The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories: The Best Stories of the Year 2011 edited by Laura Furman is one of a long series of annual best short stories books. To be included in the edition is very prestigious. The selections have all previously appeared in American or Canadian publications. Each of the three judges talks about their favorite stories, the authors are also given space to tell is a bit about what went into the writing of the story and there are concise author biographies. A number of the authors have an MA degree from The University of Iowa, America's leading literary fine arts academy.
Of the twenty stories in the collection, I liked six quite a bit and would be happy to read more of their work. Overall I found this a better collection than Best American Short Stories 2012. To give my bottom line on buying this, I would have to say it is for those very into short stories who want to follow the form, not for those lukewarm on short stories. A fact of life is you can read top quality short stories all day long for free online. If you really wanted you could download a sample of this book then with a Google search find stories by many of the included authors online.
Here are my favorites, in random order.
1. "Diary of an Interesting Year" by Helen Simpson. OK perhaps the girl wanders through post apocalyptic landscape plot is not real original but it was an enjoyable read.
2. "How to Leave Hialeah" by Jeannie Capo Crucet. A well done coming of age story. I would read more of her work.
3. "Pole, Pole" by Susan Minot. An interesting set in Kenya short story.
4. "Bed Death" by Lora Ostlund. A very subtle story about two American women, lovers, who go to Malacca to teach.
5. "Sunshine" by Lynn Freed. Set either in Africa or India, this is a very powerful and disturbing story about a wealthy man who prays on young girls, often those who have been abandoned and become nearly feral. It is also about colonialism and the bitter consequences of third world poverty. I would read more of her work for sure.
6. "Something You Can't Live Without" by Mathew Neill Null. This story is set decades ago in the backwoods of West Virginia, one of the poorest parts of America. It centers on a traveling salesman and rural grotesques. At first I thought, "O brother, another University of Iowa grad trying to imitate Flannery O'Connor" (the author talks about the inevitability of this reaction in his end notes) however it ended up being my favorite story. Null pulls this very risky story off very well. It does scream out "Southern Gothic" but if you can do it this well, then go for it. I will seek out more of his work.
I am glad I read this collection. It is for short story fans only.