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The Best American Short Stories 2020

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“To read their stories felt to me the way I suspect other people feel hearing jazz for the first time,” recalls Curtis Sittenfeld of her initial encounter with the Best American Short Stories series. “They were windows into emotions I had and hadn’t had, into other settings and circumstances and observations and relationships.” Decades later, Sittenfeld was met by the same feeling selecting the stories for this year’s edition. The result is a striking and nuanced collection, bringing to life awkward college students, disgraced public figures, raunchy grandparents, and mystical godmothers. To read these stories is to experience the transporting joys of discovery and affirmation, and to realize that story writing in America continues to flourish. 

Godmother tea / Selena Anderson --
The apartment / T.C. Boyle --
A faithful but melancholy account of several barbarities lately committed / Jason Brown --
Sibling rivalry / Michael Byers --
The nanny / Emma Cline --
Halloween / Marian Crotty --
Something Street / Carolyn Ferrell --
This is pleasure / Mary Gaitskill --
In the event / Meng Jin --
The children / Andrea Lee --
Rubberdust / Sarah Thankam Mathews --
It's not you / Elizabeth McCracken --
Liberté / Scott Nadelson --
Howl Palace / Leigh Newman --
The nine-tailed fox explains / Jane Pek --
The hands of dirty children / Alejandro Puyana --
Octopus VII / Anna Reeser --
Enlightenment / William Pei Shih --
Kennedy / Kevin Wilson --
The special world / Tiphanie Yanique

370 pages, Paperback

First published November 3, 2020

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About the author

Curtis Sittenfeld

21 books6,729 followers
Curtis Sittenfeld is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including Rodham, Eligible, Prep, American Wife, and Sisterland, as well as the collection You Think It, I'll Say It. Her books have been translated into thirty languages. In addition, her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post Magazine, Esquire, and The Best American Short Stories, for which she has also been the guest editor. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, and Vanity Fair, and on public radio's This American Life.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 195 reviews
Profile Image for Jenna 🧵.
225 reviews77 followers
January 30, 2021
2021 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book with fewer than 1,000 reviews on Goodreads (at this point, anyway!). 12 out of 20 of these stories vibed with me - is that good?? Anyway, 60% is probably mathematically three stars, but I’m adding on a bit extra for Curtis Sittenfeld fangirling purposes and also because I thought the top 5 (or 6) stories were pretty great. This collection would be good for a book club discussion.
Here’s my very personal Top 10 ranking (just based on my engagement and/or appreciation of craft - and honestly, since my COVID-era attention span remains for shit, these are also probably some of the *shorter* short stories, because that’s about what I can handle these days!):

1. Michael Byers, “Sibling Rivalry”
2. Kevin Wilson, “Kennedy”
3. Sarah Thankham Mathews, “Rubberdust”
4. Alejandro Puyana, “The Hands of Dirty Children”
5. TC Boyle, “The Apartment”
6. Leigh Newman, “Howl Palace”
7. Marian Crotty, “Halloween”
8. Anna Reeser, “Octopus VII”
9. Elizabeth McCracken, “It’s Not You”
10. Emma Cline, “The Nanny”
Profile Image for Jan Priddy.
722 reviews137 followers
April 18, 2021
I have every volume of the series going back more than 40 years. The best years identified brilliant old and new author's stories—for two examples, even though I am not a great Carver fan, his (1986) and Atwood's choices (1989) were astounding. Others have done this as well in overlooking their narrow niche and finding brilliance.

I began each of this year's stories hopeful for something marvelous and then struggled to finish. It is a personal reaction, of course.

The last time I was so alienated and bored by an author's choices was when Kingsolver was enthralled by wealthy people traveling in other countries (2001). I read the first paragraph of one story several times, read it aloud to my husband, read it once again and still had the same two reactions: something was missing from that introduction and I did not care. The "Sibling Rivalry" story was interesting and reminded me of a great story from the year Walter Mosely was editor (2003), but the attempt to riff off Bill Cosby's life was ... boring. Many of these stories are simply boring. Gaitskill's apologia for powerful and abusive white men was boring, as if there were not already issues with that story. (But then Gaitsgill has long been a diligent defender of white privilege and the status quo.)

But then Curtis Sittenfeld, despite her promising introduction to this dull volume, is not a favorite of mine either.

I just want to read something better. This was a very hard act to follow The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories by Danielle Evans. Those were surprising, inspiring, unique and compelling stories.
Profile Image for Sonya.
793 reviews144 followers
March 18, 2021
This was a mixed bag of stories in terms of my reading taste, and there were some clear standouts in the collection. My favorites ended up being:

Michael Byers: Sibling Rivalry
Carolyn Ferrell: Something Street
Mary Gaitskill: This is Pleasure
Elizabeth McCracken: It's Not You
Leigh Newman: Howl Palace

Several of the other stories were good but I will not remember them.
Profile Image for Bonnie G..
1,302 reviews188 followers
May 31, 2022
I am going to review these stories as I read them rather than waiting until I finish which could take a while. I will start with the first 3 stories which I have finished, and I will drop in when I finish more.

Godmother Tea: I really didn’t like these ramblings of a sad-sack urban girl. Nothing here felt authentic or edifying. I know the story is supposed to address the dissonance that flows from being a black woman who grows up in a mostly white milieu, private schools, liberal arts college, etc., and her flatlining relationships with white friends/partners post-college and flailing attempts to connect with black people. I want to hear that story, just from a better writer. I assume the titular Godmother is a magical realism enhanced metaphor for internal negative thoughts/voices but it feels more like the protagonist has had a psychotic break. 1-star

The Apartment: I have never loved Boyle's work in the past. This is not to say he is not a talented writer, just not a great match for my particular tastes. But this story really surprised me. The story is arch and funny (satisfied wry smile funny rather than chortle funny –this is from McSweeney’s after all.) The writing is really quite good. And the story, a man sets up an annuity through which he will acquire upon her death the apartment of an old, once rich, woman. Unfortunately, she has no interest in dying. It is hard to achieve dark and charming in the same work. 4.5-star.

A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed: Funny! Who 4doesn’t like a waspy family reunion through the eyes of, arguably, its most dysfunctional member? Two stories in a row about old people who refuse to die at the time others want them to die seems like overkill but I really liked both. The voice in this is enchanting; “…all people I loved but vaguely resented” is a wonderful description of extended family. Unlike The Apartment this one was actually, rather than just wryly, funny and I really laughed. 4.5-stars.

Sibling Rivalry: This tale is one of AI children dispersed among the bio people and the kids decide their type is better than the other. The constant references to the child not really belonging to the parents might be super problematic for adoptees and adoptive parents. They were uncomfortable for me and I have a bio-kid.

This parable about how children come to identify some children as "other" or "less than" also touches in the nearly impossible task of raising children to embrace fairness and logic in an unfair and illogical world. Also this touches on the big parenting question -- autonomy vs protection and the costs of getting things wrong, no matter how well intentioned. There just didn’t seem to be much new here and parts of it felt well-intentioned but clumsy, like a substandard episode of the Twilight Zone. 2-stars

The Nanny: I did not like Cline’s book The Girls, and I didn’t love this for the same reasons (though I liked it more than The Girls.) Cline writes about vain and immature girls obsessed with the space between their looks and actual beauty, looking to gain purchase, to feel beautiful and consequential by barnacling onto compelling men who dangle the opportunity to be fame adjacent. It is an interesting topic, but Cline has no critical distance – she is seemingly a vain and immature girl, and as a result her observations are banal at best, and often ridiculous. Maybe that is the point, maybe the mere act of bringing these characters to the page without analysis, without the lenses of experience, merit and wisdom, is the point. If so, I am the wrong reader. I was that girl, and when I was, I bored myself. It is the opportunity to understand a person's motivation that intersts me in fiction. I am not looking for simple reportage. That said, there are some stellar sentences and the story is well-constructed. One of the things I like in short stories is when you come in in the middle of things, all sorts of things happened already off the page and you sense that many things will be left to happen off the page and then you are in a race to figure out what is going on before the story ends and you are kicked out of the narrative. It creates a pleasing tension. 3-stars

Halloween: Charming little story about the sexual actualization and overwhelming life choices confusion of a high school senior … and her grandmother. 4-stars

Something Street: This is a fictional account of Camille Cosby’s life. It addresses the strictures on black women raised in relative wealth, the colorism, the treatment of women as nothing other than a vessel to serve men, the insistence on perfect appearance and manners for the Jack and Jill alumni. (I recalled a number of passages from Margo Jefferson’s Negroland as I read.) Appearances are everything, especially when one is aware of the judgmental white gaze, which obviously was very much on Camille Cosby. For Parenthia (the name of the character who is 100% a Camile facsimile) looking good, not raising a fuss, is the way she upholds all black people. This, it is implied is why she supported her rapist husband’s denial of his pattern of sexual assault. I do think the story creates some ground for empathy (something I had not felt prior to reading this) but honestly not a ton. I will say the very end confused me a bit. I think the author intended to raise issues around the performance of masculinity, but honestly, I am not really sure. Still interesting and well put together. 3.5 stars.

