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The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2008
There are five absolutely terrific stories in this book:

"The Caretaker" by Anthony Doerr
"When Mr. Pirazda Came to Dine" by Jhumpa Lahiri
"Tiny, Smiling Daddy" by Mary Gaitskill
"Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" by Wells Tower
"Sea Oak" by George Saunders

Some of the contributions, although they don't fully succeed, are well worth reading:

"Gentlemen's Agreement" by Mark Roth
"Someone to Talk To" by Deborah Eisenberg
"Field Events" by Rick Bass
"X Number of Possibilities" by Joanna Scott
"The Old Dictionary" by Lydia Davis

Two of the stories ("The Paper Hanger", "Do Not Disturb") are well-written, but feature characters so vile they will leave you (a) needing to take a long, hot shower to get clean (b) wondering just why the author feels it necessary to punish the reader (yeah, we get it A.M. Homes - cancer patients can be loathsome people too, so what?), and with such evident gusto.

Sadly, it's downhill all the way for the remaining 17. Some are merely dull, without being actively offensive. Padgett Powell's 'Scarliotti and the Sinkhole', Ann Cummins's 'Where I Work', Brian Evenson's 'Two Brothers', 'Histories of the Undead' by Kate Braverman, 'You Drive' by Christine Schutt, -- each of these succumbs to some combination of self-absorbed protagonists, incoherent or overly flashy style, or terminal lack of action and generalized anomie.

That still leaves ten to a dozen contributions. These are not just bad - they are aggressively, offensively, in-your-face dreadful - the kind of incoherent, smirkingly self-indulgent, look-at-me-see-how-clever-I-am, pointless rubbish that makes you want to smack the author (and the editor of this sorry collection) about the head. HARD. The usual grab-bag of archly self-referential, postmodern stylistic tics is paraded before the reader, with the results you'd expect. Your computer's IP address packs a greater emotional punch than any of the remaining stories in the book. Calling out individual offenders by name seems pointless; in any case, the real culprit is the editor, Ben Marcus.

I have to admit that the warning signs were right there in Marcus's introductory essay, which is studded with overwrought, barely intelligible, sentences like the following:

* Plot would be another name for our bodies, carved hollow to receive something amazing.
* The story, then, is what the story is hiding, and the hide is indeed a piece of skin, whose effect is to conceal the body.
.... the current practice of the short story has ample methods of matterfulness .....
.. these stories ... are toolkits for the future.
* They could be projected by megaphone onto an empty field and people would grow there.

Marcus acknowledges that he deliberately "tried to include a single vigorous practitioner of each thriving literary style I could identify". What he fails to grasp is that the insistent, obtrusive obsession with stylistic novelty comes at a serious price - even the most technically accomplished of the resulting stories fails to kindle any emotional spark whatsoever. As a result, almost half the stories in this book are emotionally bankrupt, and a complete waste of time.

Viewed as a snapshot of the state of the American short story in 2004, this book is probably a fairly accurate representation. A 15% hit rate (only 5 great stories out of 29) seems disappointingly low.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on August 18, 2004
In the typically trenchant prose of his Introduction (his own superb fiction-not included in the anthology-is packed with ideas and inventions), editor Ben Marcus writes, "The question I wanted to ask, as I read the stories that would fill this book, was not: What is the plot, but rather, What is the story plotting for? Not: What is it about, but how is it going about its business, whatever its business might be? What is the story's tactic of mattering, its strategy to last inside a reader? How is it scheming to be something I might care about?"

Marcus is out to prove, with this authoritative selection, that reading and writing prose fiction are still among our most exciting, affecting mental activities, and probably will continue to be for as long as we remain people more or less like we've been for a long time now. Artificial intelligence could never have written these stories. Only a real person, with an unconscious and a gut-wrenching ambition to do hard creative work could come up with sentences like the ones gathered in this invaluable, dazzling anthology.

The allure of the individual stories is in almost inverse relation to the fame and hoopla surrounding each of the writers. The Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri is represented by the dullest story in the book. The excerpts from David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men could conceivably by made worth reading if condensed into much briefer "interviews."

On the other hand, the story called "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned," by a writer I had never heard of before (and who has not yet published a book of fiction) with the promisingly evocative name of Wells Tower, is one of the finest short stories I've ever read. About brutal pirates on the North Sea raping and robbing and killing, and aching with ambivalence about going home to their wives and beds, it is a perfectly executed, fully imagined, moving work of art.

