Consider an essay. It will be written in the first person and almost certainly the ‘I’ will reflect on their childhood or themselves as a younger person. There will be an important contrast from that period to time to this, perhaps a key moment that resonated throughout the I’s life or it will serve as an explanation for tumultuous events of the present — such as a catastrophic divorce. Did I mention they are probably divorced and bitter about it? Also, at least one parent will be absent and possibly dead. Probably dead. They will yearn for something more than the mundane and may be trying to make up for their wasted twenties.
You have now considered every essay that guest editor Cheryl Strayed chose to feature as 2013’s best essays.
My only experience with the “Best American” series was 2007’s, featuring David Foster Wallace as guest editor, and containing reviews, third person accounts of interesting people, investigative journalism, Iraq war reports, explanations for strange phenomenon such as the Dog Whisperer. While a wide range of topics is still covered, I found myself bewildered by 2013’s specificity. I looked up Cheryl Strayed online and discovered her big hit is Wild, which is, get this: Strayed reflecting on her journey across the Pacific Crest Trail, taken in her early 20’s after her mother died and her marriage ended in ruin.
Conclusion: Cheryl Strayed has very limited interests; or may be a narcissist.
Anyway, my three favorites were:
Keeper of the Flame by Matthew Vollmer — The author’s dad invites him to meet “the Nazi”. Turns out there is a castle filled with a rare and complete set of Third Reich memorabilia in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This combines two key elements that make a great essay: A strange and interesting topic paired with a shall-we-say, moral thrust, that interrogates the reader and their worldview.
The Exhibit Will Be So Marked by Ander Monson — On his thirty-third birthday, Monson asks for friends and family to send him mix-tapes (so that he can evaluate what they think of him and their relationship via their choice of music). He also receives a broken cassette in an unmarked envelope sent from Nebraska City, Nebraska. The author details his attempts to find a way to listen to the tape mixed with a hodgepodge of scenes from his life; a life mix tape. In less adept hands, this could be insufferable, but instead it is very clever and wearily uplifting.
The Girls in My Town by Angela Morales — Childbirth. It’s another topic covered in several essays and this is the best one. Morales, in her early thirties, gives birth and lays in a hospital room a curtain over from a fourteen year old who has just done the same. She goes on to explore the combination of sexism, racism, boredom, and mislaid-hope that has led to an enormous amount of teen pregnancies in her central Californian home of Merced. It is a very good (and I’m a sucker for righteous anger).