The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013

Author: Dave Eggers (series editor), Walter Mosley (introduction)

Type: Fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays, comics, poetry, humor (anthology)

Published: 2013

I read it: August 2014

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Nonrequired reading. You know I love this series. Let’s get to the good stuff:

  • Right out the gate, the first entry in the front section is the Best American American Poem by Sherman Alexie, called “Crazy Horse Boulevard.” It’s a sort of free-assocation meditation on an older brother and Indian life, filled with bits like “I’ve just decided that the only structure that should bear anybody’s name is a gravestone” or,

I’m guessing there are four kids in each of my sons’ classes who haven’t been immunized against whooping cough, diphtheria, and polio. If my sons, Indian as they are, contract whooping cough, diphtheria, or polio from those organic, free-range white children and die, will it be legal for me to scalp and slaughter their white parents?

  • Another front section winner is the Best American Apocryphal Discussion Between Our Nation’s Founding Fathers. Here, Teddy Wayne presents Thomas Jefferson as bringing up some hypotheticals in regards to how the Second Amendment might not be infallible should the country change (“let us suggest that man, with his infinite intellect, invents a series of machines, inter-connected with one another, as if caught in a net, to purchase goods”). His countrymen Madison and Hamilton play devil’s advocate to these scenarios, and the short sketch ends with the men deciding that no, their amendment could never be infallible because obviously people of the future will only grow more rational and wise.

These collections always collect moving and illuminating non-fiction pieces. Here are some standouts:

  • “Hannah and Andrew” by Pamela Colloff. This one is a heartwrencher, about a (probably) wrongfully convicted mother who went through the tragedy of losing an adoptive son in a home accident. Steel yourself before proceeding.
  • “Cuba’s New Now,” by Cynthia Gorney, I had read last year in National Geographic and remembered it being good then. It’s still good on the re-read, because the author places you so colorfully in the middle of modern Cuba. She outlines the nation’s hopes and woes, centering on the story of 35 year-old man who is contemplating crossing to America by boat when his homeland lets him down.
  • “The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador” by Karen Russell. It’s as intriguing as it sounds, a breathless portrait of a professional matador whose passion runs deep. Russell crafts essays like she does her short stories–tangible, human, wondrous. This tale seems spiritually akin to Jessica Anthony’s “The Death of Mustango Salvaje” from a previous volume.
  • Lastly, I can’t say enough about Kiese Laymon’s “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance.” It’s a collection of straightforward autobiographical statements of a young man growing up around crime and poverty, and the continued obstacles he faces while trying to pull himself up and out. With the state of America today, this one sears.

I find myself struggling to remember the details of a lot of the fiction stories (“You like fiction books? I like fiction books!”). All are passable, but fewer made an impact that I would like.

  • Two are akin in their slanted takes of odd American workplace weariness. “Snake River Gorge” by Alexander Maksik tells of a tense, shady operation that youth are running in Idaho while Jim Gavin’s “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror” is a bit funnier and more directly relatable (“Bobby heard the word functionality repeated over and over”).
  • Andrew Tonkovich’s “Falling” has a great premise: a wealthy, intellectually curious, devout Christian figure runs a retreat whose mission is to test/prove the nugget about “there are no atheists in foxholes.” He puts up atheists in comfortable spaces for a determined amount of time, in hopes that some may have conversion experiences. Things get weird quickly, and the tale turns into something that could be graceful or maddening depending on the tastes of the individual reader. It’s risky but in a memorable way.
  • Huge respect for Jennifer Egan and her very original “Black Box.” I think I read that this story was born from Twitter, which makes sense given its page layout where single sentences are stacked in narrow columns of black boxes (I get it now). The protagonist is a woman on a covert mission and it’s fascinating to be inside her head while she does her thankless yet adventurous job. The small cogs work like poetry: “Recall that the mythical feats you loved to read about as a child are puny beside the actual accomplishments of human beings on earth.” The whole machine is a whirring success.

So ends another Nonrequired volume (and one of the fatter ones at that). This is Dave Eggers’ last as editor, but there is no mention of the series itself slowing down. Awesome. The new one will be out in no time.

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