Radio host Keillor (Wobegon Boy, 1997, etc.) takes a station break and puts together this year’s Best American collection. Most of the entries, it must be said, are a long way from “above average.” The withering of the few mainstream journals still interested in fiction was a process underway long before Tina Brown stepped off the Concorde, but its effect is still being felt: the majority of pieces here have the sketchy, tentative feel of outlines, first drafts, or’sadder still—mere scribblings rather than fully crafted narratives. Many are simple recollection pieces, like John Updike’s elegiac, unsatisfying “My Father on the Verge” (a young man growing up in small-town Pennsylvania in the 1930s) or Poe Ballantine’s even flatter “The Blue Devils of River Avenue” (a shy suburban boy’s encounter with the disreputable family down the block). The “slice-of-life” genre is beginning to seem more and more like a sitcom in which nothing happens, although Carol Anshaw’s “Elvis Has Left the Building,” about the daily travails of a couple of lesbian friends, manages at least to wrap up several uninteresting characters in a modicum of wit. The more ambitious stories nearly all disappoint: Doran Larson’s “Morphine” offers an undergraduate rendition of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, while Diane Schoemperlen’s “Body Language” (on the less-than-blissful marriage of “he” and “she” from an anatomical perspective) is only slightly less pretentious. Among such company, more ordinary narratives like Tim Gatreaux’s “Wedding With Children” (an old man attempts to provide some moral direction to his fatherless grandchildren) or Akhil Sharma’s “Cosmopolitan” (an Indian immigrant has an unhappy love affair with an older American woman) come as something of a relief, if not much of a pleasure. For the trade only, as they say: a coffeetable book that few will want to crack.

Pub Date: Oct. 30, 1998

ISBN: 0-395-87515-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1998

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A welcome gathering of work, some not often anthologized, by an unrivaled master of the short story form.


The indefatigable translating team of Pevear and Volokhonsky deliver a first-rate collection of Chekhov’s stories that highlight their “extraordinary variety.”

In his lifetime, Chekhov (1860-1904), physician and writer, was accused of immorality because he wrote of the lives of little people with little problems rather than taking the god’s-eye perspective of a Tolstoy. His reply: “What makes literature art is precisely its depiction of life as it really is.” Pevear and Volokhonsky (Novels, Tales, Journeys: The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin, 2016, etc.) select stories—happily, one for each week of the year—that express that devotion to realism, even if sometimes broadly satirically. The first piece, from 1883, depicts the bursting-at-the-seams pride of a young man whose name has appeared in the newspaper, even if it’s not for reasons to be proud of: It seems that he was drunk and “slipped and fell under the horse of the cabby Ivan Drotov,” then was clonked on the head by the axle. He can’t wait to tell the neighbors. Chekhov notes that he’s a “collegiate registrar,” which, Pevear and Volokhonsky helpfully gloss, is at the bottom rung of the czarist civil service. In another story, “Fat and Skinny,” a difference in rank takes on great importance: Old friends meet. One, it turns out, is a “collegiate assessor,” a rung up the ladder, and forced to supplement his meager income by making wooden cigarette cases. “We manage somehow,” he sighs, while his portly friend allows that he’s “already a privy councillor,” third from the top and requiring the use of the term of address “Your Excellency.” Encounters between young and old, rich and poor, country and city people mark these stories, though perhaps the best of them is an odd, longish yarn called “Kashtanka,” about a young dog, “half dachshund and half mutt,” whose master, “drunk as a fish,” loses her, whereupon the dog undergoes a series of adventures worthy of Pinocchio. It’s a marvel of imagination.

A welcome gathering of work, some not often anthologized, by an unrivaled master of the short story form.

Pub Date: April 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52081-8

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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A mixed bag of stories: some tired but several capable of poetically piercing the heart.


Science fiction author (The Wall of Storms, 2016) and translator (The Redemption of Time, Baoshu, 2019) Liu’s short stories explore the nature of identity, consciousness, and autonomy in hostile and chaotic worlds.

Liu deftly and compassionately draws connections between a genetically altered girl struggling to reconcile her human and alien sides and 20th-century Chinese young men who admire aspects of Western culture even as they confront its xenophobia (“Ghost Days”). A poor salvager on a distant planet learns to channel a revolutionary spirit through her alter ego of a rabbit (“Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard”). In “Byzantine Empathy,” a passionate hacktivist attempts to upend charitable giving through blockchain and VR technology even as her college roommate, an executive at a major nonprofit, fights to co-opt the process, a struggle which asks the question of whether pure empathy is possible—or even desired—in our complex geopolitical structure. Much of the collection is taken up by a series of overlapping and somewhat repetitive stories about the singularity, in which human minds are scanned and uploaded to servers, establishing an immortal existence in virtuality, a concept which many previous SF authors have already explored exhaustively. (Liu also never explains how an Earth that is rapidly becoming depleted of vital resources somehow manages to indefinitely power servers capable of supporting 300 billion digital lives.) However, one of those stories exhibits undoubted poignance in its depiction of a father who stubbornly clings to a flesh-and-blood existence for himself and his loved ones in the rotting remains of human society years after most people have uploaded themselves (“Staying Behind”). There is also some charm in the title tale, a fantasy stand-alone concerning a young woman snatched from her home and trained as a supernaturally powered assassin who retains a stubborn desire to seek her own path in life.

A mixed bag of stories: some tired but several capable of poetically piercing the heart.

Pub Date: Feb. 25, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982134-03-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Saga/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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