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‘Best American’ Knocks it Out of the Park

‘Best American’ Knocks it Out of the Park

Houghton-Mifflin's "The Best American Series" has collected the best in this year's short stories

Short Story Collection’s Hostile Environment Theme Thrilling

The collection of short stories in “The Best American Series 2016” combines the top short examples of several literary genres – from mystery to travel writing to science fiction to sports, in a surprisingly elegant way.

Many of these genres would not have normally appealed to me, but I found myself enjoying the entire collection. Each section has a fair spotlight, so there is something for everyone.

At first, the collection seemed a bit too ambitious – to put so many unrelated genres together felt noncommittal. However, there was a thread across the categories and a cohesive flow that didn’t seem forced after all.

This is not a collection of light reading, but rather a collection of insightful prose.

From killer beetles to the accident in Fukushima, each story reflected an inhospitable setting. The first and last pieces were the most poignant stories in setting, and in general. The stories in between were all worth reading, but these two were worth the whole book.

The first, “Bajadas” by Francisco Cantú, discusses how the narrator becomes a border cop. Perhaps it is the poignancy of our current moment in history, paired with Cantú’s straightforward writing, but I was awestruck by this piece.

Cantú’s progression of attitude toward his job is stunning. He goes from wanting to be good at his job, to not knowing what it actually means to be good at being a border cop.

He tells about how, in training, they would have to scout out places in the desert where people would leave packages of clothing, food and water for those hoping to cross into the U.S. He and his fellow trainees would find the packages and pour the water out, rip the clothing and urinate on the scraps to prevent anyone from making use of the items.

Cantú evolves from his training days to see the issue as far more complex. I know there was so much more he wasn’t telling. What he didn’t say was all the more powerful because of his light touch in writing.

William T. Vollmann’s “Invisible and Insidious” was a travel piece. This was not a vacation journal, though. Vollmann goes to Japan and measures radiation and interviews people over the span of a couple of years after the Fukushima accident. At times, I found myself genuinely terrified and tense.

Vollmann forces a lot of numbers and radiation readings onto the piece, effectively illustrating the confusion and anxiety he was trying to convey. He uses this confusion to show that the world has either forgotten the disaster or been forced by the media not to panic; and the anxiety to build the idea that something is wrong, but the Japanese people have nowhere to go, so it is better to live in manufactured optimism.

“The Best American Series 2016” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available through Amazon as an ebook under ISBN 9781328764454.

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Lex Voytek is a nervous wreck and reading quiets the noise. Reach her at books@freeabq.com.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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