the best american

NONREQUIRED READING ™ 2010

e d ite d by

DAVE EGGERS
introduction by

DAVID SEDARIS

managing editor

JESSE NATHAN

a mariner original houghton mifflin harcourt
boston new york 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company Introduction copyright © 2010 by David Sedaris all rights reserved The Best American Series is a registered trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. The Best American Nonrequired Reading is a trademark of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003. www.hmhbooks.com issn: 1539-316x isbn: 978-0-547-24163-0 Printed in the United States of America doc 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 “This Is Just to Say” (excerpt of 4 lines) by William Carlos Williams, from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939. Copyright ©1938 by New Directions Publishing. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing. “Those Winter Sundays.” Copyright © 1996 by Robert Hayden, from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden by Robert Hayden, edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. “I Am Sorry that I Didn’t Write a Comedy Piece” by Wendy Molyneux. First published at www.therumpus.net as part of the “Funny Women” series. Copyright © 2009 by Wendy Molyneux. Reprinted by permission of the author. “A Note from Stephen Colbert” by Stephen Colbert. First published in Newsweek on June 15, 2009. Copyright © 2009 by Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Newsweek. Six-Word memoirs copyright © 2009 by the authors. Reprinted by permission of Smith Magazine. “Best American Letter to the Editor” by Nazlee Radboy. First published in Bidoun. Copyright © 2009 by Nazlee Radboy. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Overqualified Cover Letters” by Joey Comeau. First published in Overqualified. Copyright © 2009 by Joey Comeau. Reprinted by permission of the author. “The Trail” by Barry Lopez. First published in Orion. Copyright © 2009 by Barry Lopez. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Best American Illustrated Missed Connections” by Sophie Blackall. First published at www.missedconnectionsny.blogspot.com. Copyright © 2009 by Sophie Blackall. Reprinted by permission of the artist. “Best American Poems Written in the Last Decade by Soldiers and Citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan” by Salam Dawai, Soheil Najm, Khadijah Queen, Brian Turner, Haider AlKabi, Sadek Mohammed, Abdul-Zahra Zeki, and Sabah Khattab. Certain of these poems first appeared in Flowers of Flame, Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq, Phantom Noise, and the Northwest Review. Copyright © 2009, 2010 by the authors. Reprinted by permission of the authors, Kore Press, and/or Alice James Books.

“War Dances” from War Dances by Sherman Alexie. First published in The New Yorker. Copyright © 2009 by Sherman Alexie. Reprinted by permission of the author and Grove/ Atlantic, Inc. “Like I Was Jesus” by Rachel Aviv. First published in Harper’s Magazine. Copyright © 2009 by Rachel Aviv. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Burying Jeremy Green” by Nora Bonner. First published in Shenandoah. Copyright © 2009 by Nora Bonner. Reprinted by permission of the author. “The Carnival” by Lilli Carré. First published in MOME. Copyright © 2009 by Lilli Carré. Reprinted by permission of the artist. “Capital Gains” by Rana Dasgupta. First published in Granta. Copyright © 2009 by Rana Dasgupta. Reprinted by permission of the author. “The Encirclement” by Tamas Dobozy. First published in Granta. Copyright © 2009 by Tamas Dobozy. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Man of Steel” by Bryan Furuness. First published in Ninth Letter. Copyright © 2009 by Bryan Furuness. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Half Beat” by Elizabeth Gonzalez. First published in The Greensboro Review. Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Gonzalez. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” by Andrew Sean Greer. First published in the San Francisco Panorama. Copyright © 2009 by Andrew Sean Greer. Reprinted by permission of the author and McSweeney’s. Excerpt from The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier. English language translation by Alexis Siegel. English language translation copyright © 2009 by First Second. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC. “What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?” by Etgar Keret, translated by Nathan Englander. First published in Tin House. Copyright © 2009 by Etgar Keret and Nathan Englander. Reprinted by permission of the author and the translator. “Fed to the Streets” by Courtney Moreno. First published in L.A. Weekly as “Help Is on the Way.” Copyright © 2009 by Courtney Moreno. Reprinted by permission of the author. “The Tiger’s Wife” by Téa Obreht. First published in The New Yorker. Copyright © 2009 by Téa Obreht. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Breakdown” by T. Ott. First published in MOME. Copyright © 2009 by T. Ott. Reprinted by permission of the artist. “Ideas” by Patricio Pron, translated by Mara Faye Lethem. First published in The Paris Review. Copyright © 2009 by Patricio Pron and Mara Faye Lethem. Reprinted by permission of the author and the translator. “Vanish” by Evan Ratliff. First published in Wired. Copyright © 2009 by Evan Ratliff. Reprinted by permission of the author. “Seven Months, Ten Days in Captivity” by David Rohde. First published in the New York Times. Copyright © 2009 by David Rohde and the New York Times. Reprinted by permission of the author and the New York Times. “Tent City, U.S.A.” by George Saunders. First published in GQ. Copyright © 2009 by George Saunders. Reprinted by permission of the author. “The Nice Little People” from Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut. Published in Zoetrope: All-Story. Copyright © 2009 by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Trust. Reprinted by permission of Delacorte Press, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. “Freedom” by Amy Waldman. First published in Boston Review. Copyright © 2009 by Amy Waldman. Reprinted by permission of the author.