This is Pleasure: Just fantastic. A subtle #Metoo tale. I loved that the female narrator, a "friend" of the accused, was not aware that an abuser’s behavior toward her was unacceptable. She knew at some level she was mad at this man, her friend, and did not know why. This is something I don’t think people understand, that women are so socialized to accept certain behavior, to see it as complimentary even, that we don’t know we are being eroded even as we are. Also Gaitskill gives us a dimensional toxic man. This man’s behavior is gross, but he is also someone who lives to observe people and to challenge them and someone who thinks he loves women, thinks he treats women as they want him to. That he reads most every situation wrong is not entirely his fault. It is entitlement not malice at work here. The impact may be the same, but mens rea counts too. Gaitskill curbs the sympathy though, as she should, She makes clear that the long-term impact on the abuser as a result of the allegations against him will be minimal. Attractive white educated men of means are most always going to be just fine. And also, Gaitskill is just such a great writer. Even throwaway lines sing. She talks about good looking male cater waiters (unemployed actors and models need to eat) and says they “trail bruised dignity in their wake.” So freaking good. 5-stars

In the Event: At first this seems mostly to be about the difference between first gen Chinese Americans and more assimilated Chinese families with their big houses and American accents and their ability to navigate their lives. This story began to really pull me in, (buoyed as it was by the very good writing) but the focus then shifted. The protagonist, Chenchen appears to have severe depression and anxiety while Tony, her partner, is cheerful and attentive, and allows life to roll off of him. Chenchen never sees tension ease. Who can say where mental illness comes from. For Chenchen it is possibly from being raised with miserable uncommunicative parents who did not (probably could not, busy as they were with their isolation and misery) prepare her for American life. Chenchen seems to want disaster, to almost lust for it as she eschews all activity in favor of preparing for something unlikely to happen. But then Chenchen and Tony both find out that the real disasters are tiny and personal and are acts of volition not chance. Like voting for Trump. And betraying people's trust. 4-stars

The Children: A post-colonial free-for-all with fingers pointed at both Americans and Europeans, none of whom really do anything much to redress the harms visited by those who came before. While doing almost nothing to redress harm the people say they are doing their best, or “what more can you do.” Small charitable acts/offerings make them feel better about not really helping – in fact the do-gooders do harm by raising hope in those who have been particularly screwed over by the colonials. Our noble main characters cast aspersion on those who left wreckage, and yet they really do nothing good either, they just talk more about it. This was fine, the writing is direct, workmanlike, The end point seems to veer to a discussion of parenting, which really took the wind out of the sails of this one. 2.5-stars.

Rubberdust: Seems to capture a bit of childhood, particularly the mean parts, the friendlessness and bullying some kids endure and all kids witness. The title refers to the detritus of rubber erasers, which a formerly bullied child creates and shares with another bully to rub unto the hair of another bullied child. The main child feels bad about her bullying and tries to atone and the other bully goes blind. Then she is an adult. Literally, that is it. There are some clever devices in use in the story. The story shifts from 3rd to 1st person both suddenly and seamlessly. There are constant references to how they pronounced things in her village in the third person section so it is clear she is talking to an American. (“She circles the soccer (we pronounced it football ) field.”) There are some fun notes in the text that felt like actual workshop notes. Despite all those clever tools, I just did not get a lot from this. I guess as a series of vignettes to evoke childhood (the bad parts) it was fine. However, it felt like, as Tim Gunn would say ”student work.” I imagine the author was in a creative writing class and the instructor asked everyone to write about an event that changed who they were. 2.5-stars.

It's Not You: I love Elizabeth McCracken's writing, and her sense of humor, but her subject matter, or more accurately the way she views her subject matter, just always feels like it misses the point. This is one of those reader/author disconnects. She is talented, I am (I think) a good reader, but somehow we don't mesh. Individual passages astound me. Has anyone ever set a scene with such economy as:

"You shall know a rich man by his shirt, and so I did. Breakfast time in the breakfast room. The décor was old but kept up. Space-age, with stiff, Sputnikoid chandeliers. Dark-pink leather banquettes, rosy-pink carpets. Preposterous but wonderful."

I am there -- I don't need to know anything else. And has anyone ever described an evening of imagined heartbreak better than: "I built my drunkenness like a fire, patiently, enough space so it might blaze." McCracken writes just the way I like at the sentence level. It is always especially disappointing to not love the stories of a person who writes like that.

This vignette centers on a formative morning in the life of a young woman who has never experienced hardship and so creates drama around a whole lot of nothing. She has an encounter, brief but transformative, and that is what is covered in this very short story. I enjoyed is, but nothing stuck really. The writing is a 5 but subjectively I will call it a 3.5

Liberte There are artists I really dislike, though I know I am "supposed to" like them. One of those is Louise Nevelson. I guess there is comfort to be gleaned from this fictionalized account of Nevelson's very real shipboard encounter with doctor/writer/rabid anti-Semite/anti-Communist Louis Ferdinand Celine. Nevelson has just walked out on her husband and child and aboard her ship to American she decides she wants to get horizontal with someone who wants her dead. Celine is not a casual anti-Semite. He hates her, loathes her. This is not like slave owners who dehumanize and rape their slaves, there is no dehumanization here, Celine sees Nevelson as a human, loathsome because she is a Jew. He says while lamenting the general collapse of the world

"In times like these, who should rise to the surface, like shit floating on a flooded river Yes, the Jew. The bottom feeder. Thriving on the poison and decay of a poisoned culture. Poisoning it further. Until those few left with dignity must burn everything down and plant new seeds in the ashes."

Then he tries to kiss her. Nevelson does not become romantically involved with Celine, but she is enthralled by him and they did have some sort of relationship that continued for a long time. I don't think Nadlelson's story adds anything to this unpleasant tale. I would have preferred a non-fiction account but I am not sure enough is known for one to exist. I understand Nadleson's interest. The story seems inconceivable and it seems completely human to write a narrative that makes this story in some way comprehensible. That said, Nadelson did not bring me along. My reaction to reading the author's explanation of the underlying story (which can be found on Google) was something like "huh, Nevelson is as cold and meaningless as her sculptures." (Some of my best friends love Nevelson, lord knows there is no shortage of her work around NYC, but pared down tension is not enough to draw me in.) 2-stars

Howl Palace This story did something that astounds me when I am able to find it. It told me an entire story of a life in a tiny space. By saying that I do not mean to indicate that this feels rushed or that I wish it had been a novel. The writer makes such elegant choices about what snippets of conversation to include and what events to refer to. Also, the writer drops information bombs without foreshadowing them at all. I kind of liked being jerked around (in this context -- I am no glutton for punishment.) The MC, Dutch, is one of those resourceful rural women who can kill and dress an elk and keep the house running. Dutch has been married 5 times and has kept a hold of the house left to her by husband #1. Now she must sell the house to pay for a good place to live in her later years so she doesn't end up in a home. Single and about to be separated from her home there is nothing left to tether her. I loved learning about Dutch through her past and present and through her relationship with her current squeeze. Dutch is not nice, she is transactional in all things, including relationships. Some of what she does is pretty awful. If you are looking for likeable characters run away. I can't say more without spoilers. 5-stars

The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains This killed me. I read Jane Pek's first novel, The Verifiers, a few months back, and loved it. I was so looking forward to this story, written by a writer I just discovered about a subject I like. And then I read it and . . . well, it was short so that was good.

