Tuesday, August 3, 2010

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

The Best American Short Stories 2009
Alice Sebold, editor; Heidi Pitlor, series editor
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
published 2009
330 pages

I absolutely love short stories.  I know I'm kind of in the minority with this, as many seem to have difficulty with them for any number of reasons.  But I adore them and have, ever since I can remember.

Short stories are my go-to reads for any number of occasions. They're great for when you're in-between books - for example, when you've just finished something incredible and you need a day or so to come down from the thrill of that read.  I like to have a book of short stories in my purse, because I think they are perfect reading for those waits at doctors' offices and the like.  I've even been known to read one during a particularly horrendous traffic jam.  Of course, just as with novels, short story collections can be hit or miss, depending on a variety of factors. 

I especially like short stories for the opportunity to discover new (to me) authors, to sample a bit of their work, and this collection was no exception.  While I didn't like all 20 stories in The Best American Short Stories 2009, I liked many more than I disliked.  For the purposes of this review, I'll highlight nine of my favorites and several authors well worth watching. 

I've already written about Steve De Jarnatt's "Rubiaux Rising," (The Sunday Salon, 4/25/2010: "Inspiration from Steve") and this story about a drug-addicted veteran trapped in an attic during Hurricane Katrina remains my favorite of this collection.

"In the attic Rubiaux watches light pour in - dancing dust around, slow and celestial like the Milky Way. His ears improve with a crack-jaw yawn. What's that high-pitched rushing? Those low knocking sounds like bowling heard outside the alley. And that slow, mean rumble. What is coming this way?

A shock wave hits the house like a dozen Peterbilts crashing one after another into the frame. Beams groan, the whole foundation nearly quaking off its shoulder, nails and screws strain to hold their grip, eeking like mice as wood and metal mad grapple to hold their forced embrace.

A new light shines at the far window, painting the ceiling with golden ripples. Reflection. Water. Water is coming. Water is here."

Hurricane Katrina also makes an appearance, along with Hurricane Rita 26 days later, in Adam Johnson's tension-filled and sad story, "Hurricanes Anonymous," which I also liked.  (In the Contributors' Notes, which I often enjoy just as much as the stories for the insights they provide, Johnson is an eerie Nostradamus.  He says, "I lived in Lake Charles, Louisiana for three years .... A mixture of lush wetlands and petrochemical plants, the area was both a rare ecological treasure and an apocalypse in progress.")  

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynam was just named one of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 writers, and her story "Yurt," focusing on the dynamics and inner-lives of a group of middle school teachers (you'll never think of your 6th grade teacher the same way again) was one of my favorites in this collection.  It had me from the first sentence.

"A year ago, Ms. Duffy, the fifth-grade English and history teacher, had come very close to losing it, what with her homeroom being right next to the construction site for the new computer lab, and her attempts to excise the Aztecs from the curriculum being thwarted, and her ill-advised affair with Mr. Polidori coming to an end."

Joseph Epstein's story "Beyond the Pale" brings the reader into the lives of two writers, Arnold Berman and Zalman Belzner, and how their encounter leads to a complicated (and dark) triangulation with Mr. Belzner's wife, Gerda.  The details that Epstein gives us in bringing Gerda's character to life are sharp and vivid, making her seem as real to the reader as if she jumped out from the page.

"A Shadow Table" is part of author Alice Fulton's much-acclaimed debut novel, The Nightingales of Troy, which chronicles a family over the span of a century. It is ten linked stories, but "A Shadow Table," about a family's memorial to their daughter, more than ably stands on its own as it tells the story of a couple, their respective families' losses and those among them.

Eleanor Henderson is an author I will be looking for more of, as I loved her story "The Farms." Set in the early 1990s in a hardscrabble Florida apartment complex, the young narrator struggles to befriend others with similar heartache while encountering the reality of the stigma surrounding her brother's death from AIDS, due to a blood transfusion.  

"I was the only one who wanted to talk about Andrew.  Krista, our old neighbors, my teachers, even my parents - everyone tripped past his name, hopped over it in coded silence.  Listening to the sternness in Donatella's voice, I wondered now if our new neighbors might be doing the same thing, if we were what they were talking about on their balconies in voices too low for me to hear, and if that was why they refused to meet my eyes before ducking into their cars."

Perhaps it is because this one hits home for me, but "The Farms" is a powerful story and one of the very best in this collection.

"Sagittarius" will resonate with - and leave breathless - any parent who has known what it means to have a child who is different. In Greg Hrbek's story, two parents struggle with the physical and emotional reality of having a young child who is, inexplicably, half human and half horse. From the doctors' recommendations that will change the essence of who the child is to the impact that caring for their son has on their other child, Greg Hrbek takes the reader on enough of a roller-coaster ride to fill a novel. 

Victoria Lancelotta is an author who is somewhat familiar to me (I bought her short story collection Here in the World: Thirteen Stories from ... someplace, maybe a used bookstore or a yard sale.)  Since it's still on my TBR bookshelves, I hadn't read any of her work until "The Anniversary Trip," a story about Monica and Martin, visiting Paris with Martin's mother following the death of his father. The anniversary becomes one filled with the realization of loss, which becomes all too apparent in the course of the trip.

I read Jill McCorkle's The Cheer Leader a million years ago (it was published in 1984 and I remember checking it out at the library where I worked after school). While I don't remember much about the book, I do remember that I really liked McCorkle's writing.  So when I saw that this collection had a Jill McCorkle story, I was thrilled to rediscover her writing.  "Magic Words," a contemporary story about a woman having an affair with a younger coworker and the intersection of lives young and old on her way to meet him, didn't disappoint.

Loss, sadness, and uncertainty are predominant themes in this often dark collection of stories.  I'm not sure if that is coincidental - a reflection of recent years and the economic gloom and doom environment - or whether this reflects the perspective and preferences of the collection's Guest Editor Alice Sebold (no stranger to dark themes in literature herself!)  As I said, not all the stories in The Best American Short Stories 2009 are winners, and they're not always uplifting, but these nine selections are among the most finely crafted pieces of writing very much worth reading.

Read more about this collection and the authors at The Best American Short Stories 2009 Official Web Site

What Others Thought:

The Amazing Adulthood of Alexis
two.one.five magazine

Did I miss your review?  Let me know!
copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Trisha said...

I love the Best American series; although I must admit I'm more likely to get the BA Essays or Travel Writing editions. :)

bermudaonion said...

I'm just beginning to appreciate the art of the short story so I'm jotting this one down. It's nice to have a good recommendation.

Belle said...

This sounds like a great collection. I used to read a lot of short stories, and I was always in awe of how much intensity a good author could pack into the space limitations of the format. I really should start reading them again.

K A B L O O E Y said...

Perfect timing, because I just finished 3 books I've been juggling and I have to try to hit a bookstore before the blogfest begins. Because I know I'll be hiding out and reading instead of networking like I'm supposed to. Still, 3 tot-free days and a hotel room + social anxiety = reading! And funny -- I just found McCorkle's Creatures of Habit today, misplaced with my non-fiction, and moved it to it's proper home in fiction.

bibliophiliac said...

Hi Melissa, I just picked this up on your recommendation--I will let you know what I think...Oh, and there is an award for you at my blog!