The 20 stories in this collection range from merely very good to outstanding.
The curating hand of editor Jennifer Egan feels tangible to me, both in the gender balance of writers, which is pretty much 50-50, and a skew toward longer, more experimental writing toward the back of the collection.
If the stories have anything in common, it is their distinct settings. Reading the collection end to end, I got a feeling of travelogue, of visiting a broad range of places, times, and subcultures: a lonely forest lookout post, an emergency room, a rural retreat, an English village in the late Middle Ages, a college frat house, an Antarctic science station. (It’s also interesting, though probably irrelevant, that in two of the stories, the title characters are dogs.)
Anne Beattie’s “The Indian Uprising”: This poignant portrait of an aging academic starts boldly, with several pages of nothing but dialogue, and ends with an emotional punch.
Nicole Cullen’s “Long Tom Lookout”: The story of an estranged wife saddled with a troubled child.
Craig Davidson’s “Medium Tough”: Impressive medical detail, compelling story.
David Gates’ “A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me”: I was big into Gates early in his career, and I’m just as impressed with him now.
Molly McNett’s “La Pulchra Nota:” The first of three unusual love stories in a row, this one set at the close of the 14th century.
Benjamin Nugent’s “God”: Also a kind of love story in a very particular setting, a college frat house. It has a strong, internally logical ending.
Joyce Carol Oates’ “Mastiff”: A third offbeat love story in a row – again I feel Egan’s careful curating hand – that gave me insight into a woman’s feeling about a man.
Stephen O’Connor’s “Next to Nothing”: Here is where things start getting a bit postmodern. It may be the most memorable story in the collection to me because I changed my mind about it as I went along, which doesn’t happen very often. It surprised me.
Laura Van Den Berg’s “Antarctica”: An intriguing psychological mystery at the world’s remotest edge, just the right place to end the collection.