The nine-tailed fox is my favorite superstar of Chinese mythology. She appears in the form of a beautiful woman who seduces, bewitches and breaks men (who are, of course, its all the fault of the hot chick.) In this version Fox has a fight with the pipa spirit and as a result Fox ends up making choices that mean she can't be reincarnated. She keeps living in the same form, which is not a great option. To stay alive she must suck the vital essence of men (think succubus or Dracula, something along those lines.) She must leave China because they are destroying the mountain on which she lives, so she does what beautiful women who want to get out of their countries do --she becomes a mail order bride. Things happen, Americans are Americans, and Fox makes choices that appear cruel, but perhaps are not so much a sucking-the-life-out-of event as a needed change in perspective. She leaves behind her the gift of potential love with another. I get what she was doing, subverting the femme fatale trope, but I just did not think it was really well done. Good concept, but for me there were errors in execution. Sorry Jane! 2.5-stars

The Hands of Dirty Children I have no objection to message driven writing, but this was a bridge too far for me. I know there are kids like the kids in this story. kids who are poor, unsupervised, hopeless. It is tragic and deadly and there are too few bearers of light. The writer told me nothing I didn't know, evoked no feelings I did not already have, and resorted to some really off-putting cliches about rich people not paying attention, and poor people giving from the heart. 2-stars

Octopus VII Not a fan of this one either. In my 20s I knew tons of trust-fund kid artists who floated through life accomplishing nothing. A few even had talent, a few had drive, none that I knew had both. What they all lacked was a sense of direction. Parents think they are giving their kids freedom to do what the want, the intentions are good, but a person who does not carry the weight of others' expectations and who has their rent paid is likely to have a hard time knowing where to start when building a life. The MC in this story is one of those kids. Will he be savedar ruined by renouncing his art and embracing manual labor? You be the judge. 2-stars

Enlightenment I never say things are triggering, but this tale of an old professor grooming a young student was triggering -- and for no payoff. I think the story was about how knowledge does not equal enlightenment, but I might be wrong. I honestly have no idea what Shih was trying to do here, but I know I found it confusing and repellant. Either this is bad, or I am not smart enough to appreciate it. 1-star

Kennedy I can't explain why, but I loved this. Wilson exorcises his ghosts (the characters are based on him, a friend and their bully, though the actual events in the story are fiction.) I think most of us have events or interactions from our high school years that haunt us, where we question (are are even disgusted by) our actions/inactions and remain baffled by the behavior of others. Wilson ran with that. I wanted to hug all 3 boys, even the psychopathic one. This man can build empathy like no one else. 5-stars

The Special World This read like a novel treatment or summary, not short story. I talked in another review about the elegant choices the author made in what to include. This is a litany of inelegant choices. There is both too much and too little here. Also, it is lowkey anti-semetic. I was an ATL resident for 16 years. I was all in for a UGA and Ellenwood set story. Then I read it. 1.5 stars.

The math says this averages 3.05. A 3-star it is.
Profile Image for Jenny Shank.
Author 4 books68 followers
May 20, 2021
I read this anthology with my students every year, and it's great for discussing what writing techniques and stories appealed to us. I wanted to share my thoughts on three of the stories that were our favorites:

"Halloween" by Marian Crotty

I found this story completely appealing. First of all, it's funny. I loved the character of the grandmother—she's a woman who let passion guide her life. I've met a few older ladies like this over the years—they end up a little financially unstable, but they've got incredible stories, fascinating souvenirs, and they are a lot of fun, just like this grandmother. All the specific details Crotty shares about her make her vivid—the extravagant gifts she gives, her "provocative statements," but especially, her love advice that she gives to her granddaughter. I like how succinct and absolute it is, and how it works so well. I also like the depiction of this family that's been split up and reformed in a bunch of different ways—there are divorces and stepdads and boyfriends around, and fathers who took off. And even though Jan is the narrator's dad's mom, Jan, the narrator and the narrator's mom have decided that they're a tight family, and that they love and appreciate each other. I like this depiction of how family members who have an affinity for each other within this web of sprawling and tenuous connections end up clinging to each other.

I thought Crotty captured this particular moment in a young woman's life very well—she's almost out of high school, looking ahead to what comes next and not sure where she will go to college and how she will pay for it, but she's ready for her life to begin. She feels herself being squeezed out of her house by her mom's boyfriend, whom she doesn't like. And of course what she cares the most about is the girl she's got a crush on. I lovee her voice here—it's like the world is opening up to her and she's discovering all her possibilities: "At school I barely spoke to anyone but my friend Paloma and never managed to talk in class without my entire chest and face going hot and red, but Yotopia! No one seemed to guess that this friendly, confident person was a lie. That you could just decide to be a different person, that you didn't have to actually change to convince people, felt like a revelation." This is a key insight for a young person I think—when you figure out that everyone fakes it until they feel confident in what they're doing.

I like how this depicts the narrator as living in a milieu created by all these past romantic entanglements of the family members around her—and she's just on the precipice of heading out on her own to create her own set of complications.
The classic set up of this story, I think, is an older wiser person giving advice to a younger, more inexperienced one. This template works whether it's a magical situation—a fairy godmother, say—or just a regular grandparent.

The technical aspect that I most admire of this story, though, is the ending, which Crotty absolutely sticks. I think it would fall into the category of "frozen in a moment of possibility" endings, that I discussed if any of you have taken my craft seminar on writing endings. I love how it's such a bad idea for the narrator to go to this party and open this old wound, and her grandmother tells her this, but the narrator can't help it—she wants to go. Her heart wants her to go. And so Jan, a woman who has always let her heart rule, gives her sage advice: "'Go for an hour,' she said. 'Wear a mask and don't say anything. I'll drive.'"

"Rubberdust" by Sarah Thankam Mathews

I thought this was an excellent example of a story that stays true to its child narrator's perspective. There were so many charming touches to this. I particularly loved the little asides that mention how these people pronounce certain words. It clued me in right away that this was set in an English-speaking country that has a little different accent than we are used to, and I picked up quickly that it was India, without her adding a paragraph that situates this geographically. If you think about it, adding such a paragraph might orient the reader, but it would break with the child narrative, because a young child would never say something like, my school was in X town in X province in India.

At the same time, there is a little narrative distance between the narrator and the protagonist. Calling her "the little girl with no friends" feels more outside her perspective than saying something like, Sally, who had no friends, read contentedly at her small wooden desk during recess. This kind of thing can get your brain tangled up when you think about it too hard in your own work, but I think it's helpful when you begin writing something to pause for a minute and ask yourself, what perspective am I writing in? How far out is my narrative distance? And if you nail it down, the rest of the story will go more smoothly.

There were beautiful descriptions in this, such as the line about Karan, who "has a lantern jaw, bulbous taring eyes, and a stink that nestles close, follows him like a stray." I love the humor throughout this, as when the narrator's dad says, "Next time, slap him well," and when she asks Anuj to play "get married" and he says, "Yuck, no. That's corrupted." Mathews captured the voices of these people so well with her word choice and punctuation that she didn't need to use any kind of dialect or explanations for me to hear how they sounded as they spoke, such as when Mrs. Tareen says, "If I don't hear pin-drop silence while I'm in the next room, everyone here will be quite, quite sorry."

The kids' nonsensical mission, to create a pile of "rubberdust," seemed absolutely authentic to me (indeed the author mentions it's something she did as a kid). I remember getting obsessed with strange little things like this, and seeing the same sorts of behaviors in my kids, for example when I'd visit the classroom for back-to-school night, and open up my son's desk and find a chaos of pencil shavings, little slips of paper, and random hoarded things.

