Topping the Charts | Arts & Humanities Reviews, December 2016

redstarThe Best American Essays 2016. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. (Best American). Oct. 2016. 352p. ed. by Jonathan Franzen. ISBN 9780544812109. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780544812178. LIT

Franzen, one of America’s most important novelists, edits this year’s entry of the Best American Essays. He chooses “risk” as his primary selection criterion, by which he means writing that not only takes stylistic chances but also threatens to upset readers and call into question the writer’s own credibility. In the opening piece, “Bajadas,” Francisco Cantú describes his experiences as a border cop in New Mexico. In “Girl,” Alexander Chee reflects on the power of a woman’s beauty, as experienced as a man in drag. And in “Ordinary Girls,” Jaquira Díaz presents a haunting account of herself as a 13-year-old girl, coming of age despite attempted suicides that were spurred by her mentally ill mother’s abuse and neglect. Indeed, “risk” does operate as the unifying theme in this anthology both in form and content. And while it could invite the opportunity for lurid sensationalism, that is not the case here. These essays surprise, but only in the service of important human truths. While many anthology collections tend to be hit or miss, these are all hits. They are also topical, sparking conversations crucial to understanding today’s political climate. VERDICT If one were to buy only one book of Best American Essays, this might be it.—Meagan Lacy, Guttman Community Coll., CUNY

redstarThe Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. (Best American). Oct. 2016. 432p. ed. by Rachel Kushner. ISBN 9780544812116. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780544812185. LIT

nonrequiredreading-jpg112916Kudos to the youth editorial board who selected the 25 unique entries for the 15th annual publication that includes an interview with the president of the United States, a book review, Pulitzer Prize–nominated investigative journalism, as well as poetry, stories, and essays. While the chosen pieces stand on their own, the reward for readers is amplified with the understanding that high school students brandished their passion for reading and writing to comb through literary journals and magazines to identify the pieces that best illustrate modern history. Michele Scott’s “How I Became a Prison Gardener” reveals how she studied, observed, and tended to plants while in a California women’s correctional facility. The excerpt from Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Killing and Dying demonstrates a student’s introduction to stand-up comedy. Molly Brodak’s “Bandit” tells of a young girl’s relationship with her father who robs banks. Rebecca Makkai’s “The Miracle Years of Little Fork” details the death of a circus elephant. VERDICT This exceptional collection shines for two reasons: the quality of the selections and the insight of the students of 826 National, a nonprofit organization that helps youth ages six through 18 pursue their creative and ­expository ­writing skills.—Joyce ­Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL

This article was published in Library Journal's December 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.