xoJaneBookClub: The Best American Non-Required Reading 2014

Anthologies with a wide and varied selection inside are fun if you're the type who likes a surprise inside.

The Book Club is back! Yes, I know some of you thought it dead, but behind the scenes there was some shuffling and restructuring going on. I am your new book club host and this year in reading is going to be awesome.

Our discussion this weekend is of the last book club pick: The Best American Non-Required Reading 2014 edited by Daniel Handler.

Let's get some stuff out of the way first:

But you said no white men!

Yes, except this book was the pick before I took over and before I even issued my challenge. Plus, not everyone is taking the challenge. Also plus, it's an anthology with contributors from many different backgrounds. You could choose to just not read the straight, white, cisgender men if you really wanted to.

But Daniel Handler said that racist thing!

And, hey, I have no love for Mr. Handler right now over that business. Despite his name being on the cover and his introduction, he's pretty easy to ignore since the majority of the hard work on this book was done by students.

And for people who might balk at giving Handler more money by buying the book, note that the proceeds go to the organization that gathers these students together and promotes literacy and critical thinking and is aligned with yet another organization that provides low income and marginalized kids with community and skills that help ensure they get to college. All around it's a worthy endeavor, even with Handler's involvement.

OK? OK. Now, on to the actual book.

Anthologies with a wide and varied selection inside are fun if you're the type who likes a surprise inside. No one will like every selected piece, of course. But the variety gives a good chance of most people liking a lot of what they come across.

Here we have essays, articles, interviews, comics, short stories, poems, plays, and a transcript from a podcast. I can't say anything to how well things were arranged thematically as I skipped around in the book as I read.

My favorite pieces: If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky; An Interview With Mona Eltahawy by Yasmine L. Rashidi; If He Hollers Let Him Go by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah; K Becomes K by V. V. Ganeshananthan.

If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love is a short story (shorter than most) that won several awards last year and is one of those stories that is just speculative enough to be counted as science fiction or fantasy but with a tone and style that is more often associated with literary fiction. Some folks label this slipstream (did you read that piece about Kelly Link from the other week? This is the kind of stuff they were talking about) and others term it Interstitial. What I like is how Swirsky leads you through this fun, absurd, touching story and then absolutely drops an anvil on you. She's such a masterful writer.

Due to the way I skipped around I ended up reading An Interview With Mona Eltahawy and If He Hollers Let Him Go in the same afternoon. They're not that close together in the book but have some wonderful resonances with each other. Though I've heard of Mona Eltahawy, I have not read much of her writing or much about her. After this interview I want to read everything she's written. I felt a personal kinship with her, especially when she talks about reactions to her Foreign Policy piece "Why Do They Hate Us?"

The attacks were very personal. As a writer, I know that on any given day, 25% of the people will disagree with what I say. But it's the way they disagree that makes it really interesting.

Eltahawy's resilience in the face of multiple attacks, be they about her writing, about her politics, or literal physical attacks, is inspiring. After a brutal experience during the Egyptian Arab Spring uprising, she said that her experience was a "microcosm of everything I've been talking about" and it forged her into the activist she is today.

If He Hollers Let Him Go is also about activism and incidents in a life that act as a crucible, but from a very different angle. It's a piece about Dave Chappelle and why he chose to walk away from his popular Comedy Central show. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah wove together the personal backgrounds of Chapelle's parents, the social and cultural significance of Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, and the entertainer known as Steppin' Fetchit, connections between African anti-colonialism and the US civil rights movement, and the local history of Yellow Springs, Ohio. It's a beautiful and complex piece about a complex person and all the complex histories that fed into who he is and who he was. It even made me long to see Yellow Springs and consider what it might be like to live there — and I'm from that part of Ohio and escaped as soon as was possible.

The thing that struck me most about K Becomes K is Ganeshananthan's ability to paint word pictures that blossomed so effortlessly in my mind that I went back and re-read passages over again trying to understand why they worked.

Of the many pieces in this collection, which ones were your favorites? Any in particular that struck you deeply or just entertained you? And which could you have done without completely?

Edited to added (thanks to niccaught for mentioning the specifics):

For people who might balk at giving Handler more money by buying the book, note that the proceeds go to the organization that gathers these students together (826 Valencia and 826 Ann Arbor, part of 826 National) and promotes literacy and critical thinking. One of 826 National's programs is ScholarMatch, which provides low income and marginalized kids with community and skills that help ensure they get to college. All around it's a worthy endeavor, even with Handler's involvement.

The Next Book Club Pick: Dendera by Yuya Sato, translated by Edwin Hawkes and Nathan A Collins

Paperback | IndieBound | Kindle Edition | Goodreads

When Kayu Saitoh wakes up, she is in an unfamiliar place. Taken to a snowy mountainside, she was left there by her family and her village according to the tradition of sacrificing the lives of the elderly for the benefit of the young. Kayu was supposed to have passed quickly into the afterlife. Instead, she finds herself in Dendera, a utopian community built over decades by old women who, like her, were abandoned. Together, they must now face a new threat: a hungry mother bear.

Note: Right now the only eBook editions are Kindle and iBooks, but this is supposed to also come out for Nook, Kobo, and others.

We'll meet up next month to discuss Dendera, but if you'd like to talk about stuff as you read just use the #xoJaneBookClub hashtag on Twitter.