The way that their creation of this dust progresses to tormenting poor Karan with it also feels authentic to me, as does the girl's immediate shame over it. Kids are so unformed and are still trying things out, so you can't say that this one action makes them "bad" people. They are learning how to act--they are learning what makes them feel proud, and what makes them feel ashamed.

I also enjoyed the metafictional aspect of this story. You can tell that she was thinking about the act of writing a story as she wrote it, and what various voices have been in her head as she learned to write, and also her notes in the afterword confirm it. She said that she wrote the events in a variety of different orders. I love that part on p. 208, where she takes us into her writing group's deliberations about the story. (Here is a technique to try: when you are having trouble working out a story, put that struggle into the story itself.) She quotes a comment that she got in her workshop about the story, "The relevance of this seems grounded in a kind of cultural specificity that the narrator doesn't include the audience in on."

I think she does include us in on its relevance, though. It was clear to me this was a story about a kid thinking about morality, about kindness and cruelty, and what kind of person she wanted to be. The part on p.. 206, where she wants to be punished because she feels so bad, makes that clear.

So, I thought this was a fascinating story, jam-packed with interesting technique and writerly skill, that transported me to this world an accomplished so much in its few pages.

"Howl Palace" by Leigh Newman

I loved this story. I underlined so many of the details that convinced me this writer knew Alaska. Here's the first one that hooked me: "If you wanted a house, you either built ti yourself or you hung out in the parking lot of a Spenard Builders Supply handing out six-packs to every guy with a table saw in the back of his vehicle until one got broke enough or bored enough to consider your blueprints."

The other really skillful thing I noticed about this story is how Newman just gets the story started with a situation--Dutch is putting her house up for sale, and it's called Howl Palace for some reason. So the story gets moving on that premise, and then every few paragraphs we get an additional intrigant, like "My fourth husband, Lon," that gradually sketch the contours of her rather complicated personal life. To me, it felt like watching a skillful relay team pass the baton without breaking stride. She gets the story started and sprinkles in backstory all while the story keeps running, and the backstory makes me care even more about what's going on with the main, action piece of the story--the open house and the home sale.

All the characters were quirky and specific--and believable, based on my knowledge of Alaska. I love the humor throughout this piece, such as on p. 234 when Dutch shares the scathing insults her husband with dementia would lash her with and then says, "Shipping him off to a facility in Washington near his daughter wasn't exactly something I struggled with."

And then there's that great, crazy Labrador, running through everything, laying waste to the entire open house. I love him, and I love the way she describes the dog he's based on in her contributor's notes. I wonder if each of us, whenever we get too comfortable with a tidy little world we've built on the page, need to just unleash a rampaging, insane Labrador into the story to shock it into crazy life.

Profile Image for Shane.
Author 11 books252 followers
November 24, 2022
Anthologies take us over a wide canvas of human experience, never concluding, just skimming and touching with each story before moving on to the next. This collection may not be America’s best, but it seems to be the best in a year when we were pre-occupied with a pandemic.

As with any collection, there are strong and weak stories. I won’t waste my time on the weak ones but will call out my top 5 in the order in which they appear in the collection:

“The Apartment” - the conceit of a reverse annuity mortgage, or viager, seems to be popular (check out the Maggie Smith film My Old Lady, on which this story could be based for all I know). But what happens when the sure-bet does not work and the viager becomes an albatross?

“Sibling Rivalry” – a sci-fi scenario when robots (called Supers) have become too dangerous and are incarcerated, and when Synths (lab-manufactured children) are better in a one-child mandated society. Yet, the Synths have the free-will to decide whether they will throw in their lot with the Supers or with their human manufacturers. I liked the Cookies – eavesdropping devices used by extreme helicopter parents to monitor their children – not unlike the cookies that infect our computers today.

“This is Pleasure” – in the era of #MeToo, a publisher who did not respect social and sexual boundaries with colleagues in his industry, faces ruin. Written from the male and female perspective, including that of the accused, one feels empathy for the publisher who reminisces, “We belonged to a generation that valued freedom and honesty, above politeness.”

“Octopus VII” – the conflict between earning a living and creating art – we all face this. Alas when one is young, like the protagonist sculptor in this story, and a long future needs to be provided for, money trumps art. It happened to me, what about you?

“Enlightenment” – An aging, celebrated, closet-homosexual university professor has a brief flowering with a young student who wants to follow in his footsteps. The professor wants to scream out, “Don’t – I hated Harvard. Look how lonely I am!” but do the young ever listen?

The stories roam from the US mainland to Alaska, to Venezuela, to Europe, to China, and into the future. Some are based on real-life historical characters, and some on myth. The styles and literary forms are varied. However, beginning the collection with a rather difficult to comprehend magic realism story almost led me to casting the book aside. The stories should have been grouped in reverse order, for the later stories had a more concrete form than the earlier ones. Other peeves that bothered me were:
1. Many of the stories took a long time to get into focus, for the writers came at their stories from odd angles.
2. The twenty-page average story length made for some overwriting, especially glaring in short story writing where every word needs to count.
3. Many of the stories were so open-ended that I wondered why they were even written. In our Age of the Shortened Attention Span, the short story has got a bad rap because of its inconclusiveness. We don’t need all loose ends tied up, but at least show us some light at the end of the tunnel.

Especially helpful are the notes at the end of the book by the individual authors on how they came to write these stories and what they were trying to accomplish – this was the most valuable part of the book for me, for it put some method behind the madness that is creative writing. Whether the authors succeeded in their goals, or not, is another story – you decide!
Profile Image for Ken Saunders.
467 reviews9 followers
May 14, 2021
They get better as you go. In the end I liked 9 of these stories well enough. There is much repetition - several me-too stories, several quirky elders, several bullies, several street urchins in faraway places. My favorites were The Nanny and Kennedy.

Intro: Get this- they're all great stories and it was hard to choose!
Godmother Tea: "I'd pass by the mirror and see fragments of other women." On and on. I gave it 5 pages.
The Apartment: I loved World's End but hit or miss overall with Boyle. Writing is fine but this story didn't really go anywhere.
A Faithful but Melancholy Account: quirky family reunion. "Stop shouting," she said. "I'm sitting right next to you."(I also sometimes lost control of "my volume," as Melissa put it.)"
Sibling Rivalry: robot kids taking over school and people share intimate thoughts in a feed. Pretty thin. Writing lapses into rambling run-on too long to quote here.
The Nanny: I really loved The Girls and appreciate Cline for providing the first standout story in this collection. The Nanny manages to breathe new life into not just the old fallen woman trope but also into the sort of stories Jacqueline Susann used to specialize in. I really enjoyed the writing and the story's arc. This would be enjoyable even without the 'scandal' hook- but I loved this character trying to look nice for security cameras.
Halloween: crush at retail job with quirky grandmother, no thanks.
Something Street: if anyone asked for a fictional glimpse inside the mind of a character based on Camille Cosby, here it is.
This is Pleasure: yet another story inspired by the me-too movement. This started out okay but I bailed about halfway in.
In the Event: I liked this one, it was an interesting take on how commonplace disasters have become in our lives.
The Children: right at the beginning this one promises an adventure but there was no adventure. It made my eyes glaze over. Pretty short but here is an example of something literary writers can learn from genre writers, (please add quotation marks around those): you don't build a world with streams of proper nouns, names of all these people and places. It's like listening to someone talk about where they went and who they met on their vacation.
Rubberdust: okay story of bullies and their lessons in grade school. It kept me reading and took me somewhere, so it's a standout for this collection.
It's Not You: started out great with some actual humor and enthusiasm, things sorely lacking from everything I've seen so far. "I built my drunkenness like a fire, patiently" is a fantastic line. I could quote more. This one was pretty good.
Liberté: the writer thinks we are not comprehending the story, so keeps explaining as we go along: "It's an important discovery, she thinks, a profound one: that someone can detest what he desires or desire what he detests. Which comes first, the wanting or the loathing, she doesn't know."
Howl Palace: by my count this is the third quirky comic elder in the collection so far, and I am not event counting the Bill Cosby character in that other story. But this story was entertaining and literally made me LOL. So thank you Howl Palace.
The Nine Tailed Fox Explains: this one is for the "magical" fans I guess. A demon disguised as a mail order bride gives the husband (who ordered her online) the gift of true love ... I am not even kidding.
The Hands of Dirty Children: Here's an engaging, well written short story! It's about street kids eating garbage!
Octopus VII: Here's another one where the story lets a character explain things for anyone who is not following ... it's not hard to follow.
Enlightenment: It's a real pleasure to read this one and to turn it over and over. Have you ever found yourself in an accidental relationship?
Kennedy: more unwanted attention, this time from a sadistic bully(?) in art class. There's a great suspense and many nervous laughs as we try to figure out what Kennedy wants from his new best friends. Great story.
The Special World: a new freshman heads off to dorm life and falls into a new religion and a new relationship. Very engaging!
Profile Image for Gordon Jack.
Author 2 books52 followers
January 23, 2021
I enjoyed this collection much more than recent editions, perhaps because guest editor Curtis Sittenfield and I have similar tastes. As she states in her introduction, the success of the collection is probably the result of the “the idiosyncratic taste of a guest editor” being aligned more or less with the idiosyncratic taste of the reader. With that said, my favorites in this edition were:

