Best American Short Stories 2007

February 19, 2008 at 12:35 am (Best of 2007, Book review, books, Short stories)

best.jpg A couple of weeks ago, as I was experiencing mounting frustration with contemporary fiction ( with the very definite exception of crime fiction), I went back to Best American Short Stories 2007. I’d read only three or four of the stories; now I read twelve more. (There are twenty in all.) Whenever I approach an anthology such as this one, I like to see which selections especially pleased the reviewers; I read those first. And now, Dear Reader, I shall do the same for you!

First off, let me say that there are some real gems here, thought-provoking, beautifully written, and highly original. One of these I’ve already written about: John Barth’s “Toga Party.” Here are some others of that same high caliber:

In “Balto” by T.C. Boyle, a twelve-year-old girl is asked by her father’s lawyer to lie in open court. Will she? You won’t know until the very end of the story.

In Mary Gordon’s”Eleanor’s Music,” a sophisticated Manhattanite finds she is not as immune from pain and injury as she had thought herself to be. (Many of us have cherished Mary Gordon since reading Final Payments, all those years ago!)

I laughed out loud at “Wake,” Beverly Jensen’s tale of a fractious but loving Canadian family getting ready to bury their paterfamilias. Fate seems determined to sabotage the proceedings; for starters; Dad’s body goes missing!

Bruce McAllister’s “The Boy in Zaquitos,” about the deliberate spreading of plague bacteria, enveloped me in dread. This story, which first appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, singlehandedly convinced me that I need to go back and read more stories in that genre. (A very intriguing anthology, Eclipse One, is currently on my always-about-to-collapse night table!)

I have said that Amy Bloom’s novel Away served to awaken the ghosts of my ancestors. Eileen Pollack’s story “The Bris,” veering crazily between rollicking and poignant, did the same. Marcus Lieberman’s father is on his deathbed when he makes a most startling confession to his son: not only was he not born a Jew, he has never formally converted to Judaism, either. And he was never circumcised. It is that omission that he wants to remedy before it’s too late. For his part, Marcus is stunned. Who would possibly agree to circumcise a dying man? Oy gevalt! What to do?

Richard Russo’s unadorned, down-to-earth prose style is perfectly suited to his usual subject matter: ordinary people struggling to get by and to make sense of life in the workaday world. Sometimes, when you get to know his characters, you realize that they are anything but ordinary. In “Horseman.” Janet Moore is one such character. At first, she comes across as a prissy academic; she reminded me of the observation some wag once made about the infighting being so fierce in academia because the stakes are so small. But gradually, Russo leads the reader deeper into Janet’s life and her past, and I found myself responding to her with compassion: “So this, she thought, was heartbreak. She’d read about it, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to get any closer.”

There are three stories I admired but had a problem with. The first, Alice Munro’s “Dimension,” is the story of a horrific crime, narrated with the author’s characteristic understatement. She had me with her right up until the end, when an incident happens to the bereft mother that seemed too obvious, too much like a set-up, at least, in my eyes. I still recommend the story; for the most part, it bears all the hallmarks of this celebrated author’s mastery of the form.

Stellar Kim’s “Findings & Impressions” a story told by a radiologist, was moving and beautifully written, but, I also found it pretty predictable, at least as far as the sad outcome is concerned.

Finally, “Sans Farine” by Jim Shepard was in many ways an astonishing feat of imagination. In it, the author re-creates the life and times of a family whose members, over succeeding generations, held the post of executioner in France before, during, and after the Revolution. Shepard really had me during most of this extraordinary tale, but by the end, I felt he had piled on the gore a bit too relentlessly.

Finally… drum roll…three stories that in this standout collection, IMHO really soared: “L. DeBard and Aliette: A Love Story” by Lauren Groff, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell, and “My Brother Eli” by Joseph Epstein.

Set in 1918, “L. DeBard and Aliette” is the story of a passionate affair between a championship swimmer and a polio victim. It may be the most erotically charged love story I’ve ever read – truly amazing in its intensity.

In “St .Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” Karen Russell takes a pack of feral – perhaps I should say, lupine – girls and throws them into a Catholic boarding school. They’re there to be civilized and un-wolved, as it were, and the results are predictably outrageous. I didn’t expect to laugh so much while I was reading this story, but I did, over and over again.

Finally, in “My Brother Eli,” Joseph Epstein posits the question as to whether a novelist should be forgiven for using the lives of friends family members as thinly disguised fodder for his work. And believe me, this free and unapologetic using is merely one of numerous sins committed by the eminent novelist Eli Black. This story is told by Eli’s older brother Louis in a simple, straightforward way that quite simply, broke my heart. I feel haunted by it; I’ll undoubtedly read it again – and again…

I looked Joseph Epstein up on the Gale database Literature Resource Center and was quite frankly stunned. Born in 1937, Epstein has had a long distinguished career as a man of letters. I have heard of him, but only barely, and I’m pretty sure “My Brother Eli” is the first thing I’ve read by him. I intend to remedy that deficiency. One of the many praiseworthy aspects of these Best American anthologies is that they bring truly gifted writers to the attention of those that appreciate their gifts.

One of the most rewarding features of this anthology is found in the back of the book and is called “Contributors’ Notes.” For each of the authors whose stories appear in this book, there is an entry giving some background information, followed by an explanation by the author as to what inspired him or her to write the story. Fascinating!

shepard.jpg russell_karen.jpg mary-gordon.jpg groff165x200.jpg

[Jim Shepard, Karen Russell, Mary Gordon, and Lauren Groff]

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[Joseph Epstein, T.C. Boyle, Alice Munro, and Eileen Pollack]

Best American Short Stories 2007 sees the debut of a new series editor, Heidi Pitlor. This year’s guest editor is Stephen King. He wrote a terrific introduction to this volume; it appeared in the New York Times Book Review this past September. (I particularly relish what he wrote about big box bookstores. I’m with ya there, Stephen; boy, am I ever!) I’d like to personally thank King for the passion and enthusiasm that he brought to this undoubtedly daunting task. king.jpg

2 Comments

  1. “Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” by Andy Duncan « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] read a review of Eclipse One as I was finishing Best American Short Stories 2007. Two terrific stories in that collection, “The Boy in Zaquitos” and “St. […]

  2. halmhoill said,

    thats it, man

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