Most of the stories in this major collection are representative of the very best short fiction by Americans in the last fifteen or so years. The only theme common to all the best of them is a commitment to be anything but boring; they grab hold of the reader's attention fast and do all they can to keep it fully engaged even beyond the final words of the story. These fictions are meant to be haunting and unforgettable, and most of them are.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Interspersed with some very excellent, sensitive, edgy fiction, are several oddball pieces that seem to have been included because 1) they are impossible to understand, or, 2) their authors are famous. That said, the rest of the stories make the book worth reading. I just wish the clunkers had been left out. The editor explains in his introduction that he was looking for a new definition of plot, saying, among other things, "The story, then, is what the story is hiding, and the hide is indeed a piece of skin, whose effect is to conceal the body." Dude, what does that mean? Theorize less, read more.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
In this anthology, editor Ben Marcus aims to show us the power in "the way our few stories are told", and he largely succeeds. The fiction he has gathered embraces a wide range of approaches: experimentalism and traditionalism; formalism and conversationalism; realism and surrealism. Remarkably, all establish unique emotional territories that linger after their reading. Some are darkly serious (Kate Braverman's "Histories of the Undead"), while others are boldly hilarious ("The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders" by Aleksandar Hemon). Some are long, intricate explorations ("When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" by Jhumpa Lahiri) while others are merely fictional flashes (Dawn Raffel's "Up the Old Goat Road"). Not one is reminiscent of another - and that makes for lively reading, especially when settling down for a long evening of one fiction after another.

The stunning landscape and primitive world evoked in "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" (Wells Tower) assaults the senses and the mind as the story descends into brutal violence and then emerges with an understanding of the love that comes out of it. The story is simply brilliant. Another standout is William Gay's "The Paperhanger", also a story about love and murder, where a child disappears after her mother argues with the paperhanger working on her unfinished house. More outrageously, George Saunders's "Sea Oak" brings back the dead in the form of a furious, ambitious, decaying corpse who orders her deadbeat relatives to make something of themselves.

The problem with such a varied collection is the effect on the more staid voices. Kate Braverman and Jhumpa Lahiri, both excellent writers, cannot stand up to the innovation surrounding them. Their careful storytelling seems boring in comparison to that of their more boundary-pushing colleagues. That's not to say that all the experimental stories succeed; Joe Wenderoth's "Letters to Wendy's" left me wondering why it was included. Despite the few missteps, with writers such as Stephen Dixon, Padgett Powell, Rick Bass, and A.M. Homes, readers should find several, if not most, stories to their liking.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2004
The poor short story has, over the last few years, suffered greatly. From being neglected by not only popular magazines that used to promote and publish some of this country's great writers, to a general lack of interest by the public, this truly American art form has seen better days. Or so it would seem. Enter THE ANCHOR BOOK OF NEW AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. This is only one of a handful of collections that are truly worthy of praise. The other two that come to mind are the O. HENRY PRIZE STORIES 2003 and THE CHILDREN'S CORNER by Jackson McCrae. All of these are excellent, but what makes the ANCHOR stand out is the incredible individuality of each story and yet the even-handedness in the way the collection is paced. Some of the writing in this anthology is gorgeous and these little gems are worth the price of admission. The authors and their work represent a wide variety of styles and traditions, from surrealism to conversationalism, and the emotional territory covered in this collection is staggering.
Also recommended: O. HENRY PRIZE STORES 2003 and THE CHILDREN'S CORNER by Jackson McCrae.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2010
The writers are fine, often emerging artists rather than established writers. For a book like this, I expected Gary Lutz (he's in there) or Donald Barthelme, Pychon or their like (they're absent). But the emphasis is on 'new' writers, so we're treated to newbies' view of what the genre-starters have done.

But these are style samplers, especially for known writers like Wallace, Lutz and Holmes; they deliver. Or maybe re-deliver, as their work has been released in many editions. Good price, and getting better daily, it seems. It's a sampler; so sample.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is not so much a review of Marcus' remarkable collection as a musing on how difficult it is to finish a collection of short stories when you become enthralled by individual writers and veer off target to consume them.

Thus far I only read half of this collection, the reason being some of the authors I already knew well (DFW, A.M.Homes, Mary Gaitskill) and the other being, having read some of the new names here, I went hunting, resulting in a tsunami of new books.

This has meant time lost in recent months with George Saunders (both Pastoralia and Civilwarland in Bad Decline), Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged Everything Burned), Brian Evenson (Last Days) and Matthew Derby (Super Flat Times).

(The diverse connections also led to reading David Ohle's The Age of Sinatra and The Pisstown Chaos and finally getting to Donald Barthelme).

