The O. Henry Prize Stories – The Best Stories of the Year 2014

This year’s O. Henry Prize Stories collection is a strong mix of twenty stories by writers who are familiar to me and writers I’ve never heard of before. The familiar names here are William Trevor, Louise Erdrich, Mark Haddon, Tess Hadley, David Bradley, and Stephen Dixon. The collection is dedicated to the Nobel winning storywriter Alice Munro.  The rest of the authors were new to me.


One of the reasons I read these ‘Best of’ collections is to find new writers who appeal to me.  That is the thing about short stories and fiction in general.  I might think a story is wonderful, but you might not care for it very much, and vice versa.  Even within my own reading my reactions to a story can vary due to a number of factors, but I always find enough stories I really like in these series to warrant the time spent.  This year was no exception.

The author Laura Furman has been the editor of the O. Henry Prize stories since 2003.  It is her job to select the stories to include.  Each year there are three judges whose task it is to read all the selected stories and choose their favorite among them.  Each judge this year picked a different favorite with Tash Aw picking the Mark Haddon story, James Lasdun picking a story by Kristen Iskandrian, and Joan Silber picking a story by Laura van den Berg.

As per usual, my personal favorite is none of the ones the judges picked.  My favorite story is ‘Oh Shenandoah’ by Maura Stanton which is about the pursuit of a replacement for a cracked toilet seat in Venice, Italy if you can imagine.  It is a perfectly executed story, pleasantly humorous but still with a meaningful point to it in the end.  I was not familiar with Maura Stanton before, but after reading ‘Oh Shenandoah’ I will definitely be on the lookout for her fiction.  Besides being a poet, she has also written one novel and two story collections before.

Of the twenty stories, three each were first published in the New Yorker and Tin House and two were first published in The American Reader.  The others came from a variety of sources.

Stephen Dixon is a writer whose stories I have read several times as they appear in these ‘Best of Year’ story collections.  His story ‘Talk’ is about a man sitting on a bench in a neighborhood church garden who realizes that he has not talked to anyone today in the twelve and a half hours he has been awake.  The first eight pages are a long monologue about his potential opportunities for conversation.  Aspiring writers might be encouraged that a good story could be written about such a prosaic subject, but very few writers could pull it off as well as Dixon does here.   The story also got me interested in the ancient Babylonian epic poem Gilgamesh.

The following lines from Tash Aw sum up my thoughts about these O. Henry stories:

“We think we own our memories, we think we construct the narrative of our lives, but in fact we don’t.  Things just happen – random events, sometimes boring, sometimes monumental, often just plain weird.  We are mere observers to the strangeness of our own lives, the sequence of events that unfolds before us, leaving us bewildered, lost in a blurred landscape, just like the protagonist of ‘The Gun’.”

                                                                      Tash Aw      

‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson – The Old Preacher and the Feral Female

‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson    (2014) – 261 pages

616Eizn12dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_No writer has been more successful at imparting her Christian values to the literary world than Marilynne Robinson.  In her novels she has shown us the good side of Christianity, the side that helped set up the Underground Railroad which aided black slaves escaping into the north to freedom.  Even her Christianity of today is a positive force for good, not the smarmy TV Christianity that sickens and corrupts.

When ‘Lila’ begins, the four year old girl Lila is locked out of her house by her parents on a cold night.  Fortunately a woman named Doll saw what was happening and stole Lila away from her family.  Doll has to travel by foot all over Missouri to find temporary jobs, and she takes Lila everywhere she goes.  The only permanent possession they have is a big knife that Doll keeps for protection.  Lila grows up loving her makeshift mother.

Most of the novel ‘Lila’ is an interior monologue by the grown-up Lila looking back on her early years.  Her fortunes have drastically changed since her childhood as she is now living in Iowa, married to local minister John Ames, and expecting a child of her own.  The novel explains how all these changes came about.

‘Lila’ is the third novel in Robinson’s Gilead series, the other two being ‘Gilead’ and ‘Home’.  I found both of the first two books tremendously moving.   ‘Lila’ did not have quite the impact on me of these first two novels.

For one thing, the story is told in a reverie, and sometimes events seem a little murky and not as vivid as they could be.  Still there are sentences here that memorably evoke nature along the roads and rivers of Missouri.

