The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016

Editor: Rachel Kushner (introduction)

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

Published: 2016

I read it: October 2016


The primary challenge of any anthology is deciding what to pick, so in this edition of the BANR series the curators tried to be explicit about their goals for the year. Daniel Gumbiner, on behalf of the BANR Committee, says “We have looked for texts that say something about what it means to be alive in 2016.” Rachel Kushner, guest editor, echoes the sentiment with: “Part of our objective was to encompass some of the critical themes and events of the past year, aside from the more general project of choosing excellent and hopefully timeless texts.”

Well, 2016 turned out to be a real shitshow. This book was releasd in October, so future copies should probably come with an extra sticker on the front: “The spirit of this book captures 2016 previous to the fateful election.” Or somesuch. Because the year is forever scarred.

Regardless, the picks do a nice job of capturing an essence of the modern world. Here are some of the notables. Let’s start with fiction.

  • The Grozny Tourist Bureau, Anthony Marra. A slow burn that ends with a stronger ending. It’s about restoration of both art and people, as well as the final moments of knowing loved ones (it also has a solid Jesus Christ/Jim Carrey joke tucked in there).
  • The Gentlest Village, Jesse Ball. A person undergoes a slow rehabilitation in a kind of distant utopia. It imagines what a functioning society might actually look like (we could dream). The subject/patient is encouraged to ask questions like “What is the imagination for?” and is reassured “You are allowed to make mistakes and to fail.”
  • Killing and Dying, Adrian Tomine. Of the two comics, this was the one I liked. I was initially hesitant because I wasn’t really feeling the hyper-realistic style (which reminded me of Building Stories) but the outcome was moving.
  • The Death of the Sky, David Wagoner. The poetry included this year mostly didn’t do it for me, but I could get behind this piece about a rollicking, bloodied cosmos.
  • Shadehill, Mark Hitz. Quite a gripping snapshot of family and death. For some reason it just feels particularly American.
  • Things I Know to Be True, Kendra Fortmeyer and Algorithmic Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships, Xuan Juliana Wang. As the second title of this pair suggests, these are both stories of fathers and daughters, one from one perspective and one from the author. I’m actually not sure if they’re fiction or not, as they read like memoir, but my annual grumbling about not getting clarity on the point means they’ll have to fit here, dammit.

But the clear winner this year was the non-fiction.

  • An Oral History of Abdelrahman Al-Ahmar, Mateo Hoke and Cate Malek. An interview with a Palestinian who has spent many of his years in and out of Israeli prisons. Lots going on here, but one of his quotes struck me: “I think people who are really religious have a hard time with this kind of abuse sometimes. They pray to God for help, and when none comes, it breaks them mentally.” Not sure if this is a universal truth or just one possibility of what could happen to inmates who believe, but it’s intriguing.
  • The Teflon Toxin, Sharon Lerner. A bit dry, but an eye-opening account of a man-made compound called C8 created by the DuPont company. The article claims that the chemical is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans and that “C8 is expected to remain on the planet well after humans are gone from it.” This piece could have been a chapter in The World Without Us.
  • An Interview with President Obama, Marilynne Robinson. Wow, this is fascinating for many reasons, mostly because of the freefall intellectual decline we will see when transitioning from our current president to the next. We’ll always miss the eloquence and general “he gets it” quality that Obama has. Just a few of the interesting things about this interview:
    • It was conducted in Des Moines, and Iowa comes up in the conversation. Robinson claims that only Iowa and Maine never had laws against interracial marriage, and that Ulysses S. Grant called Iowa “the shining star of radicalism.”
    • Obama sees one main challenge being our lack of “a common conversation.” For example, “you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.” I do wonder about this a lot (not for books in particular, but the lack of “common reference points”).
    • Another good point he makes is the fact that “when people feel pinched, then the generosity that you describe narrows to my immediate family, my immediate community, my immediate group.” I can attest to this one. I haven’t felt very generous or worldly in the past few years.
    • Robinson is not the clearest interviewer. There’s one candid moment when she asks a question and wraps it up with “you know?” To which Obama responds, “No. Tell me what you mean.” Heh.
  • Death-Qualified, Gary Indiana. I paid particular attention to this selection, because it’s actually a book review. It functions as kind of a Cliffs Notes for a book about the brothers who committed the Boston bombing tragedy in 2013, summarising the backgrounds of the young men and their family. There is subtly clever writing throughout: “The stellar expectations of the Tsarnaevs eroded in increments. Within a few years, they collected grievances like baseball cards.” Although there is acknowledgement that the perpetrators studied the Koran and other anti-Semitic texts, the author squeezes in what’s clearly his final angle at the end. He seems to blame the U.S. more than anything else, falling into “the narrative narrative” of avoiding directly mentioning the tenets of Islam in the final analysis. (Final note: this guy’s name is Gary Indiana, for real, apparently.)
  • The Trip Treatment, Michael Pollan. Perhaps the best selection in the book. Pollan explores a renewed interest in studying psychoactive drugs in controlled experiments. The most promising application for this is for “the betterment of well people” in which patients could undergo a guided LSD trip to get the best benefits of that experience. (It could particularly help with those facing death, to re-center their priorities and maximize their conscious experiences.) The benefits are similar to those found through meditation (see Waking Up) with one prominent psychiatrist/neuroscientist describing his own experiences of “something way, way beyond a material world view that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.” I hope the new field takes off.
  • Homer Dill’s Undead, Inara Verzemnieks. A scientific cyclorama (kind of a 360-degree diorama) of taxidermied birds exists in a building on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. The article explores the ambitions of Homer Dill, who made it happen. It’s a nice little portrait of present and past that ends with this vision: “And how many times do you have to visit, held back by the glass, before you realize it is a world entirely without us. A world wiped clean of our presence. As if we were never here.” I have to point out, once again, the connection to The World Without Us.
  • The Lonely Death of George Bell, N.R. Kleinfield. The details of dying alone in America. I wish this guy at least could have received the trip treatment.
  • Reluctant Citizens, Kyle Boelte. A firsthand account of being tapped for jury duty. Some very insightful stuff here about what it means to take on the responsibility and also the imperfect nature of it all. Some full chunks:
    • “The court’s rules are built on Enlightenment notions of rationality. When the judge strikes something from the record we are directed to forget it entirely as if we are machines. When we listen to testimony, we are to consider the evidence alone. We are directed not to draw conclusions until all the evidence has been given. After three weeks of evidence, when we are allowed to draw conclusions, we are to put our biases aside. The attorneys know that we are humans, not machines.”
    • “For three weeks, we’ve been told two conflicting stories about an accident that took place six years ago. Nothing was ever proven, just different opinions offered. As we deliberate, we make up the rules as we go, justifying, rationalizing our gut feelings.”
  • Brown vs. Ferguson, Endnotes journal. This is the book’s big ender, and it’s a good one. I was leery going in, as I wasn’t sure if there would be a particular agenda with this analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement. Turns out it’s engaging and clearheaded, with tons of facts and stats interspersed with small attempts at interpretation, such as trying to define “a unity of the potentially killable,” modern activists experiencing “the trepid, cautious dance of campus-based identity politics,” and police brutality ensuring “the global future of a humanity made economically surplus to capital.” The authors explore the complexity of how class fits into the issue, explaining how it contradicts the idea of the movement being solely about blackness or any easily definable cultural group. This is easily the most “2016” of all the selections in the book.

So ends a banner year for craziness. I’m already awaiting BANR 2017. If books still exist by then, that is. If we do, too.

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