The Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen

best-american-essays-2016Jonathan Franzen, much like Cheryl Strayed, has a vision of the essay as an expulsion of the ‘I’.

I am telling a story about my family.
I am telling a story about my job.
I am telling a story about my sexuality or race.

Franzen further specifies he is looking for ‘intensity’ and ‘risk’, and indeed some of these essays are gripping in their intensity. But, like 2013, it gets repetitive. I like to see essays that explore little-known topics or examine some social phenomena or world events. There’s only so many essays you can read On My Shitty Parents before they all run together. The latter essays suffer this fate. There’s one in the last third where a woman is writing both about the mating habits of salamanders and her attempt to adopt a child. At that point, I was basically like “I don’t care about your familial drama, tell me about the salamanders!”

Anyway, here’s my favorites:

Girl by Alexander Chee: Chee details his application of makeup, wig, gown in preparation for the Castro Halloween parade. It’s the best description on the appeal of dressing in drag I’ve ever read. It’s beautiful. Also another reminder of how wondrous the Halloween Parade apparently was, making me further bitter about moving to San Francisco after it was canned.

My Heart Lies between “The Fleet” and “All the Ships” by Ella Harrison: Harrison is translating ancient Greek, a language no one speaks, into English, a massive undertaking that only a very few select specialists will even be able to interpret. Mostly, it’s a dazzling reflection on language. The disparate connotations and metaphors and etymological poetry that make one word very similar or different to another, each in a separate language and spoken thousands of years apart. While still centered around Harrison’s personal experience, this is one of the least “All about me” essays in the collection. The euphoria Harrison embraces while translating is merely dipping her toes into the greater human lingual ocean.

Sexual Paranoia by Laura Kipnis: This essay is the best example of Franzen’s point on writerly risk. Kipnis is a college professor protesting the overly harsh restrictions and punishments placed on college professors having affairs with students. Not exactly a popular opinion, especially when one is part of the establishment itself. My initial reaction to this was baffled skepticism — why defend behavior that is largely old married white men abusing their social status? Kipnis’ point is two fold. One: Adult relationships are messy and you’ll learn this sooner or later (this one isn’t entirely convincing). And two: by casting professors as potentially dangerous predators, you engineer a situation of infantilized, defenseless students and tyrannical, imposing professors. The narrative established behind the restrictions becomes real in a way that it wouldn’t without them. In other words: students are taught to fear their teachers.

Bastards by Lee Martin: Of the family drama essays, this one is the best. Martin’s father lost his hands in a farming accident and his inability to work dragged the family around Illinois. A father’s anger. A mother’s kindness. Sounds trite, but this is very well written. It took me right inside this shadowy, anger-ridden house. Oppressive.

The Best American Essays 2015, edited by Ariel Levy

bestamericanHere’s the reviews for:
2013
2014

Ariel Levy wrote the best essay of last year: Thanksgiving in Mongolia — wherein she delivered a premature birth in a Mongolian hotel room. So I was looking forward to what she’d come up with as the editor of the latest installation. Unfortunately her introductory essay is short and forgettable. The essay selection itself is pretty good though.

The essays in this collection skew heavily towards intense personal experience. There’s multiple entries about getting old or getting pregnant. Some of these are quite good, but as I mentioned in my review of 2013, sometimes I just want to hear a skilled writer go: “Hey I just found something cool / morally imperative, let me write about it!” There’s maybe only one or two in this collection like that, one of them being Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent essay on The Crooked Ladder: Why are the descendents of the Italian/Irish gangsters of the 1920s all upper class, entrenched Americans, but the families of the black gangsters of the 80s and 90s still mired in poverty?

Here’s my favorites:

Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul by Anthony Doerr: A romantic tale about the founding of Boise, Idaho of all things. A man finds a small house in Boise that he never noticed before despite driving by it every day. He tracks its history back to the marriage between two of the very first pioneers in Idaho, who had seven children living with them in their one-room cottage. What follows is a paean to humanity’s capacity to preserve and remember.

A Man and His Cat by Tim Kreider: The title says it all. Kreider details the longest relationship of his life — the companionship of a 19 year old cat. When humans find their intra-human social needs missing, they tend to lower the bar and accept other creatures in their stead. A comic but moving defense of the personhood of animals.