 “The river smelled like any river, fishy and mossy and shadowy, and the smell seemed stronger in the dark, with the chink and plosh of all the small life.”

 Perhaps the weakest part of ‘Lila’ for me was the character Reverend John Ames.  Too many times he seemed little more than a beatific nonentity.  When Lila shows up at his church one day, he decides immediately that she will be his future wife despite their thirty-plus years’ difference in age.  What his congregation thinks of this June/December romance is not discussed.  Nearly all his time in the novel is taken up with quoting biblical passages, praying, and sermonizing. Take page 223 in ‘Lila’.  This entire page is taken up with one of Reverend Ames’s sermons.  I suppose if you delight in listening to sermons this will be wonderful, but for people who don’t it makes the novel drag.  If you got rid of the sermonizing sludge, you would probably have a fine little 125 page novel here.  The Reverend should have been given some controversial church issue to struggle with so he would have been a more interesting meaningful character.

But the center of ‘Lila’ is Lila herself.  Despite or maybe because she has dealt with rough circumstances throughout her life, she has emerged a strong self-reliant person.  Because of her,  ‘Lila’ may be one of those novels I will have to think about for awhile before I fully recognize its worth.

‘Wittgenstein Jr’ by Lars Iyer – An Hilarious Philosophy Class Novel

‘Wittgenstein Jr’ by Lars Iyer   (2014) – 226 pages


19288788Here is just what the world needed, a humorous novel about an advanced philosophy class at Cambridge University taught by a fellow who resembles the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein more in his pronouncements than in his looks.  His students call him Wittgenstein Jr. in fun and in partial derision.  The story is narrated by Peters, one of the students in the class.

Wittgenstein Jr. takes his philosophy very seriously.  Here are some of his somber pronouncements:

‘It is never difficult to think.  It is either easy or impossible.’

‘What stands between us and good philosophy is the will, not the intellect.  We must refine the will.’

‘You must know who you are in order to think without deceit.’

‘We are latecomers. Disinherited children.  We are without tradition.  Without belief.’

 A class of students obsessed with their perhaps deranged teacher.  A teacher obsessed with his students.  There are certain similarities with ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, but here the students are a bunch of unruly drunken wise-ass students at Cambridge University.

Along with the philosophy classes, we also get the wild and crazy parties of these Cambridge students.  Some of the best parties take place after the pubs close.  Here is Wittgenstein Jr. lecturing his students on their alcoholic lives:

 “We drink because we do not live, he says.  Because we have no idea what it means to live.

He’s heard the thump-thump of our music.  He’s heard our drunken laughter. 

We’re guzzlers he says.  Cambridge is our trough, and we are its pigs. 

How disgusting we are! How filthy – morally speaking! Actually speaking.

We’re stupid he says. Shallow.  We’re without soul.  Without insight.”

 There is a dark undercurrent in Wittgenstein Jr.’s background.  His older brother committed suicide while teaching at Oxford.  Perhaps that is why Wittgenstein Jr. is such a cheerless soul.  The actual Wittgenstein had three brothers who committed suicide. The students wonder if that is their teacher’s ultimate end.

Lars Iyer creates vivid word-pictures throughout the novel using incomplete sentences.   Here is an example:

“Rah students everywhere.  Rah boys in gilets and flip-flops, with piles of bed-head hair.  Rugby types as big as fridges, all red-cheeked health, their voices booming.  Rah girls dressed down in gym gear and pony tails.”

I can understand almost enough references in this description to feel that it is almost wonderful.

‘Wittgenstein Jr’ is one amusing mind-shifting book.  Even if you are not into philosophy as I am not, this would be a great book to read.


‘Kill My Mother’ by Jules Feiffer – A Noir Graphic Novel

‘Kill My Mother’ by Jules Feiffer    (2014) – 148 pages


‘Kill My Mother’ is part hard-boiled detective noir, part World War II battle drama, part Hollywood mystery with scandalous celebrities and a dancing fool.

