Book review: The Best American Short Stories 2021, ed. by Jesmyn Ward

posted: October 14, 2023

tl;dr: Kudos to Jesmyn Ward for staying on task and coming up with a better-than-usual selection of stories...

I’m still catching up on my anthology reading from the pandemic. I’m actually quite amazed that the editor for the The Best American Short Stories 2021 volume, Jesmyn Ward, as well as series editor Heidi Pitlor, were able to focus on the task of reading and selecting short stories during a timeframe in which my attention was more focused on the news. Looking back at my book reading for 2021, two of the books I read were about the pandemic, and two were about inflation, a new round of which was unleashed by the pandemic. My own short story consumption dwindled considerably.

The stories in the The Best American Short Stories 2021 were published during 2020, which means that they were mostly written before the pandemic. The events of the pandemic may have influenced the stories Jesmyn Ward selected for this volume, especially Tracey Rose Peyton’s story “The Last Days of Rodney”, which has parallels with the George Floyd incident. Although not one of my favorites I did enjoy Peyton’s story, so perhaps the year’s news also impacted my judgment of short stories from the year 2021. Overall, the The Best American Short Stories 2021 volume is better than in most years.

A book cover, with the title and editor's name in white letters on a black upsloping banner in the middle, the rest of the cover consisting of an image of a dozen or so hardcover books stood on edge and viewed from above

Here are my favorite stories:

“Clementine, Carmelita, Dog” by David Means: A highly innovative, as well as suspenseful and enjoyable, story that does a credible job of presenting the thoughts and actions of dogs as they interact with human beings. Because the worlds of humans and dogs intersect, the dogs have to put the strange actions of the humans into a context that makes sense for them in their world.

“Escape from the Dysphesiac People” by Brandon Hobson: A young native American ends up in a bizarre world populated by flawed older settlers, leaving it up to the reader to draw conclusions from the strange circumstances presented.

“Little Beast” by C. Pam Zhang: A story about the social hierarchy that exists at a supposedly liberal-minded private school, and the impact that hierarchy has on two people at the bottom of it.

Don’t pick up the The Best American Short Stories 2021 expecting to learn anything about the pandemic that was taking place at the time. Do pick it up if you want to read a better-than-average short story annual anthology.