The Apartment by T.C. Boyle in which a man tries to secure a woman’s Parisian apartment by offering her a reverse annuity, only to have her get the better end of the deal.

Sibling Rivalry by Michael Byers in which human and synthetic children begin to realize how they're similar and, more ominously, how they're different.

The Nanny by Emma Cline in which a young woman finds herself caught up in a Hollywood scandal.

Halloween by Marian Crotty in which a teen girl in love with her co-worker gets advice from her grandmother

This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill in which a woman deals with her conflicted feelings for a man caught up in a #MeToo scandal

Howl Palace by Leigh Newman in which an Alaskan woman has to deal with an unruly dog while trying to manage an open house

The Hands of Dirty Children by Alejandro Puyana in which a group of street children try to survive the crumbling city of Caracas, Venezuela

Kennedy by Kevin Wilson in which two high school boys are terrorized by a sociopathic bully
Profile Image for Brenna.
46 reviews2 followers
January 11, 2021
I look forward to reading the BASS every January! This year I was taken to a lonely hotel room, the streets of Venezuela, a frozen yogurt shop, an open-house in Alaska where the neighbor was on downers and there was chewed moose-meat in the backyard... The future, the past. I laughed, felt frightened, felt sad, and felt less alone. Never underestimate the power of a short story. Thank you!
Profile Image for Cathryn Conroy.
1,030 reviews31 followers
June 16, 2022
If you enjoy reading short stories, treat yourself to any of the “The Best American Short Stories” annual anthologies. This is a particularly good one, which was guest edited by Curtis Sittenfeld, one of my favorite authors. Sittenfeld’s assignment was to spend four months reading 120 short stories that were published between January 2019 and January 2020 and then choose 20 for this volume.

This is truly a literary collection, and it’s quite diverse. The authors are men, women, white, black, Asian, straight, and gay. The stories are staid and comfortable, as well as experimental and outlandish. Some are heartbreaking. Some are confusing. Some are almost otherworldly. Some are dystopian. Some are incredible.

A few of the better-known authors in this 2020 edition are T.C. Boyle, Emma Cline, Meng Jin, Elizabeth McCracken, and Kevin Wilson, but the real delight for me is discovering authors that are new to me, such as Marian Crotty, Mary Gaitskill, and Alejandro Puyana.

A sampling of my favorites or, at least, the ones that stuck in my head days after reading them:
• “The Apartment,” by T.C. Boyle: A middle-aged married father of two teenage daughters feels cramped in his apartment, so he makes an unusual offer to the owner of another apartment in the building. Watch what you wish for.

• “Sibling Rivalry,” by Michael Byers: This dystopian look at parenthood in the near future was as much fun to read as it was bizarre—and then the surprise (and perfect) ending gave me the shivers.

• “Halloween,” by Marian Crotty: The story of young, unrequited love with compassionate interventions by a grandmother who has been married three times.

• “This is Pleasure,” by Mary Gaitskill: Written from both points of view, this is a shake-your-head-in-disbelief story that qualifies as a most bizarre entry in the #metoo movement.

• “Octopus VII,” by Anna Reeser: A nearly perfect coming of age story. An artist graduates with his MFA and must now figure out how to make it in the real world as a sculptor.

Bonus: Do read the “Contributors’ Notes” at the end. In addition to what you would expect—a brief biographical summary of the author—each short story writer explains why/how the story came to be and sometimes its deeper meaning. I bookmarked this on my Kindle and when I finished each story, I read that author’s note. It was really quite enlightening!
Profile Image for Lauren.
219 reviews46 followers
January 22, 2021
Undaunted by the 2020-ness of it all, Best American Short Stories still came out with a strong volume of some of the year's best short stories.

Guest editor Curtis Sittenfeld's editorial taste mostly gels with her authorial style, so I think liking her writing would give you a general idea of whether or not you'd like her taste. If up-close-and-personal small-scale stories with a lot of relationship focus aren't your thing, this anthology--with a couple of exceptions--probably won't be to your taste. But if you click with Sittenfeld, as I usually do, there's a lot here to like. Some of my personal favorites were:

"The Apartment," by T.C. Boyle. A darkly humorous story about a Frenchman whose one attempt at a daring gamble--paying a monthly fee to an elderly woman in, he assumes, her last days, so that he and his family will inherit her apartment once she dies--backfires spectacularly. The implied challenge winds up giving the old lady a new lease on life, and she lives on and on, the two of them staying inextricably tied together over the years as the man's life withers under the financial and family pressure he's generated for himself. It's tragic and funny at the same time, a kind of behind-the-scenes fleshed-out anecdote about the real-life case of Jeanne Calment and André-François Raffray.

"Sibling Rivalry," by Michael Byers. A low-key science fiction story that feels less like science fiction and more like a slice-of-life New Yorker story from the future. This centers on a family with--as is becoming increasingly common in their time--one "organic" child and one exceptionally human-looking AI child whose "brain" has been patterned off scans of the parents'. Byers immerses the reader in the family's everyday reality, from the struggle to figure out how much surveillance--emotional and intellectual, in this case--to exert over their kids to backyard suburban gatherings to being called in to discuss a child's behavioral problem. A strong ending raises the stakes.

"The Nanny," by Emma Cline. Cline takes up a familiar tabloid subject--an attractive young nanny who has had an affair with one of her movie star employers, attracting national attention--and imbues it with vivid, ambivalent life as she follows the young woman in the aftermath of the breaking scandal. Kayla hides out from the public scrutiny, attempting to think about what happened without allowing it to define her. Low-key and emotionally complex.

"Halloween," by Marian Crotty. A queasily perfect evocation of first love. This follows a high school girl who has had a brief fling with the college girl she works with at a frozen yogurt shop and who is now being given the cold-shoulder for reasons she doesn't quite understand. Her grandmother--someone devoted to passion and extremes--gives her some advice that succeeds to an extent but also just gets her in deeper emotionally. This is the kind of great writing and emotional insight that you want for this kind of small-scale, fairly universal story.

"This Is Pleasure," by Mary Gaitskill. Often, stories consciously touching on major political movements can be too heavy-handed: even when they're good, it's impossible to read them without the distracting sensation of feeling like you can overhear all the current discussion at the same time. But Gaitskill somehow manages to write a fascinating, complex story about #MeToo, following a man whose generosity and emotional openness exists alongside a feeling of omnipresent sexuality and play, who can't recognize when his advances--teasing or not--might be unwelcome or threatening; his co-narrator is a long-standing female friend of his who views him with love and a kind of weary exasperation even as his reputation is finally standing trial. The characterization is sophisticated and thought-provoking, and there are no easy answers.

"Rubberdust," by Sarah Thankam Mathews. A vivid and intense story of bullying and tragedy, with some surprising emphases that don't fall where you might think they would. This is good throughout, but it's lifted up especially high by its ending, which swerves in perspective in a transformative, breathtaking way.

