The premise of The Best American Nonrequired Reading is simple. Part of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American series, the anthology includes short works of fiction and nonfiction published in newspapers, magazines and online. Dave Eggers (of McSweeney’s fame) edits the anthology.
I don’t normally read short stories, which translates into…I don’t ever read short stories. It takes me 15-30 pages to get attached to a book, it’s stories, it’s premise, and it’s characters, and by the time I get invested in a short story, it’s over. My Aunt gave this to me, and she’s given me some of my all time favorite books over the years. So I decided to dig in anyway, and it was worth the 12 hours it took to complete the book. Because this was a collection of short stories, I’m going to highlight the three pieces that resonated with me.
“Orange” by Neil Gaman, originally published in Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, is a set of responses to unseen questions. Partially a story of aliens, partially the story of a disturbed young girl, and partially a work of incredible imagination, the tension builds throughout the story despite the fact you never see the questions. It’s hard to explain the appeal, but the pop culture references and blunt descriptions were so descriptive I basically projected an HD quality picture of the story unfolding in my mind. Fascinating.
“A Hole in the Head” by Joyce Carol Oates, originally published in The Kenyon Review. For shame, I’ve never read any Joyce Carol Oates before. This story chronicles the guilt of a plastic surgeon operating in a wealthy suburban area, who ultimately agrees to perform a dangerous, controversial procedure on a patient offering a large pay off, in hopes of saving his destitute practice. The bloody, gruesome details, overarching struggle with morality and the desperation of both the doctor and patient burned themselves into my brain. Classic fairy tales (think Grimm’s, not Disney) are frequently as gory and depressing as this story because children respond best to extreme forms of emotional stimulation. Maybe it’s because I never outgrew the childhood fascination with blood and death, but this story triggered some extremely strong, unsettling emotions.
“Homing” by Henrietta Rose-Innes, originally published in Agni, tells the story of an elderly woman who lies to her husband to spend a weekend at a luxury hotel that opened up on the border of her property, that she desperately wanted to visit. Romantic comedies feature young people promising to grow old together, but there’s a reason they show them when they’re young. The depressing reality of growing old together is you get bored, your interests diverge, and you may find yourself longing for more than what remains. That sneaky weekend highlights the guilt of wanting to keep some things for yourself, but also ends up being a sweet reminder of a lifetime of love.
Honestly, I loved a lot of these stories. As a runner up, “Pleaides” by Anjali Sachdeva, originally published in Gulf Coast Magazine, is a first person account of a septuplet who watches her sisters die in succession, knowing that her death is imminent. It brought up some interesting ideas of the hatred of science, and the morbid idea of befriending a stranger on their deathbed.
On a negative note, the first section operates as a time capsule of sorts, including features like a list of names of new bands formed in 2011, new words beginning with H added to the dictionary in 2011, and so on. The standout in the section was a carefully considered profile of the ever-controversial M.I.A. that carefully weighed her credibility as an interview subject. Otherwise, I felt like I was reading Reddit. They should’ve dedicated those pages to more stories.