Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fifth Review: The Best American Short Stories 2009 edited by Alice Sebold

I was first introduced to The Best American Short Stories series in the winter of 1999. My roommate at the time had gotten a copy of the 1998 BASS for Christmas and had left it out in the living room. So of course, I picked it up and started reading it. That one was edited by Garrison Keillor and I loved it. I have been asking for them for Christmas every year since then.

I have not loved all of them equally over the years, and it's hard to know if that's simply a fact of the types of stories which the series editor and the guest editor had to choose from in a given year, or if it's more of a reflection of the guest editor's taste. I've always assumed it is more of the latter. Which is why, for example, I was surprised that the edition that Amy Tan edited (1999) is not a favorite, because I love Amy Tan's writing. (In fact, now that I think about it, I'm not sure why her A Hundred Secret Senses isn't on my list of recommended books. Also, where the hell is my copy of that book?).

Two BASS that do stand out for me, are the aforementioned 1998, as well as, 2006 editions. Of course, my love of those particular editions could easily be due to issues completely unrelated to the stories included in those books. Obviously, 1998 was the first in the series that I read, and therefore, as my introduction, would have a special place in my heart. As for 2006, I started that one while on a Caribbean island (St. Kitts, to be exact) in the middle of January, after I had finally finished the most important incomplete from my grad program. I very, very clearly remember that experience of waking up before everyone else and sitting on the deck, in gloriously warm weather, enjoying a mind-bogglingly beautiful view, and reading that short story collection.

The short explanation of how these stories are collected is that the series editor, Heidi Pitlor, reads thousands of short stories that have been published in various magazines over the previous year and whittles them down to a more reasonable number (in this case, 120) for the guest editor--this year it was Alice Sebold--to read through and select the top 20. Clearly, subjectivity abounds--but that's one of the things that I like about this collection, and why I think the guest editor truly does put his or her stamp on the final collection. The guest editor is always an author. (I'll be honest, every year, when I crack open my latest copy, I always imagine how fun--and ridiculously challenging--the guest editor's job is. I secretly covet it.)

A short story collection, especially when it doesn't come from a single author, is hard to review as a whole. That being said, I enjoyed this year's collection and there were several stories that particularly stood out for me.

Steve De Jarnatt's story, Rubiaux Rising, about a drug-addicted Gulf War vet, trapped in the attic during the rising waters of Hurricane Katrina is beautifully powerful. Eleanor Henderson's The Farms is a quiet contemplation of race in modern-day America. Sagittarius by Greg Hrbek is one of those stories you just have to go with, as it pulls a bit of what would normally be found in a fantasy novel into an everyday situation. Jill McCorkle's Magic Words is the sort of story that I contemplate not finishing, because of that pit of dread in my stomach, but I have to see it to the end, because I need to know how it all turns out. Modulation by Richard Powers is about music and technology and earworms (of the musical, rather than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, variety) and it's hard to describe beyond that. Alex Rose's Ostacon provides a bittersweet window into Alzheimer's, from the perspective of the sufferer. And The Peripatetic Coffin by Ethan Rutherford is about the Confederate submarine, the H. L. Hunley, used in the Civil War and it's third crew.

I really don't want to give much more information on the stories than that, because, well, they're short, and any more information will give too much away.

As I said, these were the ones that stood out for me, though all the stories in the collection are strong (even the ones that weren't really my cup of tea.) I definitely recommend the collection. If you aren't in the habit of reading short stories, this is a great place to start.

One of the things that I appreciate about a short story is how much can be conveyed in such a minimum number of pages. I deeply love novels; however, a short story, when done well, is a simple thing of beauty. I enjoy knowing that at least once a year, I will immerse myself in a collection of well-written short stories.

A short story collection, especially one like this with a variety of authors, is kind of like a mix tape. You move from one story to the next, not knowing what to expect, finding yourself going from one very different topic to another, occasionally finding two stories that have some subject or theme in common, but mostly just going along for the ride and enjoying some excellent writing.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

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