"The Hands of Dirty Children," by Alejandro Puyana. Often grueling and sometimes strangely joyous, this is a nonstop, intimate story about children living on the streets of Caracas, dealing with hunger, poverty, and their own high-stakes friendships within a group they call "the Crazy 9," where being the object of contempt can be deadly. The narrator's voice is a masterpiece--so exuberant even in the midst of tremendous suffering--and the emotions run high. Really effective, memorable story.

"Octopus VII," by Anna Reeser. It's a story about privileged former art students--no, don't go away yet. It is undeniably about that, but it's also about grappling with the possible limitations of your talent--or at least the prospect of burning out or reaching your artistic heights too early with nowhere else to go--which gives it a realism and depth. It's also well-served by Reeser's restraint and sense of humor. Very well-done.
499 reviews
December 31, 2020
I read this collection every year for a long distance book discussion with my best friend and I think this year is one of the best.

Stand outs:
The Apartment
Howl Palace
The Hands of Dirty Children

Besides these stand outs, there were many others I really liked (more than typical) and fewer than usual that I did not like (only 2 or 3).

Sibling Rivalry gets a special mention for teaching me that I may actually like science fiction.
Profile Image for John Decker.
46 reviews10 followers
January 17, 2021
Curtis Sittenfeld is really great. Stories I had physical/audible reactions to that everyone should read: “The Apartment,” “Kennedy,” “The Special World,” “Sibling Rivalry,” “Halloween,” “This Is Pleasure.”
Profile Image for James.
79 reviews
March 30, 2021
more like most BORING american short stories!!!
Profile Image for Caroline Tew.
676 reviews
October 8, 2021
It’s funny to me because Anthony Doerr wrote one of my favorite books and Curtis Sittenfeld wrote my least favorite book of 2020, yet my average ranking for this collection (edited by Sittenfeld) is actually higher than the 2019 BASS edited by Doerr. This one had some real hits! Excited to see what BASS 2021 has in store.
Profile Image for Lisa.
598 reviews42 followers
January 6, 2021
This was fine but didn't knock me out as a collection, though all the stories were well done. Maybe there were too many variations on a similar theme, a lot of drifting young adults and teenagers, and a few adults, who just seem a bit unmoored from life. Standouts for me were T.C. Boyle's "The Apartment," because it was just such a T.C. Boyle story; Michael Byers's "Sibling Rivalry," because it was a totally believable sf story all by itself in the collection; and Elizabeth McCracken's "It's Not You," because she's always so good. Looking back through them, I actually liked almost all of them—there was just nothing that left me going, "Wow, how'd they DO that?" Which is probably an awful lot to ask of a writer, I know.
4 reviews
January 10, 2021
I usually love the BASS collections, and this one was....good. But there were enough misses for me that ultimately I would recommend it, but not enthusiastically. "Kennedy" by Kevin Wilson was my favorite and perhaps the only that felt really powerful to me in a visceral and gut-twisting way. I loved that one.

Then there were a handful that I liked but didn't love - stories that I will remember for awhile but won't ever bring me back to the book. These include "Rubber Dust," "Howl Palace," and "The Apartment." I certainly enjoyed these stories and don't regret the time I spent on them.

Then there were a handful I just felt bewildered by. Why were these stories included? Examples include "It's Not You," "Enlightenment," and "The Nanny." Notably all of these stories shared a voice reminiscing on the past - a tone that was overly ubiquitous to the book, in my opinion. The stories in this book certainly were not the same when you looked at plots, main characters, etc. But they began to feel almost repetitive when it came to tone.

Finally, the stories I really didn't like. "Something Street" got so many good reviews (I looked it up) but it fell flat for me. I liked the idea of trying to examine the Bill Cosby story from a different perspective, but maybe this went over my head because it just didn't convince me. I didn't feel like a woman would stick with a man like Cosby based on the ideas presented in this story. The other one I really didn't like was "This is Pleasure" - it had something, certainly, but I think it lacked nuance despite its attempt to bring nuance to a situation that some people view as overly simplistic. The 'Me Too' movement is complex and filled with different stories but somehow this story felt reductive in its attempt to present it from the accused man's POV without really deeply examining the motives behind the man's clearly creepy behavior. Ultimately it felt like we were supposed to understand that he was the way he was because of some sort of an "openness to life" or something nonsensical. I'm sorry, but to explain perverted or abnormal behavior as an 'openness to life' is just a way of avoiding the deeper psychological implications of such behavior. I think Gatskill could have maintained a sympathetic view towards the main character while examining his experiences and behaviors more deeply. I wish she had.
Profile Image for Shanice.
88 reviews17 followers
December 17, 2020
-"Something Street" by Carolyn Ferrell
-"Rubberdust" by Sarah Thankam Mathews

Good/thought-provoking/linger in your mind:
-"Sibling Rivalry" by Michael Byers
-"The Nanny" by Emma Cline
-"This Is Pleasure" by Mary Gaitskill
-"The Children" by Andrea Lee
-"Kennedy" by Kevin Wilson
-"Enlightenment" by William Pei Shih

I wish the anthology consisted of just these short stories. Unfortunately, the other 12 in the book were either forgettable or total duds.
Profile Image for iPL.
12 reviews3 followers
March 19, 2021

20.) “The Special World" by Tiphanie Yanique
19.) “The Apartment” by T. C. Boyle
18.) “This Is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill
17.) “Sibling Rivalry” by Michael Byers
16.) “Enlightenment” by William Pei Shih
15.) “Godmother Tea” by Selena Anderson
14.) “The Nanny” by Emma Cline
13.) “Rubberdust” by Sarah Thankam Mathews
12.) “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” by Jane Pek
11.) “A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed” by Jason Brown
10.) “Liberté” by Scott Nadelson
9.) “In the Event” by Meng Jin
8.) “The Children” by Andrea Lee
7.) “Something Street” by Carolyn Ferrell
6.) “Kennedy” by Kevin Wilson
5.) “Octopus VII” by Anna Reeser
4.) “The Hands of Dirty Children” by Alejandro Puyan
3.) “Howl Palace” by Leigh Newman
2.) “Halloween” by Marian Crotty
1.) “It’s Not You” by Elizabeth McCracken

With as a title as audacious and boastful about its own talents as, “Best American Short Stories, 2020” quality was on the forefront of everyone’s minds. From the authors, to the editors, to whoever curated these 20 stories. A title like that would imply that, in the entire year of 2020- the year of quarantine- there are no short stories that surpass these 20. That is what is being communicated through the title. Perhaps the curator wasn’t aware of this but, everything tells a story. You aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it is still supposed to captivate onlookers. Titles don’t tell you everything about the book, but they are supposed to give you an idea. For what reason was this title selected for this book? While there is a ranking from best to worst featuring the stories from the book, only the top 5 should be considered worthwhile, and even then, they have issues. The rest… Well, we’ll get to those. First, we dive into the good, then we can move on to the bad, and end on the ugly- there’s a lot of ugly found within these pages, don’t you worry.

The good in “The Best American Short Stories of 2020” is only mildly entertaining. For some bizarre reason, a lot of the stories center around the topic of sex, and do not shy away from giving away any unwanted details. All three stories in the top 3 deal with sex in one way or another as a result with this obsessive focus with sex found in this book. Howl Palace deals with the topic of divorce and how to move on from it, Halloween (which is a trademarked title, but okay), is a lesbian love story gone tragically wrong, and It’s Not You likewise, is about a lover’s quarrel and its depressing aftermath. Unfortunately, the top three stories could not excape this obsession with sex. They all won their positions on the list, not necessarily for being fantastic, and especially not for presenting any new ideas, but instead, it was more or less by default. All three were well written, and had cohesive plots that were paced properly. Those are qualifications for being passible stories, definitely not “The Best,” of their release year, (which some from the book weren’t even published in 2020, several were written and published elsewhere in 2019). What makes a story fantastic is how imaginative it was, either expanding upon, or inventing new concepts, having a memorable colorful cast of characters, or an interesting gripping plot that beckons readers to keep reading till the very end. Yeah, these don’t do that. Instead, since the rest of the book deals with basically the same plot, that being sex gone bad, the top three stood out for being the least terrible of the bunch, and actually communicating a message. Not exactly “Best of” material, and we haven’t even gotten to the bad ones yet.

