Lisa (Harmonybites)'s Reviews > The Best American Short Stories of the Century

The Best American Short Stories of the Century by John Updike
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Apr 25, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: short-stories, literary-fiction, fiction
Recommended for: Lovers of Short Literary Fiction
Read from February 14 to March 08, 2012 , read count: 1

The title is a misnomer. Not that there aren't some wonderful stories here, but they were never really chosen because they're the best American short stories of the 20th century. Rather, these are Updike's 56 picks out of the 2,000 stories originally chosen in the 84 volumes of a yearly anthology published from 1915 through 1999. If a story was never published in Best American Stories they weren't available to be selected. Updike couldn't select "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather, "Are These Actual Miles?" by Raymond Carver, "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Hills Like White Elephants" or "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway, "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes, "The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet" by Stephen King, "To Build a Fire" by Jack London, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, "Gift of the Magi" or "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O'Henry, "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" by Katherine Anne Porter, "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" or "The War Prayer" by Mark Twain, "A Worn Path" by Eudora Welty or Updike's own "A&P." That means a lot of American short stories of the 20th century that are often anthologized won't be found here--arguably none of the really famous ones are found here, even though a lot of familiar names such as Hemingway and Faulkner are included.

There were so many of my favorite short stories that were part of the anthologies that could have been selected though listed at the back of the book: "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin, "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver, "Babylon Revisited" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Snows of Kilimanjaro" by Ernest Hemingway, "Haircut" by Ring Lardner, "The Magic Barrel" by Bernard Malamud, "Shiloh" by Bobbie Ann Mason, "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe" by Carson McCullers, "People Like That Are the Only People Here" by Lorrie Moore, "Everything that Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor, "My Friend Flicka" by Mary O'Hara, "A Telephone Call" by Dorothy Parker, "Act of Faith" by Irwin Shaw, "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck, "The Catbird Seat" by James Thurber or Tillie Olson's "I Stand Here Ironing." And, sadly, though I can't say I'm surprised, no short stories by the well-known science fiction authors who I truly believe wrote some of the best short fiction of the 20th century--and some of them did make it into the yearly anthologies. Yet Updike didn't choose any such story--so no Ray Bradbury, Judith Merril, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin or Theodore Sturgeon. Almost nothing that could be called a genre story, no love stories, little humor or anything that's upbeat and I can't say any story had a great twist. Nor were there any horror stories--and given that the American short story got its foundation from stories such as Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the horror tales of Edgar Allan Poe and stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne such as "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Minister's Black Veil" that's a crime. In the end, especially reading one story after the other, I felt the collection too often came across as bland and predictable.

So, if you're thinking of getting a one-volume collection of the canonical American short stories of the past century, or the best or the most entertaining and memorable that could make you a fan of the form, this isn't the book. But if you want a collection of 56 strong short stories of literary fiction of the kind you find in The New Yorker, well, almost all of the stories included are well worth reading with little moments to savor and writing techniques to learn from. About the only time I thought "My God, what was Updike thinking?" was his inclusion of Richard Wright's ode to the Communist Party, "Bright and Morning Star" (1939), a crude propaganda piece. There were certainly stories herein I thought as memorable and impressive as the stories not included I listed above. My top ten:

“A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell (1917) - both great psychological study and whodunnit--one of the few that could be seen as a "genre" story.

"Here We Are" by Dorothy Parker (1931) - featured winning humor and was all the more appreciated because there was so little of that in the book.

"Death of a Favorite" by J.F. Powers (1951) - probably the closest thing to speculative fiction in the book, it was a humor piece from a cat's point of view. I probably liked it more than it deserved simply because it was so different than the usual formula literary fiction.

"The Ledge" by Lawrence Sargent Hall (1960) - horrifying and sad but beautifully written.

"Defender of the Faith" by Philip Roth (1960) - Great characters--it redeemed Roth after my introduction to him through his execrable The Plot Against America. This was one of the few stories in the anthology that surprised me, that didn't head where I was expecting after reading the first paragraph.

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates (1967) - I'd tried novels by the author but had never found her to my liking, so I was surprised to find this a standout. The protagonist Connie is too-stupid-to-live--but I have to admit this is one of the most memorable stories in the book, and probably the most often anthologized.

"The Key" by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1970) - starts depressing and sad but ends humane and warm.

"A City of Churches" by Donald Barthelme (1973) - weird but certainly striking and unusual.

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (1987) - lyrically written war story. One of the few in the anthology I had read before.

"In the Gloaming" by Alice Elliott Dark (1994) - ripped my heart out and moved me close to tears.
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02/14/2012 page 100
03/10/2016 marked as: read
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message 1: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert The title should have been, "John Updike Chooses 56 Short Stories That Are Pretty Decent."

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