Books

'The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016' Takes a Different Approach, This Year

When I learned that the content chosen for this anthology had been selected by high school students, I got nervous.


The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 396 pages
Author: Rachel Kushner, ed.
Price: 14.95
Format: paperback
Publication date: 2016-10
Amazon

As a teenager, while my classmates attended B'nai B'rith Youth Organization meetings or played afterschool sports, I read. My reading was indiscriminate and often uncomprehending: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Herman Hesse. In adulthood I revisited the books of youth, time and maturity filling the sizable gaps in my teenaged understanding.

So it was I drew an apprehensive breath on learning that Rachel Kushner is guest editor of the The American Nonrequired Reading 2016 in name only. The true editors are two groups high school students, one in San Francisco, California, the other in Ann Arbor, Michigan, each involved with the nonprofit organization, 826 National.

This is not to accuse high school students of particular stupidity or naïvete. Rather, it's noteworthy that an editorial committee comprised of readers too young to vote or order themselves beers may bring certain biases to literary selections. It's reasonable to wonder how this impacted their decisions concerning the "best nonrequired reading" of 2016.

In the introduction to The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016, readers are given nominal selection criteria. After meeting on Monday nights to read "all the magazines and literary journals published in a given year," the editorial committee sought work that felt true to life, moving, and offered a sense of what it felt like to be living in the year 2016. Final selections include interviews, poetry, essays, comics, short stories, and reportage.

Several pieces include troubled relations with parents. In Adrian Tomine's agonizing "Killing and Dying", a teenaged girl expresses an interest in standup comedy. Her mother eagerly enrolls her in a class. Her father, concerned with the girl's obvious stutter and the cost of the class, is less enthused. As the panels unfold, the reader realizes the mother, the family glue, is terminally ill. Midway through the strip, she dies. Throughout, her illness and eventual death are unremarked on, facts so glaringly obvious only a fool would mention them. Lacking her buffering presence, father and daughter are forced into awkward communication.

In the nonfiction "Bandit", Molly Brodak describes growing up with a con-artist father, the bandit of the title. Joe Brodak was also a bank robber, compulsive gambler and skilled liar who managed to con the author's mother into marrying him -- even though he was already married. Both marriages were brief. When not in prison, the man was an alarmingly irresponsible father, prone to leaving the author and her sister alone in Mexican hotel rooms.

Despite a strong beginning -- an enumeration of the banks Brodak robbed, including their names and addresses, is especially powerful -- "Bandit" concludes uncertainly, with the author wandering through a deserted church. Earlier in the essay Brodak writes "No narrative fits." Perhaps this is the trouble.

In Xuan Juliana Wang's "Alogrithmic Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships", a retired Chinese computer scientist named Ma welcomes his daughter to dinner after a year apart. The evening ends disastrously, with harsh words exchanged and potentially irreparable damage done. Ma realizes his lifelong habit of subjecting emotions to algorithmic patterns has driven away his wife and now his daughter. Heartsick and confused, he thinks, "Everything makes logical sense in computer science. Machines know not to get sentimental; they can rise above and work in symbols and codes."

Exceptional nonfiction selections include Mateo Hote and Cate Malek's "An Oral History of Abdelrahman Al-Ahmar". Abdelraham Al-Ahmar was born in a West Bank refugee camp. Now 49, he's spent almost half of his life in prison, where he was tortured, beaten, and interrogated. He also educated himself in prison, learning four languages. Now married to the lawyer who defended him, Al-Ahmar is father to four children. His greatest pleasure is spoiling his children with those things he did not have in childhood; one of his daughters "has five little backpacks".

You'll be tossing your Teflon cookware after reading Sharon Lerner's "The Teflon Toxin". Read on to learn how DuPont knew the manufacture of Teflon caused birth defects, bladder and rectal cancers, and polluted waters yet kept right on manufacturing the stuff. Ken Walmsey worked for DuPont for 40 years, in the Teflon division. He developed rectal cancer and now has ulcerative colitis, a painful condition leaving him dependent on a colostomy bag. Sue Baily, another DuPont employee, was one of many women who had a child with craniofacial deformities: her son's eyelid begins near his nose.

