Every year The Best American Series publishes a group of books anthologizing short fiction in every form of genre. While delving into the year’s best short fiction or short mysteries is always a treat, The Best American Nonrequired Reading always provides the most interesting gems of writing from the year. Below I chronicle some the best of the best (and the least of the best) of 2011’s nonrequired reading.
• The “Best American Profile of an International Pop Star” was Gary Shteyngart’s GQ profile of M.I.A. The 7,000-word article gives intriguing insight into her personal life while also giving the reader context for her music. While you may not have thought about her much recently (except for that weekend when “Paper Planes” was playing everywhere), this piece will have you trying to get your hands on any of her albums.
• That isn’t the only profile that paints a fascinating portrait of a real person. Chris Jones’ Esquire piece “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” tells the melancholy story of Ebert’s last years alive. His impact on film criticism is undeniable, and Jones gives us a glimpse of how Ebert approached it while also depicting his heartbreaking battle with cancer.
• Clare Beams’ “We Show What We Have Learned” (from Hayden’s Ferry Review) takes a simple story about an elementary teacher and her students and turns it on its head. To say more would ruin the surprise, but it’s a story that uses its language in a playful way.
• A story that is equally playful but far more insufferable is Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” (taken from Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine). The story is taken from a “Confidential Police File” and only contains the written responses of the subject’s response to the investigator’s questionnaire (leaving you to guess what the question was in the first place). It’s a story steeped in magic realism, and will undoubtedly please any fan of Gaiman. However, this story (my third time reading something written by him) officially made me give up on ever liking him as a writer.
• “Solitude and Leadership” is taken from The American Scholar and is a speech originally delivered by William Deresiewicz to a plebe class at West Point. It’s a speech that will connect with anyone going through a job transition or feeling frustrated with promotions at work, among other situations, as Deresiewicz lays out what kind of people become leaders.
• Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Hole in the Head” (from The Kenyon Review) is a meandering thriller about cosmetic surgery. It’s notable not only for its author but also because it’s a captivating story. Yet, when it was over, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. There were so many directions the story could have gone that I felt cheated when it didn’t address them. But then again, maybe that’s what really good short fiction is all about?
• Another story that could have gone in many fascinating directions but didn’t is “Pleiades” by Anjali Sachdeva (from Gulf Coast). It briefly chronicles the life of a girl who was born as a septuplet as an experiment by geneticist parents. There could instantly be a TV show born out of that idea (and might resemble Orphan Black) but Sachdeva merely hones in on just a few moments while telling this bittersweet tale.
There are, of course, far more short pieces of fiction and nonfiction alike dispersed throughout this book (as well as a list of notable pieces that didn’t quite make the cut, leading to infinitely more reading). I encourage you to pick up the book and explore it for yourself. You never know what story might inspire you.