Surveying the best of the best in 2000
Readers in search of the best new writing in America need not search far. Trustworthy editors have scrutinized a year's worth of publications in nearly every field to cull the finest short stories, sports writing, mystery stories, essays, travel writing and poetry for new anthologies. Each collection may be enjoyed as a satisfying end in itself or as a convenient introduction to new or unfamiliar writers.
Grand Master Donald E. Westlake has assembled a fine collection in The Best American Mystery Stories 2000. Offerings range from Shel Silverstein's nimble "The Guilty Party" to Robert Girardi's gritty shocker "The Defenestration of Aba Sid." As in the other categories of Houghton Mifflin's Best American Writing Series, the editors provide a kind of runner-up list of distinguished stories (with sources) for interested readers to track down.
The Best American Essays 2000, edited by Alan Lightman, is another diverse grouping, characterized by struggles with "truth, memory, and experience. Writers range from notable newcomers like Cheryl Strayed, a graduate student at Syracause University, to Wendell Berry and Cynthia Ozick.
For compelling short fiction, turn to The Best American Short Stories 2000. Edited by E.L. Doctorow, it offers the finest short stories chosen from American and Canadian magazines. New works by Annie Proulx, Walter Mosley and Raymond Carver are balanced by relative unknowns like Nathan Englander, whose authority and imagination make "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" a real heartbreaker.
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000 is the first in what promises to be a remarkable series. Oliver Sacks, Wendell Berry (again) and Peter Matthiessen are some of the acclaimed writers represented. Paul DePalma's kvetchy "http://www.when_is_enough_ enough?.com" is a delightfully depressing plea to examine the Faustian bargain we strike with our own personal computers.
Another new addition to the Best American Series is The Best American Travel Writing 2000, edited by Bill Bryson. Readers are in safe hands with a guy whose last three travel books have been blockbuster bestsellers. Bryson's hand-picked 25 stories are predictable only by being unpredictable and engrossing. Take "The Toughest Trucker in the World" by Tom Clynes, about a man whose daily grind involves 18-foot alligators, leeches and some of Australia's harshest terrain. Or "Lard is Good for You" by Alden Jones, a coffee-starved gringa trying to go native in a small Costa Rican village.
The Best American Sports Writing 2000 has been delivering dramatic, thought-provoking pieces to fans for 10 years. Particularly interesting are the stories about lesser-known sports like machine gunning, curling, poker and cockfighting. The definition of "sport may be open to discussion, but the quality of writing is not.
In Best New American Voices 2000, an eclectic group of short stories has been sifted from the fertile ground of the most prestigious writing programs in the United States and Canada. It is the inaugural effort of a new series and ideal for lovers of cutting-edge fiction. No celebrated authors here, just those who promise to be groundbreakers.
Finally, in The Best American Poetry 2000, Rita Dove has distilled the finest work of her colleagues. Good poems are already distilliations of the complex chemistry of thought and feeling, so this book more than any other in the bunch gives us "the voice that is great within us. From the unnerving confessions of A.R. Ammons's "Shot Glass," to the radical refashioning of faith in Mark Jarman's "Epistle," to the sustained aria of discovery in Mary Oliver's "Work," this is the innermost country of America, and it is our country at its best.
Joanna Brichetto is on BookPage's list of best reviewers.