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.