Barbara Kingsolver's collection of essays Small Wonder included a piece she wrote as editor of the 2001 edition of The Best American Short Stories. The introduction to the collection of stories she selected, within this essay Kingsolver attempted to define what it was that made for quality in short fiction. Describing the way that a good short story should reveal some profound truth eloquently in a limited amount of space, I felt as though she was discussing how I, personally and individually, feel about her work. She explained that her selections as editor boiled down to those stories that moved her, that stuck with her, because they so skillfully and intelligently bestowed some knowledge or sense of experience onto the reader through a story woven in a matter of pages, rather than chapters. Though I initially read Kingsolver's introduction entirely independent from the actual stories she chose, her description of the process and guidelines by which she selected the included stories compelled me to get my hands on a copy of this collection as soon as possible. I just had to see what stories had so affected this woman whose writing had always so affected me.
Any collection of The Best American Short Stories is sure to be rife with startling, intelligently written, and important pieces of fiction. The editors, selected annually, are all noteworthy members of the literary community with commendations and honors bolstering their brief yet deserved editorial status. But if you're at all familiar with my taste in books, you have probably noticed a trend - I love Barbara Kingsolver. I admit that I have started one or two of her novels and, unfortunately, failed to find myself immersed or moved enough to delve in past page 50. As a rule of thumb, however, I equate her name with quality, talent, taste, and a shared idealism.
I have, however, frequently had trouble finding myself particularly moved by short fiction. The only other time I have been able to complete a full collection was with Jeffrey Eugenide's My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead (another author whose moving fiction convinced me to take a chance on his editorial skills). So when I wanted to try some short fiction again, needless to say, I was particularly drawn to the 2001 short story collection. These were stories hand selected by Kingsolver and, thus, I knew that they were likely to mean something to me.
Granted, not every story in here hit me over the head with its wisdom or fictional powers. But some definitely did. All topics are covered, all range of emotions evoked. Few stones are left untouched, but there is still a subtle continuity to the collection. From the woman, desperately hoping to conceive, who finds pieces of her imaginary future son's body strewn throughout her house - a story both painfully and beautifully told - to the morbidly obese high school janitor who has never known love until he finds it in the supermarket, met by the hardened woman that lives just a few houses down - a touchingly hopeful piece on love and loneliness. There are tales of politics, such as the capitalist American chicken restaurant landed in socialist China, and those of family saga, like the tale of two twin brothers whose journey from childhood to manhood is tenderly told in just 5 short pages. Stories of competition, such as the two women who rival each other their whole adult lives, become neighbors in their old age and play out their feud among the harvest of their backyard gardens, connected by a shared apple tree. And stories of essential human struggle to overcome deep and enveloping sadness, like that of the couple who fight to maintain their hold on life after a hijacked car and a miscarriage.
This collection provided me with some of those rare stories that have the ability to leave an indelible mark on my mind, with a few authors' work to further explore, and with a greater appreciation for the short story form. I'm finding it difficult to accurately write about this collection because its contents are so vast and varied. However I can undoubtedly state that I finished reading these stories cataloguing a few more thoughts in my head, asking myself some fresh questions, and reflecting upon an impressive new set of those lasting mental impressions that only good fiction can affect.