on November 5, 2004
This classic series first made its appearance around 1915 and has been a staple of the classroom and Americana ever since. While it has launched the careers of some writers, others have fallen by the wayside. Nevertheless it is a remarkable achievement and collection. Granted "the best" is a term that can be bantered out and each person will have those he like and others he skips over, but all-in-all this collection is very even-handed and well paced. The writing for the most part is rich and warm, and we can only hope that things like the short story and what Americans are truly remembered for, and not some others. The only other collection that I've read that even comes close to this was McCrae's "The Children's Corner" which, though not many different authors, nevertheless manages to put across a wide range of human emotions and writing styles. Whatever you do, first of all buy this book edited by one of the best writers we have--John Updike.
Also recommended: THE CHILDREN'S CORNER by Jackson McCrae
on August 29, 2003
Solely due to the way this book was assembled, it cannot live up to its title. This book is not an assemblage of the best short stories from the entire body of 20th century American literature; rather, this book is an anthology of the best stories that happened to have appeared in the annual Best American Short Story volumes. So, to make it into this book, a story would have had to be recognized when it was written as being one of the best of that year, as chosen by a single editor/reader.
I enjoy reading short stories, and every year I purchase both the O. Henry Prize Stories and the Best American Short Stories. When I first did this, I was amazed at how little overlap there is between 20 stories chosen for each anthology (usually, there are only one or two stories in common, and typically the story chosen by O. Henry as the best of the year does not appear in the other anthology). So once again we have evidence that beauty (and art and subjective opinions such as "best") are in the eye of the beholder.
So, can John Updike's selections be debated? Undoubtedly; every reader of this anthology will be able to cite stories and authors that they believe should have been included (as for me, I was most disappointed by the absence of Ray Bradbury). But is this anthology worth reading? Absolutely!
Reading this anthology cover-to-cover is like traveling through time, and provides an enriching perspective on the history of the 20th century in America. From the hardscrabble existence of immigrants and farmers, to the Depression, to the problems of racism, to the war, to the ennui that exists in a time of relative plenty, these stories do cover the broad American experience of the past century. Furthermore (aside from Ray Bradbury), many of our best authors are represented, so this book is a good way to get introduced to authors that one has heard about but not read before.
It's surprising to me that short story anthologies aren't more popular, given our busy society. A well written short story entertains, conveys a message, teaches something about the human condition, and can be enjoyed in one sitting, such as a short plane or train ride. I would highly recommend this anthology as a way for short story novices to get started, and then one can graduate to the annual O. Henry and Best American Short Story anthologies.
on February 15, 2002
Collectors interested in hearing the authors read their own stories might enjoy this production; but if you want to appreciate the stories for their own sake, steer clear of the audio version. The decision to use some of these authors as narrators was a huge mistake. Jill McCorkle's dreary monotone could sedate a grizzly (don't listen to "Theft" while you're driving). James Alan McPherson is essentially unintelligible. He does a poor impersonation of Demosthenes having a bad pebble day. If you really want to hear these stories read by someone, give yourself a break: buy the book, and read it aloud. You'll do a far better job than this crew.
on July 3, 2002
I used to go to the library and read the old annual Best American Short Story collections. There was something almost religious about picking up a copy from 1927 and reading a story by a then unknown kid named Ernest Hemingway in that old type-face, or the Faulkner stories in just about every annual volume during the 1930s. The bios of these writers at the back of the old copies when they were unknown writers was so innocent and naive. Modern critical theory has influenced my perception of so many of these writers, and that is shame.
The stories collected in this Best American Short Stories of the Century are taken from the the annual volumes. There are stories representing each decade from the teens to the 90s. There are classics, and there are surprises. My favorite is Ann Beattie's "Janus." It is subtle and masterfully written.
I've owned this book for two years, and I read it from time-to-time. Some stories I've read four or five times. Some I haven't read at all. And it's a book that it's okay to do that with, I think. The Fitzgerald story "Crazy Sunday" was something of a nice surprise, and indeed, that kind of surprise seems at the heart of what Updike and Kenison were aiming to realize. How to make a Best of the 20th Century anotholgy exciting, you know? Considering they could only take stories from the annual Best of American Short Story anothologies, they did that well, I think. Martha Gellhorn's "Miami--New York" was insightful. The John Cheever, Raymond Carver, and Joyce Carol Oates stories are great classics. I enjoyed Donald Barthelme's "A City of Churches" and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" -- stories ranging from the humorous, to the heartrending.
If I could make one suggestion regarding Best American Short Stories, it would be this: I think it would be interesting if every few years they allowed a so-called popular writer to read as guest editor. These stories end up representing a kind of intellectual clique. And it would be interesting to see what a guest editor like John Grisham or Stephen King would add to the mix of our nation's collective stories.
on April 19, 2002
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, from 1915 to 1999". Not catchy and you can't dance to it. Another fact--there is no way that you could put together a collection of the greatest American short stories from the 20th century and have everyone agree on it. That being said, this is a very good collection of stories. I will admit, some bored me, some I really didn't like, but there is a lot in there and on the whole I think it's a worthwhile read. Some of the stories blew me away--particularly Alice Elliot Dark's In the Gloaming. Some, I couldn't even finish. As a whole, I am very glad I read them. This collection introduced me to a number of writers I had never read before, some I haven't read in a while, and some I read anytime anything new comes out. Of the stories I enjoyed (and that's most of them), I am appeciative of Updike's including them. This collection, while it has a few weak links, is strong and makes for enjoyable reading.
