Chantal's Reviews > The Best American Short Stories 2008

The Best American Short Stories 2008 by Salman Rushdie
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Sep 17, 2010

it was amazing

Since 1978, the best American short stories have been collected annually in a series plainly enough titled The Best American Short Stories. The Houghton Mifflin Company publishes it and Heidi Pitlor is the series editor. She does the heavy lifting, reading thousands of short stories published in such well-respected literary magazines as The New Yorker and in many more obscure publications, as well as the stories published by various university presses. It’s Pitlor’s job to whittle the collection down to approximately one hundred stories, then it’s the guest editor’s work to choose the top twenty. Each year a different writer is invited to fill this position; past guest editors have included Stephen King (2007), Barbara Kingsolver (2001), E.L Doctorow (2000), Amy Tan (1999), Tobias Wolff (1994), Richard Ford (1990), John Updike (1984), and Joyce Carol Oates (1979). And each year the series is a popular success -- regularly landing a place on the New York Times Best Sellers’ List. The Best American Short Stories 2008 is no exception.
Salmon Rushdie, this year’s editor, admits, in his introduction, that any anthology will reflect the preferences of the editor, but he also admits, regarding stories, “I’m pretty broad church, really.” This is an unusually appropriate admission considering, if there is a recurring theme amongst these stories (beyond old-fashioned naturalism), it is religion.
Take, for instance, “Missionaries” by Bradford Tice: a coming of age story, within this collection, in which Joseph, a devout boy, bike-riding through the streets of North Knoxville and door knocking for the Church of Latter- Day Saints, wrestles with the obligations of his religion, his desire to please his parents, his terror at the daunting task of soliciting for the Lord, his admiration for and disappointment in his missionary partner, and the usual temptations that haunt young men. At its core this story declares that sometimes it is the silent ones among us who are the truly devout, and that sometimes those loud voices in the choir belong to the people we need be most wary of -- an appropriate story this year, considering the recent foibles of a certain former governor.
“Man and Wife” (which, it should be noted, is Katie Chase’s first published story) calls to mind the Texas polygamy sect that made headlines in the Spring of 2008, when the main character, nine-year-old Mary Ellen, is forced to put away her Barbies in preparation for her wedding to the aging Mr. Middleton. This tale offers an intriguing look at a child bride in a contemporary religious sect, and is made even more fascinating for the unsettling effects of such commonplace words as Dixie cup, Diet Coke and Jeopardy, juxtaposed the author’s calm and competent handling of some rather condemnable material. Chase manages to serve up this tale of child brides and arranged marriages in America as if it was a mere tray of pickles and olives she was offering, while also highlighting the resiliency of man, or rather, girl.
“Hmmm, let’s see.” He’d (Mr. Middleton) mull over the choices, select a pimento-stuffed green olive. I’d turn to offer the tray to Dad, who had a penchant for sweet pickles, but then: “Please, wait just a moment – perhaps another. Hmm, let’s see.” And he’d choose a kalamata. The metal tray was heavy, but my arms grew stronger, and I learned to balance it on my shoulder.

It’s no surprise to have an Alice Munro story amongst these best of the best. Like Tice’s story, and Chase’s, Munro’s “Child Play” is also a sort of coming of age piece (although Munro’s reaches into mature adulthood) that warrants reflection on various religious notions and life choices when Marlene and Charlene, best girlfriends at a United Church of Canada summer camp, in a moment of spontaneous mischief commit an act of profound ruthlessness before returning to their respective and separate lives. The crime both shapes and haunts their remaining days, until years later, when the seriously ill Charlene solicits Marlene, a retired professor, to seek out a Father Hofstrader from the Catholic Church in order that he might hear her confession. From a religious standpoint the story speaks of the weight of sin and the individual nature of religion.
Was I not tempted, during all this palaver? Not once? Not swayed by longing, by a magical-lantern show, the promise of pardon? No. Not really. It’s not for me. What’s done is done, what’s done remains. Flocks of angels, tears of blood, notwithstanding.

“Bible” a Tobias Wolfe story expands on this notion of individuality and religion. Maureen Casey is a professor in a Catholic college, who is abducted by the desperate father of Hassan, a student of Maureen’s who has cheated on an exam. (Although, of the stories mentioned in this review, this is the first to admit a diverse cultural element, be assured many others in the collection do.) Hassan’s father, desperate to save his son from expulsion intends to force Maureen to swear on a bible that she will not report the incident to Father Crespi. The irony in the story is the religious predilections of the characters teaching and attending Saint Ignatius. Hassan and his father are Muslim, while Maureen declares, “I’ve had it with clueless men passing on orders from God.” While exploring the depths of a parent’s desperation for his child’s success, Wolfe’s story also pokes at the incongruity that lurks at the foundation of many religious schools within North America, and reminds us of the very real conflict between Muslims and Christians that, for lack of understanding and tolerance, continually threatens peace in America.
“The human being is a storytelling animal, or, actually, the storytelling animal, the only creature on Earth that tells itself stories to understand what sort of creature it is.” Salmon Rushdie reminds us of this, in his introduction. That this collection, a sampling of this year’s favorite stories, boasts so many religious tales speaks of us as a people. (Another is Rebecca Makkai’s “The Worst You Ever Feel” in which a boy’s parents brag that he is a young Rabbi for the visions he professes.) Toss in a few stories of worship at its most extreme and ridiculous -- such as T.C. Boyle’s “Admiral’ in which a wealthy couple pays two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars to have their Afghan cloned, Jonathan Lethem’s “The King of Sentences in which a pair of undergrads worship an author to a most ludicrous end, and Miroslav Penkov’s story “Buying Lenin”, a story about purchasing Lenin’s body on ebay -- and it would seem that North Americans are weighing spirituality against their consumer society. Add A.M. Holmes’ “May We Be Forgiven” to the mix, and Karen Russell’s not-so-traditional story contemplating an eternity on earth, or more accurately a living hell, in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”, and The Best American Short Stories 2008 makes for a fair portrayal of the conscience and concerns of our North American culture, a culture strongly in support of a new president, one who advocates change and asks the people to be responsible for this change.

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