With sales for last year's volume reaching the highest level ever, The Best American Short Stories continues to grow in popularity and acclaim. This year's guest editor, Tobias Wolff, has assembled a lively collection that is certain to secure the series' place on bestseller lists across the nation. Includes stories by Thom Jones, Carol Anshaw, Chris Offutt and many more.
Paperback, 364 pages
December 1st 1994
by Houghton Mifflin
(first published November 3rd 1994)
Tobias Wolff brought a strong, if not flashy, batch of short stories for the 1994 edition of "The Best American Short Stories." If there is any general weakness in this volume of the stalwart anthology, its a similarity in tone from the first story to the last. Lost of rural middle American everymen confronting death, with several, almost clockwork diversions to Eastern Asia. Following are shot capsule reviews of each story, from my least favorite to my most favorite...
It seems that every year tTobias Wolff brought a strong, if not flashy, batch of short stories for the 1994 edition of "The Best American Short Stories." If there is any general weakness in this volume of the stalwart anthology, its a similarity in tone from the first story to the last. Lost of rural middle American everymen confronting death, with several, almost clockwork diversions to Eastern Asia. Following are shot capsule reviews of each story, from my least favorite to my most favorite...
It seems that every year there is a token 'bad story' that inexplicably makes it into the collection. In 1994 is was Landscape and Dream by Nancy Krusoe, who seems to be writing in pretentious college undergrad mode. The 'story' is an incoherent jumble of cliches not unlike the fiction that wound up on the discard pile back in my college litmag editing days. Ms. Krusoe's explanatory blurb doesn't help, as she describes the origins of the story by way of the worst kind of self-indulgent pseudo-intellectual creative writing exercise given to her in a Theory of Fiction class. Bleh.
The remaining 20 stories are all quite good. A few falling just short of great, such as Carol Anshaw's Hammam, which follows a woman into the exotically novel situation she needs to put a romantic relationship in proper perspective. Similarly, the hero of David Gates' The Mail Lady doesn't quite resonate with me in his quest to come to terms with age induced injury and illness, even though his frustration with a newly broken grasp of language is vividly portrayed.
Something like John Keeble's The Chasm would stand out more if it were not surrounded by so many other variations on the noble midwesterner confronted with their mortality. This is a well-written look at a man almost out of his element among the hardened farmers he'd like to live among, but you can only eat the same meal so many times before you're hungry for something else.
Where I Work, by Ann Cummins, is an odd little story about a woman with a fractured view on the world. Maybe she's a little nuts, but there's something very honest and familiar about her stream-of-consciousness attempts to understand her place in things.
A pair of stories deal with mementos that try to survive the wars that envelop them. Jonathan Wilson's From Shanghai focuses on a collection of books that somehow escapes from Hitler's Germany and posseses a symbolic importance not immediately understood by it's American recipient. Robert Olen Butler's Salem singles out a Vietnamese soldier who, after a brutal but numbed encounter with an American counterpart, find himself in possession of a pack of Salem cigarettes. The importance of the soldier's decision about what to do with the cigarettes is deceptively intense, and I found myself delighted and impressed with the subtle and nuanced application of defiance and willpower. Salem
Two stories venture off to China. Both stories deal with Chinese girls scraping out a life for themselves. Lan Samantha Chang's Pipa's Story offers a slightly more sympathetic heroine, who escapes her tiny village in the years leading up to World War II, only to find herself in the middle of a cold war between her mother and a wealthy business man in the city. Fur, by Laura Glen Louis, exists in a more modern setting, and follows a wealthy man as he willingly allows himself to be taken advantage of by the eponymous bank clerk, Fur, as she does the only thing she knows how to do: look pretty and take what she needs.
Both Alice Elliott Dark's In the Gloaming and Christopher Tighman's Things Left Undone are sorrowful accounts of parents doomed to outlive their children. The former sees a mother rediscovering a love for her grown son while he succumbs to a terminal illness. The later sees a father making the most of the a fatherhood he knows will be cut short far too early. What will become of his marraige is only an afterthought, until its all that's left.
Thom Jones' Cold Snap covers similar territory, but in a slightly deluted fashion, as a man must decide if he wants to learn to cope with an accumulation of life's shallow and vague tragedies. Or maybe he'd just rather kill himself. Rather than sulk over the loss of a child, as do the protagonists of the previously mentioned stories, it is our hero's nearly lost sister that paradoxically provides not sorrow, but a possible glimmer of optimism.
