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: Best American Short Stories 2008 edited by Salman Rushdie

“…America has become fearful of late, its doors have not been open to the world’s huddled masses in the old, generous way, but still the world’s stories somehow continue to make their journeys to America, and metamorphose, with remarkable ease, into new American tales.”

Every year I think it would be a good idea to read the Best American Short Stories collection and every year I don’t. Until this year. Guest edited by Salman Rushdie, the 2008 collection has an interesting premise of the slipperiness and subjectiveness of the series itself. Best? American? Short? Stories? What do these words mean or entail? Even Rushdie is not native to any of the Americas, but has only relatively recently made them his home. With stories selected from American and Canadian magazines and journals, the Best American collection brings together some of the highlights of the year.

I’m going to look shortly at each of these stories over a series of posts with the criteria of “best,” “American, “short, and “story.”

Best:  American: x Short: 20.5 Story: x

From Harper’s Magazine, T.C. Boyle’s story “Admiral” explores two obscenely wealthy people’s quest to restore their lost dog Admiral through genetic engineering. In an attempt to recreate the original dog, they call upon Nisha who was their dog sitter years before when she was in high school. With complications of her own, Nisha accepts this post-college job to relive her high school days as closely as possible. Eventually she runs into an environmental and animal rights activist interested in the case.

The story has an interesting premise, but ultimately I said okay, shrugged, and moved along. In his introduction, Rushdie mentioned that this story by Boyle was interchangeable with Boyle’s “Sin Dolor” and Boyle explains the story as a foray “into terra incognita of technological change.” The story does have a little Frankensteinian draw to it. Boyle is a prolific writer and though I have not read much by him, “Admiral” did not grip me as a best story.

Best: x American: x Short: 13 Story: x

From Ecotone, Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Year of Silence” is told from an intimate yet communal perspective. In a large city there is a sudden moment of complete silence like the silence that occasionally interrupts a cocktail party. These bleeps of soothing and calming citywide silence continue and attract the people. Eventually, the people seek to artificially and succeed at creating the silence only to have ripples of noises as a response. Some recording the instances of piercing silence or noise begins to record the pauses and breaks wondering of the message located within.

I loved this story. In part because the “narrative architecture” is quite attractive and suspenseful, but also because the story is interactive and as a reader you discover the message on your own via Morse code. Brockmeier cites his inspiration from his own “sensitivity to noise” and Jame’s Salter’s story “Akhnilo.” The story is very technical as the people mantle and then dismantle the silence, and this is interspersed with very human and real moments.