Best American

Review: Best American

The Best American series has designed such a unique identity that I can recognize a volume through the thickest wrapping paper. The symmetry of the books is soothing, Best American Science 2013and they look dynamite aligned on the shelves. A friend recently stared in awe of their arrangement on my bookcase (thanks OCD).

But it’s the content that really makes Best American stand out.

My three favorite editions are the science, essay and mystery writing editions, with lots of love for the sports, short stories and nonrequired reading, but that’s part of what makes the series so successful: everybody has a favorite, but is usually willing to take a gander at the others.

So when I see a Best American beneath the tree, I’m not worried about which one it is. I know I’ll enjoy it no matter what.

Here is a sampling of what you’ll find in this year’s editions:

For me, the 2013 headliner is The Best American Science and Nature Writing, edited by Siddhartha Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies). Standouts include Kevin Dutton’s “What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed,” adapted Best American Essays 2013from his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, as well as Oliver Sacks’ “Altered States,” and Gareth Cook’s “Autism Inc.”

The Best American Sports Writing is edited by J.R. Moehringer, whose magazine feature, “Resurrecting the Champ,” inspired a wonderful fictionalization on the big screen. Must-reads include Rick Reilly’s “Special Team,” Paul Solotaroff’s “The NFL’s Secret Drug Problem,” and Erik Malinowski’s “The Making of ‘Homer at the Bat,’ the Episode that Conquered Prime Time 20 Years Ago Tonight.” For top-shelf nonfiction, look no further than The Best American Essays, featuring Zadie Smith, Michelle Mirsky and Alice Munro.

Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Connolly and Hannah Tinti headline The Best American Mystery Stories, while Junot Diaz, George Saunders and Steven Millhauser take the spotlight in The Best American Short Stories. Elizabeth Gilbert guest edits The Best American Travel Writing.

Once again, The Best American Nonrequired Reading slays us with its Best American Comics 2013combination of literati and irreverence. Case in point: there are pieces by Walter Mosley, Sherman Alexie and Kurt Vonnegut, while the “best of” categories include “Best American Poem About a Particle Accelerator,” “Best American Apocryphal Discussion Between Our Nation’s Founding Fathers” and “Best American Comic That Ends in Arson.”

Speaking of comics, one of my favorite new editions is The Best American Comics, featuring fiction and nonfiction art work, from the “funny pages” to graphic novels. There’s now even The Best American Infographics. With an introduction by David Byrne. Go figure.

Best American Essays 2012

The Best American Essays 2012The Best American Essays 2012 by Robert Atwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Brooks, as expected, compiled a thoughtful and engaging selection of essays.


Miah Arnold: “You Owe Me”

Dudley Clendinen: “The Good Short Life”
(“But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull.”)

Mark Edmundson: “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?”
(“In reading, I continue to look for one thing — to be influenced, to learn something new, to be thrown off my course and onto another, better way.”)

Joseph Epstein: “Duh, Bor-ing”
(“One can also tell a great deal about a person by what bores him.”)

Jonathan Franzen: “Farther Away”
(“The allure of suicide, the last big score, may go underground, but it never entirely disappears.”)

Malcolm Gladwell: “Creation Myth”

Alan Lightman: “The Accidental Universe”

Ken Murray: “How Doctors Die”

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Unsettling Chapters: Maynard

There are many ways to unsettle the reader. There is shock, revulsion, introspect, subversion. But don’t forget subtlety. After all, I would imagine the slow constriction of the noose is the more terrifying than the drop.

Toward that end, three key elements of great horror are atmosphere, dissonance and distress. All three are manipulated to great effect in Mary Stewart Atwell’s short story, “Maynard,” which ran in the Alaska Quarterly Review and was honored in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010.

There is elusiveness in this piece that sets the reader on edge. The story is presented in a segmented style, and the core mysteries at the beginning remain mysteries at the end. There is such a tangle of loose threads that the story is unsettling to the reader long after the final words have been read.

Specifically, it is the narrator’s murky backstory that fuels the tension. She is on the run from someone who, as far as we can tell, was holding her against her will. He will find her, though, she is certain, but will we ever learn the full nature of her distress?

This is the foundation on which Atwell builds a dark, disturbing portrait of a troubled woman on the run. One of the building blocks she uses to great effect is atmosphere. Set in the rural south, Atwell colors her world with the imagery of backwoods America, a working-class dystopia of failure where methamphetamine and lawlessness run rampant. Into this world enters the narrator—whose name may or may not be Ashley.

She has three secrets she must keep hidden: her history, her whereabouts, the child to which she is about to give birth. The latter tweaks the reader’s anxiety like a shot of bathtub meth. The narrator is unequipped to care for the child, but what is she to do? She would reveal too much of herself if she put it up for adoption, so she disposes of the baby, which sets in motion the events that lead to her final confrontation.

Finally, there is the dissonance that makes the story so unsettling. The reader is unable to connect all the loose threads, and there are missing links in the chain of events that we are compelled to reconcile.

In the end, that reconciliation must come from the reader’s own mind. I discussed this story with a fellow reader long after reading, and have thought about it often since then. There are hints at great horror in this story, which is more powerful than if we knew every gruesome detail of our narrator’s story.

It lends a haunting quality that resonates through amazing lines like: “‘Ashley,’ he said. ‘Please. Don’t do this.’ But Ashley is not my name.”

Stories like this earned Atwell a deal for a full-length. Her debut novel, Wild Girls, was published on Oct. 16.