Best American Short Stories 2010
  Edited by Richard Russo

Houghton Mifflin

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"It made him want to weep, to see how far human beings would go to hide the truth from themselves."

Reviewed by Arja Salafranca

The Best American series, for those unfamiliar with it, consists of a range of stories published in US and Canadian journals from the previous year. About a hundred of these are then read and selected by the guest editor, and, in this year’s case, Richard Russo did the choosing, selecting a final list of 20 stories, now collected in this volume.

I found the stories in this volume exceptionally compelling and readable – with many being of the über-lengthy variety, running to many pages, with the writers taking time to tell the tales, really letting each story breathe and glow.

Steve Almond’s Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched opens the collection: it’s a wryly thought-provoking story about a psychiatrist who finds real life colliding with that of his work. Dr Raymond Oss finds takes up the game of poker in late middle age, a habit which threatens to spiral out of control, when a patient who plays poker for a living enters treatment. In a clever subversion of the therapist/patient relationship, the psychiatrist finds himself on the receiving end of his own medicine. A masterful piece.

Marlin Barton’s Into Silence is an eerie, powerfully effective story about a woman, Janey, trapped in silence by her deafness, living with her manipulative mother in a farmhouse in a remote country town. One day a travelling photographer, Mr Clark, rents a room in their home, and his presence and interaction with Janey throws a harsh spotlight on the life she has led up till then, a life curtailed and narrowed by the death of her father while Janey was away at a school for the deaf. This quietly tragic story lives on long after the final reading, a sad poignant reminder of the prisons we build for ourselves.

Africa features prominently, almost a character in its own right, and a marked presence, in two other masterful stories, Jennifer Egan’s Safari and Téa Obreht’s The Laugh. Egan’s Safari takes place within the confines of a safari holiday, and is framed through young teen Charlie’s eyes as she holidays with her brother, her father and his new girlfriend. The interactions of human and animal will serve as catalyst to the action in this story when one of the tourists on a game drive ignores advice and gets out of the vehicle to take photos of lionesses. A story which explores that uneasy time between childhood and adulthood, a time that sometimes adds an unpleasant sharpness to life, memorable and moving.

Moving too is Obreht’s The Laugh, made even more so for me by reading in the author’s notes at the back that Obreht has never actually visited the sub-Saharan region she writes about although she has lived in Egypt. Her Africa is alive and authentically imagined, a place where the dust assumes character and you can almost smell the heat through the pages. In this astonishing story the action opens on two friends, Roland and Neal, who are talking when the lights go out. Chillingly, they are discussing a funeral: Neal has just lost his wife, Femi, in circumstances that are revealed as the story unfolds. Tension between humans and animals is again highlighted, but the story is more subtle than that, this is a story of layers and hidden and not so hidden feelings, a story that loops in on itself; a poignant read.

A world on the verge of destruction, tipping over into ecological disaster, is created in two of the stories: Jim Shepard’s The Netherlands Lives with Water and Wells Tower’s Raw Water. Both were originally commissioned for and published in the journal McSweeney’s for an issue of stories set in the year 2024. In Shepard’s story, the fragility of the Dutch dykes is set against the relationship of a family negotiating their way through both the cataclysm of rising sea levels as well as the net of family relations. Well researched, this story blends real-life history with this utterly believable future time.

Well’s story is well, rawer, and more violent in its imagery. Cora and Rodney Booth rent a home on the shores of America’s manmade inland ocean, the Anasazi Sea, a body of water so vile and polluted that, "its water was a stupefying sight: livid red, a giant, tranquil plain the color of cranberry pulp". What follows are the Booth’s introduction to a family already living in the area, the Nervises, in whom the harsh arid land seems to mirror their jagged familial actions. An utterly compelling story about how landscape can set up home within peoples’ reactions to a rawly horrible landscape.

The Cowboy Tango by Maggie Shipstead was another incredible piece, a love story, of sorts, set on an American farmstead. When Glen Otterbausch hires Sammy Boone as a ranch hand she is sixteen, short on talk, and reticent about the past that has led to her being totally alone in the world. The older Otterbausch falls in love, a love that is not reciprocated as the years go on, Sammy grows up, Otterbausch grows older, and for Sammy, "This business of being happy was something so long forgotten that she’d forgotten she’d forgotten." Achingly tender.

Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds was another story that caught my imagination long after the final reading, and is my choice of the best in this collection. Groff reaches back into the Second World War for this telling – and we are introduced to Bern, a young, intrepid war reporter, fleeing the occupation of Paris along with a motley group of fellow male journalists. When they run out of petrol and food near the home of a farmer who both admires the Nazis and hasn’t had a woman in years, the gothic horror of their situation becomes all too apparent. The story slowly rises to a crescendo in Groff’s masterful telling before quietly concluding. The violence and awfulness of war, which means people are placed in situations that are too terrible to contemplate is graphically illustrated. An amazingly executed story, and compelling beautiful for it.

As a long-time reader, and fan, of The Best American Series I’m aware that the quality and taste can vary with each year, and each individual editor’s selection, but this year’s collection provided a meaty, and compelling range of stories, easily the best within my reading of the series.

Read Téa Obreht's story from this collection in The Atlantic

Arja Salafranca’s debut collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. Her collections of poetry are: A life Stripped of Illusions, and The Fire in Which we Burn. Awards include the 2010 Dalro Award and the Sanlam Award, twice. She selected stories for The Edge of Things, South African fiction, published in April 2011.
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Authors: Steve Almond,  Marlin Barton, Charles Baxter, Danielle Evans, Jennifer Egan, Joshua Ferris, Lauren Groff, Wayne Harrison, James Lasdun, Rebecca Makakki, Brendan Matthews, Jill Mccorkle, Kevin Moffett, Téa Obreht, Lori Ostlund, Ron Rash, Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, Maggie Shipstead, Wells Tower 

Editor Richard Russo lives in the US with his wife and two daughters. He was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for Empire Falls. He has also published the novels Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody's Fool and Straight Man and the short story collection, The Whore's Child.