The Best Nonrequired Reading 2008
Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 5.
Okay, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008 is not a short story, nor is it a collection of short stories. There are stories in it, and I’ll come back to some of them in a second. In all, I liked this book okay, but it’s the type of book I became particularly interested in. The first 50 pages or so of the 2008 edition are filled with “Best American” whatevers, from dog names to (really funny) Facebook group names to amusing things a man called David Horwitz is willing to do for money. I enjoyed those. Then comes the rest: essays, short stories, articles. Something that kept me going briskly was how you didn’t know exactly what kind of text you were alighting on. You may have just finished an article about Clinton and here comes a short story, followed by a journalistic piece. There are no genre-based sections or headnotes, so you’re on your own to figure it out as you go. That I liked.
There are seven short stories in all, and one story-cum-journalism piece about Argentina that may qualify as fiction (but I was really not fond of it). There are a couple of examples of creative non-fiction, of which I enjoyed Emily Raboteau’s investigative memoir “Searching for Zion,” about the quest for an ethnic and religious identity; it’s available here. George Saunders’s quite personal GQ piece on Clinton was also good. In the “Best American” section, I actually enjoyed the zombie diary written by Jake Swearingen and first published here.
I’ll quickly go through the four stories I liked better (or best). Marjorie Celona’s “Y” is about a baby dropped off at a YMCA in Canada soon after she was born, to be shunted later from one foster home to another, adding up to a rather contorted life. The story is told in a somewhat strained first person narrative, at times bordering on omniscience. I would’ve snipped the opening musing on the letter Y right off. It looks like something a creative writing professor urged on her.
Andrew Sean Greer’s “Darkness” struck me as slow, but it also revealed a daring narrator with undeniable technical abilities. The story is about a time in which the sun stopped shining, and thus the world wilted into darkness. It revolves around a lesbian relationship between two elderly women, who have to abandon a wealthy lifestyle because of the darkness. The story is cleverly (but puzzlingly) told through a question-and-answer session, in which the voice answering questions about what happened is evidently in possession of all knowledge. Some descriptions are well wrought. It has passed the lingering test: flashes of the story have lingered in my mind for a while.
Stephen King’s “Ayana” is an intriguing and well-paced story about a man whose father was miraculously cured on the verge of death when kissed on the cheek by a young, sickly black girl called Ayana. After that, for several years, the narrator is visited by a bulky man who leads him to cure others through kisses. It starts with the same kind of pretense of verisimilitude we find in King’s prized “The Man in the Black Suit,” that is, saying it’s an older man revealing well-burrowed memories.
Laura van den Berg’s “Where We Must Be” is a catchy and provocative piece about a failed actress working odd jobs, including (for most of the short story) playing the part of Bigfoot in a recreation camp in northern California where people play out their various Bigfoot fantasies (some of these are quite funny). She is in love with Jimmy, a 29-year-old who is on the verge of death and is thus increasingly feeble. There are thoughtful and poignant situations scattered throughout.