The Best American Short Stories 2006 (The Best American Series)

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Anthologies Evolved


When I was 16 or 17, it felt like Ernest Hemingway and Willa Cather were my own personal discoveries. I had read through all of Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, and T.C. Boyle after discovering their books and then working steadily through their bodies of work until there was nothing left to read. (And it’s amazing to think about how much time I had to read – time that I set aside for reading – back in those days.)Empty-handed, a self-taught reader as yet unaware of many literary greats, I turned to anthologies. They were plentiful at used bookstores and I was already enamored of the form thanks to the New Yorkers lying around the house and to my adolescent thoughts of becoming a writer. What I quickly realized is that these books could open me up to a new world (almost the whole world, really) of literature. Delightful little tomes like A Pocket Book of Short Stories packed an incredible punch, introducing me to the likes of Balzac, Chekhov, Ring Lardner, Somerset Maugham, Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Cather – the table of contents is a chronicle of the weight of my discoveries. These discoveries would be made to seem mundane in college when I was instructed in the importance and context of these writers’ bodies of work, but discovering them first, in these beat up, little pocket paperbacks, bought for a dollar or two, was a revelation. Looking through all the tables of contents at the amazing, no frills “Miscellaneous Anthologies” site is like a walk down memory lane, not to mention an unparalleled catalog of the highlights of the form.I ended up collecting quite a few of these anthologies, which I suspect are still ferreted around my parents house, as I can’t seem to find any on my bookshelves now. As my reading horizons broadened, I saw that these anthologies were nearing extinction, brought on by the combined declining market fortunes of both short stories and the declining prevalence of pocket-sized (or mass market) editions of literary fiction.Nowadays, most short fiction anthologies you’ll see fall into three categories: academic (Norton, et al), yearly series (e.g. Best American and O. Henry Prize), and thematic. The latter two categories more and more have become known for the involvement of “celebrity” editors, typically big name authors who can grab a little press for the books. For example, Best American was edited by Stephen King in 2007 and Ann Patchett in 2006.Likewise, celebrity editors are at the helm of a pair of themed anthologies already released this year. Jeffrey Eugenides has put together My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro. Of course, who’s ever seen a contemporary short story that plays out like a fairy tale? As Eugenides told NPR, “I started to realize that not only the love stories that I liked, but actually the love stories that everybody liked, had a certain bittersweet quality to them. The stories in this collection are by no means tragic, but in order to even get to a measure of happiness, the characters usually have to go through a lot of difficulty.” That sounds about right.The Book of Other People, Zadie Smith’s anthology effort, is even more “low concept” (not necessarily a bad thing) than Eugenides’s. We are told her only instruction to her contributors – which include the likes of David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, and a generous sampling of the McSweeney’s set – was to “make somebody up.” USA Today quips “just when you’re ready to howl in frustration at the anthologification of the book world – I’ve seen the best minds of my generation, live blogging about recipes that inspire them – along comes The Book of Other People,” but ultimately the verdict is that the book has flashes of goodness, as is echoed by the Washington Post: “Variety — in approach, style and, in some cases, quality — is certainly on display here.”At the very least, there’s much to applaud in the creativity of Eugenides and Smith in compiling these books, and, for that matter, in the yearly anthologies for insisting by their very existence that the year’s “best” short story is something that matters. However, the idea of carrying a varied compendium of literary goodness in one’s pocket appears to have gone by the wayside, consigned to the dusty shelves of second-hand shops. For those in the know, a treasure trove of short fiction is there for the taking.

