Friday, December 31, 2010

Best Short Story Collections of 2010

It is New Year’s Eve, 2010. I have have looked over the “Best Books of 2010” lists of the major newspapers, networks, and magazines and list below the short story collections chosen for those lists, along with my own comments on those I have read.

The Washington Post listed only “Best Novels” in their fiction category, as if short stories did not exist.

The Village Voice listed no short story collections in their fiction list.

The San Francisco Chronicle listed only one: Selected Stories by William Trevor.

Publishers Weekly listed only one: Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates.

Los Angeles Times’ David Ulin listed only The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.

The New Yorker listed only Barry Hannah’s Long, Last, Happy.

Slate listed only The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie

Atlantic chose Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg & What Becomes by A. L. Kennedy

National Public Radio listed Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li & The Collected Stories Of Deborah Eisenberg. They listed Patricia Engel’s Vida as one of their “best debut collections.”

The Guardian asked individual reviewers to list their favorites:
A. S. Byatt picked Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
Roddy Doyle picked Amy Bloom's collection Where the God of Love Hangs Out
Pankij Mishra, who asked: “Is short fiction with its necessarily fragmentary form and brisk epiphanies, better placed than the panoramic novel to capture the weird disjointedness and partial visions of modern life?” adding he was more captivated this year by short stories than long novels. Mishra chose: David Means's The Spot; Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl; and The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg.

The New York Times’ 100 Notable books included ten short story collections:

Double Happiness by Mary-Beth Hughes
Fun with Problems by Robert Stone
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr.
The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Selected Stories by William Trevor.
Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates.
What Becomes by A. L. Kennedy.
Wild Child by T. Coraghessan Boyle
The Spot by David Means.
Vida by Patricia Engel.

Of all those listed above, here are the ones that I have read, with a brief comment on each:

The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg
The short story’s lack of room to ruminate about so-called “big” socio-political issues is one reason the form is not popular with so-called “serious” critics who prefer genres that generalize. The kind of complexity that fascinates masters of the short story is not captured by using more and more words but by using just the right ones. Good stories, like good poems, don’t pontificate. The best stories f Deborah Eisenberg, who has been called a master of the form, reflect her continuing conscientious effort to provide a structure and a syntax for feelings unspeakable until just the right rhythm makes what was loose and lying around inside clench and cluster into a meaningful pattern. Eisenberg is indeed a master of the short story. She succeeds much more often than she fails because she brilliantly exploits what the form does best. It’s only when she seems to be seduced by the public demand for the novelistic that she breaks faith with the great masters who have preceded her.

Selected Stories by William Trevor
This is an anthology of stories from Trevor’s most recent collections. As in all great short stories, from Chekhov to Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevor—secrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd. Trevor’s stories are not cultural examinations of either the old Ireland of legend or the new Ireland of the European Union, but rather profoundly wise explorations of individual, yet universal, secrets and mysteries of the heart. These are luminous, restrained stories. Every one of them deserves to be read and reread, their motivations marveled at, their sentences savored. They fill the reader with awe at the complexity of the human experience and the genius of William Trevor.

The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Ann Beattie ranks second only to Raymond Carver as being responsible for the renaissance of the American short story in the 1970s and 80s. Seen as the spokesperson for her generation, Beattie has been alternately praised for her satiric view of that era's passivity and criticized for presenting sophisticated New Yorker magazine characters unable to understand themselves or others. Beattie's people seldom know what makes them do the things they do and have no real sense of purpose or destiny; thus instead of engaging in deliberate action, they more often seem acted upon. Beattie's characters seldom experience the kind of epiphany of awareness we have been accustomed to in twentieth century short fiction from James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson up through Eudora Welty and Bernard Malamud. Moreover, since many of her stories are told in present tense, her characters seldom engage in meditation or attempt a search for meaning, and there is little cause for her narrators to indulge in exposition or exploration. Beattie, especially in her early stories, seems to follow the Chekhovian-inspired dictum in one of her own stories: "Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it."

