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The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015

Editor: Adam Johnson (introduction)

Type: Fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays, comics, poetry, memoir

Published: 2015

I read it: January 2016

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While reading these collections, in the table of contents I put a mark next to each entry. Not only does this help me keep track of which ones I’ve read in case I want to skip around (these books are made for jumping to whatever catches your eye) but the marks are a rough guide to which ones I might want to revisit down the road. A dash means I’ve read it, but a star means I’ve read it and would, in an ideal world, reread it at least once more in years to come.

My copy of the 2015 collection is dominated by little mechanical pencil stars.

How do you release a book that’s close to 400 pages but makes the reader feel like they’re flying through it? You compile an amazing array of modern writing. Now, I’m confused about what happened to Daniel Handler after his sole year as series editor, but the project now seems to be edited simply under the name of its core organization, 826 National. And who knows exactly how much or how little Adam Johnson’s tastes affected the group, but let’s just say you can trust the youth of today.

This year, non-fiction dominates the pages. Even in that category, a wide array of styles exists:

  • Quirky journalism: Wells Tower tags along on an elephant hunt; Alex Mar investigates bodies donated to science; Daniel Alarcón relays a sad tale of fame and media in Peru.
  • Testimonials: In “780 Days of Solitude,” three Americans are imprisoned in Iran; a young woman who works tobacco fields in North Carolina relays an oral history; Christopher Myers is a prison inmate who writes a colorfully straightforward letter to his grandnephew.
  • Naturalist adventures: Paul Tough reports on the dangers of fishermen off the New England coasts and Paul Salopek offers part of his “Out of Eden Walk,” a one-of-a-kind ongoing project backed by National Geographic.
  • Sports writing: There’s an excerpt from Box Brown’s “Andre the Giant: Life and Legend” graphic novel. This is directly followed by Sarah Marshall’s lengthy piece on figureskaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and their early-90s drama. These are not just nostalgia pieces (especially when you consider that the high schoolers picking these items probably did not experience the stories in real time)—these are serious analyses of what the media missed or distorted.

The fiction has some similarities of its own. Reality gets wrinkled in “Things You’re Not Proud Of” by Tom McAllister (marriage woes), “Chainsaw Fingers” by Paul Crenshaw (sufferings of a military vet), and “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle (trials of young womanhood). Even the poetry pops off the page, with notable works by Rachel Zucker and Anders Carlson-Wee.

I’ve listed over half the contributions, and even the ones that didn’t earn my little star only slightly paled in relation to their neighbors. The high bar of BANR has been raised, folks. We leap it and enter the sky where truth and magic hang.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2016 in Comics, Essays, Memoir, Poetry, Short stories

 

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The Winter People

Author: Jennifer McMahon

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2014

I read it: January 2016

winter people

Are you a winter person? I don’t mean the kind of person whose favorite season is winter (do those wackos even exist?) but the person who hibernates, secludes, and fades into the darkest parts of the season. A snowy weekend indoors can get ghostly, even in a city setting, but a secluded New England countryside is an even lonelier place to spend a dark night. Such is the setting for McMahon’s ghost story, which doubles as a mystery.

The initial events occur in 1908 when a couple, Sara and Martin, confront the death of their daughter. Their lives descend into madness and bloodshed. Fast forward a century or so, to when Ruthie, a recent high school graduate, lives with her mother and sister in the house where Sara and Martin resided. Sara kept a diary whose pages have leaked into the small Vermont town and its subconscious, and tells of strange doings near her property. The present day also pulls Katherine into the mix, a widow on the search for clues of her husband’s secret trips to the same small town.

A lot of questions intertwine between the multiple narratives. What happened to Sara and Martin? Why does everyone want her diary? What’s up with the house and its many hiding places? What’s killing animals out near the Devil’s Hand rock formation? Is there really a ghost? If so, who is it? What does it want?

Though not quite as scary as I was hoping, the book does deliver answers. Curl up with this one in January. If you’re brave, do so in a secluded cabin on a snowy night. You may find that winter lives in your bones.

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2016 in Novels

 

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Unfamiliar Fishes

Author: Sarah Vowell

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Published: 2011

I read it: December 2015

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I received a free copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

For many years, one of my unfamiliar fishes was this type of narrative historical non-fiction. But after trying out authors like Erik Larson and Nathaniel Philbrick, I’ve seen the appeal. Vowell was a new name to me, but when this book came in the mail it was short and had some nifty cover art so I dove in without too much hesitation.

