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The Best American Short Stories of the Century Expanded Edition

77 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0395843673
ISBN-10: 0395843677
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Editorial Reviews Review

At age 67, the perennially youthful John Updike may at last qualify as something of an elder statesman. But the Best American Short Stories annual--whose greatest hits package Updike has now assembled--is almost a generation older, having commenced publication in 1915. This staying power allows the hefty Best American Short Stories of the Century to perform double duty. It is, on the one hand, a priceless compendium of American manners and morals--a decade-by-decade survey of how we lived then, and how we live now. Yet Updike very consciously avoided the sociological angle in making his selection. "I tried not to select stories because they illustrated a theme or portion of the national experience," he writes in his introduction, "but because they struck me as lively, beautiful, believable, and, in the human news they brought, important." In this he succeeded: the 55 fictions that made the grade are most notable for their human (rather than merely historical) interest.

So who got in? There are a good number of cut-and-dried classics here, including Hemingway's "The Killers," Faulkner's "That Evening Sun Go Down," and Philip Roth's acidic spin on religious connivance, "Defender of the Faith." In other cases, major authors are represented by relatively minor works. Yet it's hard to quibble with the inclusion of Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, J.F. Powers, Eudora Welty--particularly when you take into account that their second-tier creations are fully the equal of anybody else's masterpieces. And the final third of the book really does constitute an honor roll of contemporary American fiction, with brilliant entries by Saul Bellow, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Tim O'Brien, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, John Cheever, and Vladimir Nabokov. (For the latter, Updike actually succumbed to his own idolatry and bent the rules for admission--but nobody who reads the hallucinatory "That in Aleppo Once..." will regret it.) It goes without saying that fiction fans will be complaining about the editor's sins of omission well into the next century. But no matter how you slice it, this remains an elegant and essential advertisement for the short form. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The task had to be daunting, selecting the 55 stories that grace this volume. The title alone is daunting: the best? But the riches containedAincluding a foreword by Kenison and a deft introduction from UpdikeAprove the title accurate. Consider the resources mined: 2000 stories anthologized in annual best-of volumes since 1915. Although certain notable story writers, John O'Hara for one, never made it into the series and others who did have been crowded out of this volume, the stories excavated and displayed herein are gems. Often these are the gems one would expectAsuch as John Cheever's balance of the magical and the sinister in "The Country Husband," about an inappropriate desire that floods a man after a plane crash. What story captures better than "Greenleaf" Flannery O'Connor's affrontery before Protestantism and her vision of unearned grace? And would readers expect anything less of Dorothy Parker than "Here We Are," a scathing yet poignant depiction of a newly married couple bickering like old retirees? Indeed, the volume includes such signature stories as Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, where Have You Been?," Cynthia Ozick's "The Shawl," Raymond Carver's "Where I'm Calling From" and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried." But some stories here by the well-known are not necessarily the best known. Fitzgerald is represented not by "Babylon Revisited" but by "Crazy Sunday," about the perilous life of a screenwriter employed at a director's whim. The transient world captured in Eudora Welty's "The Hitch-Hikers" seems far removed from the homier gardens, parlors, and post offices familiar from her other fiction. And readers can be grateful that Updike chose not "The Magic Barrel" but Bernard Malamud's "The German Refugee," a tale that ends with a dark if O. Henry-like reversal. In Kenison's words, these stories are "an invaluable record of our century." The book opens with Benjamin Rosenblatt's "Zelig," a tale of an immigrant who longs against reason to return to Russia. Immigration is a recurring theme, picked up again in Alexander Godin's sadly ironic "My Dead Brother Comes to America," And that we are nearly all descendants of immigrants is Aas apparent in Willa Cather's "Double Birthday" or Saul Bellow's "A Silver Dish" as in Gish Jen's bitterly funny "Birthmates," about a Chinese-American as trapped by his self-definition as by the racism of others. In his introduction, Updike writes, "The American experience... has been brutal and hard." The stories bear this out. In Elizabeth Bishop's "The Farmer's Children," two boys freeze protecting their father's equipment, while in Grace Stone Coates's lovely "Wild Plums," a young girl is forbidden to gather fruit with a family her mother deems socially inferior. Life on this continent may be brutal, but this extraordinary collection offers up dazzling writing that salves the wounds, as well as stories full of the pleasures of life.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Best American
  • Paperback: 864 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Expanded edition (April 20, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395843677
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395843673
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 2.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #56,999 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 69 people found the following review helpful By Lisa Schweitzer on January 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
One of the things I have always liked about Updike is that he is willing to undertake something like this--even though it will inevitably make him vulnerable to criticisms like the ones raised in other reviews here. I can see why some omissions rankle: but, but BUT! Look at what's here! Almost all of the stories are nothing short of brilliant. Yes, "The Lottery" was probably amongst the best of the century, but it is anthologized everywhere in the universe: many of these are not. Many are not-so-well-known works by the best writers the 20th century had. I could quibble about many of the selections. For instance, I wouldn't have chose "Greenleaf" to represent one my favorites, Flannery O'Connor, or "The Killers" to represent Ernest Hemingway. But they're still great stories, worth including and worth reading.
The best I think are those from the early part of the century, but that's probably my own bias talking. I'm not a fan of many of the representatives chosen for the latter half of the century, and the selection for 1999--yuck! But I'm willing to trust Updike's judgment over my own for a little while, and if he thinks Annie Proulx is worth reading...ok: It's worth a few pages of my time to find out.
The anthology also does a good job of tracing in fiction the transformations of American culture: the first are immigrant stories, the next are primarily rural-based farming stories (A Jury of Her Peers--great story), and then the last are urban, ex-urban, and suburban stories.
Read and enjoy.
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41 of 42 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 13, 1999
Format: Hardcover
When I bought this book, I first checked to see if my favorite contemporary authors were represented: the impossibly great Alice Munro, Thom Jones, Lorrie Moore ... and they indeed are in there. I'm intrigued by Updike's choices for those authors, because they weren't the choices I would have made. I enjoyed thinking about why he made those choices; I wish I could join Updike for lunch and debate him. What I most enjoy about this collection is the surprises. I had always thought Hemingway was overrated, but his tale here, "The Killers," is a hair-raising gem. And I had never heard of J.F. Powers, who has a wonderful shaggy-dog story in this collection that made me laugh out loud. You can see that Joyce Carol Oates was writing about the same subject matter in 1962 that she writes about now, but the telling is fresh in her 37-year-old story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?". Yes, I quibble with the exclusion of Shirley Jackson and J.D. Salinger, but not too much. "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "The Lottery" would have been predictable and boring selections (actually, I like "Seymour: An Introduction" better). This is not a boring collection.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Stacey Cochran on July 3, 2002
Format: Paperback
I used to go to the library and read the old annual Best American Short Story collections. There was something almost religious about picking up a copy from 1927 and reading a story by a then unknown kid named Ernest Hemingway in that old type-face, or the Faulkner stories in just about every annual volume during the 1930s. The bios of these writers at the back of the old copies when they were unknown writers was so innocent and naive. Modern critical theory has influenced my perception of so many of these writers, and that is shame.

