The Best American Short Stories 2011 by Geraldine Brooks (ed.)

I’m glad this book has such a loud cover (even more so in reality than in the picture), otherwise I might not have noticed it. And I’m glad that I went back to the book store to buy it one day after I first spotted and fingered it, and finally left it in its place, thinking that I was in no great need of an anthology which contains twenty short stories by authors I have never heard of (with the one exception of Joyce Carol Oates) and whose main attractions are the extraordinary color of its cover and the fact that its title contains some words which are always bound to capture my attention („American” and „short story”). And I’m also glad that for once I managed to restrain myself and didn’t read the book in my usual hurried way, but only read one or two short stories a day, because these stories definitely deserved my undivided, unhurried attention.

I don’t know if this anthology is of this high quality every year, or it’s only that the editor of the 2011 edition, Geraldine Brooks and I have very similar tastes, but it doesn’t really matter now. What matters is that this is a very good selection. Out of the twenty stories there isn’t one which is boring, annoying, spoon-feeding, moralizing, bleak or simply bad, and there are at least ten stories which are so good that I would definitely like to read more by their writers.

The stories in this collection vary greatly, and even though most of them would deserve a one-by-one treatment, I won’t write about them individually, I only mention a couple of typical themes and genres which appear in this anthology. There’s a sci-fi („Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders); there’s a tricky and hugely enjoyable, more or less postmodern story („To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers, which strongly but not annoyingly reminds me of Italo Calvino’s novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller); there’s one which puts me into ruptures simply by the way it is told („Out of Body” by Jennifer Egan, written in the second person singular); there are stories about wars, childhood traumas, moral dilemmas; there’s a very contemporary-feeling love story (Jess Row’s „The Call of Blood”); and there are deeply and heart-shatteringly melancholic still lives (Allegra Goodman’s „La Vita Nuova” and Ehud Havazelet’s „Gurov in Manhattan”). And almost all of them are good, and also very American. (I won’t try to define what makes something American and very American – but these stories are really like that.)

As far as I remember, Kurt Vonnegut wrote something about the beneficial, relaxing effects of short stories in his preface to one of his short story collection. He said that short stories make your pulse slower, and help you calm down, and that after reading a short story you will feel as if you’ve spent some time meditating.

I really like Kurt Vonnegut and his definitions of the world, however, these stories don’t conform to his ideas about short stories at all. I read most stories in this anthology with clenched fists and with my breath withheld, and I didn’t calm down while reading them. On the contrary, even if I had been calm before reading, I ended up in a state of agitation before I finished them. Of course I have no problem with this – I read for this sensation more often than for the sensation of contentment and calmness.

(And now I’m really looking forward to the 2012 edition of the anthology. And I would also like to read the anthologies from the previous years.)