As previously stated, most stories in this book were bad. That said, there was a notable difference between the best and the worst ones on the list. The bottom 3- Oh good lord the bottom three- were atrocious. Plain and simple. “The Special World” was particularly insulting and straight up disgusting, but first let’s look at the other two. “The Apartment” was a story about a man waiting for an old woman to drop dead, only to die himself first, and this story, like all the others, tries to convey a message but so few stories achieve even that little. This happens because too many of them focus way too much on unnecessary details like how the Apartment focused way too much on wrinkles, shoes, and very confusingly, the soles of an elderly woman’s feet, instead of things like pacing, narrative style, character motivation, and, (heaven forbid), plot. “This Is Pleasure” despite holding a comfortable 3rd to last place, was the most ambitious. It tried to discuss a very important issue from the mid 2010’, the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, but it did so in the most confusing way possible. It tried to downplay it by forcing the audience, pretty much like hostages, to read half of the tale through the perspective of the disgusting pervert’s eyes. In trying to give the readers sympathy for a man’s habitual sexual harassment, such as willingly groping a woman’s breasts in a party going as far as the “circle around the nipples,” the story achieves the exact opposite, which is a stunning display of narrative incompetence that deserves awards. In the last story, “The Special World" which holds the honor of being the worst on the list, and the one that most belongs in a cheap collection of erotic stort stories, it tries, and miserably fails, to discuss the freedom of sex, but it did so in a vendictive way towards religion, which on its own is pretty tacky, and not at all dignified of academic recognition, but the attacks on religion here only detracted from the plot. Instead, this story focused on one young man’s sexual desires, and frustrations trying to have sex with this one religious girl saving herself for marriage, and it went into so much disgusting detail. Put short, it mentioned bodily discharge during sexual acts too much, and too little on talking about why having sex with strangers was good. There is one line that comes to mind about said sexual discharge and a religious figure, but only in the depraved mind of the pervert author’s mind is such a thing okay to say. Instead, we will close out on what is supposed to make a story worthy of being the best of its kind.

Characters that feel believable, relatable, maybe even that you’d want to have a beer with, or murder with our own hands. Those are marks of good characters. A plot that engrosses you from cover to cover by being profound, thrilling, or thoroughly entertaining that leaves a lasting and visible mark on your life. That is the mark of a good story. A collection of bad erotic fiction with the occasional story divorced from the topic of sex mislabeled as “short stories” won’t fulfill those requirements. Only stories that try to innovate can do that, and sadly, you won’t find anything like that here.
Profile Image for Lemar.
665 reviews53 followers
May 14, 2022
Some gems, some meh. Gems: Selena Anderson. "Godmother Tea", Jane Pek “The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains", T. C. Boyle. "The Apartment", and Carolyn Ferrell. "Something Street".
Godmother Tea stays with me. Selena Anderson achieves a universal statement about becoming one’s true self. She does it so cleverly, in an entertaining and gripping way. By going into great detail of one human being we can recognize those feelings and extrapolate them to our own journeys. It’s just one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.
Profile Image for Kerry Booth.
89 reviews4 followers
May 13, 2021
Read this as a class in school. A handful of great stories. I’m starting to think I should avoid ‘best of’ anthologies and stay with themed ones.
Profile Image for Andy Miller.
824 reviews53 followers
September 21, 2021
For the last 30 years I have looked forward to the Annual "Best American Stories." It has introduced me to many new authors and exposed me to many genres and styles I would not ordinarily read on my own as well as including new stories from favorite writers. This year is no exception. Some of my favorites this year include the following.

"The Apartment" is about a man who wants to expand his apartment in Paris for his growing family and offers to buy the neighboring apartment from an elderly widow with no children. The terms are that he will make monthly payments to her while she continues to live in her apartment until she dies at which time the payments cease. The story is told over the years from both perspectives.
"The Nanny" takes place after the wife finds out about the nanny's affair with her movie star husband. It is told entirely from the nanny's perspective as she is picked up at the airport by her mother's friend amidst frenzied media and tabloid coverage of the affair.
"Halloween" is told my a high school girl who is reeling from unrequited love for an older girl who works at the same yogurt shop. The older girl had consented to an earlier fling and arguably does not treat the obsessed protagonist well. A charm to the story is that it is the girl's eccentric grandmother who is the confidant and offers sage advice
"This is Pleasure" is a timely story set in the context of the Me Too movement. But there is surprising nuance as it is told both by the successful and powerful man and his best friend, a married woman who was subjected to an inappropriate pass by the man when she first met him, but after rebuffing him had no problems with him as he became her mentor and friend. As the Me Too story builds, the best friend hears from some accusers that they regret what is happening to him, some of the man's friends who turned on him may have had their own motives, yet the descriptions of the man's actions show that is behavior was often inappropriate and disgusting.
"Libertie" is based on a true story. In the 1930s a young, Jewish artist is in process of leaving her husband and takes an ocean voyage to France. She meets a charming, wealthy doctor who is also a successful writer. He becomes obsessed her and his pursuit of her continues after the voyage. But the artist becomes aware that not only is he an anti-semite, but is a Nazi sympathizer who writes to help the cause. Even as he continues to help the Nazis he pursues her, and offers to help any of her friends who are being persecuted by the Nazis.
"Enlightenment" starts with the protagonist doing very well at Harvard and describes an unsatisfying sexual encounter with his girlfriend. It then jumps forward to the end of his successful and notable career as a Professor and writer. He reflects on his relatively full and happy life but there is a certain loneliness. He then pursues a male student who has mixed feelings about the affair and the expensive gifts the Professor gives him. The student eventually asks the Professor for help getting into Harvard grad school and the Professor gently lets him know that he is not up to snuff, but continues to try to continue the affair. There is a sadness to the story that at times make the reader forget the inappropriateness of the affair
Again, these are just some of the stories in this diverse collection. While the reader may not enjoy every story, you can't go wrong with the exposure to so many types of styles and stories
Profile Image for Edward Champion.
692 reviews26 followers
May 9, 2021
A truly mixed bag -- largely because of editor Curtis Sittenfeld's unadventurous choices. Sittenfeld is truly a dull and cloddish tastemaker, isn't she? And yet her smug introduction, in which she declares her prejudices against the cutting-edge or the boldly literary, really does reveal everything that's wrong with this volume. We do have Mary Gaitskill's brilliant novella, "This is Pleasure" (a must read and the best story in this collection) and T.C. Boyle being T.C. Boyle (he's got the goods, but his act is starting to wear a bit thin for me as I get older). There's also a terrific story by Elizabeth McCracken called "It's Not You" that brilliantly examines those small transitional moments when we are in between places in life and I'm definitely going to read anything Alejandro Puyana writes in the future. But most of the remaining stories, which I'm not going to mention because I don't like to punch down at writers starting out, are without life or anything truly essential to say. Fiction needs to grab you by the lapels and force you to confront some nagging contradiction of the heart -- whether through boldness or subtleness. Here's hoping that future BASS volumes will be more committed to this.
Profile Image for Jon Palmer.
18 reviews
March 5, 2021
At the end of every year, during that last week before New Year’s Eve, I get in a frenzy thinking about all the things I missed, all the art and literature and music and movies and weird viral articles and so on, and I read all those end-of-year lists. Now, I get this collection, too. This is the first time I’ve read Best American Short Stories new. I usually pick up copies from the 90s at used book stores, they’ve got familiar names like Updike and so on, and they’re always good, but lemme tell ya, reading one fresh? Every topic resonates, everything hits much stronger, feels of the moment. The variety here in style, tone, perspective, is incredible. Use two bookmarks—put one at the end, in the section where the authors offer their notes on their stories, so you can read what they have to say when you finish each one and the story is still stinging. Everyone in here is incredible.
Profile Image for Rachel.
1,034 reviews44 followers
February 1, 2021
Perhaps it is only appropriate that I am not head over heels in love with this year’s edition of Best American Short Stories. Both series editor Heidi Pitlor and guest editor Curtis Sittenfeld spend some time talking about subjectivity, about the reality that although they personally love the 20 stories chosen for the book, not everyone will. It is something that Sittenfeld remembers from years past, when she didn’t always jive with guest editors’ choices. (Pitlor even says that most of her choices are “B rated”!)

