Sunday, October 08, 2006

33. Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005

edited by Dave Eggers

I actually read The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005 a little bit ago and am just posting about it now because, well, I get busy and get a little behind on the posting and, in fact, I have about ten books about which I’ve yet to tell you, so don’t think the current surge in posting means that I’ve started reading at lightning speed, just that I’ve realized I’ve got three months to put up twenty or so posts and I’m looking at the stack of books in my apartment thinking, “chop chop!” Although, that would be so cool if I could read at lightning speed…what if that were my superpower? Some sort of genetic mutation that allows me to read five hundred page novels in only two days! And remember everything I’ve read! I could be…The Reader!

Yes, I’ve been watching Heroes, why do you ask?

Anyhoo – it’s really no surprise by now that this collection of short stories and essays, although it was really more short stories than anything else, was pretty darned good, considering we’ve got Dave Eggers to thank for collecting them all. Some of the names were new to me. Like Ryan Boudinot, who wrote “Free Burgers for Life,” about a college-aged guy (I get the impression that’s his age, but I don’t think he ever really says) who wins a contest at a local fast food joint entitling him to one free meal of a $5 value, per day, for the rest of his life. Because he’s kind of a loser, the kind whose one dance move involves some version of splits, he takes the deal seriously and goes in each day to collect the burger he’s owed. It’s sad because you know that this will probably be the best thing that’s ever happened to him and there are people like this you’ve known and pitied, the ones who stalk their ex-girlfriends in the grocery store where they work and make themselves feel cool by buying beer for under-aged kids. It’s kind of funny, too, but only because laughing at them is the only way we can create distance from them. It’s the only way we can think, “thank god I’m not like them.”

Kate Krautkramer was also new to me. In “Roadkill” she chronicles some rather interesting and not often spoken about aspects of her pregnancy. Krautkramer takes a more scientific look at pregnancy, thinking of birth in an animalistic way, rather than in the joyous glowing way that most view the experience. “They let this vast, shapeless secret shimmer just behind their eyes when they meet me on the street,” she muses, “and just smile and nod in recognition of my burgeoning figure.” But instead of deifying the pregnancy, she wonders why so many who do choose to be anesthetized when going through the actual birth. Although I’m scared to death of pregnancy myself, it was comforting to read an account from a mother who wasn’t blindly enamored of her own pregnancy. I also liked Jonathan Tel’s “The Myth of the Frequent Flier,” about a man who spends so much time flying that he marries and eventually has children in the air. Every flight attendant’s heard of the story and each has their own details to add; sometimes he’s Canadian, sometimes he’s Australian. He has a son or he has twin girls. Some claim to have actually met him and some have only heard of his story. With the narrator following the myth all around the world, you can’t help but laugh at the man who’s stalking his own legend.

Of course, reading collections like this is also a really good opportunity to stumble upon works by authors you know, only to make you even more sure of their ability to move and create emotion with their words. In this book it’s Jhumpa Lahiri with “Hell-Heaven.” The story is narrated by a woman who witnessed her mother falling in love with a man other than her husband. Though nothing ever happens between the two, the mother looks forward to her companion’s visits and he becomes a close friend of the family. Despite the wishes of his Bengali parents, he marries an American girl and starts his own family away from his somewhat-adopted family. It’s only when the marriage falls apart many years later, and the ex-wife admits how jealous she always was, does the mother reveal how hurt she was by the loss of her always-platonic friend. Anyone who’s read Lahiri’s work will have a difficult time denying that she writes rich and engaging narratives, but after reading this I was could only wonder how some people get to be so well endowed with words, to know just the right ones to use to be able to create a specific feeling or image in your mind. I never cease to be amazed when I come across people who have this gift.

So, do I think I’ll continue to read this series in the coming years? I’m not sure…I plan to give myself a subscription to McSweeney’s for Christmas, which satisfies my need for a variety of stories and essays, and if there’s anything this year has taught me it’s that no matter how much I want to read a book or plan to read a book, I’ll never be able to resist the pull of other books as they spring up on me. While this may not become a perennial favorite, at least I’ll now I know what I’ll be missing.

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