contents

Editor’s Note xi Introduction by David Sedaris

xv

I
Best American Woman Comedy Piece Written by a Woman
from www.therumpus.net, Wendy Molyneux

3

Best American Sentences on Page 50 of Books Published in 2009 5

Best American Magazine Letters Section
from Newsweek, Stephen Colbert

8 10 11

Best American Fast-Food-Related Crimes Best American Gun Magazine Headlines
from Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak

Best American Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak Best American New Patents Best American Tweets
from www.twitter.com
■ ■

13

14

from United States Patent and Trademark Office

16

Contents / vii Best American Letter to the Editor
from Bidoun

17

Best American Overqualified Cover Letters
from Overqualified, Joey Comeau

18 22

Best American Fictional Character Names Best American 350-Word Story
from Orion, Barry Lopez

23

Best American Farm Names

24

Best American First Lines of Poems Published in 2009 Best American Journal Article Titles Published in 2009 Best American Illustrated Missed Connections Best American New Band Names Best American Lawsuits
■ ■ ■

26 28

29

from www.missedconnectionsny.blogspot.com, Sophie Blackall

37

38

Best American Poems Written in the Last Decade or So by Soldiers and Citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan 40

II
Sherman Alexie. war dances
from War Dances

49 75

Rachel Aviv. like i was jesus
from Harper’s Magazine

Nora Bonner. burying jeremy green
from Shenandoah

95

Lilli Carré. the carnival
from MOME

104

Rana Dasgupta. capital gains
from Granta

137

Contents / viii Tamas Dobozy. the encirclement
from Granta

165

Bryan Furuness. man of steel
from Ninth Letter

180 198

Elizabeth Gonzalez. half beat
from The Greensboro Review

Andrew Sean Greer. gentlemen, start your engines
from San Francisco Panorama

213

Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier. the photographer 238

from The Photographer, translated from French by Alexis Siegel

Etgar Keret. what, of this goldfish, would you wish? 262

from Tin House, translated from Hebrew by Nathan Englander

Courtney Moreno. fed to the streets
from L.A. Weekly

268

Téa Obreht. the tiger’s wife
from The New Yorker

287

T. Ott. breakdown
from MOME

308 316 323

Patricio Pron. ideas Evan Ratliff. vanish
from Wired

from The Paris Review, translated from Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem

David Rohde. seven months, ten days in captivity
from New York Times

345

George Saunders. tent city, u.s.a.
from GQ

395

Kurt Vonnegut. the nice little people
from Zoetrope: All-Story

431

Contents / ix Amy Waldman. freedom
from Boston Review

439

Contributors’ Notes 456 The Best American Nonrequired Reading Committee Notable Nonrequired Reading of 2009 472 About 826 National 479
■ ■ ■

