Friday, February 16, 2007

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 - 3.0

The New Mecca by George Saunders
Peg by Sam Shaw
Here Is a Lesson in Creative Writing by Kurt Vonnegut
Kenyon Commencement Speech by David Foster Wallace

Ok, this is the real real final post on TBA Nonrequired Reading 2006. I promise.

I love George Saunders. It's not too often that one finds a sentimental yet skeptical, let's love everybody and learn together soul-mate but I've found mine in Saunders. In "The New Mecca", while stading outside a wild water-ride in Dubai with an eclectic crowd of people, Saunders writes, "Then the [American] Navy Guys notice the Glowering Muttering Arabs, and it gets weirdly tense there in line." Here's why I love Saunders. Later, as they're all lounging in the water while their pulse rates slow, Saunders relates, " my tube at Wild Wadi, I have a mini-epiphany: given enough time, I realize, statistically, despite what it may look like at any given moment, we will all be brothers...Look what just happened here: hatred and tension were defused by Sudden Fun." Saunders is a man who believes in the essential goodness of man. He believes that, no matter our differences, we are all united in our need for love and the desire for our own slice of peace and happiness before we die. But Saunders isn't all rose-tinted glasses. He's also self-depricating and funny, which makes the sentimentality more edible for those of you more cynical than I am.

Sam Shaw's "Peg" is another one of those stories I'll forget as soon as I put it down. I understand the guy George was lonely and all. I also understand that he had dependency/power issues. I don't understand, however, if I'm supposed to think this guy isn't insane when casually takes the decapitated head of car accident victim home and proceeds to talk to it. This guy was nuts, certainly unhinged, and if I had been his wife I'd have done more than back into the bedroom and close the door. I'd have run hysterically to the neighbors and made a call to the guys in white who drive the paddy wagon.

"Here is a Lesson in Creative Writing" by Kurt Vonnegut is another one of those cool, funky pieces I wish I was cool enough to like. I don't dislike it. I even get what he's trying to do (I think), which is to poke fun at creative writing programs which begin by telling you to write one way and end by telling you to break all the rules. I get it, great point. But, eh. It didn't leave a lasting impression. Though it isn't as forgettable as "Peg" I won't be rushing back to re-read this piece and I need all the lessons in creative writing I can get.

And finally, last but not least, is David Foster Wallace's "Kenyon Commencement Speech." Wallace's commencement speech isn't anything like the one I received when I graduated college. I can't even remember who gave out commencement speech, which shouldn't be a suprise since I was asleep during most of the graduation program. Wallace's speech though is true, inspirational...sort of, and, most of all, it's funny. Whoever said that commencement speeches should be humourless and didactic should be made to sit under the hot sun while some windbag drones on and on about how our lives are really beginning.

When Wallace writes, " natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who the fuck are all these people in my way?", I wanted to stand up and clap. Finally, someone who knows how to explain the life college graudates can expect to have as adults without sounding pompous and know-it-all! I didn't stand up and clap of course, but I did laugh out loud. Wallace's piece was a good note on which to end the anthology.

From "Kenyon Commencement Speech": "There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"

I love reading The Best American Nonrequired Reading series because I always feel a little smarter for it. The 2006 installment has been no different. Though it was heavy in Iraq-related material, I can't complain it wasn't relevant to the times. And no matter how off-the-wall some its selections are, I know that I'm just a little step closer to ensuring I won't be a fish who's asking what water is - I'll already know.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 - 2.0

Pirate Station by Rick Moody
The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day by Haruki Murakami
False Cognate by Jeff Parker
Love It or Leave It by David Rakoff
Trauma on Loan by Joe Sacco

Obviously my plan to fit all of my final comments into one post didn't work. I could have tried but I figured no one wanted to read a blog post three full web pages long. Naturally, I could try not to be so long winded but, what's the point in writing a journal if you can't be as long-winded as you like? Yes, yes, I know I'm the one always harping on concise writing but, hey, I'm not here to talk about me. I'm here to talk about TBA Nonrequired Reading 2006 and, if you don't mind, that's exactly what I'm going to do.

Now, "Pirate Station." There's a metaphor in there somewhere. I know there is but I'll be darned if I can find it. It could be I just didn't look very hard - a perfectly feasible supposition - since, although "Pirate Station" is funky and out-of-the-box, I never find pieces like this very interesting, even though I earnestly want to. It's the story of my life. A cool person would like a cool piece like this. I'm not cool so I just don't get it. Why is the pirate station anthropomorphized at the end of the story? Moody writes, "The pirate station goes off its medication. The pirate station quarrels frequently and is testy about things that never used to bother it." Huh? Isn't this the same pirate station that was broadcasting music a page before? Yes, I'm uncool, I don't get it and, now I'm moving on.

A bit of fatherly advice - "Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three who have real meaning to him. No more, no less" - becomes the driving force behind a man's relationships in Murakami's "The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day." Despite how much I liked reading Junpei's story, I think I enjoyed the fictional story from which the title of this piece is derived. "The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day" is the title of the story Junpei is writing when he meets a woman with whom he falls in love. "She steps down into the dry stream bed and notices an odd stone...She realizes right away that it's shaped like a kidney...Every morning she finds the stone in a different place." Those are the kind of out-of-the-box stories that, nerd that I am, I like reading.

I have no thoughts on Jeff Parker's "False Cognate" whatsoever. It was one of those stories that, though the writing is exceptional and the story - an expat in Russia with no friends takes a bus ride into the country and narrowly escapes being blown up - is well told, I will forget as soon as put down the book. There was simply nothing remarkable I found about this story. I feel sorry for that but there it is.

I have David Rakoff's Fraud on my shelf. I've read half of it and I've done thatby skipping around. I hadn't decided whether I wanted to read the other half because I had slowly approached the conclusion that Rakoff was a less-funnier and less-talented version of David Sedaris. I still don't know if I'll ever finish Fraud but Rakoff has redeemed himself in my book with "Love It or Leave It", in which Rakoff, a former Canadian, confesses, "George W. Bush made me want to be an American." The description of his subsequent naturalization is funnier than anything he's written in Fraud. And if officially becoming an American so you can vote to get Bush out of office doesn't reflect good ole' American values, I don't know what does.

Joe Sacco's "Trauma on Loan", the last graphic piece in the anthology, is long way from Delisle's funny and deprecating "Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea." "Trauma on Loan" graphically illustrates a series of actual interviews Sacco has with two Iraqi men, Thahe Sabbar and Sherzad Khalid, who were held by American soldiers in an Iraqi prison. They have traveled to the States to be defendants a lawsuit against Donald Rumsfield which holds him responsible for the Abu-Gharib-like torture they endured while imprisoned. The story is well told but I didn't find the graphics necessary. Sacco's illustrations are nothing compared to the atrocities my imagination creates when I read these men's horrific stories.