Tiny Pants's Reviews > The Best American Short Stories 2009

The Best American Short Stories 2009 by Alice Sebold
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Jan 23, 10

bookshelves: fiction, short-stories, series
Read in January, 2010

I was teetering between two stars ("it was ok") and three stars ("I liked it") on this one, and in the end went with three stars because you know what, I did like it. As much as I've complained about this series in recent years, this was a stronger entry than they've had in a while. Which quite frankly I found surprising, since I wasn't expecting Alice Sebold to be the greatest editor. Does she even write short fiction? And in spite of the success of The Lovely Bones, I've never felt like her other works were particularly well-regarded (I'm not even sure if that one was so much well-regarded as widely read. I mean it's for adults and I even read it).

What did I like about this one? You know what, there were a couple of stories that actually managed to surprise me, which is really saying something. I've been thinking about this a lot lately -- why is it I can spend endless hours reading teen series, but struggle to make it through any adult fiction? And it's because of predictability. I know -- most people reading this will immediately think I'm saying "I like the predictability of teen series," but quite the opposite. The continuous, book-to-book, soap opera-style plots mean teen series' plot arcs have to go on forever. Things hardly ever get settled, or are in any way final. In contrast, whenever I'm in a bookstore and pick up a novel that's meant for an adult audience (whether literary or more popular fiction), all I have to do is read the dust jacket to be like, "yup, their marriage will be tested but they'll stay together" or "struggling through the brother's illness will help them learn the true meaning of family." You can just see straight through these things from page one, and if there's one thing I hate, it's spoilers. Ergo, nine times out of ten, I just can't do it. And besides, the world is depressing enough without having to read about people's difficult marriages or life-threatening illnesses. Who can blame me for wanting to escape into high school soap operas?

But I digress: The point of all of the above was that I liked that there were stories in here that actually did manage to defy the conventions of literary fiction (e.g. pets must die, at least one person gets cancer, children are abandoned, etc.). My favorite piece in the collection was "Magic Words" by Jill McCorkle, which really had me on the edge of my seat, and which was a wonderfully layered piece -- the shallowness implied by the title is sort of borne out in all of the different characters' behaviors, with the words they really want to use stuck inside their heads. I wouldn't say I liked but I would say I was pleasantly surprised by the piece by Greg Hrbek, and I definitely liked the piece by Alice Fulton. Probably my second-place favorite though was the piece by Richard Powers, which was just terrific. Really different from anything else, and reminded me in the best way of William Gibson.

What didn't I like? Well, an over-reliance on the New Yorker meant I'd read a bunch of the stories before -- and since I haven't felt like the New Yorker has had decent short fiction in the last couple years (did they change editors or something?) it wasn't like these were pieces I was eager to re-read. "Yurt" by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum was an exception, but the Annie Proulx entry was a struggle the first time I around and I had to give up on the second read. I often weary of writing that takes place in the west, but this one was especially wearying. And in the contributors' notes she talks about how its like oh, people don't talk about the aspects of settling that were hard or people who didn't make it, which made me want to wring her neck and yell, "Are you crazy?!? That's all any lit fic writer would ever talk about!"

Overall though, the likes outweighed the dislikes, so I went for three stars over the two.
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