463

editor’s note

forgive me if you already know this, but this collection is assembled every year with the assistance of two groups of high school students — one from the San Francisco Bay Area, and one from the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti areas of mid to lower Michigan. I run the class that meets in San Francisco, so I’ll describe what happens there (I can’t speak for Michigan, but I expect they would use more candles and smoke machines). Once a week, we meet in the basement of McSweeney’s, a small publishing company in the Mission District of San Francisco. Some of the students take the subway and get off at the 16th and Mission stop. Some take the bus; some get rides from their parents. And a few are lucky enough to have a vehicle of their own. In any case, they travel up to an hour, each way, to sit around and talk about contemporary literature. In this basement, we have a bunch of couches, chairs, and even a beanbag (which no one uses because beanbags should never have been manufactured, as they are an affront to all that is holy). The students feel good in this basement, in large part because the space is dingy, ill kept, and smells of laundry that needs washing but can’t be found. When they arrive, the students first look through the mail. Every week we get about twenty new literary journals, magazines, self-published zines, comics, and various other periodicals. The students read these periodicals, looking for stories that hit them in the gut. They pick up

Editor’s Note / xii the Kenyon Review or Tin House looking to be wowed. When the wow happens, the student gives that story or essay or whatever it is to our managing editor, Jesse Nathan — who is, it should be said, a Jewish Mennonite (really!) from Kansas — and he makes copies for the whole class so we can read and discuss. Sometimes the discussions are spirited, sometimes not so much, sometimes too much so. Sometimes no one can understand what the hell the student first saw in the story. Other times the class splits, literally in two. This year was especially interesting, given that we had two very vocal members, Tenaya Nasser-Frederick and Will Gray, who often ended up on opposite sides of the room and of opinion. They would bark back and forth at each other — respectfully, it should be said — and then, at the end, Will would have the final say. His final say sounded something like, “Well, I’m pretty sure you’re wrong and I’m right and I think this discussion is over.” This is how he got the nickname “The Hammer.” (More about the Hammer, and all of the students from the Bay Area and Michigan, is available in the back of the book, starting on page 463. ) But no matter what the selection process is, it’s always astoundingly subjective. We have no scientific method, no spreadsheets or checks and balances. We have only bins that say Yes and No and Maybe. When we get close to having enough Yeses to make a book, we put copies of all the selections on a Ping-Pong table in the basement. This is not a joke. We put all the yeses on one side of the net, and then we look at each story, and when we’re absolutely sure that that Yes is a Yes, and should be printed in these pages, then we “move it over” — meaning we actually move it over the net — into the Definite Yes area. That is the most official and scientific part of the process, that jumping of the net. Each year we try to strike many balances simultaneously. We try to strike a balance between fiction, nonfiction, comics, and other forms. Most of all, we try to strike a balance between end-of-the-world scenarios and coming-of-age stories. These two topics, it turns out, constitute about eighty percent of what we read in a given year, and we’ve decided that a few examples of each are enough. Next we choose a cover artist and an introducer. Every year we start with a long list, which invariably includes Dave Chapelle and

Editor’s Note / xiii Oprah Winfrey, neither of whom are likely to see a letter we might write them. So we begin to think of people we might be able to get a letter close to, and this year the students overwhelmingly chose Maurice Sendak to provide the cover art. He opened up his sketchbooks, and suggested a page of drawings that formed a narrative about a girl who is almost eaten by her television set. We agreed that this was perfect for the collection, and we thank him heartily for being generous, for being kind, and for having great mischievous eyes and a mouth unable to tell lies. We’d also like to thank David Sedaris, who is pretty much a saint for all he’s done for the organization known as 826. As you might know, the proceeds from this book go toward 826 National, which helps support a network of independently operated writing and tutoring centers around the country. At the 826 centers, the work we do serves kids ages six to eighteen, and runs the gamut from helping English language learners with basic reading and writing skills to advanced publishing projects with high schoolers. One of the ways we raise money for the programs is by asking well-known authors like Mr. Sedaris to edit books and donate the proceeds to 826. The first such book was edited by Michael Chabon (who, with his spouse, the writer Ayelet Waldman, has supported 826 in a thousand ways from the start). Chabon edited a book called Thrilling Tales, which extolled the virtues of so-called genre writing, and encouraged contemporary writers to explore the western, the mystery, the horror story, and sci-fi. The sales of Thrilling Tales paid the rent on our San Francisco building for a full year. Talk about the power of the written word! So, after that, we embarked on a program of publishing at least one of these “benefit books” a year. For the second “benefit book,” we thought, Who could follow Michael Chabon? Who has that kind of genius and generosity? And we thought of David Sedaris. And did Sedaris hesitate? We don’t know. He was living in France at the time, and we could not see his behavior while he was deciding. But he didn’t seem to have hesitated. He said yes and picked his favorite short stories for a collection that became Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. That book paid the rent on the building for another year, and our faith in the power of publishing was again renewed.

