The Best American Short Stories 2011

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Best American Short Stories 2011 book cover image

There was a time I was a regular reader of this anthology series, as well another annual short story collection, the O. Henry Prize. I stopped somewhere in the last five or six or even more years, for no particular reason. I was reading other things, partly and also because, as handsome as these editions are, I’ve run out of space. And hence no point in buying them.

But I grabbed this one from the discount table at Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle a few months back. As part of my losing battle to read books I already have rather than buy new books,  I determined to finally pick it up.

One good thing about BASS 2011 was that I’d already read three of the selections: George Saunders‘ “Escape from Spiderhead” and Nathan Englander‘s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” (both were in the New Yorker) as well as Jennifer Egan‘s “Out of Body” (actually an excerpt from her book A Visit From the Goon Squad, and therefore kind of a cheat, though it did appear in the magazine Tin House).

I reread all three as part of the collection—it’s interesting to see short stories in a different context, as part of a larger whole; also because I’d largely forgotten two of them and loved the third (“Escape from Spiderhead”) when I’d first read it.

Anyway, to get to the meat of the matter: I always find reading these collections to be satisfying and filling, like a Las Vegas buffet in a higher-end casino. Looking back over the table of contents, I can pick out the stories that really hit home, those that came close and others that left me cold. I’ll give a brief one- or two-sentence rundown of my favourites.

“Housewifely Arts” by Megan Mayhew Bergman. I loved the idea behind this one; a woman tries to find her dead mom’s parrot. The parrot does an uncanny imitation of the woman’s mom and she wants to hear her voice one last time.

“Gurov in Manhattan” by Ehud Havazelet. A middle-aged man, in the company of a constipated wolfhound, looks back on his life. Hit a little too close to home.

“The Dungeon Master” by Sam Lipsyte. I’m a fan of Lipsyte, at least his novel Home Land which I thought was very funny (and not to be confused with the also funny, if unintentionally, TV series Homeland). In this one, the anti-social title character takes it upon himself to teach his fellow gamers about life.

“Property” by Elizabeth McCracken. A man moves into a house that’s not all it was cracked up to be. I liked this story’s moral, or at least the lesson learned by the main character about looking at things from a different perspective. The way grief—the man is freshly widowed—runs through this story makes it more powerful.

“To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers. The history of a reader and the life of the book she discovers at an impressionable age. Readers everywhere I think will be able to relate to this one. I liked these lines: “Overnight, the World Wide Web weaves tightly around you. A novelty at first, then invaluable, then live support, then heroin.”

“Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders. Saunders is getting lots of love for his new collection (which includes this story), Tenth of December. I’m a fan, so I enjoyed reading this story, about pharmaceuticals run amok, a second time.

What I didn’t like: it seemed like an inordinate number of these 22 stories featured, somewhere in their pages, a conveniently off-camera dead child. And there were a few stories I didn’t like at all, including two that struck me as very forced parables (“Phantoms” by Steven Millhauser and “The Sleep” by Caitlin Horrocks). All in all though a very enjoyable read (and I always like reading the Contributors’ Notes at the end, especially the more generous contributors who explain how and why a story developed).

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