Still, over all, it was a nice collection. And very little mention, either in the stories (understandable, since most were first published in 2019 and written even earlier) or the editors’ comments of coronavirus. That will probably be more of a big deal next year, I’d think.

I had a strange reaction to these pieces, I think. I usually despise when the big wig literary types turn to “speculative” fic, the science fiction and fantasy in their works. It strikes me as lazy, as a way at failing both at the construction of literary themes and speculative worldbuilding. But I liked two of them this year, as well as a couple of experimental pieces! :0 Then I veered off in the other direction and liked a couple of the most straightforward—and certainly relatable, in a western setting sort of way—stories. For the most part, I thought the rest were okay, but they didn’t really grab me. (Also, just to put it out there, I think I liked more stories by male authors than is my usual!)

It’s an interesting whittling down process, isn’t it? Pitlor reads countless stories, passes along 120, the guest editor has to whittle it down to 20, and the rest of us get choosy with that number. I’m sure after I post this, I’ll find other reviews on GoodReads that love and hate stories that are vastly different than the ones I’ll highlight here.

Speaking of which, without further ado, here are my favorites and runners up!

“A Faithful but Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed” by Jason Brown (The Sewanee Review) A comedic yet thoughtful exploration of family history, colonial past and desire for belonging.

“Something Street” by Carolyn Ferrell (Story). There’s more going on in this story than you can grasp in a first reading, other than its scope. It’s about Black culture in mid-century America, broken families, sex crimes and misogyny. Told in visceral chapter blocks.

“This Is Pleasure” by Mary Gaitskill (The New Yorker). Strongest story in the collection, and the most successful I’ve read about the #metoo movement. It acknowledges the complexity of gendered relationships. And it talks about what most of us are grappling with in regards to this movement, in that we’re not dealing with straight up evil, but rather a reckoning with our society’s taught behaviors.

“In the Event” by Meng Jin (The Threepenny Review.) Nice juxtaposition of the personal, the political and the dystopian reading taste to show how the protagonist is dealing with life, big and small, feeling unmoored.

“The Nine-Tailed Fox Explains” by Jane Pek (Witness). A fantastical story encompassing Chinese cultural touchstones that I barely understand. But there’s something so sweeping and true about understanding human history through this sometimes acerbic writing. It’s surprisingly personal, too.

“Octopus VII” by Anna Reeser (Fourteen Hills). A story about growing up, artistry vs economy, the lives of cities, the abstractness of dreams and relationships. Maybe a bit self-indulgent of me, as I remember my own self-indulgent twenties from the opposite coast of the U.S. It spoke to me.

“Enlightenment” by William Pei Shih (Virginia Quarterly Review). I like this one, for the lies we tell ourselves when pursuing an end to loneliness. Also, thanks to the Enlightenment and other eccentric details, Abel is a character who leaps off the page. Also made me think of issues like culture and inclusion.

Honorable mentions:
“Grandmother Tea” by Selena Anderson (Oxford American). I have a soft spot for this one, since I also wrote a story about a dead acquaintance who antagonizes the living protagonist. Plus, all that angst about not being loved and not mattering to the living folks. The pacing was a little bit beyond me though.

“The Nanny” by Emma Cline (The Paris Review). This reminds me of a story idea I’m playing around with, about celebrities, affairs and being in over your head. I like what Cline does with Kayla’s mindset, but I found the timelines to be disjointed and a little disorienting.

“Kennedy” by Kevin Wilson (Subtropics). Part of me thinks this story, about high school bullying, is too easy, too sensational. But I can’t deny that it was propulsive reading! Definitely some good growing tension at play. And an interesting focus, a little, on the protagonist’s self-blame. Er, also it reminds me of yet another story idea I’m ruminating on, regarding an emotionally unstable teenage boy and his violent behavior. :P
Profile Image for Sophie.
599 reviews32 followers
October 30, 2022
In her introduction, Curtis Sittenfeld explains her own reaction to each story she selected which I really enjoyed. That along with the contributors' section gave me a great idea of perspective and clarity to the story. I also enjoyed her anecdote about how she came to be hooked on short stories. While living in France and being homesick, she turned to the 1992 edition of BASS that an aunt had gifted her before she left.

I am a fan of short stories and am reading my way through the BASS series. Not from the very beginning (1915) but I started in 1998. Some years there was a bonanza of great stories and some years not so much. Sittenfeld explains it perfectly. “In some years I thought, I guess not that many good stories were published this year. At the time I assumed that, as with grapes made into wine, certain crops of stories were better or worse than others, but I now suspect this isn’t accurate. Instead, it’s probably that the idiosyncratic taste of a guest editor is sometimes more and sometimes less aligned with my own idiosyncratic taste as a reader.”

I used the same star rating system for the stories as I use for books on GR. Five stars – it was amazing, 4 – it was pretty good, 3 – liked it but ready for the next one, 2 – it was ok, 1 – did not like it.

My favorite by far was Howl Palace by Leigh Newman. I loved the writing, the story, and the main character. It was one of those stories where your heart goes out to the main character who is unusual and has lived this unbelievable, yet believable life. Yet you have a smile on your face because of the way the story is told. I’ve put Newman's memoir Still Points North: Surviving the World's Greatest Alaskan Childhood and her newest short story collection Nobody Gets Out Alive: Stories on my TBR list. The story collection is nominated for this year’s National Book Award for Fiction.

The other three stories that I found to be terrific reads were:
Halloween by Marian Crotty – a heartbroken young woman goes to her eccentric grandmother for advice. I guess I like peculiar characters.

The Children by Andrea Lee – lost heirs. I liked this because of the exotic locales and the tragic results of good intentions.

The Hands of Dirty Children by Alejandro Puyana: Street children in Venezuela. Utterly heartrending. It’s as though these children are so common they are looked on as nothing more than the squirrels that scavenge for food in the gutters and dumpsters of the city. A young boy tries to look out for one of the other little boys in their gang with tragic results.

There were seven stories that I rated 4 stars and 8 that were 3 stars. As always with the BASS anthologies, I discover authors that I am curious to read more of.

I have the 2021 edition that I hope to get to soon but probably not before 2022 comes out.
Profile Image for Robert Morgan Fisher.
510 reviews13 followers
March 14, 2022
Sittenfeld, by her own admission, is white and privileged. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I think she did a decent job here. Lots of diversity. I particularly like her introduction where she elaborates on why she chose each story—nice touch!

These things always boil down to personal taste as she accurately points out, but overall there's much to admire here as always. Each guest editor puts their imprimatur on a given year. It's why I love the project and concept of BASS. I think they do readers and writers a service and also shine a light on small presses in much the same way as Pushcart.

Standout stories for me: "Something Street" by Carolyn Ferrell, "This is Pleasure" by Mary Gaitskill, "The Hands of Dirty Children" by Alejandro Puyana and "The Special World" by Tiphanie Yanique. But my favorite story was "Kennedy" by Kevin Wilson. What a superb tale.

BASS are well worth collecting and re-reading.
Profile Image for Brian.
956 reviews10 followers
August 20, 2021
Hit and miss, like most short story collections. The stories were alphabetical by author, and I just didn't care for the first several and almost bailed. Either they kept getting better, or I just got used to reading short stories again (after mostly novels and non-fiction all year) - but I really enjoyed most of the second half of the collection. Some 2 star stories, some 4 star - let's call it a 3.
Profile Image for James Martin.
237 reviews21 followers
November 21, 2022
I like the Best American Short Stories series and the Best American Essays series. When I'm in a mood to check out some new-to-me authors, I'll grab one or the other. They're good to have around. I don't like everything in this collection or most collections, of course, but that's not the point. The point is to put your foot in the water and see what's out there that you might not have noticed yet. But there's some real genius lurking here among many other merely good or competent stories.
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