The Best American Non-Required Reading 2013

Best-American Non Required 2013Go straight to “Black Box” and understand why Jennifer Egan is considered one of the freshest literary voices around. This is a dynamite short-story-in-Tweets, a spy caper somewhere between James Bond and semi-nut job Carrie Mathison from “Homeland.” The journal-cum-commentary (capturing the “notes to self” of an action-adventure heroine) is disconnected from the moment, but you get the drift. Hilarious, dry, perfect.

“People barely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.” That’s the kick-off tweet and the adventure begins. “A lag time exists between getting shot and knowing that you have been shot.” “Assuming there is no artery involvement, wounds to the upper limbs are preferable.”

It turns out that the data she is storing in various implants mean that she is, in fact, human Black Box. Or something. A fabulous story that requires the reader to fill in as you go. I can’t imagine that any two readers are “seeing” the same story. How does Egan do it?

Next I spun to Jim Gavin. “Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror” was also published in “Middle Men,” a collection that made my top 10 books of 2013. I read it again here. The New York Times praised “Middle Men” but dinged this story for “forced whimsy.” Give me a break. You will connect with Bobby’s dreams and understand his fears. Many of Gavin’s characters struggle to fit in, get along. They are outsiders who yearn to know the codes and unlock secrets to the world. Bobby, in his Cal T-shirt and boardshorts, is a terrific example of a typical Gavin anti-hero. “He sat down at a computer. His Yahoo! Mailbox was filled, almost exclusively, with undeleted spam. Some day, Bobby imagined, a single pill would grow hair, restore virility, and consolidate debt, but until the market was wide open and he still had a chance to capitalize on his terrible idea.” You have to read the story to get a grasp of just what that idea is. It’s a tool “so depraved no capitalist could do without it.” And you have to meet Nora, another one-of-a-kind brooder. Gavin’s writing is wry and the details are keen-eyed.

Nick Hornby’s “Everyone’s Reading Bastard” is more upfront with the humor—and biting sarcasm. This is a terrific short story about fear and loathing in the age of the Internet and privacy and one’s public reputation, but I didn’t get the weird, abrupt ending. I’d welcome an explanation. Great concept, though.

I had never heard of Davy Rothbart, but if “Human Snowball” doesn’t move you, in a good way, nothing likely will. The great title kind of covers the concept—one man’s impromptu decision to go visit a would-be girlfriend and, in the process, gathers an eclectic troupe of people on his wandering route. His newfound pals help, guide, counsel and encourage each other. They survive a harrowing moment together. And, well, I won’t give away the end here. Our hero, Davy, dispenses gentle bits of worthwhile advice. He’s careful not to overwhelm love interest Lauren, whose mom had endured a series of low-life boyfriends. “When you first get involved with any girl who’d been punctured by that kind of sadness, I’d learned, you had to be extra cautious about flooding them with goodness and light. A gentle and steady kindness appealed to them, but too much love straight out of the gate was uncomfortable, even painful, and impossible to handle.” Rothbart’s first-person style makes for an easy drink and I admired the way he pulled this band of characters together. He covered a lot of ground in a few brisk pages, too. Recommended.

“The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador” is Karen Russell’s non-fiction account of Juan Jose Padilla’s recovering from being gored in the face by a bull. Gripping? To say the least. Russell’s details are powerful and the writing is colorful but understated. The facts alone are quite enough—would you get back in the ring after losing your eye and surviving multiple surgeries to restore some use of one side of your face? “Beside the plaza’s walls, the concrete parentheses that enclose Padilla and the bull, everybody straightens; ‘erguirse’ is the Spanish verb for this, electric shivers up spines. Juan Jose directs the creature’s horns around his waist, as if he is carving his own hips out of black space. Drawing beautiful shapes with the cape and the bull. Drawing breaths.” You will feel the electric shivers, too.

In collections like these, it’s hard to imagine that everything is going to appeal to everybody. There are pieces I quickly skipped and many others that I enjoyed for their sheer variety and, in most cases, humor. A fine collection of writings for the shelf and Egan’s tweet-story, all in one place, is probably worth the price right there.

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