Saturday, December 29, 2007

2007, A Year in Reading: Best Short Stories of the Year

Earlier this year I read Annie Proulx's third short story collection, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2. Most of the pieces in it were appealing but underbaked--too long or too short, too detailed or not detailed enough. None of them had the power of the story that still has me fascinated with Proulx as a writer, "Brokeback Mountain." Reading Bad Dirt made me realize that it is possible for a writer to peak with a work only a few pages long, and I think it's worth recognizing accomplishments on that level even when the collections or anthologies they were plucked from aren't worthy of the same notice.

Though many of these stories were originally published in magazines, I read them almost exclusively in collected form. Which means that almost none of them were published in 2007 (and that this list is therefore useless as far as Hugo or Nebula nominations go). My rules, however, are the same ones I use for my lists of best and worst novels of the year: I have to have read the work for the first time in 2007, regardless of when it was published. Unfortunately, this means that Dorothy Parker's miraculous piece "The Standard of Living," which I first read in high school, and rediscovered this year in the otherwise enjoyable but not stellar The Portable Dorothy Parker, didn't make the cut. I urge you to track it down regardless--it's a smart, funny, and deeply sad story about the way we use imagination to deal with our quiet desperation.

And now, my favorite short stories from 2007:
  • "Yellow Card Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi, from Asimov's, December 2006

    Paolo Bacigalupi has been showing up in the short fiction categories of SF awards ballots for several years now. He's well on his way to demonstrating, yet again, that within genre it is still possible to make a name of oneself by writing exclusively in the short form. I've never disliked any of his pieces, but I've also never loved them as much as some people (most especially the Hugo and Nebula voters) seem to. Until, that is, I read "Yellow Card Man." Writing about this year's Hugo-nominated novelettes, I found it difficult to choose between Bacigalupi's story and the other two standouts on the ballot, Geoff Ryman's "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" (PDF) and Ian McDonald's "The Djinn's Wife." Six months later, the other two stories have faded, but "Yellow Card Man" remains as vivid in my memory as it was the day I read it. It's a brutal story--in its description of the massacre that sends its protagonist, the Malaysian-Chinese Tranh, into exile in Thailand, leaving behind the bodies of his family and the ruins of his business; in its depiction of the lives of refugees, the titular yellow card people, in near-future Bangkok; in its exploration of the toll that poverty, hunger, fear and desperation take on men's souls. "Yellow Card Man" is, at one and the same time, a story about the triumph of the human spirit, and about the dehumanizing effect that cruelty can have on its victims. What's truly exceptional about it is that both themes are expressed through the same person, and through the same breathtaking choice he makes at the story's end--which has continued to trouble and fascinate me for months. With a single story, Paolo Bacigalupi has made me into a fan, and I can't wait for his upcoming collection, Pump Six.

  • "Mr. Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower" by Susanna Clark, from The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories
    Runner-up: "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" by Daniel Abraham, from Logorrhea, edited by John Klima

    Some stories just hit your buttons in all the right ways. Both of these stories are variants on the folk tale convention of a simple, unimportant person triumphing over a great and powerful ruler. They struck a chord with me because in both cases, the protagonist is slightly geeky person living a quiet, perhaps even dull, life, who triumphs over adversity not by rejecting either their geekiness or their dullness, but by embracing it--by using their brains and the knowledge they've accumulated. Clarke's story is told through the diary entries of the young vicar Mr. Simonelli, who, upon his arrival at a new living makes the acquaintance of a local fairy and soon finds himself forced to protect the women of the parish from his attentions. Abraham (author of the impressive Nebula-nominated short "Flat Diane") centers his story around Olaf Neddelsohn, dedicated public servant and money changer, who has the misfortune of crossing paths with the debauched and amoral Lord Iron when the latter tries to use him as a the butt of a joke. The result, in both cases, is a thoroughly satisfying yarn that also says some interesting things about human nature. It's not just good that triumphs over evil in both stories, but ordinariness coming face to face with wonder and making a compromise with it--one that leaves both Mr. Simonelli and Olaf Neddelsohn altered, but still fundamentally geeky, quiet, and utterly admirable. Clarke's story wins out because it also features her trademark pastiche of the regency novel, which never fails to win me over, but both stories are worth reading.

