By Mark Flanigan, Contemporary Literature Guide for About.com:
"The Best American Nonrequired Reading features fiction, nonfiction, journalism, comics, and humor, and is doubtlessly the most eclectic of Houghton Mifflin's Best American series. It grew out of the 826 Valencia project, a writing workshop for teens that Dave Eggers founded in San Francisco's Mission District. 826 Valencia has since evolved into 826 National, with writing workshops springing up around the country, and as in previous years, the pieces chosen for The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008 were done so by high school student participants of these workshops. And while there's something in this collection for everybody, I found that the selection of fiction was largely overshadowed by the remarkable nonfiction inclusions:J. Malcolm Garcia's "The White Train" is an illicit peak into the lives of a caste of Buenos Aires trash scavengers, the cartoneros, whose existence depends upon the skeletal ghost train upon which they transport their recyclables through the city.Raffi Khatchadourian's "Neptune's Navy" came from The New Yorker, and is a short version of Peter Heller's book, The Whale Warriors, which delves into the adventures of marine activist Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as they patrol the icy waters of the southern seas to stop illegal Japanese whaling.
"Veteran fiction writer George Saunders really delivers with a piece of creative journalism entitled 'Bill Clinton, Public Citizen.' Saunders describes a classroom in a hospital in the Dominican Republic where children are playing chaotically prior to the arrival of a special guest. The guest is Bill Clinton, and Saunders fools me into believing that this is a fiction, an alternate world of his imagination, by painting Clinton not as the affable, gregarious figure we're accustomed to seeing, but as grave - dour even. Then he hits me with the punch line: 'If not for the William J. Clinton Foundation, every one of these little kids would be dead or dying soon, since every one of them is HIV positive, and until the foundation intervened, almost no one in the Dominican Republic had access to life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). And for most kids this young, the life expectancy for someone with HIV not on ARVs is five years.' Saunders is part of a press crew following the former president to several developing African nations, where the work of the William J. Clinton foundation has made ARVs affordable and saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The author spotlights the private moments he shares with Clinton, moments when it becomes clear to Saunders, no slouch himself, just what an incredible individual the former president is. At a press dinner, Saunders notes that Clinton does most of the talking, not because he is self-absorbed or prone to pontification, but because Clinton is easily the most interesting person at the table:
" 'Because when Bill Clinton's at your table, you don't really want anyone else talking, and that includes you. When you do talk, you feel stupid. I mean, you are stupid. You are suddenly short of facts and full of intuition. You lack the conversational zing that comes with having once been leader of the free world. Have your previous dinner partners included Gobachev, Mandela, Bono, Liza Hurley, Stephen Jay Gould? Were you instrumental in bringing peace to Ireland? Were your personal foibles broadcast at a cringe-inducing level of detail into every home in America? Did you sign into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, already used by some three million Americans to be with a dying parent or at home after the birth of a child? Do people routinely accuse you and your wife of Macbethian levels of intrigue and ambition, levels that no actual living person is diabolical or efficient enough to attain? Have you ever made a speech to 50,000 people? Do people look at you and think: should have done more in Rwanda? Have you started a foundation that has saved, by even the most conservative estimates, hundreds of thousands of lives and set the stage, through a series of price cuts and the stabilization of markets, for millions more to be saved? Well, right, me neither.'
"The Gene Weingarten article, 'Pearls Before Breakfast,' about violinist Joshua Bell's experiment in the Washington D.C. metro originally ran in The Washington Post and won Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. It's brilliant, and along with George Saunder's piece on Clinton, should never appear in something labeled "nonrequired." No, this reading is most certainly required. Everyone should be handed this reading at the door and quizzed upon it before they are allowed to leave.There are other amazing pieces in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008. The collection opens with Marjorie Celona's "Y," a heart-breaking short story, and graphic novelist Rutu Modan's "Queen of the Scottish Fairies," a single installment from her http://www.nytimes.com/ comics column, Mixed Emotions, is absolutely brilliant - this from someone who rarely reads graphic novels or comics. And "Cake," a hard-hitting short story from Patrick Tobin on the survival of pain, both emotional and physical, will leave you doubled-over, holding your gut.Pick up a copy of The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008. As I said above, there's something for everybody, and with the Saunders and Weingarten essays being required anyway, you get an awful lot of bonus for your $14."