From what I understand, Vowell is a mostly white (though part Cherokee) American writing about the history of Hawaii out of sheer curiosity. Her book covers the expected topic of colonialism, with stark facts like the population of pure Hawaiians dropping from 300,000 in 1778 to 34,436 in 1890. She often imbues the telling with zingers, such as one American organization’s mission “to fan out evangelists across the Pacific to spread the fear of God as far and wide as Cook’s men had spread the clap.”

As a thorough researcher, Vowell takes pains to undo the oversimplification of framing the state’s history as simply an authoritarian society overtaking a free one. She offers this context instead:

The cultural collision of the New Englanders and their new neighbors isn’t a quarrel between barefoot, freewheeling libertines and starchy, buttoned-up paragons of virtue (though that is how the missionaries see it). To me, it is the story of traditionalists squaring off.

The book constantly jumps back and forth between the struggles of both the natives and the colonialists, with plenty of nuggets about the quirks and drives of multiple parties. But this onslaught of historical trivia, woven into the author’s personal journeys around the islands, seems unanchored. I feel like I read plenty about Kamehameha, Liliuokalani, Hiram Bingham, and David Malo, but I couldn’t summarize anything about them.

The issue is mostly a structural one: there are no chapters in this book. For real. Not only that, there are no headings. There are a few page breaks, but that’s it. The entire text is completely devoid of a plan (or a map, if you will). Why not have distinct chapters about specific people or eras? The existing text would only need to be shifted and shored up a bit. Then it could be used as both entertainment and as reference. For example, it would be nice to be able to come back to this juicy slice:

When the cable linking Hawaii to the Philippines was complete, President Theodore Roosevelt was given the honor of transmitting the very first round-the-world message on July 4, 1903. He wished “a happy Independence Day to the U.S., its territories and properties.”

That’s golden, but it’s bound to stay buried treasure in this unbroken sea of words. There’s also a lost opportunity due to lack of images. We get that cool cover, and then another (untitled, unattributed) piece of art, and a view of a map after the dedication page. Perhaps reproductions of historical photos or documents are costly, but any sort of visual help throughout would benefit the reader and more fully involve them.

So who is this book for? My only guess is a specific one: a person on a plane on the return trip from Hawaii. For those of us who haven’t been there, it’s kind of just a big tease. For those who have, it only makes sense to read in one long stretch: that plane ride home, when you can insert your own mental images and you’re unconcerned with using chapters as stopping points.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in Non-fiction single subject

 

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On Such a Full Sea

Author: Chang-rae Lee

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2014

I read it: December 2015

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Is there any room left for mythical figures in our collective consciousness? Not the Poseidon or Paul Bunyan type, but the Einstein or Lincoln ones, real people inflated to something much more than themselves by the world around them.

Chang-rae Lee posits that this type of person could exist in a world not so far in the future from our own, when the populace is divided into roughly three kinds of living situations. The Charter communities are elite, fine-tuned cities inhabited by the super-rich, who strive for perfection to be able to stay inside their borders. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the barely livable “open counties,” wild west outposts linked together by potholed roads. In between are areas like B-Mor (formerly Baltimore) which have been revitalized as a sort-of middle class made up of shipped-in foreigners, whose modest yet safe life is made possible by their work in creating products for the Charters.

It’s from such a place that Fan emerges. She is several generations descended from the Chinese people who set up B-Mor under the order of “the directorate,” a vague governmental organization that exerts control over the operations of the community. Fan is raised as a tank diver, a respectable position that involves curating fish grown for food for B-Mor itself as well places beyond its walls. Stability and a strong communal essence are what bind the town, where “routine is the method, and the reason, and the reward.” But when Fan’s boyfriend, Reg, one day disappears without a word, she decides to simply walk out of her home and venture into the beyond.

Lee’s talent is in painting an elaborate portrait of a plausible world, told in oral history style from an unnamed B-Mor resident (or perhaps multiple residents—there’s a lot of “we” and “us” in the narration). Despite the citizens’ lifestyle limitations, the control they are under is never so heavy-handed that their situation can be labeled simply a dystopia. The various societies do function, if imperfectly, and Fan’s departure sparks a wave of reflection and a growth of gray areas. One of the author’s theses is laid out as early as page three:

More and more we can see that the question is not whether we are “individuals.” We can’t help but be, this has been proved, case by case. We are not drones or robots and never will be. The question, then, is whether being an “individual” makes a difference anymore. That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care.