While many of the stories mix humor with heartbreak, Stuart Dybeck's We Didn't is pretty much straight humor. There is just enough pathos involved to garner a spot among its more deliberately literary cousins, but this tale of star-crossed lovers and their aborted attempt to consumate a relationship is mostly cynical silliness.
Proper Library, by Carolyn Ferrell, is a quirky look at the seemingly insurmountable hardships of an inner city teen. By story's end, you can't quite tell if the narrator's endless capacity for love and hope is heartwarming or heartbreaking.
Barry Hannah's Nicodemus Bluff is one of two stories of a child being forced to make a close examination of a parent. The young boy in this story must witness his lower class father make a case for equality with several well-to-do (and dubious) community high hats. Hannah tosses the boy and his ill-mannered father into a hunting cabin with his employers then traps them all with a terrible storm. Fascinating dynamics unfold via marathon chess matches and stubborn attempts by well groomed captains of industry to survive in the wilderness.
Melungeons, by Chris Offutt, seems almost like an epilogue to a far deeper story of fueding families in the Appalachians. That so much of the history behind the feud is left unspoken speaks volumes to how effectively Offutt constructs this isolated, hollow climax to generations worth of hatred.
John Rolfe Gardiner's The Voyage Out has all the hallmarks of a stuffy boarding school adventure, right up until the point that the author starts pivoting the point-of-view between his ensemble of witnesses to suspicious events. The menagerie of unreliable narrators makes for great sport as the reader must piece together events based on evidence that and accusations all working cross-purpose to one another.
I always love a good baseball story, and Jim Shepard's Batting Against Castro is steeped in enough raw diamond lingo and down-to-earth elequence that I could almost feel myself sitting in the dark on my grandpa's back porch listening to the the American's batting against the Cubans on the radio. That the politics of the story, and Castro's commandeering of the pitcher's mound are based on actual historical events is just the icing on the cake.
Roxana Robinson's Mr. Sumarsono benefits from its novel scenario, and the author's willingness to explore it from a unique perspective. A single mother invites a foreign diplomat into her home, and her wrong-headed attempts at playing host are witnessed and interpreted by her mortified daughter. The evolution of the young girl's view of her mother is just the perfect touch of sweet.
The Prophet From Jupiter by Tony Early, is an odd assortment of people and places and memories that somehow crash together to create a very genuine sense of community. Early's language is bouncy and fun, but aimed at something dark and forboding. That juxtaposition sets an almost humerous/almost somber tone that was a joy to read.
One of my favorite discoveries in college was Sherman Alexie. "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven" was one of those gut punches of a reading assignment I was given in a Contemporary American Lit class that was only made more vivid when, in some other, completely unrelated class, we got together one night and watched the film, Smoke Signals. Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor Joseph became forever entwined with all the things I loved about college and learning and reading. This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona isn't just a nostalgia trip for me though. Its a story written by a truely original author writing at the very top of his game....more
This was the best edit of annual stories I've yet to experience with this series. Then again, I'm old fashioned, so if you love what I love read onward. I not only loved most of the stories but they were craft missiles. Leave it to the brilliant Tobias Wolff to be as swell of a reader and editor as he is a writer. I gleaned so much from sitting down with these and turning them over in my mind later. That said, I'm pained to pick a favorite. I recommend the whole of the collection.
Definitely a mixed bag, but the stories in here that are great are so wonderful that the book is worth keeping. Stuart Dybek's "We Didn't" is still in my head 2 weeks later. I also really liked Sherman Alexie's, Ann Cummins' "Where I Work", Carolyn Ferrell's, Nancy Krusoe's "Landscape and Dream" (chilling), and Jonathan Wilson's "Shanghai" (amazing).
This is a really good collection. Read "Some Other, Better Otto" and "Accomplice" and especially "Intervention." If a short story collection is bad, it leaves me horribly disappointed. So I don't risk it often, but the Best American series are usually decent.
Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff is a writer of fiction and nonfiction.
He is best known for his short stories and his memoirs, although he has written two novels.
Wolff is the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, where he has taught classes in English and creative writing since 1997. He also served as the director of the Creative WritTobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff is a writer of fiction and nonfiction.
He is best known for his short stories and his memoirs, although he has written two novels.
Wolff is the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, where he has taught classes in English and creative writing since 1997. He also served as the director of the Creative Writing Program at Stanford from 2000 to 2002.