Book Review: Best of Times, Worst of Times: Contemporary American Short Stories From the New Gilded Age Edited by Wendy Martin and Cecelia Tichi

I was in the mood to read short stories, and I found this collection during a random search through the Seattle Public Library database.  It had a lot of well-regarded authors in it, so why not give it a try?  When I picked it up, it struck me as the kind of volume an English teacher would assign to young people in a college literature course.

It turns out, though, that this book has a good selection of short stories in it – a better selection than in 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, which I also read fairly recently.  100 Years purports to be a selection of the best of the best, but it obviously leans towards name recognition regardless of the quality of the individual stories in its selections, while this volume goes by sociological and cultural relevance over the past few decades.

I have to confess I didn’t really get what the editors were going on about in comparing contemporary America with the era of history known as the Gilded Age, but no matter.  It’s not really important as far as a reader’s appreciation of the individual pieces or even the collection as a whole is concerned.  The stories touch on family life, gender, race relations, jobs, immigration, the prison system, relationships between old and young, and all sorts of other pertinent topics.  Most of them are extremely well written, and all of them qualify as stories in that they have clearly defined characters and recognizable plots.  I mention this point because I was a bit put off by a best-of-the-year collection I read recently in which about half the stories weren’t really stories at all but rather literary exercises that didn’t lead anywhere.

One of my favorites in this collection is “Gogol” by Jhumpa Lahiri.  It’s a segment of her novel The Namesake, but it stands well on its own as a short story.  I enjoy everything that Lahiri writes, but I think that The Namesake is her weakest work.  It’s too long; it goes off on too many tangents that don’t directly affect the story.  In my opinion, the movie manages to focus the main points of the narrative better than the book.  But this section is superb.

Another stand-out story is “Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” by Ben Fountain.  A young American student who’s into ornithology is kidnapped by radicals in Columbia, and during his long captivity he begins to appreciate his unique opportunity to study the local rare wildlife.  In the end, he doesn’t want to leave.  I have found that the stories of George Saunders almost always please, and “COMMCOMM” in this volume is a near-future science fiction tale that turns into a wild supernatural tragic comedy.  “View From a Headlock” by Jonathan Lethem, an obviously autobiographical piece, tells the tale of a lonely frightened young boy who grows up in Brooklyn as one of few whites in a mixed-racial neighborhood.

These are just a few examples.  As I said, the overall quality of the stories in this collection is higher than that in many best-of-the-year volumes.  The original dates of publication range from 1982 to 2006, so they’re fairly contemporary, and the themes they deal with without exception certainly remain relevant.

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