Somewhere in the back of my mind I have decided that Best American Nonrequired Reading is somehow the ugly little sister of Best American Short Stories. In this back place of my mind, the stories in Nonrequired were almost, but not quite good enough for Best American. Maybe it’s because in writing class we always refer to the short story edition of the Best American series as simply, ‘Best American.’ no other descriptor is needed because we’re always, always talking about the Best American Short Stories. There’s Best American and O.Henry and whenever you say those everyone knows exactly what you mean. So, maybe that’s why I’ve decided that Nonrequired Reading is somehow substandard. Maybe it’s because I saw (I think it was bookslut) the anthology referred to as Dave Eggers’ annual ‘shit my friends wrote’ book. Whatever the reason, I think after this years’ anthology, I might have to change my mind about that ugly little sister, not quite good enough stuff.
A majority of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004 blew me right away. What I have always liked (you know for the past three years since its inception) about Nonrequired Reading is that it’s not just short stories, there are comics, nonfiction, some just generally weirdo stuff. I like weirdo stuff. But I have to admit, and this should come as no surprise to anyone, my heart belongs to the short story. There were four short stories that were just, just fucking amazing. Four short stories that were so beautiful and wonderful that they should have kicked John Updike’s tired ass right out of the Best American Short Stories.
I’ve wanted to read Julie Orringer for ages, probably since I read her husband’s book Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona. I want to read her even more now. Her story, “The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones” is jaw-dropping beautiful. A story about a teenaged girl from New York sent to live with her orthodox Jew aunt (and family) while her mother recovers from the death of a premature baby. While away in the woods with the Jews, the narrator (whose name I can’t remember) and her cousin Esty discover a sex manual of sorts and it gets better from there.
Ben Ehrenereich’s “What You Eat” is weird and bizarre in all the right ways, about a father and son duo where the father makes the sun eat everything he kills (from ants to the family dog). It’ll give you goosebumps. And along the odd, bizarre vein is Christopher Buckley’s “We Have a Pope” which reminds me of George Saunders’ writing in its topsy-turvy breakneck pace. I loved this story about a PR guy who’s trying to get an American pope into the Vatican.
There’s also a stunning story about the Biafran uprising (I’m not sure if uprising is the right word) in Nigeria by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This one made me cry with its beauty.
And though, I’m not sure it was the best story, Kaui Hart Hemmings’ “The Minor Wars” was my favorite, a story about a daughter and her father dealing with the fact that her mother (his wife) is in a coma. It’s just so moving.
These five stories, alone are worth the price of the book, but then there’s a David Sedaris piece (who is unrelentingly fabulous), the great comics, and two non-fiction pieces that I can’t seem to stop telling everyone I know about.
The first is a piece by David Mamet called “Secret Names” which sometimes veers into the “what the fuck is he talking about” but mostly stays on track about how we give things names and what not. The part I liked the best was about relationships. He writes, “No one involved in a “relationship” ever had a good time. One may be courting, seducing, experimenting sexually, dating, married, keeping company, and so on. But anything called “a relationship” must eventually result in sorrow, as the participants are unwilling to examine and name its nature.
At that point I put the book down and sang “preach it, Mamet!” because it’s just so true.
The other piece I keep talking endlessly about is a Jon Gertner “New York Times” article called “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness” about how we cannot accurately predict what will make us happy and for how long. It’s one of those that sort of makes you gasp with the trueness of it.
Of course the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004 does have some clunkers. There were a few stories where I just stopped because they were that bad. I’m all for edgy, hip, different writing, but when your edgy hipness gets in the way of the telling the damn story, well then shame on you, because you just lost a reader. But really the bad stuff is so slim compared to the bounty of good stuff that I won’t even mention it beyond that.