Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book Review: The Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories 2009

Book Review: The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, edited by Laura Furman with prize jury selections by A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, and Tim O'Brien

I adore short stories, and I love collections of short stories. And I especially love the O.Henry awards, so much so that I always include that year's edition (along with The Best American Short Stories) on my wish list every Christmas.

So it was with much excitement that I saw the 2009 collection on the library's New Releases shelf (and yes, I did indeed have to mentally calculate whether time really did zoom by faster than I thought and it was already 2010).

I enjoy reading short stories to indulge in more of the work by authors I like as well as to discover my next favorite writer. That being said, this year's collection left me a little lukewarm. I thought about abandoning it, but didn't think that seemed fair. (Kind of like when you're in school and you have to do a group project, and there are a few kids who pull their weight and have great stuff to offer and others ... well, not so much. The whole group shouldn't be judged on a few, and that's how I feel about this.)

It's a very multicultural collection. The 20 stories contained within are literally all over the map - from Egypt, to Cape Town, to war zones (there are several stories about war), to Washington State. I will confess to not having a dearth of multi-cultural reading in my repertoire, something I am not necessarily proud of and which I am trying to remedy by trying to broaden my literary horizons. (Another reason why I didn't want to abandon the book.) So, it is possible that my personal unfamiliarity with reading about certain places or cultures, or both, might have come into play regarding my appreciation of the stories, and I admit that.

That being said, I did like several of the stories, especially:

"The Nursery" by Kristen Sundberg Lunstrom
"Tell Him About Brother John" by Manual Munoz
"This is Not Your City" by Caitlin Horrocks

(maybe I should have just read the stories beginning with the letter T?)

"The House Behind a Weeping Cherry" by Ha Jin
"Twenty-Two Stories" by Paul Theroux

(damn, that "t" thing is really kind of weird, now that I look at the titles!)

My favorite line among all the lines in these stories comes from Andrew Sean Greer's story, "Darkness":

"Astounding how life is, how it will shift ever so slightly and reveal something in the fold of its garment that you hadn't noticed before, something there all along, how it will turn just like a person turns and show you a face you once had memorized amid the chatter of a tedious party, memorized as if for a test, and here it comes, years after you expected it: the test."

A nice bonus to this collection, as with others in this series, is the author commentaries at the end. They explain the origins of the stories and the inspiration behind them, which is always fun to read (at least, it is to me), and there's usually a little biographical info on the authors. (For example, "Tell Him About Brother John" started from a comment that a homeless man said to Mr. Munoz, proving that writing inspiration can be found anywhere and from anybody. And, thanks to the back section I learned that one of the authors lives within 45 minutes of my house!) There are also lists of the author's previous work and where his or her stories have been published.

With a few exceptions, many of the authors included in The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 were new to me. Graham Joyce, Kristen Sundberg Lundstrom, E.V. Slate, John Burnside, Mohan Sikka, L.E. Miller, Alistair Morgan, Roger Nash, Manual Munoz, Caitlin Horrocks, Ha Jin, Paul Theroux, Judy Troy, Nadine Gordimer, Viet Dinh, Karen Brown, Marisa Silver, Paul Yoon, Andrew Sean Greer, and Junot Diaz all have stories in this collection.

If you're not into short stories or the works of the authors above, this may not be the collection for you. (I wouldn't recommend it for someone new to the genre or who wants to read more short stories.) But, if you enjoy the work of any of the authors above, then it is worth picking up a copy of this (borrow it from the library) to read their work.
Who knows, maybe there will even be a new favorite discovered in the process.

See what another blogger had to say: Reading the Short Story
and if you've reviewed this, let me know in the comments.


Care said...

I enjoyed this post very much. I don't think I read enough short story collections but the ones I have have been amazing. I blame (give credit) to bookblogging. In fact, I've read a Nadine Gordimer collection that was... astounding! but have yet to be seduced by her novels. Anyway, thank you. Great post.

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Care, have you read The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich? or Delicate Edible Birds? (still need to do a review of that one). I have a few more on my night table that I am hoping to get to this fall ...

JoAnn said...

Love that passage from Andrew Sean Greer! It reminds me of the beginning of The Story of a Marriage. I could definitely use a little more multiculturalism in my reading, but not sure if this collection is the best way for me to do that...

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Are you sure those lines weren't from Tdarkness!?

I've been reading more and more short fiction collections, but haven't yet read this particular annual. Is there a year of PEN/O.Henry that you would especially recommend?

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

JoAnn - I'm reading "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" now, and the first sentence of that is definitely similar to "The Story of a Marriage."

Dawn - LOL! And that's a good question about which year might be a good one ... I'd have to look back and see. Although, what I'm betting I'll find is that I'm not completely finished any of the previous years' editions. :(