Book Review: The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015: The Best Stories of the Year

Editor Laura Furman has pulled together 20 stories spanning cultures and time and rich in emotion

<i>The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015: The Best Stories of the Year</i>

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015: The Best Stories of the Year

Edited by Laura Furman
Anchor Books, 432 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Longtime editor Laura Furman, an Austinite herself, writes in the introduction, "What is great prose to one person is wallpaper to another." These 20 stories, collected every year since 1919 from the year's best literary publications in the U.S. and Canada, span cultures and time, and usually involve family and plenty of emotion. It's nearly impossible to pick a favorite from this book jam-packed with such massive talent, but several stories struck chords that still ring out, randomly, as I walk across my living room or turn on my car engine. My own son, my late mother, my friend's father, our grandmother – they're all in these stories. I am, too.

The human connection tethers this book's wide-ranging topics, with whispers of other creatures dancing across the pages. There are "blind cats pawing around in their idiot darkness," in Emily Ruskovich's "Owl" and icy snow people in "Snow Blind" by 2015 Texas Book Festival author Elizabeth Strout. Manuel Muñoz's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA" explores love and navigating the Mexican border. A favorite, Lydia Davis (who, sadly, is not on this year's TBF lineup) tells a simple, powerful story of a sister's waves of grief in "The Seals." Davis' unique stream-of-consciousness style is present, and pleasantly fleshed out with more space than her other treasured, very, very short pieces. If you've lost someone close, it's likely you've also sat and pondered the relationship's nuances, wondered about the infinitesimal details: "She once gave me a mobile made of china penguins – why? Another time, a seagull of balsa wood that hung on strings and bobbed its wings up and down in the breeze. Another time, a dish towel with badgers on it. I still have that. Why badgers?"

Like a self-contained book club of sorts, we can nod heads or shake fists at the insight from a few jurors' back-of-book essays on their favorite stories, and then "ooh" and "ah" when the writers write about their own work. Kristen Iskandrian's favorite, "Birdsong From the Radio" by Austin's own Elizabeth McCracken (also at TBF this year), "glows with an eerie incandescence and has the aura of a fairy tale." And she's right: McCracken captivates with a story about the horror of losing children, the accidental monsters lurking out there, and the internal monsters hiding within. We'll probably re-read this entire collection at least once while waiting for next year's book.

Elizabeth Strout, Elizabeth McCracken, and Laura Furman will speak about The O. Henry Prize Stories 2015 at the Texas Book Festival Sat., Oct. 17, 2:15pm, at First United Methodist Church, 1201 Lavaca.

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