A Year in Reading: Emerging Writers

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The indefatigable Dan Wickett is the hardest working man in book blogging. He is a tireless advocate for “emerging” writers, small presses, and literary journals. How he found the time to compile this post for us, I’ll never know, but I’m glad he did.I divided my thoughts about authors that I read in 2006 into three categories. First up would be (what else from my end) Emerging Writers. Writers that fell into that category that I can’t wait to read more of would have to include:Dag Solstad – His Shyness & Dignity is not his first novel, but it is the first available in English, and it was the best book I read all year. Graywolf Press took the chance on bringing this Norwegian’s work to those of us without the skills to read his books in their original language, and they should be thanked.Benjamin Percy – His debut story collection, The Language of Elk, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in the middle of the year and shows readers a new vision of the current west, with most of the stories set in Oregon. Percy’s language crackles with masculinity and humor and the bizarre. Watch for him – he put a story in both BASS and Pushcart this year, has one coming in January’s Esquire and his second collection is coming from Graywolf Press in 2007.Robert Fanning – Are you kidding me? Wickett lobbed a poet into this list? Absolutely. Fanning’s The Seed Thieves is his first full length collection of poetry, thanks to Marick Press, and it is beyond just being solid. Fanning has a fantastic way about his phrasing and observations that work both on page, and if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hear him read his work.Second up would be those writers who I already thought pretty highly of, that confirmed for me, once again, just how talented they were:William Gay with his novel Twilight from MacAdam/Cage. He follows up his previous two novels and short story collection with possibly his best yet. A frighteningly gothic near fairy tale about a young brother and sister combination and their efforts to expose a rather sordid mortician.Daniel Woodrell and Winter’s Bone, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Half of a Yellow Sun. Anybody reading this far into Max’s post has probably visited my site. Enough said as I’m pretty sure searching my blog for 2006 will show these two names and titles coming up way more than anything else.Tom Franklin with Smonk. The fever Franklin had that induced this story to come oozing out must have been 104 plus.Steve Yarbrough and Ron Rash with The End of California and The World Made Straight, respectively. These two gentlemen deserve accolades for not writing with any flash, or verbal pyrotechnics, but instead delivering captivating novels, time and time again by simply telling a great story, and doing so with, while excellent writing, not the need to make you notice it.Michael Ruhlman has once again delivered a fantastic book about cooking with his The Reach of a Chef. If you have ANY interest in the art of cooking, his books are all a must. And even if you don’t, you have more than half a chance at becoming enthralled anyway.Charles D’Ambrosio and Lee K. Abbott just may be the two best short story writers around and readers were fortunate enough to enjoy a new collection by D’Ambrosio (The Dead Fish Museum) and a Collected collection of Abbott (All Things, All at Once). There isn’t a mis-step in either, and above and beyond that, there are probably close to a dozen stories between the two works that are prize winning, year end anthology worthy.Lastly would be those writers that I found myself embarrassed to realize I’d never read their work prior to 2006, and in many cases had not even heard of them:Colson Whitehead – I had the opportunity to see him read in Ann Arbor earlier in the year and bought a copy of The Intuitionist, which I promptly read and loved. His other three books are high up in my TBR pile.Magnus Mills – I don’t know why I bought his The Restraint of Beasts – I thought I remembered his name from Jeff Bryant’s Underrated Writers Project from last year, but his name is not there. Whatever the case – I loved it and the follow up novel, All Quiet on the Orient Express as well. The rest of his novels and a short story collection reside in my TBR pile at this time.Rupert Thomson – Thanks to Megan for nominating his latest, Divided Kingdom, as an LBC nominee. Another one who I immediately began looking for his backlog of many novels to pad my TBR pile.Richard Powers – Oh well, at least I waited for a decent book to hop aboard – The Echo Maker – NBA winner. Thanks to Ed Champion for inviting me to the roundtable discussion of this wonderful title. There’s approximately 2100 pages of unread Powers’ novels on a shelf here now.Peter Markus – Even more ridiculous when you find out he resides less than 30 minutes from my house. Went to see the aforementioned Robert Fanning read earlier this year and Markus read some unpublished work from what should be his fourth book of short fictions that deal with brothers, mud, fish, and the moon. He was kind enough to give me a copy of his first, Good, Brother, which was reprinted by Calimari Press earlier this year. I read it that night and had ordered both The Moon is a Lighthouse (from a store in Japan – the only one I could find online) and The Singing Fish (also published, last year, by Calimari Press). The man is a unique writer, an amazing writer, and one I highly recommend you try to find. Plenty of his work is available online.Thanks Dan!

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