My Favorite Short Story Collections 2020

I don’t usually read short story collections but this year, especially after the Stay-At-Home orders in my state, I found the short story form fit into the patchwork of my days. Here are two I enjoyed.

Black Crow Speaks, The Short Stories of Frederick Anderson

The best of these stories, in which a black crow literally speaks, are filled with humorous insights on the human condition amid an ever-increasing debris field. Dark humor abounds, as in “Some Reading for the Departure Lounge,” where an erstwhile pilot holds a conversation with an air traffic controller; the ending can be guessed but is still a surprise.

Some stories poke fun at or explore morbid events, with goblins, killers, and phantom trains. Others like “Brighton Rock” tell the sad but truthful experience of young love, first love. In “The Making,” hope and hopelessness mix as a people near extinction and all depends on one Last Experiment.

One of my favorites is “The Small Town Trocadero,” less a story than a reflection, filled with nostalgia for a time that is past and gone, which suits the time we’re living through. Beautifully written in declarative sentences it evokes the universal experience of being young and spending time with friends.

The stories always return to the black crow, who never disappoints.

The Night Bus, Mick Canning

Several of these long short stories are of travelling through unfamiliar territory, where earth and its elements shift in form, not sure what the landmarks and other signs mean, even when taking them as guidance. There are holy places, shamans, sacrifice, doors in the desert to step through, and a dance with Krishna.

The story I liked most was “The Photograph,” set in India in the style of memoir; the poem at the end of the book, “The Night Bus,” continues the trip through India.

“The Betrayal” begins with a night bus ride to a border town in the mountains. Past and present interweave in a narrative of escape from an oppressive society, at a cost that ultimately comes due. Years later, he questions the actions he had taken, the panic he felt, and the decision he made. I was confused by the confusion of identities in this one, which detracts from its impact. However, the sense of place and displacement, of refugees fleeing and those left behind, is palpable.

Overall, this collection gives the reader the feeling of “being there” in far-flung places. At the end, a series of poems talk of the old ways and the modern world, leaving today behind as we heed the call of adventure. He recognizes that “we are walking in the footsteps of giants.” Canning is “The Collector” of images and memories, because as he writes, “the world is full of wonders, all waiting for wanderers.”

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