Editor’s Note / xiv So when the Best American Nonrequired Reading group chooses an introducer, every year — in addition to Oprah Winfrey and Dave Chapelle — the students invariably suggest David Sedaris. But because he’d done that above-named collection, we’ve always given him a break. But this time, after five or so years of giving him a break, I allowed the students to go ahead and ask Mr. Sedaris to write the intro, and they did so by sending him this photo:

How could anyone say no to a photo like that? The answer is that no one can. And Sedaris did not say no. He wrote a very edifying intro, different from virtually anything he’s written before, and for this we’re endlessly thankful. We’re also thankful that you picked up this book, and we hope you like the selections. This year, maybe more than ever before, we really went eclectic, and we think we have a fantastically diverse and challenging group of stories that somehow, improbably, cohere around what it’s like to be alive right now, in 2010 — as opposed to 1822, which would have been far dustier. — D. E.

introduction
Who Ate the Plums?

the year after my mother died, I was presented with a box. In it were letters I’d sent from summer camp (“I’ll pay you to come and get me”) and from my first year at college (“I swear I’ll pay you to come and get me”). There were other things in there as well, and though I thought I would plow right through them, the task proved too depressing. The box went into storage in New York, and when my boyfriend, Hugh, and I moved to France, I had it shipped to Normandy, where it sat on a shelf in the room I use as an office. It was only recently that I reopened it. The letters were there, and, beneath them, a mildewed envelope with my name on it. The handwriting was my mother’s, and inside, amongst the report cards and vaccination certificates, I found two poems I had written in the fifth grade. You, I thought. Like most children, I wrote a lot in elementary school: articles on whales, essays praising presidents and Thanksgiving, all of them forgotten, and for good reason. These poems, however, had stuck with me, haunted me for over forty years. The first one is titled, “Will We Ever Find Peace?” If man will ever find peace is a question to behold Will we ever stop finding soldier’s bodies dead and cold? I think that I would rather die while sleeping in my bed Than die in Vietnam, a bullet through my head

Introduction / xvi The men who come out of war I think can surely tell That General Sherman was right when he said that war is hell. Because I was only twelve, I think I can forgive myself the sloppy meter. What I can’t forgive, regardless of my age, is the self righteous tone, and the demand to be taken seriously. “I think that I would rather die while sleeping in my bed / Than die in Vietnam, a bullet through my head.” Oh, really. How perfectly odd of you. Because the rest of us would love to spend our last few hours in an unforgiving jungle, far from friends and family, being stabbed and shot at by people in pointed sun hats who put peanut butter on chicken. And quoting General Sherman? I got an A-minus on my first poem, and a note from the teacher — “Good Work!” — written in the margins of my second, which was titled, simply, “War.” You find some bit of creative writing you did in the fifth grade, and hope it will tell you something about your life: Here is a fight I had with my best friend. This is what it smells like when you lay your mother’s pocketbook on the grill. For a while I thought that these poems told me nothing. Then I realized that they did — it just wasn’t something I wanted to be reminded of. Behind their clumsiness, they tell me who I wanted to be — not my petty, self-absorbed self, but society’s conscience, the justice seeker who opens your eyes to the suffering that’s all around you. I don’t know what drove my mother to hang on to those poems. Perhaps she saw them as evidence of a change, seeds of the person I would hopefully grow up to become. When I found them in her dresser drawer the summer after the sixth grade, and tried to throw them away, she grabbed them out of my hands. “But they’re awful,” I told her. “Maybe so, but they’re mine,” she said. I figured she’d put them in one of three hiding places, spots my parents thought of as safe, but that my sisters and I had been raiding since we were old enough to walk: the crawl space above the car port, for instance. That was like the hidden tomb in a mummy movie, the