DuPont is well aware of these problems; as early as 1989, company personnel drafted numerous "standby press releases" denying knowledge or liability regarding Teflon. Asked to comment on Lerner's article, DuPont declined, citing pending litigation. An editor's note adds: "DuPont has consistently denied that it did anything wrong or broke any laws."

Michele Scott's "How I Became a Prison Gardener" is striking both for its setting and plainspoken prose. Scott is serving a life sentence for murder without parole at the Central California Women's Facility. There she has cultivated the hardpan fronting her prison housing unit:

Clearing the dirt was a beginning, an unconscious permission for me to clear the insides of myself. I was desperate, frantic, for anything to be present inside of me but hatred and ceaseless guilt -- the sweeping and unmanageable awareness that I had taken life.

After months of hard work, Scott experiences moments of freedom, as a gardener, cultivator of the land, a citizen of the earth. Visited by gulls and sparrows, bees and rabbits, she is "free like the creatures I watch so closely."

Death always holds its fascinations. In Michael Pollan's "The Trip Treatment", drugs do as well, with an investigation into the therapeutic uses of psilocybin -- magic mushrooms. Psilocybin is currently illegal, but undergoing clinical trials as an end-of-life cancer treatment and potential therapy for alcoholism. Pollan's article focuses on psilocybin's applications for end-of-life care. His story of Patrick Mettes, a 54-year-old terminal cancer patient, is at once moving and reassuring.

Mettes, who participated in a "guided trip", left an extremely account lucid of his experience. During his psilocybin trip, Mettes described seeing his sister-in-law, who had died of cancer decades earlier. She appeared to him as his "guide", wearing her body so he could recognize her. The trip was suffused with a feminine, positive energy. Like other patients on guided trips, Mettes said "Love was the only consideration."

When Mettes died, some months later, he was at peace and felt his experience with psilocybin had much to do with that. Other patients report similar experiences of feeling calmer, their anxieties over dying ameliorated, a sense that love is paramount. The article makes a potent argument for legalization without stridency.

George Bell lived and died alone in New York City, his death unnoticed until the smell of his decomposing body led a neighbor to call 911. The real story behind N.R. Kleinfeld's "The Lonely Death of George Bell" is what happens to all the lonely people, to borrow from Lennon and McCartney, who die alone. In New York City, stringent attempts are made to locate next of kin; neighbors are contacted, a cursory search of living quarters is conducted.

In George Bell's case, no contacts were found. Investigators are sent to the deceased's living quarters to conduct a comprehensive search for clues leading to relatives or friends. This can be a macabre business. If the deceased was a hoarder, as Bell was, it's even worse. Bell's apartment was filthy; the stove was not working, the kitchen faucet broken. Investigators managed to locate four of Bell's acquaintances. Only one had been in distant touch with him. None knew they were named in his will; none knew he had died. Each was stunned to receive a portion of his assets.

The weaker moments of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016 are purely a matter of taste. Much of the poetry seemed more line breaks than actual technique; a few stories push past credulity into annoyance. Nevertheless, a wealth of strong material makes The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016 valuable reading.

At the beginning of this review I questioned whether high schoolers should be entrusted with making selections for anthologies. When does a reader come of age for such a task? 18? 25? 35? Who's to decide? Then again, if high school students opt to spend their Monday nights editing literary anthologies over staring into cell phones or playing Pokemon Go, far be it from me to complain. Bless their bookish hearts.

An Amendment from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: This is not the first year high school students choose the selections. The students have been involved since the anthology’s inaugural edition in 2002. Only 826 students have been credited in the “series editor” role since 2015, but when Dave Eggers was series editor, there was always a BANR Committee of students involved in this anthology series.

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