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: x American: x Short: 21 Story: x
From Ploughshares, Allegra Goodman’s “Closely Held” is a cross-section exposing a particular step into adulthood. Within these moments the protagonist Orion reflects on his girlfriend, his friends turned distant business partners, and on a computer business that prospectively will make him a ridiculously wealthy man. The second first person narrative in the collection, “Closely Held” holds Orion at a place when all of his options in life are still available.

I was excited to read Goodman’s comments that this story, and another it “piggy-backed” on, is possibly leading to a novel. “Closely Held” reads as an out-of-breath encounter and I watched Orion hesitatingly revealing his world. I confess a personal attraction to the story as I find myself at a similar juncture in my own life where I need to finally begin considering the Big Decisions of Life. Well-written and intriguing, it’s a great story for the collection.

Best: x American: x Short: 13.5 Story: x
From Granta, A.M. Homes’ “May We Be Forgiven” is the story of two brothers. The younger brother George is involved in a car accident killing three passengers and he begins to fall apart. Their wives encourage the older brother to move into George’s home to help his wife while George is in a mental ward.

The moment I finished this story I began reading it again, and, like Goodman’s story, “May We Be Forgiven” may be expanded into a novel. Homes describes the story as “unfinished” and reading the story it’s ready to burst with complexity. I was surprised by the honesty and violence in the story.

Best: x American: x Short: 11 Story: x
From Harper’s Magazine, Nicole Krauss’ “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky” is perhaps my favorite story so far in the collection. Starting from the idea on the effects of living a life amongst someone else’s furniture, “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky” is the story of a man and poet who returns to Chile and is destroyed by Pinochet. But this story is told through a woman who briefly encountered Daniel and is caring for his furniture in New York.

On a Post-It I wrote that I “love, love, love this.” Krauss has a great interplay of themes from the poetic to the political to the personal. The story is suggestively unveiled, but all around this concrete and peculiarly crafted desk.

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