Monday, January 09, 2006

1. The Best American Short Stories 2005

edited by Michael Chabon

I’ve always been a little wary of picking up the Best American series because I’ve often found that multi-author collections of writings can be a little scatterbrained, with no common theme tying the contents together. True, the stories in The Best American Short Stories 2005 are widely varied, speaking of a dissolving marriage in one instance and a mystical outlaw in the next, but what I didn’t realize what that the range of topics addressed would be part of the collection’s greatest charm.

My buddy Michael Chabon introduces this tome by ruminating on the meaning of entertainment. He muses that the word “entertainment” has become somewhat pejorative, equating itself with passivity and loss of mutuality and suffering from the “ills of mass manufacture.” Which is true in some sense, especially if you look at the state of VH-1 programming these days (Celebreality? Seriously?), but Chabon proposes that entertainment should also “encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.” To wit, reading is entertainment. Literature is entertaining. And in doing his job as guest editor, Chabon simply selected the twenty stories that entertained him most.

And there, in his short five-page introduction, you have the entire reason many of us spend our lives with books. We just find it entertaining. Is there any wonder as to why I love this guy?

But enough about Mike, let’s get on to the stories. I was pleased to find a few stories by authors with whom I’ve already become acquainted and whose work I’ll read any day. Tom Perrotta kicks things off with “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” a story about a little league umpire who is unable to make an important call during the final seconds of a game. What he imagines as his greatest moment – when he admits to his blunder and walks off the field – only looks like a man running away from his problems when replayed on TV. This is exact opposite of what he hopes to convey to his estranged family when he begs them to watch the televised game. Sadly, he realizes that all he did was confirm their already low opinions. J. Robert Lennon’s “Eight Pieces for the Left Hand,” is included and even though I’d already read the piece in Granta, rereading it here made me remember how much I loved these short, fable-like pieces. I also learned that the story comes from Lennon’s larger book, Pieces for the Left Hand, which I will certainly read at some point. The incomparable Alice Munro also makes an appearance here with “Silence,” a profoundly sad story in which a woman loses her daughter, not by death, but by the daughter’s choice. It’s a story for which we desperately wish a happy ending, but whose lack thereof only makes the story that much more true. That is Munro’s gift – the ability to squeeze the truth even out of the most despairing of narratives.

Overall, the collection contains far more stories by authors I’ve never read. Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” was by far the weirdest of them all, telling of a family whose possessions become haunted when they move into a new house. The wife paints and repaints the walls and rabbits infest their lawn, popping up everywhere. Whether the house is really haunted or whether the family is just having trouble adjusting to their new lives is never explained, but we accept that something just isn’t right in this home. I’m not usually one for war stories, but Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier,” is a startling piece about journalists in Afghanistan, one of whom is stricken with malaria and the other of whom goes on a search for a supposedly medicinal grass that will help his compatriot. What happens on that search is heartbreaking. And in “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy,” Rishi Reddi tells of an elderly judge, having moved to America from India after his wife’s death. Not wanting to admit his trouble adjusting to the culture, Justice Murthy attempts to bring a seemingly frivolous lawsuit against a fast food restaurant at which he was mistakenly served beef. The story can be read from dueling perspectives – from the American point of view the old man is laughable, but for anyone who’s ever experienced some amount of cultural discordance, the sympathy is easily felt.

Chabon is quick to admit that anointing these stories as “best,” is a subjective practice and that each reader will undoubtedly have their own opinions on the pieces contained within. But, as David Sedaris points out in the introduction to his own collection of short stories, an anthology’s greatest task is to introduce the reader to authors and works they would have never known otherwise. In that vein, this collection is undoubtedly successful. It’s hard to say whether these are the best stories I’ve read, but I will say that they were pretty damned entertaining.

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