Monday, May 07, 2012

This year's O Henry stories

kw: book reviews, story reviews, short stories, collections

In recent years the name of the organization has changed, but the mission is the same. The title spells it out: The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: Best Stories of the Year 2012. This year's volume was edited by Laura Furman and the selections were made by Mary Gaitskill, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Ron Rash. I'll review them story by story over the next few days, and try not to give too much away.
  • Uncle Rock by Dagoberto Gilb – She's a very pretty single mom, and her son is learning to grow up amid a constant flow of suitors. She just might marry the one the son calls Rock.
  • The Vandercook by Alice Mattison – After taking over a family printing business, a couple adjusts. The man begins to learn just how frightening it is to live with someone who cannot admit fault. A "Vandercook" is an antique letterpress.
  • Leak by Sam Ruddick – Less of a story than a vignette, covering a couple of hours during which time is primarily wasted. The only character of slight interest is George.
  • Nothing Living Lives Alone by Wendell Berry – Berry is the classic characterizationist. Here an elderly man muses over past events and what he learned from them. The story stands well alone, but feels like part of a longer work.
  • The First Wife by Christine Sneed – As the lead character remarks, most stories give space and weight to the lead-up to a marriage, and only a line or two to its aftermath, happy or not. This story seeks to redress this imbalance.
  • A Birth in the Woods by Kevin Wilson – It is hard to comment without totally spoiling this story of a very young boy learning much too much, much too fast.
  • Naima by Hisham Matar – A youngster losing his mother struggles to learn what nobody will tell him. Set in Cairo.
  • Mickey Mouse by Karl Taro Greenfeld – A peek inside wartime Japan, and an illustrator commissioned, or so he thinks, to create a Japanese competitor for the iconic Mouse.
  • Things Said or Done by Ann Packer – The title is from Yeats. The story pivots on the quotation. A wedding day on which the "happy couple" may be the only happy people present.
  • East of the West by Miroslav Penkov – The West is Yugoslavia, during Tito's lifetime; the East is Bulgaria at its most repressive. A young man strives to achieve freedom, but can the habits learned by the unfree be replaced by new habits?
  • A Brush by John Berger – A touching story of gifts exchanged. It took time to get accustomed to very evocative language.
That is eleven of twenty. They average twenty pages, except for the next one in order, which is a sixty page novelette. I can already see that I like a larger proportion of these stories than has been true of the past few years of this collection.

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