I had already consumed Ben Marcus' all too small output with enormous relish. The Age of Wire and String, Notable American Women and The Father Costume have all shot to my top 50 books - as a stylist he is incomparable and his is an imagination fertilized by the richest dung, the most fecund darkness. (As a creator of strange worlds, he is up there with that other maestro of Surrealism, Steve Erickson - Arc d'X, Days Between Stations etc. or the sadly missed J.G. Ballard.) Thus I would read anything he recommends. (Yes, I trust every word from Ben Marcus's rotten, filthy heart [apologies to Michael Marcus]). His introduction to this collection is worth the price of admission alone.

I tend more towards the surreal than the real, which can taint ones approach enormously. Reading George Saunders and Wells Tower I was utterly seduced by their language, but these are writers of what might often be broadly termed `reality'. They bare their enormous hearts openly on the page, often with heartbreaking honesty. They are both writers of the highest order, but they are also weighted with a sense of reality - beautifully rendered, an marvelous flights of fantasy, but without the madness of a Ben Marcus or a Mathew Derby.

It is telling that the two authors - Marcus and Derby - studied together. Super Flat Times was published in 2003 while Notable American Women appeared in 2002 and both books have a fascination, nay, obsession with language as a visceral force. Like Marcus' first book, The Age of Wire and String, Derby's book is ostensibly a collection of short stories, but in a strange way both can be read as novels about decidedly odd worlds.

Intriguingly, cultural commentator Neal Pollack describes Super Flat Times as a "bold step forward in science fiction." It's a strange term to use for Derby's book. There is science here, but it's a very weird version; there are machines that process meat (the only edible food source left) and clouds are treated with behavioral chemicals. [...]

But Derby's book is decidedly post-apocalyptic. Thus it could slot into the bookshelf alongside Marcus' The Father Costume, J.G. Ballard's Hello America, Denis Johnson's Fiskadoro, Samuel R. Delaney's Dhalgren, Jonathan Lethem's Amnesia Moon, Steve Erickson's Our Ecstatic Days, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crate, Philip K. Dick's Dr Bloodmoney, Cormac McCarthy's The Road and the truly, truly weird Extinction Journals by Jeremy Robert Johnson. These are all books where the world has been irreparably changed and the survivors must find new ways to make do. This is Dystopian fiction rather than Science fiction and both Marcus and Derby have found new poetry with which to describe it.

Genre also becomes slippery picking up Brian Evenson's Last Days. Ostensibly this is a crime thriller, but that is just the beginning. It is equally an exploration into cult mentality when the dismembered detective protagonist, Kline, must infiltrate a bizarre `church' which takes literally the New Testament notion that you should cut off the hand that offends you... and much more if need be.

This is dark, dark noir, profoundly paranoid and bursting with Holy Wrath. The only other `crime' writer I have come across that comes close is Jack O'Connell (who really should have been in the Anchor anthology but who, for some reason, keeps slipping through the cracks). O'Connell's world, in such books as Word Made Flesh, carries a similar fascination with warped religiosity, but Evenson, with a background in the Mormon Church, takes notions of feverish, obsessive belief into even darker realms.

Ben Marcus, in editing the Anchor Anthology, has supplied us with a guidebook into a new world. To be sure we can see hints of many precursors: Pynchon, Dick, Barthelme, DeLillo, Ballard. But there is a freshness to this grouping that more than proves that the future of American literature is in more than capable hands.
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on September 24, 2008
This is the best anthology of contemporary fiction. It presents stories that are the best kind of stories: stories with strong ideas executed well. These are not the idea-free duds of the Best New American Voices series, nor the snoozefest "technical perfections" of the Best American general selections. Instead, there's one fantastic story right after another. Mercifully, the few misses in here are short enough to forgive, and there's otherwise no real failures (some pieces are impenetrable, but still fun), and there are many whopping successes, care of George Saunders, Wells Tower, Rick Bass, Padgett Powell, Mary Caponegro--scads of others. It's through and through a stunning and enjoyable--let me repeat, enjoyable, a word too often forgotten in contemporary fiction--collection of short stories.
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on July 11, 2014
There were a few stories that were particularly engaging to read and made me want to read them over again, but there were also a good number of them I found way too strange to enjoy. Who writes stories about dead, beached whales in extremely gruesome detail....?
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on September 26, 2011
This book was assigned to me for my Writing workshop and has been one of the best decisions I've made as it has an amazing collection of stories, all with very different styles.
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