Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Review: Best New American Voices 2006

Fresh is Right: The Unique Stories in Best New American Voices 2006
Edited by Jane Smiley
Series Editors: John Kulka and Natalie Danford

This is the first book I've read in the Best New American Voices series, which I didn't know existed until I was at Borders with my mom in Pennsylvania in June and I saw it on the dollar clearance rack. This series accepts entries from top writing programs and workshops around the country, and chooses the best--in this book there are 15 stories--to publish. I started reading this book on July 25, 2009. A week later, during a camping trip at Vallecito Lake, Colorado, I finished it. Having been a big fan of the Best American Short Stories series for a long time, I was a little skeptical about the Best New American Voices series, thinking, "these writers were just in graduate school when they wrote these stories, how can they be as good as the stories from long-established writers?"

Boy, was I wrong. Granted, some of the stories show signs of amateurism; but then I wondered, "would I even think that if they weren't in this book?" I don't know. Other stories to me seemed to come from tried and true "professional" writers (whatever that means), and I was surprised to know that the authors were just emerging.

Overall, I like this book even better than some of the Best American series I've read, and almost every story grabbed my attention from beginning to end. Sometimes I feel jaded about the Best American stories, which the series editor supposedly picks without knowing the author's name but which happen to feature particular authors over and over again. Sometimes, especially--it seems--depending on the series editor, I think, "what in the world is this story doing in here? It's not even good." But the stories in Best New American Voices were obviously chosen without regard for who the author was, as long as she or he was in a writing program or workshop.

I think my favorite story in this collection is "Alice's House", by Jamie Keene from the University of Oregon. It's about a man who has recently divorced his wife and is getting ready to sell their house and move in with his girlfriend, when his ex wife comes to his house for an unannounced midnight visit. I also liked "Lyndon", by Amber Dermont from the University of Houston, about a young woman whose father recently died. The narrator continues her and her father's tradition of visiting the birth places of U.S. presidents with her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship.

Some of the stories feature quite unique formats, such as "The Jupiter's In", by Sarah Blackman from the University of Alabama, in which each scene starts and ends with missing words or letters, much like the sign on the run-down inn. This story features colorful, unique characters and has a distinctly southern feel. "Begin With an Outline" by Kaui Hart Hemmings from Stanford University is about a narrator attempting to tell an emotional story in a forced outline format. The setting for that story, or at least its background, is Hawaii, and the imagery is very vivid and gripping. "Useless Beauty, or, Notes on Esquire's 'Things a Man Should Never Do After the Age of 30'" by Albert E. Martinez from New Mexico State University (of particular note to me, since I live in New Mexico) is a story told interspersed with excerpts from the article, such as "own a futon," "live with someone you don't sleep with," and "use the word 'party' as a verb." The story itself involves a guy who just turned 30 and who is still hung up on his ex girlfriend. It is set in San Fransisco and, to me anyway, is a commentary on the late 20's/early 30's urbanites who live there.

There are many stories in this collection told from the point of view of a child or young adult, such as Michelle Regalado Deatrick's "Backfire" and Matt Freidson's "Liberty." There are also many stories about the death of a parent, such as Jennifer Shaff's "Leave of Absence", Amber Dermott's "Lyndon", and Sian M. Jones' "Pilot". Story notes from each story follow below, but because they may contain mild spoilers, I've saved them for the very bottom of the page.

All the stories in this series fit the title, being fresh and invigorating reads. I hope to find and read more books in this series and would recommend it to anyone who likes short stories and anyone who wants to read the newest works coming out of America's writing programs.

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Story Notes:

1. Leave of Absence, by Jennifer Shaff -- Emerson College
Spock comes to visit a young woman whose parents died in a car crash, while she is on leave from her teaching job due to grief, slowly turning into madness.
Setting: Evanston, Wisconsin.
Character's profession: Teacher.
Jewish characters.
Themes: Sibling bond (brother/ sister), Death of parent (both), Sports - Packers football.
Very far-fetched yet unique.
7/10 - I liked it. Very unique.

