This book is a direct result of the current President of the United States and the sheer terror that many of us felt/still feel right after the election of 2016. The general idea seems to have been: gather up nearly every writer in the US, ask them to write short fiction, put it all in a big Coffee Table Pretty anthology, add to it with visual art and cartoons from American artists, and do it all for a good cause. In this case the cause is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.)
So, it's a fundraiser for what turns out to be an urgent cause, populated by amazing authors -- all of whom have won prizes, have best-sellers, etc. This should have been great. Everyone seems to have at least been invited. I have no idea if any editing was done, but if pressed to guess, I'd say, "no."
I'm glad I already donate to the ACLU, or I'd have had to buy this. I feel no guilt at all that I grabbed a copy from the library the other day as I walked past it on the "brand new" shelf.
An anthology will never be consistently awesome. It just doesn't work that way. But the overall feeling of "meh" here is a bit worrisome. None of them were horrid or unthinkable. Lots of them felt like they were being phoned in. Some people copped out and didn't write fiction. Some great fiction writers (looking at YOU, Neil Gaiman) wrote very short poems, and the best pieces were not the fiction but the Forward by Viet Thanh Nguyen and a really lovely essay from Louise Erdrich about her bookstore and the love of books (and how books and literature become more important as our freedoms are threatened.)
I think the best piece is another piece of nonfiction. An essay by Ha Jin, who writes "Finally I am an American at Heart" about how, now that he's seen the courts and many others fight back against the Administration, he "gets" the ideal of America – so much so that he's ready to go into combat to defend it if necessary, which is kind of amazing, and once again shows us that the best Americans are always the newest ones.
One thing that may have helped would have been to allow nonfiction writers to write nonfiction rather than asking them all to write fiction, having most – but not all – of them try, and some fail rather miserably. It's just a missed opportunity. Then again, they pulled this together fast, and it's a nice pretty table book, so at least the ACLU will get lots of money. Even the publishers/printers/everyone donated their fees/royalties and time.
I won't pick lowlights, but here are a few highlights:
The Forward by Viet Thanh Nguyen starts the whole thing off with the most patriotic and beautiful achy feelings. He talks about American Identity, the importance of storytelling, taking refuge in the libraries of Harrisburg PA as a child, and the subtext of “Make America Great Again.” He quotes another of my recent favorites – Colson Whitehead's award speech: "Be kind to everybody, Make Art and Fight the Power." He makes lovely sentences with words like "Shared humanity and Inhumanity... We are all storytellers of our own lives." and the best line, "Rather than making America 'great' again, we should make America love again."
Also, forgive me, but I just love this man – he named his son Ellison, who was named after Emerson! And he talks about the American literary family, and how that is connected to liberty.
Things don't get worse in Julia Alvarez's,“Speak, Speak” which is a play on a taunt heard in school by a young, new English speaker, “Spick, Spick." Her story is a lovely reminder that expanding the world of American Literature means young children will not know a time when there were no Latin or Black or Chinese or Native-American voices in their world. If it wasn't for one poem by Langston Hughes ("I Too") in a school book, she never would have imagined that she could be a writer.
That little poem gave her “a lot of gasoline” and we've seen the results.
Bliss Broyard's story is actually quite nice, but I'm not really sure how it fits into the theme. She mentions the Obamas, and she has a great metaphor for the way liberals dropped the ball during the Obama years, so maybe that's enough. I'll come back and add the quote in because it's just perfect.
Mark Dilonno's "Intersections" is probably the very best of the bunch in terms of fiction that meets the challenge of speaking truth to power. He chooses a tough and nuanced topic (undocumented immigrant who has technically committed a crime and will be deported without question.) He does a fabulous job giving all sorts of shades to everyone affected, and manages to make something that seems like "just plain common sense" far from it. I wanted him to have a whole book, but it ended.
His story is worth the price of admission. And oddly, it was another reminder of how President Obama was pushed into some ugly policies because liberal America just stopped having his back in any meaningful way.
Ha Jin's essay “Finally I am an American at Heart” made me cry real tears – and he's also one of my favorite novelists.
Joyce Carol Oates story “Good News” about a young girl's valedictory speech sometime in the very dystopian American future is freakishly scary and was another one where I just wanted that story to go on and on.
Oates is immediately followed by the one other good dystopian story, this time by Sarah Paretsky ("Safety First") and she manages to give V.I. Warshawski an off-stage role.
Lee Child, Mary Higgins Clark, Angela Turner, Richard Russo, Lilly King and Alice Walker all do a respectable job, but note those names: respectable should be fairly easy for them.
There are many, many more stories by many more writers not mentioned here. Some simply aren't my taste. Some were just boring beyond belief, and some were nearly embarrassing. Others may find that they love other stories, but I really doubt anyone will be pleased cover to cover. Perhaps the best way to enjoy this is one story at a time, slowly, over the entire course of the next three years. Who knows, there may be cause to celebrate even mediocrity by then.