Since it is a comic, it can be as over-the-top as it wants to be.  The art work is a playful zany delight.  The story is crazy noir with mysterious murders, a hard-bitten horny drunk private eye, lotsa femme fatales, a jaunt through Hollywood, and a military battle thrown in for good measure.  Do you remember the USO shows where Hollywood stars would tour the battlefields to put on a show for our troops?  There is one of those shows here.  Of course there are boxing scenes; there are bar scenes, swing dance scenes, tap dance scenes, transvestite scenes, nude scenes.  There is a casting call scene and a nightclub scene.  Nearly every trope from old 1940s movies can be found here.

This graphic novel has one of the most explosive, dramatic conclusions you will ever find.

‘Kill My Mother’ is divided into two parts.  The first part called ‘Bay City Blues’ takes place in 1933 and has pretty much a traditional detective noir setting.  The second part takes place ten years later in 1943 and is called ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ where we have almost all the same characters from Part I who have now moved to Hollywood and are working in the movie business at one function or another.

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Jules Feiffer has been cartooning forever.  His comic strips ran for 42 years in the Village Voice.  He has drawn political cartoons, written novels and plays, and published his autobiography.   He drew one of the earliest graphic novels, ‘Tantrum’, in 1979.  An early book of his cartoons was called ‘Sick, Sick, Sick: A Guide to Non-Confident Living’.  He is eighty five years old now.

The only small criticism I have is that the unique print style of Jules Feiffer’s handwriting is somewhat hard to read.  I remember even having that problem in college while reading his cartoons.

This graphic novel is dedicated to Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, Hammett and Chandler and Cain, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, and Joan Z. Holden.

I believe ‘Kill My Mother’ will be great fun for a lot of people, especially those who have watched and enjoyed those old 1940s movies.  But even young people could get a kick out of this preposterous story.


‘Life Drawing’ by Robin Black – After Her Affair

‘Life Drawing’ by Robin Black   (2014) – 240 pages


‘Life Drawing’ is a fine mix of the real events in a woman’s life and her consciousness of those events.  Doesn’t that describe a lot of novels?  Yes it does, but it all depends on the style of writing.  Here we have a taut direct voice that puts this story of marital discord across in a dramatic way.  ‘Life Drawing’ is a high-wire act by Robin Black that succeeds.

Augusta (‘Gus’) and Owen are a long-married couple.  Gus is an artist and Owen a writer.  They used to live in Philadelphia until Gus had a few-month affair with a man.   After Owen found out, Gus broke off the affair, and she and Owen moved to this remote farmhouse to try and repair their marriage.  This is where ‘Life Drawing’ begins, at the farmhouse.  However Owen is still deeply resentful of his wife’s infidelity.  He is rigorously polite, but there is no easiness or relaxation in his relations with his wife.  He is also blocked in his writing.  Gus has pursued new painting projects, but she has a deep underlying guilt.

Gus and Owen have lived in isolation in this remote farmhouse for two years, but then a neighbor, Alison, shows up.  She is a divorced mother whose daughter Nora is away at college.  Alison and Gus quick become close friends, sharing drinks and talk on many occasions.

“Life.  It begins and begins and begins. An infinite number of times. It is all beginnings until the end comes. Sometimes we know it, and sometimes we do not, but at every moment life begins again. Nora. Young. And elegant – shockingly so, something that hadn’t quite come through at our hurried first meeting.” 

 Yes, Nora.  The daughter Nora is also a writer, and when she comes home from college to visit her mother, she becomes enamored of Owen.  This marks the end of Owen’s writers’ block.

The above excerpt is a good example of the exquisite style of writing in ‘Life Drawing’.  It is Gus who is telling the story from her emotional perspective.  I found the story of the novel quite moving, and the novel held my interest throughout.

Alison, the mother, is also an artist.  So everyone is either a full-time artist or writer.  These people in ‘Life Drawing’ fly in different circles than most of the people I know who must work a job for a living.   I suppose that is one of the problems in the United States.  The only people who can afford to be artists or writers are people who have never had to struggle with a job to live.

However that is beside the point.  The point is that ‘Life Drawing’ is a strong well-written novel about the continuing effects of an affair on a long-term relationship.  There is also an astonishing conclusion.


‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ by Elena Ferrante – Not Women’s Lit

‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ by Elena Ferrante   (2014) – 418 pages    Translated by Ann Goldstein

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Don’t let the cover mislead you.  The picture of a woman holding her small daughter looking out to the ocean gives the false impression that this is some Woman’s Lit novel.  I would hate to see males being scared off of some of the best fiction written this new century just because of this cover.