Introduction / xvii sort of place that should have been marked with carvings: the head of a bird, a cane with thorns on it, three laughing skulls turned toward the wind, symbols that, when translated, spelled “Do not enter here unless you wish to be changed forever.” We found unspeakable things in that crawl space. Things that took our childlike innocence, and, in the time it took to focus a flashlight, obliterated it. There were the lesser hiding places as well, lockups for confiscated machetes and homemade battle axes. My mother must have carried the poems upon her person, secured, maybe, in some sort of girdle as I looked everywhere, and I mean everywhere for them, with no success. In time I lost my ability to quote from “Will We Ever Find Peace,” but never was it or “War” forgotten. The disdain I felt toward my own poems affected the whole genre, the only exception being limericks, which are basically dirty jokes that rhyme. The other kinds of poetry, the kind written entirely in lower case letters, or the kind where a single sentence is broken into eight different lines, I find confounding. I think I was out sick the day we learned to read them, and it never occurred to me that I could catch up, or, heaven forbid, teach myself. In William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say,” for instance, do you begin with “I have eaten” and then wait a while before moving onto “the plums”? Should an equal amount of time pass before “that were in” and “the icebox”? If not, why not just put it all on the same line? I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox. I get the idea that poets are paid, not by the word, but by how much space they take up. How else to explain it ?

Introduction / xviii It’s easy to believe when looking at such things that parts of them are missing, that words and commas got erased or were blown away, like one of those church signs after a strong wind. The bits that are left function as clues, the poem itself not a story, but a problem, something to be sweated over and solved. Why not make things easier and just say what you mean? Why be all, well, poetical about it? It’s the way a lot of people view contemporary art — as if it’s beyond them, as if, without the references and countless inside jokes, they can’t possibly get a foothold. I’ve found, though, that if you relax, you can pretty much tell what, say, a Robert Gober sculpture is about. This is something I learned in art school. A slide would be shown of a crazy looking installation and after feeling stupid and intimidated, I’d actually look at the thing. A few minutes later the teacher would offer an interpretation, and I’d find that I had gotten it after all, that a piece of art, much like a short story, could be read. The key was to not be uptight about it, to enjoy the attempt. To surrender. I only recently realized that the same approach could be applied to poetry. What enlightened me was a podcast in which the host and a guest listen to a poem, and then proceed to talk about it. Before going further, I need to identify myself as an audiophile. There are those who dismiss the idea of listening to literature, who feel that it doesn’t count the way that reading does. And it’s true that they’re different sensations. When sitting on the sofa and reading with my eyes, I enter the world of the book. When listening, on the other hand, the book comes into my world, the place where I iron clothes, defrost the freezer, and break up firewood with an ax. I started with audio in the early nineties, back when the titles were recorded onto cassettes. Then I moved on to CDs and, eventually, to the MP3 player, which lead me, in turn, to podcasts, and one in particular called Poetry Off the Shelf. I originally downloaded it thinking, not of myself, but of Hugh’s mother, who likes serious things. I was going to force her to sit in a chair with my iPod on, but then I ran out of books to listen to. Company was coming, I had a day’s worth of house work ahead of me, so I thought, What the hell. The first podcast that I listened to featured the late James Schuyler reading “Korean Mums.” I don’t know when he recorded it, but his

Introduction / xix voice was old-sounding, and he read the way one might read an item from the paper. This is to say that he was steady but not overly dramatic. After listening to him twice, I listened to a short analysis offered by the podcast’s host, and the week’s special guest. A few small references went over my head, but otherwise, I seem to have gotten everything. Equally surprising is that it never felt like work, that it was, in every sense of the word, a pleasure. In the next podcast, I discovered Robert Hayden, who died in 1980, and who wore glasses with superthick lenses. This might seem beside the point, but I liked the fact that he was not in any way fashionable-looking — was, in fact, quite nerdy. The poem they featured was about his father, who’d busted his ass to get up early and warm the house while everyone else was in bed. The poet never thanked him for it — treated him, from the sounds of it, pretty poorly. Now he looks back, and ends with the following lines: Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? The poem says eloquently in five cut-up lines what I have been trying to say my whole life. Why don’t poets just come out with it? Uh, actually, I think they do. From Robert Hayden I moved to Philip Larkin, then to Fanny Howe and Robert Lowell. The more I’m exposed to, the more enraptured I become, the world feeling both bigger and smaller at the same time. Poetry, I think. Where has it been all my life! I said to Hugh, “I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new variety of meat. And it’s free!” David Sedaris

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