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.



Fiction: More Best American Short Stories 2008

Best: x American: ? Short: 12 Story: ?
From The New Yorker, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “Nawabdin Electrician” is a biographical tale of Nawab, a Pakastani electrician trying to make a living for his large family in the 1970s. Through imaginative cajoling, Nawab talks his employer into giving him a motorcycle, which leads Nawab into both trouble and danger.

Is this American? Is this a story? As it was originally published in The New Yorker, Rushdie counts this as American, which I think is completely appropriate. But more interesting this is the first piece that I had to wonder whether or not it was a “story.” The tale is based off of a family friend of the author, and is based on real happenings. In that sense it’s biographical and nonfiction; it’s also worth considering how much of an author’s own life flourishes in his work. What is fiction if not a reinterpretation of reality?

Best: x American: ? Short: ? Story: x
From Harper’s Magazine, Alice Munro’s “Child’s Play” is an enthralling story of Canadian childhood, children’s experience with disability and otherness, and the dark cruelty that children are capable of.

Dear Alice Munro: Where have you been all of my life? Though this is my first experience with Munro, she is a prolific writer, which I’m looking forward to reading. “Child’s Play” was one of the longer pieces in the collection and deviates from the standard 20ish pages of the rest of the book. In contrast though, Munro had the shortest snippet of commentary out of all the author’s comments.

Best: x American: x Short: 12 Story: x
From The Southern Review, Miroslav Penkov’s “Buying Lenin” is a multi-generational story of an Eastern European grandson moving to the U.S.A. for school and leaving his grandfather behind. What unfolds is a beautiful and amusing dialog between grandfather and grandson, communism and capitalism.

Penkov is a young writer in both age and experience, (Seriously, Munro is a tough one to follow!) but “Buying Lenin” is such a brilliant story and I had one of those lovely and embarrassing moments while reading it as I laughed out loud in a room full of quiet people.