Monday, December 15, 2008

Best Books: Adding It All Up (But Not Making Book)

If British bookmakers were to take notice of The Story Prize and lay odds on our finalists (as they do for the Booker prize), I'm sure the three short story collections that most frequently appear on 2008 best books lists would have the best odds. Going by the final tally of several lists, those would be: Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, and Nam Le's The Boat.

The Story Prize, however, doesn't choose its top three books by critical consensus. Rather, we read every one of the 73 books entered for The Story Prize and choose based on our own reading of those books. I get the sense that a lot of commentators, columnists, writers, and reviewers didn't read all that many story collections. And I'm sure some excellent collections probably didn't get a very wide reading.

In any event, we won't even know which three short story collections we're picking as Story Prize finalists until Julie and I meet to hash it out in early January. Soon after that, we'll also announce our list of other notable collections. So hold your bets.

For the tally below, I consulted 18 sources that named a total of 22 books. I counted inclusion in both the New York Times Sunday Book Review 100 notable books list and their five best books list because those appeared in separate issues. And I stopped counting as of Dec. 14. No doubt there will be more best of 2008 lists, but this isn't exactly scientific anyway; it just gives a sense of the critical consensus based on this sampling. The numbers on the left below represent how many mentions each book received. Here's the complete tally:

12 - Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
10 - Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
9 - The Boat by Nam Le
4 - Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan
4 - Dictation by Cynthia Ozick
3 - Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
3 - Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser
3 - Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
3 - Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx
3 - Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff
2 - Yesterday's Weather by Anne Enright
2 - Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
1 - A Better Angel by Chris Adrian
1 - The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier
1 - Lost in Uttar Pradesh by Evan Connell
1 - The Deportees by Roddy Doyle
1 - The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam
1 - I See You Everywhere By Julia Glass
1 - Foreigners by Caryl Phillips
1 - The Size of the World by Joan Silber
1 - Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar
1 - Farewell Navigator by Leni Zumas

Sources (with links to the original TSP posts):, The Atlantic, Barnes & Noble Review, Bloomsbury Review, The Christian Science Monitor, Library Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Millions (and here), New York magazine, The New York Times Sunday Book Review (100 notable books and top ten books), NPR, Publishers Weekly, Salon, Shelf Awareness, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Time magazine, the Village Voice, and The Washington Post.