Adventures in Reading

Short Stories: Best American Short Stories 2008

The Best American Short Stories 2008 is a solid collection of well-crafted and thoughtful writing. I have been introduced to some new authors I will definitely be reading more from like: Kevin Brockmeier, Nicole Krauss, Alice Munro, Miroslav Penkov, and more. I’ve adored the contributor’s notes in the back (especially as it is so rare to have short story authors comment so intimately on individual stories), and have dutifully made copies of the 100 Other Great Stories of 2007 as well as the “addresses for American and Canadian magazines.”

This was my first experience reading the entirety of the collection and Heidi Pitlor’s and Salman Rushdie’s notes were promising in exploring new boundaries of “best” and “american” and “short” and “story.” Writing about the collecting process, Rushdie said:

“Old-fashioned naturalism was the dominant manner this year, and creative writingese, I have to say, was often in evidence. There were so many stories that were well observed, well crafted, full of well-honed phrases; so many rhythmic, allusive, technically sophisticated stories that knew when to leave matters unresolved and when it was right to bring events to a dramatic climax; so many stories that had everything one could wish for in a story…except for the sense that it had to be written, that it was necessary. This was what I had expected and perhaps feared: a widespread, humorless, bloodless competence.”

Leaving the collection, I cannot say that I was terribly moved or impressed, and perhaps it’s simply a difference in taste and judgment between Salman Rushdie and myself, but I felt his previous statement was an apt description of a fair few stories within the collection: “well observed, well crafted, […] well-honed phrases, […] rhythmic, allusive, technically sophisticated” but ultimately “bloodless.”

The collection as a whole is a safe collection that offers some textbook examples of short stories, and of course with a few exceptions as mentioned above. But it took me ages to get through the book, I most often didn’t feel engaged as a reader, and I even tried to pace myself – like a runner – to get as much impact as I could from each story.

I return to my previous comment that it “is a solid collection of well-crafted and thoughtful writing.” Some of my disappointment perhaps lingers from the editorial promise of something more daring, a little more adventurous. (Hell, the mention of flash fiction had me flipping pages!) This collection is a leisurely stroll when I had expected it to run.


Short Stories: More Best American Short Stories 2008

Best: ? American: x Short: 14.5 Story: x
From The Atlantic, Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries” is about two boys within the Mormon Church who are field operatives in converting new members. Like military recruiters with statistical goals, the older of the boys confronts possible converts with a terrible ferocity while the younger boy develops a crush on this more mature figure.

In Bradford’s comments, he mentions that Mormonism is not meant to be the center piece of his story, but how can it not be? The story is interesting and exemplifies the hypocrisy that can surface from religious practitioners, and it’s even given me pause to consider it a few days after finishing the story. But I have to wonder how it’s a “best” story if it doesn’t fulfill the author’s objective?

Best: ? American: x Short: 13 Story: x
From The Antioch Review, Mark Wisniewski’s “Straightaway” is told through an African American male voice and describes a life of brushing against achievement and success, but ultimately falling short. Three friends, with their high school basketball glory days behind them, are hired to remove a barrel from a woman’s property and are paid a large sum of money in doing so as long as they ask no questions. The three end up at the race track considering their position.

The hovering anticipation of the story is will they be caught? They were seen abandoning the barrel and the paranoia of the occasion is apparent throughout the story. It was a so-so story and I didn’t really care for it.

Best: ? American: x Short: 11 Story: x
From The Atlantic, Tobias Wolff’s “Bible” is the culture class between a white and female teacher instructing at a Catholic school and the Arabic and immigrant father of one of her pupils. Both characters come equipped with a good deal of baggage, and the father recklessly confronts the teacher with the suggestion of violence in regards to his sons academic problems.

Tobias Wolff is a name I hear and see frequently and his short story “Bible” was my first experience with him, and between this and “Missionaries'” by Tice, I don’t think I’ll be picking up The Atlantic. I don’t like my short stories to be obvious and I found myself scanning this tale because of it.

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Short Stories: More Best American Short Stories 2008

Best: ? American: x Short: 14 Story: x
From Zoetrope: All-Story, Karen Russell’s “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is about two vampires subsisting off of lemons within a church’s grove that is also a tourist attraction.

Have I mentioned before I’m not really that big into the whole vampire thing? I know I mostly enjoyed what I read of the Twilight series and Dracula gave me tingles, but as a reader I feel when a writer utilizes a pop icon such as vampires that a whole lot is demanded to make it a worthwhile read. Russell’s story was cute, but not compelling.

Best: x American: x Short: 7 Story: x
From The New Yorker, George Saunders’ “Puppy” is an interesting class clash between two families: one middle-class family seeking a puppy and one lower-class family desperately trying to give away their puppy. Saunders provides interesting internal snippets into the mothers’ minds. Saunders cites his spark of influence as he once drove through a neighborhood and his family caught a glimpse of a boy in a backyard with a leash on.

While other stories deal with class in this collection, Saunders specifically created a woman who has crossed classes and how she deals with this. Perhaps it just reminds me of my own class conscious mother?

Best: ? American: x Short: 12 Story: x
From New England Review, Christine Sneed’s “Quality of Life” is the story of Lindsay and how she finds herself swept up into an affair with an older and relatively unknown man. Lindsay’s story is a life of relinquishing control of one’s own life to others (such as this man and her family). By the end of the story, it seems that Lindsay is completely under the influence of this man.

I enjoyed the story and I enjoyed where it headed, but why (as a rhetorical question to the story as a whole)? Short stories often examine an occasion or sequence of events, but it’s curious which ones are chosen. Often they’re points of considerable stress or change. The reader is introduced to Lindsay after she has already started losing control of her life to her own family, and we just continue to see a more thorough process with this mystery man. However, I didn’t feel there was enough reasoning to why Lindsay could not stop or get herself out of the situation.