 “Nothing you read about Elena Ferrante’s work prepares you for the ferocity of it.”

Amy Rowland, NYT

‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ is written with an intense angry passion.  This is Italy during the 1970s.

Our two friends, Lenu and Lila, are now in their mid-twenties.  Lila has left her well-to-do wife-beating husband and lives with a man whom she doesn’t sleep with.   To support herself she must work in a sausage factory in Naples.  Meanwhile Lenu has left the city and has published a very popular risqué novel and tours the country promoting her book.

Lenu is now moving in book-publishing intellectual circles, but a meeting with Lila brings her back to her hometown of Naples and her old neighborhood.  Things are not going well with Lila at the sausage factory.  The boss routinely makes sexual advances on some of the female employees.  When Lila rejects his advances, she is given the absolute worst jobs to do in the sausage factory (which you probably can imagine).  The conditions for all the workers in the sausage factory are abysmal, and some try to organize.  When the boss and owners get wind of this, they send in a group of young fascist thugs to brutally beat up the worker leaders.  The workers retaliate and murder a couple of the young fascists.  This is not the kind of stuff you usually find in a woman’s novel.

Elena Ferrante gives us a complete picture by focusing on two women, one who flees the old neighborhood and one who stays or is stuck there.  Lenu, with her college education and book writing, feels like she has escaped her old Naples neighborhood, but there is always something drawing her back into the turmoil.  I think what Ferrante is saying is that there is no real escaping those old primal primitive bonds of our early childhood.

Elena Ferrante never paints a pretty or sentimental picture of the lives of these two young women.  You are always fully aware that life is a struggle especially for women in Italy at that time.

Those who are tempted to read ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ should realize that it is a continuation of the story.  In order to get all the necessary background, you should start with the first novel ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and then the second ‘The Story of a New Name’ before reading this one.  A fourth one is planned for next year.


‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ by Donald Antrim – Folks on the Frightening Comic Edge

‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ by Donald Antrim    stories   (2014) – 158 pages



I knew a man in another city who owned and ran a new car dealership.  The business was quite successful, and he and his family lived a comfortable, well-to-do life.  However each spring in late April or early May, he would become terribly depressed and disconsolate.  Since it happened nearly every year, he could recognize the symptoms and would check himself into a mental facility/rest home for several weeks to deal with the problem.  After the stay he would be fit and ready to take up his position again.

Like this car dealer, the New York men and women in Donald Antrim’s stories are hyper aware of their mental problems.  They will willingly check themselves into mental hospitals as needed.  They take the anti-depressants or anti-psychosis pills as the doctor prescribes.  If anything, they will take more of the medication than recommended.  Unlike the above seemingly serene car dealer, they struggle frantically and humorously to get by in a modern world that is none too kind to them.

“What was the use in telling her how bleak he felt when people found him funny?”

 Contrast this awareness of mental illness with the way things are for most people, especially men, in the United States.  First for the average man, any hint or recognition of mental problems will cost him his standing in the community and/or even his livelihood.  Thus he must keep a tight lid on his mental state.   There is no recognition until the problem occasionally explodes into a monstrous violent act.

All of the stories in ‘The Emerald Light in the Air’ were first published in the New Yorker.  Antrim writes the kind of stories that are edgy, antic, and hilarious at the same time.  They somehow fit neatly into the pages of the New Yorker.

All of the stories sparkle here, and I will not get into the details. except the one story ‘The Actor Prepares’ is about a wild and risqué production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that you won’t forget.

Donald Antrim deals with realistic situations in these stories which usually take place in New York, but his people are usually on the dark comic edge between sanity and insanity.   They rely on their pills and their drinks to keep them happy, but the pills and drinks don’t always work.  Most of the main characters in his stories started life in the South but somehow wound up in New York like Antrim himself.    They do these grandiose acts to show the world and their girlfriends that they are fine only to wind up seeming more foolish and suspect than before.

What sets Donald Antrim apart from many other writers of stories is the peculiarity of his world.  No one else could have written these stories with the same antic yet despairing vision.



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