I get this collection every year for Christmas, and have been for a number of years. I typically pick it up and read one or two stories and then put it down in favor of a novel…and then forget to come back to it. It’s a bad pattern, and I feel like I miss out on some good writing by doing it–I really love short stories, and they’re perfect for pre-bedtime reading or for when you don’t have the mindspace to take on a longer, meatier book. A new goal of mine has been to revisit some of my (many) unread short story collections, and maybe just try to have one ongoing at all times.
Anyway, I really love the Best American collection(s) because of how much they vary from year to year. The collection is so dependent on the guest editor of the year’s tastes, and I like thinking about how the editor’s picks relate to their own work. Sometimes there’s no overlap, and sometimes the collections surprise you by being really, really good (I didn’t expect to like Salman Rushdie’s as much as I did), or not so good (I didn’t love Steven King’s). I was excited to read Tom Perrotta’s because I love his writing and style and I had a hunch that his collection would feature some gems. I was, fortunately, right! This was one of my favorites out of the Best American collections I’ve read so far. Perrotta says: “I like stories written in plain, artful language about ordinary people. I’m wary of narrative experiments and excessive stylistic virtuosity, suspicious of writing that feels exclusive or elitist, targeted to readers with graduate degrees rather than the general public, whatever that means.” The stories are very much in that vein–not experimental or esoteric, just plain old good writing.
Story collections are hard to review, so I’ll just do a quick rundown of my favorite and least favorite pieces. It’s hard to pick favorites because so many of them were excellent, but “North Country” by Roxane Gay–about an out-of-place black woman finding love in northern Michigan–and “Axis” by Alice Munro–the story of two women, from college to old age, and how the choices we make as young people shape our futures in unexpected ways were standouts. There weren’t many I didn’t like, but Lawrence Osborne’s “Volcano,” in which a divorcée travels to Hawaii for a seminar on lucid dreaming, was a definite weak point for me.
I find that short stories can be pretty polarizing and reading them is where people’s true tastes appear. That being said, I loved this collection and wholeheartedly recommend it but I’ve seen mixed reviews online so I think this really comes down to personal preference. Give it a shot and see what you think!