The Best American Short Stories 2021 is a collection of twenty stories edited by Jesmyn Ward and selected for their literary quality. The stories contemplated queerness, gender, race, and class all in intrinsically unique and bold ways. I was completely enamored with six of the stories, many of them focusing on what it means to be gay or queer. These stories were ‘Good Boy’ by Eloghosa Osunde, ‘Palaver’ by Bryan Washington, and ‘Biology’ by Kevin Wilson. I was also enthralled by the voices and storytelling of ‘Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’ by Jamil Jan Kochai, ‘The Miracle Girl’ by Rita Chang-Eppig, and ‘The Rest of Us’ by Jenzo Duque. Overall, the collection was strong, poignant, contemplative, and tender.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
48 Blitz by Brett Biebel is a collection of flash fiction and short stories centered around Nebraska. Its stories intermingle and branch off each other, making reference to the local politician, the football legend, and even the inmate on death row. The collection features unique and sometimes humorous characters all while cultivating a Midwestern charm.
What popped out at me from the get-go was the specific and unique voice of the pieces. The style felt like a warm bowl of cheesy grits, which was most appreciated in the piece, ‘The Fat Man’. I was also intrigued by the more technical pieces. These highlights included, ‘A Simple Explanation of Benefits’, ‘The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes’, and ‘Supply and Demand’. The piece however that stood out from the collection was, ‘Luisa’, for its change in voice and style. It was a more conventionally written piece but acted as a strong emotional closer to the collection.
Final Rating: 4/5
Freeman’s: Change is a collection of stories, non-fiction pieces, and poems that are loosely tied to the theme of change. It features writers such as Ocean Vuong, Lauren Groff, Rick Bass, and Yoko Ogawa. I found the particular pieces by Christy NaMee Eriksen (a writer who I knew from a local poetry slam club), Ocean Vuong, Lana Bastašić, and Siarhiej Prylucki to be stunning. Though, there were pieces that lacked the sparkle I was hoping for.
I’d like to especially highlight two pieces that struck a massive chord in me, and one of them was Ocean Vuong’s story called Künstlerroman. His story details the life of a man going backwards in time as he watches on. He is so delicate and powerful with his words, that I couldn’t stop rereading the sentence, “Then the cake on the table, air returning to the boy’s pursed lips as the seven candles, one by one, begin to light, and the wish returns to his head where it’s truer for never being touched by language.” The other piece that blew me away was Bread by Lana Bastašić. It was haunting, and painful, and deeply true in its rendition of what it means to be a girl becoming a woman.
Final Rating: 4/5
Before the Earth Devours Us by Esteban Rodriguez is a collection of essays detailing life as a Mexican American boy in Texas. The essays ranged from getting a dog to throwing a dead bird into an office building. The essays focused so finely on livable moments that the descriptions and synthesis of ideas worked well together. I also noticed that throughout the collection, Rodriguez understood the limits and strengths of his early life analysis.
Written with a captivating voice, there wasn’t a dull moment in the collection. And things as little as losing a raptor drawing or stealing an action figure were crafted in a way that pulled me into the minutia of being a child still unsure of the world.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a novel about a marsh girl, Kya, who was abandoned by her family and left to fend for herself in the marsh of North Carolina. Years later, she is accused of murdering Chase Andrews, one of her past boyfriends, because some clues lead back to her. It is a story about loneliness, love, loss, and nature.
While I enjoyed the descriptions of nature and the initial set-up of the story, I was more or less underwhelmed with the story. The largest thing that stuck out to me was that a lot of the side characters that were black, Jumpin’, Mabel, and Jacob all talked in an overly stereotypical manner. Kya however, who only went to school once in her life and was self-educated with little contact with the outside world, spoke perfectly clear English without a twang. I’m not sure if this was unintentional, but I was put off by that.
To get more granular, I found that chapter 33, where Jodie came back, was stuffed into the narrative. Both the characters were written awkwardly and there was too much exposition/explaining of what Ma did when she left. In addition, the last chapter was directionless, and the two deaths were not impactful.
And my final gripe is that the last third of the story was simply a court drama where Kya was let off Scot-free. The court, while a needed aspect to push the story forward, didn’t add feeling to Kya’s actions. It was more or less dull in its retelling.
Final Rating: 2/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.