Wild Child by T. Coraghessan Boyle
Since the appearance of his first collection The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1979), T. Coraghessan Boyle has published over a hundred stories, and, as this new collection is ample evidence, he is still the consummate showman—an old-fashioned yarn spinner who can mesmerize an auditorium audience of several hundred as though they were hunched wide-eyed around a campfire. Like the true professional he is, Boyle seems compelled to convert everything he experiences, reads, sees on television, or hears about into a story by the transformative process of “what if.” What if the California La Conchita earth slide of 2005 got in the way of a guy trying to get a liver transplant to Santa Barbara? What if a man bought a boa constrictor for a pet and then became so fond of the rats he bought to feed it that he got rid of the snake and let the rats take over? What if a rich couple’s dog died and they reincarnated it by cloning? What if a poor Mexican kid could feel no pain and his father exploited him like a sideshow freak? Of the fourteen new stories in this collection, some, especially those dealing with children, such as “Balto,” “Sin Dolor,” and the title story, are wisely and carefully controlled and thus emotionally irresistible. Others, such as “Admiral,” “Bulletproof,” and “Ash Monday,” exemplify a significant satiric point. Still others, such as “La Conchita,” “The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado,” and “Thirteen Hundred Rats” are just clever excuses for stories. All in all, it’s a good mix of the meaningful and the merely amusing.

Fun with Problems by Robert Stone
One of the most critical differences between the novel and the short story is that whereas in the former the plot can wander and the writer can ramble almost aimlessly, in the latter, the action has to have some end-oriented intention on which the writer must focus scrupulously to give the story a unified thematic significance. The reader can perceive this difference immediately when reading a short story by a writer who is more comfortable writing novels. Such is the case with several stories in Robert Stone’s Fun With Problems. Stone has written some impressive novels in his career, e.g. Dog Soldiers (1975), but only one decent short story, “Helping” from his only other story collection Bear and His Daughter (1997). It’s not just that most of the stories in Fun With Problems are peopled by unpleasant drinking and drug-taking male throwbacks to the old days when Stone hung out with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in the 1960s—“Wine Dark Sea” about a free-lance journalist who gets drunk by six and often overlooks deadlines and entire assignments, “The Archer,” about an artist and university professor who goes after his wife and her lover with a crossbow while dressed in jockey shorts, and the title story wherein an aging attorney seduces a young woman trying to stay sober into drinking again--it’s that they are so haphazardly and indifferently written.

The Spot by David Means.
This is David Means’ fourth collection of short stories, and his publishers are probably tired of trying to get him to plunk down on their desks the manuscript of a novel. In an interview after the publication of his award-winning second collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), Means said he feels that if you're really good at something you should keep doing it. The Spot, a collection of thirteen new stories, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, Zoetrope, Harper’s, and other places, is just one more piece of evidence that Means is very good at what he does. Since his first collection, A Quick Kiss of Redemption (1993), Means has largely moved away from Chekhovian realism, taking more chances with experimental narrative structure. Pursuing tactics begun in Assorted Fire Events and made more evident in his last collection, The Secret Goldfish (2004), Means takes increasing liberties in The Spot with storytelling techniques to explore the nature and importance of storytelling itself. David Means’ unerring ability to transform the seemingly casual into the meaningful causal is what makes him a master of the short story, placing him in the ranks of other great short story writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro, who stubbornly resisted pressure to desert their chosen form for the more highly prized novel.

Here are the ones I have not read, but will order:

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li
Vida by Patricia Engel.
Double Happiness by Mary-Beth Hughes
What Becomes by A. L. Kennedy
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr
Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

I will probably not buy Long, Last, Happy by Barry Hannah, because I have read all of Hannah's early stories, and this collection only contains four new oness. I will probably not buy Sourland because I have already read several of these stories in periodical publication, and because I just do not care for Oates.

Happy New Year to my readers!


Máire T. Robinson said...

Fantastic post! Interesting to see that some Best of 2010 lists featured no short story collections. Some of the writers mentioned are new to me, so will definitely be checking them out. Thanks for posting!

Katy L said...

I think Doerr's Memory Wall was my favorite book of the year. However, the list of books read this year isn't very long since I'm taking PhD courses! Thanks for pointing out some other great books - I will have to add them to my list!

Marisa Birns said...

Will read David Means. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Joyce Carol Oates seems to be a force nobody wants to reckon with. Interesting that the stuff she will be remembered for a hundred years from now seems to have been written a hundred years ago. Dex

Unknown said...

Charles, have you read anything by Haruki Murakami or Paolo Bacigalupi?

Alex and I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Murakami last was both bizarre and intriguing. This Christmas I read The Windup Girl and Shipbreaker by Bacigalupi and am about to read his collection of short stories "Pump Six."

I just wondered if you had any thoughts on those two authors.

Charles E. May said...

Happy to hear from my favorite daughter-in-law, Ean. Yes, I have read Murakami's collection of short stories, After the Quake, which I reviewed several years ago. I listened on my IPOD to his novel Kafka on the Shore and his nonfiction book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I think Alex told me he had read also. I have not read Paolo Bacigalupi. Tell me what you think when you finish his collection of short stories. I have looked at Micah's new blog and like his review of the movie. Tell him to add a feature that will allow his readers to post comments.