The stories collected in this Best American Short Stories of the Century are taken from the the annual volumes. There are stories representing each decade from the teens to the 90s. There are classics, and there are surprises. My favorite is Ann Beattie's "Janus." It is subtle and masterfully written.

I've owned this book for two years, and I read it from time-to-time. Some stories I've read four or five times. Some I haven't read at all. And it's a book that it's okay to do that with, I think. The Fitzgerald story "Crazy Sunday" was something of a nice surprise, and indeed, that kind of surprise seems at the heart of what Updike and Kenison were aiming to realize. How to make a Best of the 20th Century anotholgy exciting, you know? Considering they could only take stories from the annual Best of American Short Story anothologies, they did that well, I think. Martha Gellhorn's "Miami--New York" was insightful. The John Cheever, Raymond Carver, and Joyce Carol Oates stories are great classics. I enjoyed Donald Barthelme's "A City of Churches" and Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" -- stories ranging from the humorous, to the heartrending.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By R.B. Jones on July 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
I believe that most writers or short story readers will agree that these are not the "best" stories of the 20th century. Such a collection would include better known masterpieces like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Instead, this a collection of brilliant, but lesser known stories by accomplished writers.
I think Updike makes it clear that his goal was to assemble great stories from all decades, but not necessarily the best stories. I believe there was a pointed effort made, in assembling these stories, not to include the well-known American standards that most college educated people have read. The New York Times sums up the result : "Finding wonderful stories that you don't already know is one of this collection's greatest pleasures . . Updike has made some surprising, even striking selections."
Most of Updike's surprising selections are very enjoyable. My only disappointment was the 1999 story by Pam Houston. There are too many great writers these days to include this contemporary mediocrity. What about Rick Bass, Charles Baxter, Mark Richard? Just my opinion.
Overall, I recommend this book without reservation.
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