The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011 is a collection of lists, poems, stories, essays, and comics edited by Dave Eggers, with an introduction by Guillermo Del Toro. It’s a thick and somewhat intimidating collection, but regardless, I enjoyed many of the stories within its pages. These stories/essays included ‘We Show What We Have Learned’ by Clare Beams (about a teacher whose body falls apart in front of her students), ‘The Deep’ by Anthony Doerr (about a man whose mother kept him from the world because of his heart condition), ‘Weber’s Head’ by J. Robert Lennon (about a roommate feud between a sculptor and a web editor), ‘The Suicide Catcher’ by Michael Paterniti (about the real-life Mr. Chen who catches people from jumping off the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge), and ‘Pleiades’ by Anjali Sachdeva (about in vitro septuplets dying due to health complications). These stories were tender, loving, and ached with life. Specifically, I thought ‘The Deep’ was powerful in how it treated the mother’s overprotection and the son’s desire to live even if it meant he was bound to die.
The story by Joyce Carol Oates, ‘A Hole in the Head’, had an interesting premise and was written well enough for me to be held by its narrator. Though the story felt like it fell squarely within the territory of genre fiction and read like another story of hers in Best American Short Stories 2011 about a daughter who can’t identify her mother’s body. Another story in the collection that I didn’t feel too enthused about was ‘Art of the Steal’ by Joshuah Bearman mainly due to the same pitfalls of Oats’ story, in that it didn’t do anything fresh with the genre. Overall, however, I enjoyed the variety, and many of the stories.
Final Rating: 4/5
A Captain’s Duty by Richard Phillips is an account of his harrowing story off the shore of Somalia where his cargo ship was captured by pirates, and he was taken hostage in a lifeboat in 2009. The book goes through Captain Phillips’ actions to prepare for an attack, what he did to keep his crew safe, and how he survived. The tension between the pirates and Captain Phillips is palpable as he accounts the mock executions, the humiliation, and his crews’ actions. It was interesting to read his account because I remembered the event in the news. Though, the book revealed specific actions he’d done to keep his crew safe on the Maersk Alabama by running drills, building repertoire with the pirates, and alerting his crew over the radio. There were so many things that he’d done right, but it was interesting for him to recount and focus on the mistakes he made. And while the book’s style/content wasn’t particularly one I usually read, I still found it held up. Overall, I enjoyed the depth with which it went into Captain Phillip’s mindset and his perseverance.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a book focusing on the craft of writing, how to approach writing, and some nuggets of wisdom gathered in her career. Lamott provides some of the tools that she uses and reassures the reader that writing is an arduous but rewarding process. I thought her anecdote about her brother’s bird project was poignant and compelling, when her father told him to complete the project bird by bird. As with other craft books I’ve read recently (On Writing by Stephen King), one of the tenets that keeps coming up is to tell the truth and be truthful to the reader, the characters, and the story. And as I am beginning in my writing career, I will hold this close to me because if the emotions and moments aren’t true, then why even write them in the first place? Other practical pieces of advice discuss being okay with imperfect prose, to gather in writing groups, and to break the writing into easier to complete portions. The writing is beautiful with moments of Lamott’s life sprinkled in throughout to give context and support to her advice. I liked the breadth and depth is goes into on being a writer, though its advice didn’t seem particularly different than other craft books I’ve read. Lamott does discuss writing in a unique way, and overall, I enjoyed its tenderness, love, and dedication to the craft.
Final Rating: 4/5
The Kenyon Review Winter 2023 features short stories, essays, poetry, and visual art, with a folio focusing on bridges and how people/connections/moments can be bridges for other things. This issue has a few fascinating stories, one of which is called ‘Block Party’, by Danny Lang-Perez, which features a magical man who can cook/make anything from his mobile kitchen and his son, Charles, who people adore. When Charles doesn’t appear one night because his mother asked him not to help, the neighborhood goes crazy, throwing things at the man and running him out of their cul-de-sac. It’s an interesting way to look at how the entitled treat workers, and what happens when things don’t go their way. I also enjoyed the language in ‘Eight Poems’ by Abbas Kiarostami and ‘The Orphanage’ by Emeline Atwood. Though, everything else felt a little lackluster.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a short book on what Pressfield believes to be behind being an artist and how to work to achieve that goal. It’s split into three sections which each detail Resistance (which Pressfield describes as the force that creates fear and creative blockages), how to combat Resistance, and how to use what you have at your disposal to go beyond Resistance.
I’ll start with what I liked (because there are far more things I disliked and sometimes baulked at). It’s a straightforward read, one that is short, and its language/structure is concise. It has a matter-of-fact tone that is convincing enough if I didn’t already have a strong understanding of craft/artistry. And finally, Pressfield’s prestige gives an air of authority that some people would find appealing.
However, the thesis and supporting arguments for Pressfield’s ideas on Resistance are framed and contextualized in bad taste. The title, The War of Art, frames the idea of creation and artistry as of a way to defeat/destroy/annihilate this unknowable force he calls Resistance. Personally, I dislike this idea because it places the reader in a mindset that to become a great artist, one must have a warlike attitude. It’s a very macho-esque and toxic view on how art is made. Its tone reads as if there is a winner and a loser, a war between good and evil, and gives no nuances. The way it’s written though makes sense because of his background in religion and his time in the Marines. Neither of those identities on their own merit rejection of his word, but it’s his synthesis of sin and Angels paralleling the writer and writer’s block, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t think art should be approached in an aggressive/combative mindset (it reminds me of the grindset tech bros and gym rats).
