Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Best American Short Stories 2013

            My latest blog piece for The Huffington Post argues that fiction humanizes us in unforeseen ways. The genre has been my teacher and trusted companion for several years now. At the same time, it’s not always obvious whether or not a fictional piece is going to be good. How do you know if what you’re reading is worth the trouble? Investing in a lengthy novel is a gamble that some people understandably shy from. My best advice is to start smaller. A short story allows you a little taste; you can spit it out if you don’t like it, or you can drink more if you do. The Best American Short Stories 2013* is my own personal Piña Colada; I could drink a bucket in one sitting, and I certainly won’t need a spit cup. There’s just something very intimate about reading an entire story in one sitting. Of note, Piña Coladas result in intimacy as well.

            The collection is part of a yearly anthology that started in 1986. Other themes in the series include: The Best American Comics, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and more. The nonrequired grouping confuses me (is this an attempt to lure angsty, rebellious teens?), but I’ll roll with it. Every year, a guest editor compiles his/her favorite American pieces within each category. The editor roster is impressive, including fan-faves like Dave Eggars, Ray Bradbury, Jennifer Egan, Cheryl Strayed, and less obvious ones like Sufjan Stevens and Beck. Because playing 600 instruments simultaneously isn’t enough for the resume.

            It’s difficult to review this book, because I’d have to review each of the twenty pieces, so instead I’ll focus on the medium itself. Each piece is so meticulously written. There are an infinite number of ways to tell a story…but then again, maybe only one. One that is most effective. One that hits the truth dead on. One that captures the essence of that character most readily. The story is a small window into the life of that character; it’s a glimpse that exposes us to their worries, joys, failures, and triumphs. The pages in this collection rise and fall with the collective breath of those lives.

Elizabeth Strout—the 2013 editor—explains how we join the author in discovering these characters. When we are drawn in, we say, “I want to be in your company, I want to keep going, I like the way you sound” (Strout, xiv). This collection graciously gives us insight into the author’s inspiration for the piece. It includes a section in which the author shares the context behind their writing—where they wanted it to go and where it ended up going.  

            I initially picked up this book because of Junot Díaz’s and George Saunders’ contributions. Díaz’s is very Díaz—in a good way. It throws a lurid lens on a man’s family history, mixed with intermittent Spanish for emphasis. Saunders’ reminds us once again how effortlessly he’s able to adopt a unique and urgent voice. While I love both of their pieces, my favorite takeaway from this collection is Jim Shepard’s The World to Come. It offers a peek into the diary of a woman living on an American farm with her husband in the 1850s. That sounds positively mind-numbing…until he adds a subtle, repressed lesbian spin to spice things up. Every part of this story is carefully crafted-- from the underlying metaphors to the formal speech of the time. It shows us how the unpredictability of the weather can totally transform and potentially destroy a farmer’s life. Those feelings of utter un-control shape the characters’ personalities; they wax and wane between reluctance and willingness to experiment and explore.

            The Best American Short Stories 2013* has proven a gem since I unwittingly purchased it two years ago. Since that time, I’ve repeatedly circled back to it, seeking out the stories that resonated with me. They’re short enough to consume as a bedtime read or on my commute; they’re long enough to teach me something and satisfy my curiosity. The Best American Series editors curate the best of the best, and I believe that the short stories collection is a perfect compromise between quality and longevity for those looking to try their hand at fiction. 5 out of 5 camel humps for this masterpiece!

*Strout, Elizabeth, and Heidi Pitlor, eds. The Best American Short Stories 2013. Boston: Mariner Books, 2013. Print.

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