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Book Review

Short story collection is solid if not complete

By Joseph Peschel
October 6, 2011

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Edited by Geraldine Brooks

Mariner, 384 pp., paperback, $14.95

The 2010 and the 2008 collections of “Best American Short Stories’’ chosen, respectively, by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo and Salman Rushdie, delivered some of the truly best stories of this century. This year’s collection, picked by another Pulitzer Prize winner, Geraldine Brooks, fails to match the excellence of the two earlier volumes, though “BASS 2011’’ isn’t as weak as the 2009 Alice Sebold edition. Sebold erred when she deliberately chose lesser-known writers, as she says, to “lift those authors out of the slush pile when they submit again.’’

Brooks, however, errs in a different way by setting up criteria that may have proved too restrictive. In her introduction, she makes clear that for her plot is everything. There’s nothing wrong with the intricately plotted story, but, given her prejudice, the elegantly written vignette, or the artful, maybe cerebral, character study wouldn’t stand a chance of inclusion. Likewise, Brooks dismisses as stale stories about adultery and love stories with bleak endings. If he were still alive, how would Updike ever get a story in Brooks’s “best’’ collection? She also seems to have little use for the “MFAfia,’’ writers who hold graduate degrees in creative writing.

Despite her laundry list of biases, she’s stumbled upon some very good stories, many by writers whose work has been included in previous collections, including such heavyweights as Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Powers, Pulitzer Prize winners Steven Millhauser and Jennifer Egan, and fine but lesser-known writers: Rebecca Makkai, George Saunders, and Allegra Goodman. Stories by Elizabeth McCracken and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appear in “BASS’’ for the first time.

In “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart,’’ one of the best in the collection, Makkai draws comparisons between the deteriorating artistic world and her characters’ lives. Drew and actor Peter have been friends since childhood; when Peter’s life degenerates, Drew risks his career to help him. Makkai’s stories have been included in “BASS’’ four consecutive years. Awkward 13-year-old outcast Lisette tolerates life with her blackjack-dealing mother in Oates’s “ID’’ and must eventually identify her body. In “To the Measures Fall,’’ Powers depicts a woman whose days from student to 60-ish cancer victim are preoccupied by an obscure book.

Saunders and Millhauser tell fantastical tales in “Escape From Spiderhead’’ and “Phantoms.’’ Saunders’s futuristic prisoners participate in testing experimental drugs, including Verbaluce, which augments one’s lexical proficiency, and ED289/290, the ultimate sex drug. Unfriendly presences that look like ordinary townsfolk appear and disappear in Millhauser’s amusing allegory.

Goodman’s jilted and distraught heroine in “La Vita Nuova’’ brings her wedding dress to class so that the children can cut it up and use it in their arts projects. And in another excerpt from “A Visit From the Goon Squad’’ (“Safari’’ was excerpted last year), Egan’s bulked-up, hash-smoking Rob/Bobbie in “Out of Body’’ copes with life after his attempted suicide.

Adichie’s “Ceiling’’ illustrates the life of a young Nigerian whose changing country has catapulted his lifestyle from sleeping on the floor in his cousin’s flat to owning a vast estate with all the trappings that his dubiously earned money can buy.

There are other fine stories that make this collection worth reading, too, including McCracken’s inventive “Property,’’ Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Housewifely Arts,’’ and others.

It’s not that there are an abundance of weak stories here. It’s just that stories such as E. L. Doctorow’s “Edgemont Drive,’’ T. C. Boyle’s “The Silence,’’ Charles Baxter’s “Mr. Scary,’’ and Alice Munro’s “Corrie’’ deserved to find a place in this year’s selection but obviously somehow ran afoul of the editor’s rubric. Over the past few years, “BASS’’ has managed to be really good only every other year. This one wasn’t bad but maybe next year’s will be wonderful.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at or through his blog at


Edited by Geraldine Brooks

Mariner, 384 pp., paperback, $14.95