Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Some non-essentials are less essential than others

kw: book reviews, collections, literature

I like to read the occasional "Best of" or "Best American" collection, everything except poetry, since so little genuine poetry is being written at present. So when I came across The Best American Non-Essential Reading 2013, edited by Dave Eggers, I brought it home and dived right in. I was momentarily put off by the cover art by Camille Rose Garcia. She specializes in cartoonish illustrations that range from creepy to just plain ugly. This cover is exceptionally ugly. I soon obtained a clue to this.

I hadn't encountered this series before. In the introduction I found that the "editor" brings together a gaggle of high school students from all over the San Francisco bay area to read, debate, and select the pieces for each volume. To the way of thinking of most folks over 35 or so, kids that age prefer ugly stuff. Fortunately, that is not uniformly true. And it bears considering that when we were 16 or so, what we liked came across to our own parents as quite ugly.

Any literary collection strives to present a variety of reading experiences. This collection achieves that, and then some. Compared to this collection's range of voices and viewpoints, other collections are monochromatic. So even I found an item or two to like.

I suppose it is obligatory for me to complain that most of the fiction pieces are about losers who learn nothing. Much of the reportage is similarly lifeless. "All Due Respect" by Peter Hessler is an exception. It reads like fiction, but portrays Jake Adelstein and the Yakuza among whom he moved during more than a decade in Japan. It gets my vote as the best writing in the volume. The phrase "all due respect", as said by a Japanese in Japanese, has overtones of the "offer you can't refuse" of Godfather fame.

About a third of the fiction pieces I'd already read, in other "Best of" volumes. I recalled they hadn't thrilled me the first time around, so skipping them was no loss. One piece of "poetry" was the most non-poetic item I've encountered, "Crazy Horse Boulevard" by Sherman Alexie. A selection of 4 short poems inspired by Kurt Vonnegut ranged from moderately accessible free verse to non-verse (anti-verse?) of the most acidic sort. Free verse is almost exactly a century old. That is time for 3-4 generations to arise who have never read anything with both rhyme and meter, and it shows. You can write almost anything with odd pacing, perhaps break the lines in peculiar places, and call it a poem. I guess the market for rhyming dictionaries has essentially vanished.

One piece that I read all the way through, and shouldn't have, succeeded in disturbing my sleep: "Snake River Gorge" by Alexander Maksik. I think it is fictional. If it isn't, it sheds a very different light on those youngsters that show up on your doorstep selling magazine subscriptions, as a particularly heinous sort of human trafficking. Even if it is fiction, it'll still make whoever has read it get the willies when another kid rings the bell.

I reckon if you're a Millennial and don't know any better, you'll like many of these pieces. If you're a Boomer or an X-er, probably not so much.

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