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Book Review: The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, Edited by Laura Furman

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Named after the famous author whose best known stories include “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” The O. Henry Prize has been awarded to short stories since 1919. Since 2009, the collection has  been compiled in conjunction with the PEN American Center, “an international organization devoted to stimulation, support, sand sustenance of writers and literature” since 1920.

The selection process remains the same with author Laura Furman, the series editor since 2003, choosing the 20 Prize Stories out of the submissions, which the website states “must be published in Canada or the United States, and originally written in English.”  They are then given without identification to each member of a three-person jury who independently choose their favorite. This year’s jury was comprised of Mary Gaitskill, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Ron Rash, all three past recipients of an O. Henry Prize or PEN / O. Henry Prize, and like past editions, they each provide comments regarding their selection.

Gaitskill and Mueenuddin both chose the longest story in the collection, Yiyun Li’s “Kindness,” which appeared in A Public Space. It tells the story of a 41-year-old woman named Moyan living on the outskirts of Beijing. She lives her life at a distance from those around her, in part because of what she learns about her parents while a young girl. The novella is well written, but similar to the people in Moyan’s life, I didn’t connect with the character or the plot.

My tastes are much more in line with Rash’s choice of Alice Munro’s “Corrie,” which appeared in The New Yorker. She has written an outstanding story about an affair between a married man and woman and the deceit that enters their lives when it is revealed another person knows of their situation. It’s fascinating as the story unfolds and the truth of what’s taking place is presented to the reader. I didn’t see the twist coming and really enjoyed it.

While all 20 stories are obviously written by talented authors, there were a few that stood out. Having grown up in Los Angeles and been a fan of baseball as a kid, Dagoberto Gilb’s “Uncle Rock” was very identifiable as a young man comes of age at Dodger Stadium. Sam Ruddick’s “Leak” is a humorous story the reveals the difficulties that can occur when juggling women. Steven Millhauser presents a paper on “Phantoms,” examining different case studies and explanations in an effort to better understand them. It’s a thought-provoking piece. Every author offers reflections on their pieces for those who would like to learn more about them.

For fans of the short story, The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2012 is a great smorgasbord of different writers that exponentially opens the possibilities of what may be inside.  It’s well worth exploring.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS