Brilliant Short Stories that Reflect Some of the Problems Humanity Currently Confronts
Reviewed in the United States on 1 October 2019
The Best American Short Stories 2019
Anthony Doerr with Heidi Pitlor
Reviewed by C. J. Singh (Berkeley, CA)
Brilliant Short Stories that Reflect some of the Problems Humanity Currently Confronts
Heidi Pitlor is the current co-editor, since 2007, of "The Best American Short
Stories" series, which have been published annually since 1915. She is also the
co-editor, with Lorrie Moore, of "100 Years of the Best American Short Stories."
(See my detailed review of this great book on amazon.com)
In her Foreword, Pitlor writes, "The stories in this volume are bold, some are
transgressive, and all are relevant to this moment of time. . . But in this time of
so much bad news about our climate, intolerance, corruption, and violence, I'm
grateful for these stories" (page xi). This reviewer is certainly grateful for these
20 highly-engaging stories; so, will be many readers.
Anthony Doerr's introduces the book by describing his earliest efforts as a child
to become a writer; efforts engagingly described with humorous self-
Growing up, "A drip-drip of uncertainty sent me to the library, where I
discovered a paperback titled 'Writing in General and the Short Story in
Particular' which claimed to reveal 'the secrets of the craft.' Though the author,
Rust Hills, sounded more like a South Dakota land feature than a short story
expert, the jacket copy explained that Mr. Hills worked at 'Esquire ' and had
discovered all sorts of famous writers, and so it was with a mix of excitement
and terror that I toted the book to my attic bedroom" (page xiv).
Doerr notes that many of the twenty excellent contemporary short stories that
he and Pitlor selected flout Rust Hills' rules. For example, "Hills said a short
story shouldn't mess with subplots, but from a certain angle, Nicole Krauss
constructs her gorgeous 'Seeing Ershadi' entirely around subplots -- three of her
first five paragraphs are spent summarizing an Iranian film. Yet, her story
utterly wrecked me" (page xviii). In the Contributors' Notes Section, Nicole
Krauss describes in illuminating details the background of her writing this story
(pp. 353-356). Contributors' Notes, a regular feature of the annual edition of
"The Best American Short" series can serve to enhance readers' experiencing the
stories. They certainly enhance mine.
Another example from Doerr's selection: "Rust Hill suggested that a short story
stick with a single point of view, but Deborah Eisenberg, in her dystopic paean
to the imagination, 'The Third Tower' leaps into a doctor's mind in two of its
thirteen sections. Without those leaps away from her protagonist's point of
view, her story would collapse" (page xviii). Another apt example.
Doerr cites many other short-stories in the book, selected by him and Pitlor, as
flouting Rust Hills' rules; in particular, stories by Wendell Berry, Kathleen Alcott,
Jenn Alandy Trahan, Julia Elliot, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Sigrid Nunez, Jeffrey
Eugenides, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jim Shepard (page xix)
Next, Doerr, without naming specific rule-makers, writes, "Anyone who thinks
short stories can't or shoudn't ask moral questions about our political moment
should turn to Weike Wang's "Omasake," (page xix).
I fully agree with Doerr on flouting this rule. (See my detailed review on
amazon.com of John Truby's book "The Anatomy of Story," which emphasizes
engaging in "moral argument" as an essential element in structuring fiction, be
it a short-story, novel, stage play, or screenplay. This amazon review can be
accessed at https://www.amazon.com/review/R29NU7U6LAHGBV )
Several other short stories in the selection that flout this rule on "moral
questions about the political moment" include Maria Reva's "Letter of Apology,
" which "'presents a hilarious and heartrending glimpse of life under a regime
where it is illegal to criticize or even joke about political leaders"; and Manuel
Munoz's "moving 'Anyone Can Do It' about a woman whose husband has been
rounded up by immigration police might be set in the 1980s but could not be
more timely" (page xix).
Doerr in his highly-acclaimed novel "All the Light We Cannot See" flouts the
suggestions of the widely adopted text-book in MFA programs, Janet
Burroway's Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, tenth edition, (See my
detailed amazon review at https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Fiction-Tenth-
Narrative-Publishing/dp/022661655X). Doerr chooses to use omniscient point
of view instead of the third-person close point of view. His wonderful novel
won the Pulitzer Prize. Great act of flouting back to the nineteenth-century
Of the 20 stories selected by Doerr and Pitlor, I had already read the 4 published
in "The New Yorker," the 3 in "Zoetrope:All-Story," the 2 in "Harper's," the 1 in
"Granta," and the 1 in "ZYZZYVA." Reading the other 9 included in this
anthology was an equally engaging experience for me.
Here's the full list:
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. "The Era" from "Guernica"
Kathleen Alcott. "Natural Light" from "Zoetrope:All-Story"
Wendell Berry. "The Great Interruption" from "Threepenny Review"
Jamel Brinkley. "No More Than a Bubble" from "LitMag"
Deborah Eisenberg. "The Third Tower" from "Ploughshares"
Julia Elliott. "Hellion" from "The Georgia Review"
Jeffrey Eugenides. "Bronze" from "The New Yorker"
Ella Martinsen Gorham. "Protozoa" from "New England Review"
Nicole Krauss. "Seeing Ershadi" from "The New Yorker"
Ursula K. Le Guin. "Pity and Shame" from "Tin House"
Manuel Munõz. "Anyone Can Do It" from "ZYZZYVA"
Sigrid Nunez. "The Plan" from "Lit Mag"
Maria Reva. "Letter of Apology" from "Granta"
Karen Russell. "Black Corfu" from "Zoetrope-All Story"
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh "Audition" from "The New Yorker"
Alexis Schaitkin "Natural Disasters" from "Ecotone"
Jim Shepard. "Our Day of Grace" from "Zoetrope-All Story"
Mona Simpson. "Wrong Object" from "Harper's"
Jenn Alandy Trahan. "They Told Us Not to Say This" from "Harper's
Weike Wang. "Omakase" from "The New Yorker."
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