2. Lyndon, by Amber Dermott -- University of Houston.
Girl's father dies and she thinks her mother is pregnant with another man's baby. Mother and daughter continue the former father/daughter tradition of visiting birthplaces of presidents.
Setting: New Jersey and Johnson City, Texas
Character's career: Investment baker
Working moms
Themes: Death of parent (father), father/ daughter relationship, mother/ daughter relationship
Anxiety/ night terrors/ nightmares
8/10 - I really liked it.

3. A New Kind of Gravity by Andrew Foster Altschul -- Stanford University
Guard in women's domestic abuse shelter befriends the young daughter of a resident.
Character's profession -- guard
Domestic violence. Children.
9/10 -- I loved it.

4. The Rust Preventer by Jessica Anthony - George Mason University
Man is stuck in the jungle after war is over, forgotten.
Animals - monkey
Wars - World War II
Setting: Malay Archipelago
Death - main character's
8/10 -- I liked it. Very unique.

5. Trampoline by Vanya Rainova - University of San Francisco
Family living in post-communist Bulgaria has trampoline business at beach. Son falls in love with woman who has cancer and a young daughter.
Setting: Bulgaria - Slancher Briag
Love Family
9/10 - I loved it. Unique.

6. Watermark By Melanie Westerberg - California College of the Arts
Girls whose twin sister disappeared visits the shark room of the aquarium where she works, in the middle of the night.
Animals - Octopus, shark
Bad dreams
Sports - swimming, diving
Character's professions - Aquarium worker
5/10 - I didn't really like it.

7. Useless Beauty, or Notes on Esquire's Things a Man Should Never Do After the Age of 30
By Albert Martinez - New Mexico State University
Man who just turned 30 lives rather cliched social urbanite existence, trying to get over a recent break-up.
Setting - San Fransisco
Breaking up
8/10 - I really liked it. Pretty unique.

8. The Jupiter's In by Sarah Blackman - University of Alabama
A playful experiment with style, where the first words or so keep dropping more and more off the beginning of each sentence of every section, mimicking the letters fading from the sign on the inn owned by Miss Flora Jean. Her son is lazy and is purposefully gaining weight, with the goal of becoming the fattest astronaut in space. His girlfriend is pregnant. A tragedy occurs with a guest at the inn.
Setting -- South (never says where, but it's obviously in the South)
Characters' occupation - Innkeeper
Relationship with parent - mother/ son
8/10 - I really liked it. Very unique.

9. Alice's House by Jamie Keene - University of Oregon
Breaking up
10/10 - I loved it.

10. Liberty by Matt Freidson - Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing
Teenage boy in delinquent youth's prison in Vietnam falls in love.
Setting: Vietnam - Hanoi
Friendship - men
8/10 - I really liked it.

11. Twinless by Gregory Plemmons - Sewanee Writers' Conference
Sister locks twin brother in cellar before going to their father's wedding after their mother's death, so he can't ruin the wedding. Then he disappears.
Siblings - twins, brother/ sister
Death of parent - mother
Wedding - of parent
7/10 - I liked it okay.

12. Backfire by Michelle Regalado Deatrick - University of Michigan
Young boy's friend sets fire to his own house, killing the boy's sister, and the boy is blamed for it, although it was not his fault.
Siblings - brother/ sister
Death - of sibling
Character's profession: Insurance industry
Setting - Sacramento, California
8/10 - I liked it.

13. Begin With an Outline by Kaui Hart Hemmings - Stanford University
A young woman is questioned during the investigation of her father for selling/ growing pot. She tries to establish a relationship with him but can't.
Father/ daughter relationship
Setting - Hawaii
Character's occupation - college student
8/10 - I really liked it.

14. Going After Lovely by Sean Ennis - University of Mississippi
A young boy's sister runs away. He stays with his dysfunctional family, featuring a well-meaning but over-reaching and hapless father, and crazy mother.
Family - dysfunctional
Mental health
Siblings - sister/ brother
Father/ son relationship
Unhappy marriage - parents'
9/10 - I loved it.

15. Pilot by Sian M. Jones - Mills College
A young woman thinks she hears her mother talking to her after her mother had a stroke.
Death of parent - mother
Siblings - sister/ brother
Religion - atheism
7/10 - I liked it.

(Book was read in July 2009 - camping at Lake Vallecito, on bus on way home from work, etc.)

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