PEN/O’HENRY PRIZE STORIES 2010 edited by Laura Furman

Book Quote:

“For the reader, the short story is nothing less than a brief and intense residence in another world.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (APR 19, 2010)

This year’s Pen/O’Henry Prize Stories 2010 offers an eclectic collection of wonderful writing. The series is edited by Laura Furman and this year’s judges are Junot Diaz, Paula Fox and Yiyun Li. The stories range from narratives that describe a richness of blessings to the barrenness of empty lives. Some stories offer exhilaration that turns to bleakness, while in others the turn of events is the reverse. The stories take place around the globe and throughout the United States. What they have in common is that for a short while the reader is immersed in the intimacy of a narrative that takes us into other lives and places.

The collection opens up with a story by one of my favorite writers, Annie Proulx. Entitled “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” this story begins in 1885 in the American west. Archie, aged 16, and Rose, aged 14, are in love and marry. All is bliss at first. Archie inherits a little bit of money from his surrogate mother and purchases some acreage. Archie and Rose both work hard. In time, Rose becomes pregnant and Archie goes off to seek paying work in another state as there are no jobs nearby. In this story, the cataclysmic impact of the elements are at war with the American dream of success. That one is able to survive at all is miraculous.

“The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, takes us to Nigeria where we meet Ngwambe. She is a woman who believes in the culture of her tribe but is also strong enough to stand up against it if necessary. Ngwambe “is a strong-willed woman hemmed in by custom and circumstance, whose beloved son betrays her in an unimaginable way.”  This story speaks to the strength of inter-generational love and the power of a strong woman.

I found myself riveted by the initial barrenness and heartbreak of Brad Watson’s “Visitation.” It is the story of an absentee father with visitation rights to see his son every three weeks. Each visit is the same. As he drives up and down I-95 in Los Angeles, we can imagine the strangers passing in the night, many going nowhere or going somewhere they don’t want to be. Loomis, the dad, always takes his son to the same run-down hotel and has trouble communicating with his boy. Loomis is a man of despair, suffering from depression most of his life. He’s tried medication, counseling and insight but he’s basically a person of hopelessness. Through the intervention of a strange family of gypsies, Loomis and his son are brought closer to one another.

Yiyun Li’s favorite is William Trevor‘s story, “The Woman of the House.” This story takes place in Ireland and starts out with Martina driving a very old Dodge that may or may not get her to her destination. Martina is a woman of no means and even her looks, which she has marketed in the past, are going. She takes care of a crippled man who may be her cousin. This man drinks and torments her. All she has for herself is a small can of money that she’s acquired from cheating the man and selling herself. One day two outsiders, men from Eastern Europe, are hired to paint the house. They, too, have nothing. What the characters in this story share is ambiguity, limited means, and not much hope for change in the future.

“A Spoiled Man” by Daniyal Mueenuddin was selected by Junot Diaz as his favorite story in this book. It is easy to see why. The story is beautiful, powerful and does not have a spare word. It is the story of Rezak, a man who has a portable house that he carries with him from job to job. The house is large enough to sit in but too small to stand in. He ends up getting a job outside of Islamabad, taking care of an orchard for a Pakistani man and his American wife, Sonya. The couple spoil him by paying him more money than he’s ever made in his life. We watch as he is set up for failure and tragedy by his circumstances while there is nothing that he can do to prevent his downfall.

Ron Rash’s story, ‘”Into the Gorge,” is exciting and compelling. We view the way that people lived for generations in Appalachia and how this has all been changed by the Park Service. Not only have things changed, but much is now illegal and dangerous. One man tries to keep to his heritage and he runs into trouble with the law. No matter what he chooses to do, one man is too small to fight an army of bureaucrats and armed police.

No contemporary short story collection would be complete without at least one story by Alice Munro. Her story, “Some Women” is included here and it does not disappoint. It starts out with the line, “I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am,” and ends with the line, “I grew up, and old.”  The story is about a young girl who has a summer job taking care of a young man who has leukemia. An emotional power war ensues between women seeking his attentions and affections. The girl watches it happening and as an adult realizes all she has learned and observed about life in her many years on this planet.

Short stories are gifts. They give us the ability to be completely within the scope of their narrative for the whole time. We can immerse ourselves in the characters, the environment, and the story. Good short stories are like gems – – they are precious and rare. Laura Furman has done a great job mining the literary journals to select the stories in this collection. It is one of the best in this series that I have read in several years.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor; Original edition (April 20, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
EXTRAS: Editor’s Notes and other information on this prize
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another short story collection:The Story Behind the Story edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett

Previous Story Collections in this series:

April 19, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Short Stories, y Award Winning Author

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.