Thursday, April 6, 2006

The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike

If you are a fan of the short story genre, you have no doubt heard of the highly acclaimed "Best American Short Stories" series. This annual volume, published by Houghton Mifflin, is edited each year by a famous guest editor. Over the years, such celebrated authors such as E.L. Doctorow, Sue Miller, Michael Chabon, Jane Smiley and Tobias Wolff have lent their hand to choose the best short stories of that particular year.

The criteria for "The Best American Short Stories" series is simple enough-- the stories for each annual volume are selected from a pool of previously published works from the prior year. Most of the stories shave been published in literary magazines and the like, publications like Ploughshares and The Atlantic Monthly. Some are written by famous writers, like Joyce Carol Oates, and others are written by newcomers or relatively unknown writers, like Poe Ballantine.

"The Best American Short Stories of The Century" is a compilation of works from many of the previous years of the "Best American Short Stories" series. Edited by John Updike, this book appears to have been a massive undertaking. The editors chose the best stories of the century, usually one from any given year, with a few years skipped here and there, but every decade is clearly represented. It makes for a very interesting picture of life in the 20th century.

The book starts with a foreword from Katrina Kenison, who has been the co-editor of this series for as long as I can remember. Kenison has a lot of insight to the editorial process and has worked with all of the most famous writers over the years. Indeed, she knows what makes a good short story.

Next is the introduction, by editor John Updike. He goes into great detail about the selection process and how honored the writers who are represented in this volume should be. After all, their works beat the odds. To be included in "The Best American Short Stories of The Century" is a huge feet indeed.

The first story is from 1915, titled "Zelig" by Benjamin Rosenblatt and it was first published in 1915 in "The Belman" . Other stories form the early part of the century include works by Mary Lerner, Sherwood Anderson, and Ring Lardner.

There is a wide selection of stories from the 1920's, 30's and 40's including Robert Penn Warren's "Christmas Gift", Willa Cather's "Double Birthday" and F. Scott Fitzgeralds's "Crazy Sunday".

The 1950's, gives us works by such literary greats as Tennessee Williams, John Cheever and Flannery O'Connor (indeed, O'Connor's "Greenleaf" is one of my favorite stories in this entire volume). John Cheever's "The Country Husband" is another favorite.

Fast forward to the 1960's, where times are indeed a-changing. Such masterpieces as Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith" and Bernard Malamud's "The German Refugee" are represented. One of the best stories here is Lawrence Sargent Hall's "The Ledge", one of two stories chosen for this book from the year 1960 (1960 must have been a good year for short fiction).

But my absolute favorite story from this era is Joyce Carol Oates' 1967 story, "Where Are you Going Where Have You Been". This story has been interpreted in many ways over the years, enough so that it spawned a 1986 movie, titled "Smooth Talk", starring Laura Dern and Treat Williams. My recommendation is always to read the story before seeing the movie, as to not cloud your own interpretation of the story. Rest assured that Oates' "Where Are You Going Where Have You Been" is a haunting account of a young girl coming of age and this story alone is reason enough to cause me to want to own this book.

Welcome to the 1970's. I grew up in the 70's, so this sampling of stories really had some meaning for me. I like thinking back to the 1970's, when my parents were still young-- and so was I. Call me nostalgic. In any event, although these stories don't ooze of 70's pop culture (many are stories, in fact, are written about a time before the 1970's), I like at least knowing that they were written during that era. Alice Adams' "Roses, Rhododendron" is one of my favorites, written in 1976 and originally published in The New Yorker. Saul Bellow's "The Silver Dish" (also a piece originally published in The New Yorker) is 1979's representation.

Then we get into the 1980's. Editor John Updike's entry is first, the powerful "Gesturing" from 1980. And then there is 1983's "Where I'm Calling From" by the short story master himself-- and my all time favorite writer-- Raymond Carver. Do I think "Where I'm Calling From" is Carver's best story of all time? No, it's not my personal favorite. Of course it's an amazing read, as all of his stories are, but there are several other stories of his that I personally think could have been included in this volume (on a side note, Carver edited his own best of series, called "American Short Story Masterpieces" and some of those selections surprised me as well). Still, it is an honor for any story from any writer to be included, so I'm thrilled that Carver is in here.

Other famous writers from the 1980's, like Ann Beattie, Tim O'Brien, Susan Sontag and Alice Munro are all represented here, as they well should be.

The 1990's portion of the book brings us such modern day classics as "You're Ugly, Too" by Lorrie Moore, Gish Jen's "Birthmates" and Annie Proulx, best known lately for her short story, "Brokeback Mountain", but included here with "The Half Skinned Steer".

The most prolific and famous writers of the 20th century are all included in this book. From Dorothy Parker to Ernest Hemingway to E.B. White, the most important stories are all here.
One of my favorite parts of "The Best American Short Stories" series is the biographical notes about the writers. This book is no exception, containing mini bios on the included writers. These mini bio's are chock full of interesting tidbits about the writers and I enjoy reading them almost as much as I enjoy reading the stories.

This book is a thick one--one that will keep you busy for a long time. Clocking in at 775 pages, it's a masterful compilation of short fiction and an amazing blueprint of American life in the 20th century. If you are looking for a whirlwind trip through the last century, I recommend reading this book. It's a book that any fan of short fiction will not only want to read, but will want to own.

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