Book review: The Best American Series 2017
The Best American Series is an excellent anthology collection, if it’s not already on your radar. An editor chosen for their own standout contributions to each genre curates selections from the year’s best previously published works across websites, journals, and magazines. Plenty are fiction, like Mystery, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Short Stories, but I find their nonfiction selections to usually be pretty wonderful.
And I love essay anthologies, I think they’re great for curing “reader’s block”, when you’re searching for something new to read, or are facing a dearth of exciting reading material, or you’ve read or abandoned too many lackluster titles (that was me recently). Not to mention while traveling or other times when you want easy stop-and-go, pick up where you left off type of reading.
This is a sampler of two pieces each from this year’s volumes (which sometimes gets offered for free as an ecopy on Amazon! Keep an eye out!) I read half of it, the nonfiction selections. These were from The Best American volumes of Essays, Nonrequired Reading, Travel Writing, Science and Nature Writing, and Sports Writing (I even surprised myself by reading that one.)
A rundown of the nonfiction offerings in the sampler volume this year:
In “Cost of Living”, Emily Maloney writes about the personal debt she accrued after a suicide attempt, which led to her working in medical billing and swimming for years in an ocean of debt. She draws back the curtain on what transpires in hospital billing, and it’s alarming and wrong. But the hospital where she worked was itself in debt, and the endless cycle of owing ping-pongs responsibility for bills back and forth between providers and patients.
In “Snakebit”, Alia Volz explores, in richly descriptive prose, one of mankind’s most common phobias – snakes – and what she remembers from her childhood of her beginnings of this fear, and how it’s slithered (sorry) into her adulthood. Her writing is lush and lovely, even on such an inherently skin-crawling topic.
Here she describes being served a rattlesnake pot sticker at a fancy restaurant:
Being terrified of an appetizer is embarrassing.
The standard treatment for phobias is exposure therapy. Eating this snake – digesting it, absorbing it – could be a step in the right direction. Using the side of my fork, I slice the pot sticker open, releasing a ghost of steam, and lift the morsel to my lips.
It’s hot and bland on my tongue. I taste nothing, not even the chutney. But when I blink, I see the meat regenerating into a diamondback that will live enveloped in my intestines, eating what I eat, dreaming what I dream.
In Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”, she applies what she learned living in the Soviet Union and under Vladimir Putin to our current democracy under Trump, distilling crucial lessons and why they must be heeded into six simple but powerful rules. It’s a slick, smart, straightforward, absolute must-read.
Here, rule #6 in its entirety:
Remember the future. Nothing lasts forever. Donald Trump certainly will not, and Trumpism, to the extent that it is centered on Trump’s persona, will not either. Failure to imagine the future may have lost the Democrats this election. They offered no vision of the future to counterbalance Trump’s all-too-familiar white-populist vision of an imaginary past. They had also long ignored the strange and outdated institutions of American democracy that call out for reform – like the electoral college, which has now cost the Democratic Party two elections in which Republicans won the minority of the popular vote. That should not be normal. But resistance – stubborn, uncompromising, outraged – should be.
In Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s “Chiefing in Cherokee”, she travels to Cherokee, North Carolina to explore and interview within the Native American community earning livings from cultural tourism. She has to confront her indignation at what initially appears to be exploitation and perpetuation of common public misconceptions about tribal life and culture, especially of those buskers who pose for tourist photographs and are known as “chiefs”.
But this form of busking is defended by the chiefs, it’s been done by generations before them, and she also has to consider her own relationship to her Chicana heritage. The essay goes much deeper into aspects of modern Native American and European-American cultural relations and economics than I can easily summarize; suffice to say it’s excellently done.
In David Kushner’s “Land of the Lost”, he relates the story of a tourist lost thanks to faulty GPS in Iceland, and ties it into the fascinating fact that our brains depend on this kind of location-tracking, mapmaking ability in order to keep the hippocampus strong and well-developed. There are scary ramifications from depending on computer navigation instead of our brains’ inherent systems for sensing and remembering locations and paths.
In “Unfriendly Climate”, Sonia Smith profiles what must be the only Christian Evangelical who’s also a climate change-believing scientist working aggressively to educate and change minds. That’s Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist from Texas Tech University. Hayhoe’s well-worded and easy to understand arguments for climate change-denying idiots are good to record and pull out anytime you encounter someone who actually wants to argue that scientific facts are opinions.
David Epstein’s “The DIY Scientist, the Olympian, and the Mutated Gene” details his experience of being contacted by a woman suffering from a form of muscular dystrophy that she had to fight and advocate on her own behalf to even be diagnosed with. She improbably identified similar physical elements in an Olympic sprinter. This made Epstein initially skeptical, since the woman, Jill Viles, had sticklike arms and legs due to her failed muscles, and the Olympian, Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, has such enormous muscles that she’d faced accusations of using performance-enhancing steroids.
I can’t stress enough how fascinating this story is, and what far-reaching implications it has for patients being educated, informed, and able to advocate for themselves. And despite containing a wealth of potentially complex or dense scientific information, it’s page-turningly readable.
Bomani Jones’ “Kaepernick Is Asking for Justice, Not Peace” is another smart, important must-read, even amidst the wealth of recent think pieces about Kaepernick’s and his fellow athletes’ choice of peaceful protest and Trump’s asinine war against anyone who dares “take a knee” for justice.
I read and reviewed the 2016 Best American Series sampler last year, and it also covered many interesting issues and stories, but I have to say that, at least from the nonfiction side, this year’s is incomparably fantastic.
The Best American Series 2017:
16 Short Stories & Essays
published October 3, 2017 by Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.