Book Review: The Best American Short Stories 2019 Edited by Anthony Doerr and Heidi Pitlor

The short story is a particular type of art form. I love reading great short stories, but it’s notoriously difficult to find them. Even the stories in the various best of the year volumes don’t always match my tastes. I read a best of the year genre anthology a month or so ago, for instance, that disappointed me so much that I couldn’t finish it and I didn’t want to review it. I like to review things I enjoy; with very few exceptions I avoid writing negative reviews. So I simply set the aforementioned volume aside and lamented the time wasted. I don’t want to disparage the editor. The selections were one person’s opinion, after all, and they happened not to match mine.

Usually, though, an anthology like this one has some stories that I love, stories that I like, stories that are okay, and stories that make me wonder what the editor was thinking. This anthology of stories published in 2018 started out strong. After I was several stories in, I thought that maybe this time I’d like all of them. Alas, it was wishful thinking. There were a couple that made me wonder how they got published, let alone considered among the year’s best. I know there are better stories because I have read them in other best-of anthologies.

Okay, never mind. At least I managed to get through them; some years there have been stories I thought so mediocre that I couldn’t finish them. Most of these stories, though, fall into the good, very good, and excellent categories. I think that my favorite is “Hellion” by Julia Elliot. It’s told in the first person by a young teenage girl who smokes, rides around in a go-cart, carries a gun, and has a pet gator. It’s packed with unique voice and attitude and atmosphere.

Another top story is “Pity and Shame” by the recently deceased science fiction and fantasy master writer Ursula K. Le Guin. I think this is the first story I have read of hers that has not been speculative fiction. “Natural Disasters” by Alexis Schaitkin is a beautifully subtle story about a woman who travels from New York City to Oklahoma because her husband has been transferred. She takes a job writing descriptions of houses for sale for a realtor, and this helps her adjust to the area and its inhabitants.

And then there are the science fiction stories. These might not stand out so much in a science fiction anthology, but because they are in a so-called literary collection, they are anomalies. They’re good stories, but I wonder why they were not instead considered for the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy volume, which is put out by the same publisher. I suppose it’s because they managed to get published in literary rather than genre magazines. To me, it’s too bad that there should be that distinction. One of them, “The Era” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, concerns a future society in which telling truth, no matter how cruel and brutal, is the accepted norm, and drugs are routinely distributed to calm the populace. The story looks into what happens to those who do not conform well to these standards. The other, “The Third Tower” by Deborah Eisenberg, concerns a near future society with great socio-economic divergence in which a young woman from a slum finds herself in a clinic as a subject for psychological experimentation.

Yes, overall it’s a good collection, and I found it worthwhile to put up with the stories I thought less-than-worthy for those that took off and made something of themselves.

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