What struck me in reading this anthology, edited by Geraldine Brooks, is how predictable I am. I bet if you know me, or have been reading this blog for long enough, you could go through this book and pick out which stories I was going to like best and which I would, given an Exacto knife, excise from the collection.
Take, for example, Allegra Goodman’s “La Vita Nuova,” a story of a very young woman, left by her fiance, caring for a small boy and finding a way back to herself through art-making. Obviously, I loved it.
Or “Dog Bites” by Ricardo Nuila and “To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers, stories which feature diagrams and bolded, rhetorical questions respectively. I could have cared about each of these stories but their po-mo interventions yanked me right out of the mood.
I was happy to see again all the stories I’d seen before: Jennifer Egan’s brutally beautiful “Out of Body,” Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (I’ll take a sad, quiet little girl protagonist any day), and Nathan Englander’s structurally unusual “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” a story that easily could have gone wrong for me, but pulled though with enough heart to outweigh the philosophy. (Okay, so there was one surprise “like” in here.)
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Housewifely Arts” had a talking parrot at its center, which was a bit too twee, and Joyce Carol Oates’ “ID,” which, with its seedy Atlantic City premise, was way over-dramatic. I felt like I got it long before she was done hitting her notes. My friends write way better fiction than these two stories–“Best of” editors, take note!
Two stories that featured towns as their protagonist really worked for me: Caitlin Horrocks’s tale of a community that finds a way to skip bleak unproductive winters, “The Sleep,” and Steven Millhauser’s totally strange, haunting “Phantoms,” a story I wanted to turn fictional in order to visit in person.
I loved Elizabeth McCracken’s “Property,” one of those stories that you think is about one thing until you realize it’s about something else until you realize it’s about something else, and all of those things are so, so sad. George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead” also veered this way and that, through weird sex and weirder prison experiments to unexpected redemption and grace.
My very favorite story in the anthology came courtesy of Bret Anthony Johnston. Here is the first line of “Soldier of Fortune”: “Her name was Holly Hensley, and except for two years when her father was transferred to a naval base in Florida, her family lived across the street from mine.” Now, this sentence may sound fairly to-the-point, there only to deliver background information. By the last page of the story, though, it becomes clear that while it may have been simple, that sentence was anything but direct. The protagonist of the story, a teenage boy, cares for Holly’s dog after a terrible accident befalls the baby of the family and the tender, restrained, realistic relationships that play out from there made this, for me, the obvious winner of the anthology. When I received a Kindle for Christmas, the first book I bought was Bret Anthony Johnston’s collection–watch out for a post on it soon!