The Best American Nonrequired Reading, now in its 12th year, continues to be my favorite collection in Houghton Mifflin's Best American series. Spearheaded by Dave Eggers, the selections within this collection are as always an eclectic assortment chosen for inclusion in the book by the annual crop of San Francisco area high schoolers from Eggers' 826 Valencia writing and tutoring center.
This year's collection opens spectacularly with a prose poem by Sherman Alexie entitled "Crazy Horse Boulevard." In it, Alexie connects seemingly unrelated topics - the amount of money in his pocket, a copy of Webster's Dictionary he received as a high school graduation gift, and the wonderfully-named but elusive aardwolf, "like some mythical creature straight out of Dungeons & Dragons," - all of which he weaves into a discussion of death, specifically the deaths of his older brother's friends. The poem is utterly conversational, seemingly banged out of the random thoughts traversing Alexie's fertile mind, albeit with an interesting contextually-numeric pattern. But like a hypnotist, Alexie taps the subconscious mind without the reader ever realizing it, so that as I'm reading the poem to my teenage daughters I find that I can't read the line, "We all live by instinct. We all live by instinct. We all live by instinct. We all live by instinct." without choking up.
The part of the book kicked off by Alexie's poem, The Best American Front Section, features a variety of work deemed unsuitable for the book's main section. "You will love it so much," the editors tell us, and they are correct because these pages contain exactly the sort of eclectic and inspired mingling of writing that brings me back to The Best American Nonrequired Reading year after year. The "Best American Apocryphal Discussion Between Our Nation's Founding Fathers" is a piece entitled "Second Thoughts" from The New Yorker in which Ted Wayne imagines Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison engaging in a prescient discussion about the future of gun-control; the "Best American Yada Yada Yada" lists new plot ideas for Seinfeld, originally tweeted by @seinfeldtoday, and they are gems. For instance, "Kramer pioneers an all-carb diet. A female TSA agent laughs at George's body scan." And in the "Best American Consumer Report," comedian EDW Lynch provides Yelp reviews in the voice of Cormac McCarthy.
More serious fare in this section includes Peter Orner's "Foley's Pond," which appears in his latest book, Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge, the narrator remembers the drowning of his friend's sister and how it ruined their favorite swimming hole. It is a affecting story of loss and childish self-centeredness from Orner, the author of two novels and the editor of Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives.
And that's just a sampling from the Front Section. From the book's main section, I have three favorite pieces. The first is Kiese Laymon's (Long Division, 2013) essay, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Rememberance," in which the Vassar University professor recalls growing up young and black in Central Mississippi - particularly the instances during which he'd found himself looking at the business end of a gun. The essay, which was published on Gawker , is a window into violence and racial issues experienced by Laymon and told in his no-holds-barred voice:
"This isn't an essay or simply a woe-is-we narrative about how hard it is to be a black boy in America. This is a lame attempt at remembering the contours of slow death and life in America for one black American teenager under Central Mississippi skies. I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don't want to lie."
Another favorite of mine is "Bewildered Decisions in Time of Mercantile Terror" in which author Jim Gavin contrasts Bobby, his young, underemployed inventor protagonist, with Nora, Bobby's white-collar cousin in a portrayal that is at once compassionate and a darkly hilarious assessment of the predicament that is modern society.
My third favorite is Davy Rothbart's true story "Human Snowball," in which Rothbart relates having boarded a bus from Detroit to Buffalo to surprise a girl on Valentines Day. What ensues is a comedy of errors involving a 110-year-old the author meets on the bus, the car-thief acquaintance who picks him up, and the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant and his family, among others. It's a wildly sublime story, and the fact that it's true makes it all the more so.
Honestly, these three pieces alone are enough reason (dayenu) to pick up The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. Add to these everything else I've mentioned above along with everything that I haven't (another 20 or so stories), and you walk away with a veritable cornucopia of literature tucked under your arm.