Fan is an individual who inspires action, or at least reaction, in most people she comes in contact with. Her mission is unclear and her motives only guessed at, but people are drawn to her centeredness. Her journey takes her from the open counties to a Charter town, and she unwittingly affects people along the way, while also being pulled about by a current of external events. To those new in her life she is a peculiarity, and they seem to want to draw her into whatever strange family they have cobbled together in a harsh world. To those back home, she is becoming the myth.

In a style that eschews traditional dialogue and steeps itself in philosophical questions directed at the reader, Lee continually examines how people live. How can our current ambitions translate into a more demanding world? What is the legacy of generational impact? Is there something to be said for segregating communities based on commodity tasks, if at least the average life lived is reasonably free of pain? The floating narrator returns to the push and pull of what a person needs versus what a people need:

Moment to moment we act freely, we make decisions and form opinions and there is very little to throttle us. We think each of us has a map marked with private routings and preferred habitual destinations, and go by a legend of our own. Yet it turns out you can overlay them and see a most amazing correspondence; what you believed were very personal contours aligning not exactly but enough that while our points may diverge, our endings do not.

The whole book is about the landscapes of our lives: the constantly churning layers that form us from the inside out, and the external, deliberate structures we create to stay fed, productive, and connected. In a proposed era with few options for adventure and discovery, the tradeoff could be longer stretches of complacence and tranquility. But still…

Certain wider questions can needle if you let them: How did this ecology come to be? Is it the one we wish to endure?

Many of Lee’s characters endure, but barely. It’s unclear to what degree each of their paths is carved by internal versus external conditions. Of course it’s a complex interplay of both, and without a blueprint for achieving the perfect balance, maybe all we can do is tell stories about those who rode the waves to their fame or their doom.

Cover art corner: When I first noticed this one popping up on the new hardcover tables, I kept seeing the phrase “Sea Change.” I tripped over the title every time. But this is a great layout overall: the brushstrokes have texture, the depiction of Fan’s hair relates directly to a plot point about a piece of evolving artwork, and the obscured face reinforces the concept of a character known only through the stories told about her.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2016 in Novels

 

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They Have a Word for It

Author: Howard Rheingold

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases

Published: 1988

I read it: November 2015

word for it

Even though modern writing advice warns against thesaurus usage to avoid sounding pretentious, it’s still fun to page through books about words. Laura found this one used and I brought it to work so that I could read a word from it every weekday morning.

Mr. Rheingold did his eclectic homework, and presents his worldly words under different categories (Human Family Affairs, States of Mind, Toolwords) with a tireless excitement. Indeed, he thinks he’s onto something bigger than just these pages: “It is entirely possible that by reading this book you are participating in a significant linguistic revolution.” Whoa there, Howard.

In some minor cases, the author’s dream has come to fruition. The book includes entries like schadenfreude and zeitgeist, which are more or less common in today’s English. Most of the others remain foreign though, which makes for fine perusing. Some words are quite functional, like the Italian ponte, an extra day off taken to add a weekend to a national holiday. (The word itself means “bridge.”) Others are relevant only to the arenas of art or analysis, but are still enlightening. For example, there is the Russian ostranenie: art as defamiliarization, or making familiar perceptions seem strange. Or the Navajo hózh’q, which refers to the beauty of life as seen and created by a person.

Sometimes I’d stumble upon a word I’d heard in the wrong context, like baraka (Arabic), which brings to mind the character from Mortal Kombat or that weird movie that was uniquely hilarious and confusing when friends and I watched it under certain… mental states. It actually means a gift of spiritual energy that can be used for mundane purposes. Then there’s kekau (Indonesian)—to awaken from a nightmare—which adds another layer to the similarly pronounced word in the episode of Portlandia.

One tiresome angle of the book is the author’s insistence on emphasizing the supposed East-West divide, talking down to his English-speaking audience with insights like, “We 20th-century Americans all learn how to turn on televisions, ride elevators, and open pop-top cans, but nobody teaches us how to dream.” (These insertions also highlight the 1980s publication date.) Though I think this attempt at comparing cultures is entirely well-intentioned, it’s probably the exact opposite way to get someone to care about a foreign word. The entries simply have too much repetitive commentary like this throughout.

