“The Best Music Writing 2008” (De Capo Press, $15.95)
Nelson George, guest editor; Daphne Carr, series editor.
“The best music critics have a knack for looking deeply at a current work, holding it up as a mirror to the present music scene and as a window into the mind of its maker,” writes Nelson George, a hip hop and R&B specialist and former columnist at The Village Voice, in his introduction. “This must be done without being too glib — glibness being the cardinal sin of folks who write too fast, too often, and about too many records.”
That's not a problem with these thoughtful, colorful stories that George selected mostly from the pages of highly regarded publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Oxford American.
As is becoming the series template, George leans heavily on his own areas of interest — there are attitude-drenched stories on urban artists from Wu-Tang and Keyshia Cole to high-school sensation Soulja Boy and his massively successful blueprint for Internet self-promotion. Yet we also get memorable stories about death metal (Dimmu Borgir), queer dance music and a much-deserved nod to classical-music writing via a piece by the always impressive Alex Ross, who writes with sweeping musical and historical detail about the “anti-modern modernism” of tormented Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius, and his mysterious Eighth Symphony.
Indeed, the joy here is in the diversity. Besides top-notch writing, all entries feature an impressive amount of research (one story about legendary '60s musician Sly Stone took 20 years to write). These well-versed critics are nothing if not passionately committed to understanding their subjects and the power, or lack thereof, in their art. As George writes, it's as if they were “looking for God in the vinyl.” — Brent Baldwin
“The Best American Poetry 2008” (Scribner, $16)
Charles Wright, guest editor; David Lehman, series editor.
By its title, one may think this annual collection represents a kind of literary elite. But really this is the “best” that means, simply, “an adequate sampling.” “The Best American Poetry 2008” is a showcase, a wide swath of voices that feed into the meat grinder of current culture to produce a single raw patty of USDA choice.
Each year since its first edition in 1988, series editor David Lehman — a fine poet himself — has selected the guest editor, a poet with a long career, read and loved. The guest editor plucks the finest grapes hanging from the vines of the small presses.
This year it's Charles Wright pulling the strings. His 75 poets come from 45 periodicals. Twenty-eight of those poems come from only five different titles — that's nearly 40 percent. One-quarter of all the poems came from just two titles. Wide swath? Hardly.
The biggest contributor was The New Yorker with 13 of the 75 represented. Paul Muldoon, editor of The New Yorker, has a poem appearing in the anthology, which was first published in — you guessed it — The New Yorker. Muldoon was also guest editor of the “Best” series in 2005. Might it be that poets and periodicals rather than poems are selected for this anthology? Absolutely. Is it provable? Absolutely not.
Wright claims in his introduction, in fragmented dollops of proverbial insight: “There are very few bad poems being published. … On the other hand, there are very few really good ones, either. …” I'm not suggesting nepotism or even laziness, but one can sense a kind of pessimism.
To me, it's as good a sample as any (Ciaran Berry and Kevin Young are standouts), though, to be sure, we'd all select a different grouping. The magic is still there, and even though the poems are arranged alphabetically by author, there are eerie connections between neighbors that suggest more than mere coincidence. They are, after all, chosen by one of America's finest poets, and this is most of the fun — seeing the diverse world of poetry through the eyes of Wright. — Darren Morris
“New Stories From the South: The Year's Best, 2008” (Algonquin Books, $14.95)
ZZ Packer, guest editor; Kathy Porter, series editor.
While Southern fiction can't be typified by any one tactile quality other than setting, the founding mother of Algonquin Books, Shannon Ravenel, suggests that readers do entertain a certain expectation when delving into a specifically Southern collection.
There's hope for hot-blooded drama, preternaturally high emotion and redemption even as something like the devil lurks beneath the surface of the easygoing howdys and y'alls. We expect setting as sultry as the bayou and characters who are both dangerous and endangered, requiring our hope, our pity and our guilty but pleasurable voyeurism to survive the leap from the page to our hungry imaginations.
