Review: Best American Nonrequired Reading (2007), ed. by David Eggers

The Best American Nonrequired Reading - 2007
Edited by David Eggers
Introduction by Sufjan Stevens
384 pgs
Mariner Books, 2007
Whenever I pick up an anthology, I have this somewhat irrational fear that all of the stories will either a) completely relate to one another (meaning that there's a kernel of a theme I have the task of expounding on--ugh, no thank you) or, b) exist in the same stylistic world (i.e. (a + b) * c = d).

But I think that's why I was drawn to the Best American (Nonrequired Reading) Series, editied by David Eggers: the pieces included are only really tied together by their original publication date. Everything else is a matter of coincidence in the human experience.

The voices in this collection are distinct, different in style and opinion. And the format has a reader-friendly feel to it. And what's nice is, sure, some of these writers are more mainstream now (i.e. Jonathan Ames and Jennifer Egan), but many weren't necessarily as mainstream five years ago; having those voices present is not just refreshing, it's essential.

In the 2007 edition of this series, we begin with an intro by musician Sufjan Stevens who is, in his own right, a multifaceted American voice. Part I of the anthology is free of stories - it's  essentially a series of lists, setting the stage for the less-chronicled literature of the previous year.

The theme here is cynicism and humor, the lists ranging from "The Best American New Words of 2006" (with words that now, five years later, one barely thinks of as new-- words like agroterrorism and gastric bypass) and "Best American Creationist Explanations for the World's Natural Wonders" -- you could also call secularism a theme.

Part II is a mix -- fiction and nonfiction, short stories and short interviews-- all interesting, some fascinating and, mostly all, incredibly well-written. All of these pieces have their merit, but the short stories are what stuck with me. Most notably, "American" by Joshua Clark - a naturalistic take on surviving in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; "Selling the General" by Jennifer Egan - a story about parental sacrifice; and two stories about fathers and sons: "Loterìa" by Kevin A. González and "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion an Sacrifice" by Nam Lee.

These latter two share certain similarities-- a sense of a son's abandonment and betrayal by the father, for one--but are distinct in their circumstances and style. Their ethnic flavors--one Latin American, the other Vietnamese, but both American in their pastiche and function. Neither son really forgives his father, but both come to certain terms with who he is, and how much of him is in himself, an examination in the sins of the father, if you will.

Along with the short stories, this section of nineteen pieces includes everything from the short interview format ("What's Your Dangerous Idea?") to graphic novel ("A Happy Death"), from persuasive essay ("All Aboard the Blated Boat: Arguments in Favor of Barry Bonds") to commencement speech (Conan O'Brien's Stuyvesant High School Commencement Speech) from wartime journalism ("The Big Suck: Notes from the Jarhead Underground") to memoir ("Where I Slept"). And while much of the subject matter discussed is more on the serious side, the human coincidence involved also brings in a delightful balance of humor and wit. This is definitely the kind of anthology I want in my library.


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