literary critical theory being expounded by some obscure academic" sense. The stories were actually stories-- accounts of what people were doing and why and what they felt about it-- not exemplars of dark philosophizing.
I didn't love every story in the collection; in fact, there were a couple that I really didn't care for. However, my reactions are just that: my subjective reactions, and your reactions may well be entirely different. However, even the stories I didn't like very much seemed worth the effort of reading them, and I think that will be a nearly universal reaction.
My bottom line: If this anthology is any indication, accounts of the death of short fiction are most certainly greatly exaggerated. If you've been put off by recent editions, try this one. I think you'll be richly rewarded and maybe even pleasantly surprised. I was.
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