In this collection, ZZ Packer delivers. With a pleasing combination of new and familiar names, the stories read like a surprising mix tape played at an interracial, cross-cultural wedding. Just as you're ready to bop out to Holly Goddard Jones' “Theory of Realty,” Pinckney Benedict's “Bridge of Sighs” leads you into a shockingly violent mosh-pit, followed by a creepy and way-too-close slow dance in “The Girls” by Daniel Wallace. Voice and character win out over plot in the tragic ballad of a delinquent, unwed teenage mother in Stephanie Soileau's “So This Is Permanence,” while Merritt Tierce delves into hardcore with a loose-tongued promiscuous druggie waitress in “Suck It.”
Kevin Moffett's wacky road trip and honeymoon in “First Marriage” is an offbeat treat while David James Poissant's surprisingly moving “Lizard Man” turns up the volume and steals the show. While the flavor of “New Stories” has a hint of twang, don't expect the station to stay on country. — Valley Haggard
“The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008” (Houghton Mifflin, $14)
Jerome Groopman, guest editor; Tim Folger, series editor.
Compare it with a collection of short stories, and you'll find that the best science and nature writing tends toward the apocalyptic even more than our fiction-minded writers. The 24 pieces in this anthology, distilled from usual suspects such as Wired, The New Yorker, Scientific American and National Geographic, have a fascination with doom that, who knows, may have always lurked in the back of the science writer's brain.
At any rate the shape of our destruction takes many forms: the expansion and ultimate savaging of the universe by dark energy in Christopher Conselice's “The Universe's Invisible Hand”; the tricks of a disease in Michael Finkel's “Malaria: Stopping a Global Killer”; the handing over of war to the machines in Steve Featherstone's “The Coming Robot Army.”
But the dangers are more esoteric still, including such curious risks to civilization as multitasking and the Nigerian e-mail scam. These subjects, like the less ominous ones (an enigmatic Brazilian tribal language, the birth of musical passion in victims of lightning strikes), are handled with the cool hand of the clinician. There are strong narratives and intriguing characters, but the writers avoid for the most part taking a stance on the issues. As it should be.
As the world continues its shift under these new sciences and technologies, a writer with clear, unbiased vision is essential to communicating these changes to the public. The only bias that seems to show up throughout is the “I” — these writers sure like to show up in their narratives, even if only to remind the reader that he or she asked somebody a question. In many cases it's unnecessary, and makes me wonder if maybe the writers see themselves as adventurers in the hat-and-bullwhip tradition — they need to be a part of the story.
But is that for us, to help humanize the numbers and figures? Or are the writers subtly reminding us of their important role as the middlemen of this information? Without us, they seem to be saying, you'd never know the various flavors of doom that await. — Brandon Reynolds
“The Best American Comics 2008” (Houghton Mifflin, $22)
Lynda Barry, guest editor; Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, series editors.
For those of you coming to the table late — or refusing to dine on this particular kind of thing at all — let me just say that the world of comics is probably the most exciting branch of literature these days. Ornate, clever, absurd, tragic — there's a range of approaches to the form that you just aren't seeing in fiction or poetry.
Partly it's because of the freedom of the medium — no limitations on how to draw, how to write, length, tone, subject. But it's also the result of being the stepchild of the more respectable lit forms for, what, 150 years or something? Comic artists run around outside the golden walls — every now and then, they'll throw an illustrated brick over the wall and maybe somebody will pick it up.
So that's what we have here, a bunch of comics that got bundled up in an anthology that carries the “Best American Series” brand, right alongside short stories, essays and travel writing. And it's some weird stuff — the memoir is strong in comics now, as seen in David Axe and Steve Olexa's “War-Fix,” Axe's story of his time as a reporter in Iraq. Or Gene Luen Yang's “American Born Chinese.” Or “Simpsons” overlord Matt Groening's venerable “Life in Hell,” constructed entirely from his kids' conversations.
The allegorical comes through, too, with tales of monkeys and crabs. Some are startlingly rough-looking, scoured of conventional line or narrative, and some, like Jason Lutes's “Berlin,” are historical epic films set to paper. There's a willful obscurity to some, which seems in character, too — why not force the reader to work for it, even if it makes little sense or is, frankly, godawful? These are less about the story and more about the art.
It's interesting that Hollywood has finally started cashing in on comic books and graphic novels. There are works in this collection that would fit nicely on the screen. But it's good to be reminded that there are others that defy translation, which keep literature exciting by refusing to climb over those golden walls. — B.R.