on January 17, 2001
title a book "the best XXX of the century," and that's what you should give your readers. the best. not the most underappreciated, the hidden gems, the other stories by the best writers, or whatever. i wanted a compendium of what i was promised by the very title: the best american short stories of the century. i didn't get it. this book is very solid in what it presents, but what it presents is not what it claims.
i won't continue to dredge up the jacksons and salingers that aren't present. look below for many comprehensive lists of exactly what aren't here. to be fair to prospective buyers, this selection would be better called, "american short fiction of the 20th century: a decade by decade look at some noteworthy pieces."
when the editor even goes so far as to express the fact that he preferred to avoid the hackneyed stories, you should know you're not going to be getting what the title promises. sadly, unless you pick it up in a bookstore, you can't see that caveat till after it arrives in your mailbox.
ah, well. a lesson learned. never again shall i purchase an updike-edited anthology.
on November 27, 2000
I respect and totally understand that this is the editors' choices of the best stories in America from 1915-2000. Notice that there is no Salinger, a writer Updike did not appreciate. There is also very litte meta-fiction. For this, many reviewers dislike the book.
However, I commend Updike for presenting a collection of stories that not everyone already knows. People wanted to see "The Lottery." Why? Everyone knows it. I wanted to see Salinger's "For Esme-With Love and Squalor" or "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." But why? Everyone knows those stories already.
Granted, I'm generalizing a bit, but I think Updike and Kenison did a great job of finding stories that may not be known yet needed to be read. It was probably a terrific headache to have to say "No" to many excellent stories. I don't blame Updike and Kenison for that. This is not the definitive anthology and reviewers need to quit treating it like it is. This is a taste of our country, and with that in mind, it does its job, with or without our favorite stories.
on July 4, 2000
I believe that most writers or short story readers will agree that these are not the "best" stories of the 20th century. Such a collection would include better known masterpieces like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Instead, this a collection of brilliant, but lesser known stories by accomplished writers.
I think Updike makes it clear that his goal was to assemble great stories from all decades, but not necessarily the best stories. I believe there was a pointed effort made, in assembling these stories, not to include the well-known American standards that most college educated people have read. The New York Times sums up the result : "Finding wonderful stories that you don't already know is one of this collection's greatest pleasures . . Updike has made some surprising, even striking selections."
Most of Updike's surprising selections are very enjoyable. My only disappointment was the 1999 story by Pam Houston. There are too many great writers these days to include this contemporary mediocrity. What about Rick Bass, Charles Baxter, Mark Richard? Just my opinion.
Overall, I recommend this book without reservation.
on May 9, 2000
Of all the writers that could have been chosen to edit this collection why did it have to be that John Updike, one of the most over-rated writers of the century, ended up being the one chosen for the task? Is it any wonder that this collection, despite a few worthy inclusions, turned out to be unchallenging, predictable and pandering? I concede that the material Updike had to choose from may not have been the best, the Best American Short Stories series regularly celebrates mediocre mainstream sensibilities. Even so, at one point in his introduction Updike lists a number of stories he eliminated off hand, the majority of which are superior to any number of the stories that are included.
To me, the most glaring omission is "Emergency" by Denis Johnson which was published in the 1992 collection (edited by Robert Stone, whose "Helping" also deserved inclusion). For those who don't know, Updike presumably among them, Denis Johnson is the finest writer in America today and "Emergency" is the high point of his short but shockingly brilliant collection "Jesus' Son", arguably the finest piece of writing by any American author in the past 25 years. The least Updike could have done was swallow his pride and left his own story, "Gesturing", on par with the overall mediocrity of the collection, out and given the spot something much more challenging, poignant and fulfilling.
That said there are some good points. "The Killers" is probably the best story Hemingway ever wrote. "Greenleaf" is a great story but I would have prefered to see O'Connors "A Good Man is Hard To Find". "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" is chilling. "Gold Coast" is a tremendous piece of writing, as is "The Shawl". I was truly amazed that Donald Barthelme's "City of Churches" managed to get by Updike's predictable eye. "I Want To Live!" by Thom Jones is one of the more empathetic stories in recent memory. The highlight of the whole collection "The Things They Carried", Tim O'Brien's indescribable masterpiece of war-based realism, in that field, however, I consider O'Brien's own "How To Tell A True War Story" superior. Unfortunately, that story was somehow excluded from yearly collection edited by Mark Halpern, one of the low points of a series which has more than its fair share.
on February 29, 2000
All in all I really enjoyed my reading of this collection. A few stories will stay with me always, and they were not the ones I expected to like the best when starting them--which I think is the key to a really good story! The Ledge by Lawrence Sargent Hall stands out especially---one of the most chilling and realistic accounts of a horrifying happening you can imagine. Another standout was The Rotifer by Mary Ladd Gavell. From the notes I found this was her only published story, published after her death. I wish this wasn't the case---she writes a story about seeing what is about to go wrong and being unable to stop it in a way I will never forget. Updike seems to avoid including the stories you expect to read, which I can understand, but in a way I'd like a collection which included a few more of what we think of as the classic stories of the century. Also, the stories almost without an exception are quite dark, sad, depressing and/or about sickness and death. Why not a few more O'Henry collection types stories---maybe not quite as high brow, but I'm sure there are a FEW short stories this century with merit that are not quite so downbeat! However, I was glad to have spent the time reading this selection, and I felt it was well done overall.