The first section of the book is focused on defining what Resistance is which still unsettles me. Pressfield explains that Resistance is the object that prevents us from producing art (I’m fine with that part) “…is the most toxic force on the planet.” and is itself worse than “…poverty, disease, and erectile disfunction.” (Literally what is he talking about?—and I won’t even approach the disingenuous way he groups those three ailments together). Later in the book he discusses that many times he goes about implying that even illness and cancer can be conquered (sometimes blaming companies of making up diseases, and other times describing cancer going into remission just because a woman decides to do what she loves). It’s a deceptive and icky tactic to try and give credit to the idea that it’s all about mindset and not about situation, poverty, disease, genetics, location, family, or any other factor that occurs in someone’s life. I am also deeply unconvinced of his logic when he says, “…it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.” If that were the case, then wouldn’t we have millions of current day Hitlers now as well? Also, I don’t think it's mutually exclusive for a person to either be an artist or someone who creates genocide.
The latter half of the book is written is a way to seem deep—to compel the reader to be an artist—and what is stopping them is Resistance and themselves. It’s the same thing that generic inspirational speakers and rat-tail Shia LaBeouf would say, which is to just do it. There’s discussion of Muses and God giving the gift of being creative, but at that point in the book I already knew it wasn’t worth putting weight behind Pressfield’s words. The one redeeming quality of the book is that it’s so short I don’t have to spend any more time thinking about his nonsense.
Final Rating: 1/5
BeHere/1942 by Masaki Fujihata is a book describing an exhibit put on by the Japanese artist Masaki Fujihata, which documents and explores the Japanese American Internment Camps. The book seems to be paired with an art exhibit featuring 3D renderings of famous photographs taken as Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes. In one instance in the book, Fujihata zooms in on the eyes of famous photographs to show how the observer (the photographer) is reflected in the eyes of the observed (the Japanese American). The book is broken up into three parts, first describing Fujihata’s project and process, second discussing the history of the internment camps, and third focusing on Fujihata himself. The book, and Fujihata’s vision, is to think about how the observer/photographer/government wanted to represent and positively spin the incarcerations. There were some striking, and deeply emotional photographs and it was interesting to learn about the exhibit even though I wasn’t able to see it.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill is a book focusing on the injustices Black Americans face with regards to police, the incarceration system, and Capitalism. It focuses on the lives of a few particular people, namely Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. It also looks at whole communities, such as Flint, Michigan and Pruitt-Igoe. The whole thesis of the book, which I agree with, is that there are systems set in place to disenfranchise black and brown people. This can be seen, Hill explains, in the privatization of prisons, the neglect of government programs for the poor, the militarization of the police, and the prioritization of capitalistic profits over the welfare of the people. It is heartbreaking and frustrating to find that whether through willful ignorance, classism, or racism, Black families and communities take the brunt of the consequences. And in one instance, it was surprising to read that, “…the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Agriculture, and the US Railroad Retirement Board have their own SWAT teams…” There are so many injustices and wrongdoings by individuals and the government that Hill highlights, it’s disheartening to think how many other injustices have gone on without being documented.
Final Rating: 4/5
How to Ruin Everything by George Watsky is a collection of essays chronicling the adventures, mishaps, and travels of a musician on the edge of success. There are moments in India, Canada, and San Francisco, which all highlight the precarious and sometimes grubby nature of Watsky’s situations. It was interesting to read how Watsky was able to get by before he made it big in music, and how he kept on persisting.
Though, the essays felt like they followed a more conventional way of storytelling, which felt somewhat hollow. Yes, it was interesting to read about the weird travels and stoner moments, but it didn’t feel like it went beyond those moments to synthesize or draw anything more. Maybe the essays didn’t need to be anything more than they were, and after all, it erred on the side of jokes and humor. Overall, it was interesting to see the trajectory and situations Watsky got into and how he was able to overcome them.
Final Rating: 3/5
Keep Going by Austin Kleon is a little book about how to stay creative with some tips and tricks that have worked for the author. It’s a fun little book, though most of its advice seems generally non-specific and not as useful after the initial glance. Though, its general message of keep going is at least worth noting. I also enjoyed some of the comics as well.
Final Rating: 2.5/5
Review of On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing by Stephen King is a book that’s part memoir and part a discussion on the craft of fiction. King goes about describing how he came to be a writer, what he thinks exists in good writing, and how became a better writer. I enjoyed his matter-of-fact tone and the way he approaches his craft. I specifically connected with the idea that the story is a fossil the writer excavates. And while I didn’t read this book before I wrote my piece in CRAFT, my author’s note rings eerily like his, “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.” I like this idea, and it’s reaffirming to know he treats his stories the same. I also enjoyed the glimpses into his life where I saw parallels to my own writing journey.
Though, as with any writing advice, I’d be hesitant to take everything he says as the ultimate truth. I agree story is the most important part of fiction and character’s actions/situations drive the narrative. I also agree one most read a lot and write a lot to become better. However, I’m a little more hesitant to take his advice on writing a thousand words every day or the specifics of his craft. To me, it seems much of his advice is prescriptive, and without it, one isn’t being a proper writer. His authoritative voice is convincing but doesn’t apply to everyone. I’m also not sure of his idea that competent writers can only become good writers, or you can’t become a great writer if you’re a good writer. To someone just starting the craft, this seems demoralizing and assumes people can’t fundamentally change. Overall, I’ll be taking a few nuggets of wisdom from King, but I’ll be leaving everything else.
Overall Rating: 3.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.