Book Review: The Best American Short Stories 2016 Edited by Junot Diaz

In these days of economic austerity I often peruse the new book shelves of the local library rather than book stores for reading material.  On one of those forays I came across this volume.  It’s a hardcover; I didn’t know the series came out in hardcover; I’d always read it before in paperback.  The hardcover is an attractive volume: moderate in size, nice readable typeface, not too long but long enough to have a good selection.

Every year a different guest editor chooses the stories, so of course the focus varies, sometimes radically, from volume to volume.  What constitutes the best is relative to the person doing the selecting, after all; there are no absolutes to go by when passing out awards or places in best of the year volumes.  A glance at the contents of the volumes put out by different publishers in any particular year bears this out: the selections hardly ever match up.

Junot Diaz is an American author originally from the Dominican Republic.  He wrote the sharp, scathing, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  If you haven’t read it yet, find a copy and do so; you won’t be disappointed.  Diaz strongly emphasizes stories about minorities and people of color in this year’s anthology, and as a result this overall collection has a vitality that others sometimes lack.

That’s not to say that I liked all the stories.  There are a few, as usual, that leave me wondering how they ever caught an editor’s attention to appear in their original magazines, let alone make it to a best of the year book.

Most of the stories, though, are good, and some are very good.  The two best, in my opinion, are fantasies – the only fantasies in the book.  “The Prospectors” by Karen Russell, tells the story of two young women, thieves and con artists, who find themselves at a party in a resort on a hilltop in Oregon where all the guests but them are dead.  “The Flower” by Louise Erdrich, set in frontier times, is about a young Native American girl whose mother sells her to a cruel white trader for whiskey; when a sympathetic white man helps the girl kill her oppressor and they escape together, the head of the murdered white man hunts them through the wilderness.  Both stories were originally published in the New Yorker, which I applaud for always being editorially open to stories with science fiction and fantasy themes.

Another story that particularly resonates with me is “The Suitcase” by Meron Hadero.  This tells the story of a young woman of Ethiopian ancestry who is visiting relatives in Ethiopia.  She is preparing to leave for the airport, and the relatives have filled her extra suitcase with gifts for loved ones in the United States, but the suitcase is overweight, so they must choose what to take out and what to leave in.  The supposedly surprise ending is fairly obvious early on, but the strength of the story is the juxtaposition of cultures, the dilemmas and confusion often faced by those of dual nationality, and the importance of communication with loved ones who live halfway around the world.  It reminded me of the infrequent times I would visit the States while living many years overseas in Greece.  I would load up my suitcase with gifts to bring to those I was visiting, and load up my suitcase on the way back with items that were unavailable in Greece.

In conclusion, this particular volume has an exuberance not always found in this series thanks to Diaz’s editorial acumen, but don’t expect to like all the stories.  Literary appreciation is, above all, a matter of taste.

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