Monday, January 21, 2013

The Best American Short Stories 2011

The Best American Short Stories 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks (2011)

For reasons even I don't understand, I tend to avoid short stories. It may be because reviews and descriptions of story collections can't possibly describe them all and so end up saying very little about each one. In any case, I heard that this particular edition of The Best American Short Stories stood out so I decided to start here.

Edited by Geraldine Brooks, this volume is worth picking up just for her introduction. She is brilliant and clever, and I'm happy to continue in any book with such an enjoyable introduction. (I'm also happy that one of my next reads is one of her books.)

Based on the authors listed in the table of contents, I was eager to dig in - I've already enjoyed short stories by Jess Row and Elizabeth McCracken, and have been curious about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jennifer Egan, Nathan Englander, and Rebecca Makkai. I've read essays by George Saunders and was especially interested in sampling his short fiction, especially given the glowing reviews of his new collection.

But I was surprised by many authors I knew nothing about, and whose stories turned out to be my favorites in the collection. I'm also surprised that I can pick a clear favorite out of such a steller collection, but I can: "The Sleep" by Caitlin Horrocks, a story about a town that starts hibernating during the winter. I've never heard of this author before, but I will surely be looking for more of her work.

"The Hare Mask" by Mark Slouka was a vivid and startling story about upsetting events in a child's life in Czechoslovakia. In Allegra Goodman's "La Vita Nuova" a jilted bride uses her dress in a children's art class, then begins babysitting one of her students; although the story is good, it's the style of her storytelling that elevates the piece and makes it stand out. The first story in the collection, Adichie's "Ceiling" has cemented my desire to finally read one of her novels. Set in Nigeria, the main character received an email from an old romance and questions his marriage. The setting is so wonderfully vivid and unfamiliar to me it was like stepping briefly into another world. And that is the strength of the stories in this volume - they just pop. Each one is so different from the other, in setting, character, and style. Of the twenty stories, only a handful didn't grab me and even those were good enough to finish and appreciate.

I'm glad I didn't skip the contributor notes in the back of the book. In addition to a small bit about the author and their work, each one included a short piece from the author of how the story came to be. Almost all were taken from something in the author's life, and I just found it all fascinating.

It's strange that I tend to overlook short fiction. I've always read it occasionally, and usually really liked it. Last year I read Jess Row's collection The Train to Lo Wu and have been recommending it ever since. I still think about some of the stories in Tatyana Tolstaya's On the Golden Porch, which I read in college. And a short story that I remember reading as a teenager and am frustratingly unable to identify still haunts me to this day. This will serve as my reminder then, and I'll be less hasty in dismissing short stories from now on.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

I think I might have this anthology at home (long-ignored Christmas present). Nice review!