However, a slimmed down version of this volume could probably entertain today’s audience. Even if we won’t be using most of these words any time soon, there is still value in emphasizing how language shapes culture, culture shapes language, and some concepts take form only when assigned words of their own.

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2016 in Non-fiction single subject

 

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 1882

I read it: October 2015 (re-read)

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The standard Sherlock Holmes tale is comfortingly predictable. Watson narrates Holmes’ agitation about hearing about a strange case. The two sit together in idleness and trade ideas. Holmes informs Watson that he is already investigating and they should expect a visitor. A strange foreign or rich man, or a distressed or mysterious woman, enters in dramatic fashion. Holmes listens to the visitor’s information (his eyes shut and his fingertips pressed against each other) and when he hears something unusual to him, he decides to take the case. Watson, ever agreeable, joins Holmes at the drop of a hat and off they rush into the choking London night.

Yet the standard Sherlock Holmes tale is refreshingly unique. The great detective only occasionally works with the bumbling law enforcement to bring someone to justice. More often, he is interested in a situation in which “a little problem will be presented which may be striking and bizarre without being criminal.” When he does effect a neat conclusion, he rarely waits for reward. His satisfaction comes in relaying his methods to Watson, and in being the only one to arrive at the solution. “Singularity is almost invariably a clue,” says Holmes. The strange, non-supernatural coincidences are his guiding light. He goes on: “My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.”

To the modern reader, large chunks of the Holmes tales are quaint or foreign. The titles themselves are offputting, featuring items such as blue carbuncles, beryl coronets, copper beeches, and orange pips. (I have no idea what they are either. It doesn’t matter.) And by cataloging the states of sleeves, thumbnails, and bootlaces, the detective is always devastatingly accurate in assessing a client’s vocation and how his or her day is going. These scenes are almost cartoonish in their Holmes worship (you can feel Doyle congratulating himself through the thin veil of the page). And I have a hunch that Holmes would be confounded to sit on today’s city bus and try to guess people’s comings and goings when there are more than twenty job occupations in existence.

But the delight of these tales is the banter between Watson and the godlike Holmes, in which the latter gets to relay lines of wisdom like “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” and “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbably, must be the truth.” There’s a lot of fun in watching the stories unfold, and even more fun when they are peppered with serious danger or ethical gray areas.

Lastly, I couldn’t help but picture Cumberbatch and Freeman in the roles due to the popularity of the excellent BBC show, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sherlock Holmes is, above all else, a force of personality, inhabiting a world that begs for colorful actors and a heightened sense of the character’s uncanny abilities.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2016 in Short stories

 

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Carry On, Jeeves

Author: P.G. Wodehouse

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 1925

I read it: September 2015

jeeves

The esteemed Jeeves is the “gentleman’s personal gentleman” to the bumbling Bertie Wooster. They are a classic comic pair who have reverberated throughout British literature and beyond. Jeeves, after all, did have a browser named after him in the 90s due to his status as the stereotypical wise butler.

My wife and I read these stories to each other on car trips starting in the warm months of 2014, and finally finished late the following year. It’s a short book but there is a lot of narrative repetition. The running bit is that Wooster falls into a ridiculous sitcom scenario, usually involving a social enemy, an ill-matched love interest, or a worrisome old aunt. He narrates his stories with lines like, “I might be a chump, but, dash it, I could out-general a mere kid with a face like a ferret.” He’s always calling people chumps. It’s great.

By the time the book winds down we get a dose of self-awareness from the characters. At one point someone mentions Bertie’s aunt and he has to respond, “Which blasted aunt? Specify, old thing. I have so many.” Then the final story, in an elegant little twist, is told by Jeeves himself. I don’t think I’d appreciate a whole Jeeves/Wooster novel, but in small doses it’s pretty amusing stuff. Though I hear that in some circles, the short stories are not considered as worthy as the novels.

Music corner: The first time I heard the name P.G. Wodehouse was in the staple John K. Samson song “Anchorless,” which I will always associate with the author. A decade and a half or so later I finally got around to reading the guy. By the way, in the song John pronounces it “Wood-house.” Is that correct? (Looked it up and from what I can gather from the Wikipedia symbols, that’s the right way. Also, “P.G.” stands for “Pelham Grenville.” Excellent.)

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2015 in Short stories

 

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