I might never have discovered two of my favorite short story writers, Amy Bloom and Tim Gautreaux, if not for The Best American Short Stories anthology. The Best American Short Stories series (BASS) was hip to Bloom and Gautreaux long before The New Yorker, anthologizing stories by both before either published a book. BASS is one of three anthologies I look forward to every year that feature the “best” short stories published over a 12-month period.
The anthologies not only feed my short story addiction but let me sample writers without making a huge time commitment—a great way to discover unfamiliar authors. They also tide me over while awaiting favorite novelists' next big books: I was excited to find a story by Benjamin Nugent, author of the novel Good Kids, in BASS 2014, alongside stories by novelists Joshua Ferris, T. C. Boyle and Karen Russell.
The guest editor of The Best American Short Stories, 2014 is Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan read 120 stories published in magazines large and small, and then whittled those down to the twenty in the collection. An enticing bonus are the author comments in the back, and Brendan Mathews' characterization of his story, “This Is Not a Love Song,” as “a love letter of sorts to the city of Chicago” had me paging back to read that story first.
Set in Wicker Park in the days of early Liz Phair and mix tapes, the photographer narrator documents the life of indie rocker Kat through photographs and audio snippets, displaying in relief her own nature. (Favorite sentence: “Back then the only people paying attention to her were music nerds on the lookout for the next band you hadn’t heard of and the rock critic from the free weekly who wrote mash-note reviews of any girl with a guitar.”)
Like BASS 2014, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014 (OHPS) has stories published in magazines large and small—from The New Yorker to Ecotone—and author comments on their work. I was especially impressed by “Nemecia,” by Kirstin Valdez Quade, in which the narrator recalls a childhood dominated by an older cousin who lived with the family under veiled circumstances. (Favorite sentence: “Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated.”) I also really enjoyed “Good Faith,” by Colleen Morrissey,” about the snake-handling daughter of a touring evangelical preacher.
If BASS and OHPS contain too many New Yorker stories by established writers for your taste—BASS contains five, OHPS three—check out The Pushcart Prize XXXIX: Best Of The Small Presses 2015 Edition. The first story in the collection, “The Zen Thing,” is in fact the first story the supremely gifted Emma Duffy-Comparone ever published. With a wry, comic touch she captures an extended family in all its messy complexity. “Each year, like a shifty circus in a truck,” the story begins, “the family unpacks itself for a weekend on a beach and pretends to have a good time.”
Although “The Zen Thing” hooked me with its opening sentence and wouldn’t let go, not every story appealed to me--inevitable with an anthology. And while I used to finish every story, these days my mantra is: Savor the best, skip the rest. It’s pleasure reading—there will be no test.