  • "A Billion Eves" by Robert Reed, from Asimov's, October/November 2006

    Reed's meaty, thought-provoking novella is everything that political storytelling should be but so rarely is. It's a story about rejecting religious dogma and escaping religious persecution that manages to bring across the dangerous power of both without resorting to wild-eyed, froth-mouthed priests. Its protagonist, Kala, grows up in a permissive, liberal branch of a church founded by a terrible crime--the kidnapping of a hundred women into a parallel Earth to act as unwilling 'wives' to one man--which, over the years, has come to be glorified as the ultimate form of religious worship. In Kala's society, such 'colonizations' are common--and though such acts are officially frowned upon, so is kidnapping women in order to populate these new worlds. Without resorting to Handmaid's Tale-esque histrionics, Reed describes a world in which women have rights and opportunities, but whose culture is permeated by the perception of them as, first and foremost, a commodity--something to be carried, or bought, or stolen. He also draws a parallel between the unthinking misogyny of Kala's society and the rampant ecological destruction it wreaks when dominant weed strains are carried from one Earth to its parallel. Ultimately, it's up to Kala and her friends and family to find a way to escape the conventions they were raised in--to make a truly new world, not just another copy of their imperfect one.

  • "Bruns" and "Thieving" by Norman Rush, from Whites

    There's something slightly misleading in saying that these two stories are the best of Rush's short but exceptional collection--it's not as if the other pieces in it are bad or even less than fantastic. Nevertheless, in a field of excellence--characterized by Rush's beautiful prose, his sharp sense of humor, and his seemingly boundless compassion for human frailty--these two stand out. As I've said before, "Bruns" reads like a dry run for Rush's 1991 novel, Mating. Like that novel, it's narrated by an anthropologist who reports in a tone that is both dry and exuberant on the happenings in a small Botswana town, torn between the impulse to render an objective report and her own moral judgments of the people involved. The title character is a dedicated, possibly deranged foreign aid worker who manages to defeat a local Boer power-broker by making an unbelievable sacrifice. "Bruns" is either a terribly grim comedy or a slyly funny tragedy, both hopeful and hopeless. It's an insane story about an insane situation. "Thieving" is less hyperbolic but no less powerful. It's the story of Paul, a young man who becomes a thief in spite of himself (because, as he ultimately becomes convinced, God wants him to be one), and through him an examination of the question of property and morality in post-colonial Africa. Is the injunction against thieving a fundamental moral truth, or is it something imposed by Africans by their colonizers? Either way, is it really wrong for Africans to steal from people who have stolen so much from them? This is not to create the impression that "Thieving" is an earnest, philosophical piece. It's as funny, irreverent, and direct as "Bruns," and its conclusion is just as triumphant.

  • "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" by Karen Russell, from Best American Short Stories 2007, edited by Stephen King, and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

    I don't know what I can add to the gushing praise I heaped on this story only a few weeks ago, so I'll just say again: this is a remarkably self-assured piece of genre writing from a non-genre author, a refreshing twist on the many stories about young children and the social strata they form when they come together, and, mostly, a really good story about wolf-girls being trained to act human. What's remarkable about Russell's piece, apart from the fact that she's a good, and occasionally quite funny, writer, is her confidence in her imaginary premise, her willingness to sustain its integrity all the way to the end. At no point does she offer the readers a decoder ring--they have to accept the story as it is told (and then note the ways in which it reflects real-world issues, such as 'educational' institutes in which Inuit or aboriginal children were forced to forget their native culture, or the role of education in enforcing traditional gender roles). But Russell's story isn't remarkable simply because it originates outside of genre. It's a touching, exceptionally well-made story, and I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.

  • "Roman Fever" by Edith Wharton, from The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, edited by Roxana Robinson

    In my short fiction reading, 2007 was Edith Wharton's year. I read several dozen of her pieces, from stories to novellas, and though all of them were worth my time it was only at the very end of my forays that I found a piece I considered remarkable. I think Wharton's talents were better suited to larger canvases. She has a tendency towards melodrama that is tempered in her novels--perhaps because the longer format forced her to explore her subjects and characters more intimately and in greater detail--but which comes to the fore in her short fiction. "Roman Fever," though an unoriginal choice, is the exception. It's very different from the other Wharton stories I read this year--concentrated, intimate, stripped-down. There are no elaborate family histories, no framing devices, no lengthy narrative passages. It's almost modern. It takes place on a single afternoon, in a single location, and describes two middle-aged women as they, motivated mostly by boredom, expose the rotten foundations of their decades-old friendship and tear it asunder. From its gorgeous opening sentence, the story never lets up, and it is absolutely devastating.
That's it for 2007's short stories. I have high hopes for 2008, which will see the publication of not only Paolo Bacigalupi's previously mentioned collection, but also a new collection by Kelly Link. Tune in tomorrow and the next day for the year's best and worst books.

2 comments:

Carl V. said...

I'm certainly committed to reading more short stories this year. Susanna Clarke's collection is one of the ones on my pile. I've always appreciated short stories but never seem to actually read as many short story collections as I pick up throughout the year!

Alison said...

thanks for these recommendations, I have only read the Susannah Clarke so far of these, but I am going to check out as many of the others as I can.

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