My Daughter and God by Justin Cronin: Cronin receives a call from his wife that she and their daughter had just been involved in a ‘fender bender’. He rapidly discovers that she is in shock and their accident was actually a catastrophic freeway spinout that obliterated their SUV but miraculously left both passengers unharmed. Cronin and wife then find God and organized religion and begin their search (in east Texas) for a church that isn’t horrendously, hatefully socially conservative. Meanwhile their daughter, a consummate atheist since she was in a stroller, feels betrayed and starts living in her closet. It’s the type of family drama that only shines in the hands of a skilled narrative writer, and Cronin is that.

There’s a few duds. I’m sure there’s one or two aging/life change pieces so repetitive I’ve already forgotten them. And there’s a couple on the nature of Time that did not work for me. A guy recovering from surgery convaleses in his study and watches his day — sunlight, meals, segments of time itself — elongate and disintegrate. I found it intolerably boring. There’s a later one by Rebecca Solnit that takes on a similar theme, using Buddhist arches in Japan instead. It’s prettier but still meh. “Time is not absolute” is not exactly groundbreaking here.

But, like I said, overall: Pretty good collection.

The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

bestessays2014Last year it was all about divorced self absorption and the shadow of dead parents. What’s the theme this year, eh? Guest editor John Jeremiah Sullivan launches the book* with the hardline stance of the granddaddy-of-all-essays Michel de Montaigne: by examining oneself, one can examine all humanity.

And this is how the essays tie to one another. A writer investigates something — say, the burning man festival, child abuse, or a rare disease — and extrapolates it far beyond the personal to a universal shared experience. Typically death is involved. Death of self, death of parents, death of innocence, death of children, and so on. The Ultimate Concern. Lo, us poor creatures who became aware of our own guaranteed annihilation.

The thing about these essays is they are almost never bad or even mediocre; An essay on being introduced as a public speaker, the only piece that doesn’t quite mesh with Sullivan/Montaigne’s universal appeal theme is curiously the only one I straight up didn’t like. But. There’s also very few that are exceptional. The best essay in the book I had already read and I’ve already forgotten several of them.

The Best Ones:

Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy — A 5 month pregnant woman stubbornly decides to fly to Ukraine for a journalism piece. More to prove she can do it to herself and everyone else rather than any pressing political-writing need.Then the pain starts. Chilling, awe-inspiring, and hard to forget. I read this months ago, but it was just as powerful the second time around.

The Man at the the River by Dave Eggers — An American man and his Sudanese friend rest by a river; The Sudanese wants to wade the river but the American does not for fear of catching an infection in a deep gash on his leg. Cultural differences abound. This is almost a parable. No one is named and it’s very short, but perfectly encapsulates its theme: a westerner desperately trying to avoid being a stereotype, even as it inevitably occurs.

The Devil’s Bait by Leslie Jamison — Jamison attends a conference in support of Morgellons disease, a rare affliction that may or may not even be ‘real’ and affects people differently. They might feel worms crawling out of their skin, or get very itchy, or have little crystals start protruding from their flesh. The professional medical community is fairly sure it’s a psychological problem, but the affected patients gather, trying to take pictures or bring ziplocked evidence of their foreign growths. Or just for moral and social support. Jamison wonders if it honestly matters whether the symptoms are ‘real’ — that is, actual organic crystals or worms protruding from skin. If the suffering is so acutely felt, shouldn’t that be all that’s required for our empathy?

 

*OK, so Sullivan’s essay doesn’t actually start the book. There’s a brief introduction by series editor Robert Atwan, who has been running this every year since 1985, the year I was born. His topic is nothing less than the assault on Truth and Free Speech and Censorship in America. It’s embarrassingly out of touch and feels profoundly old.

His adversary of choice are ‘trigger warnings’, which he totally mischaracterizes to suit his point of an America in danger of censorship. Trigger warnings are bits of text preceding a piece, warning of potentially upsetting content. Not upsetting like a fly in your spaghetti, not upsetting like a bad piece of world news ruining your mood, but the sort of upsetting Great-Great Uncle Jim, trench veteran of WWI, felt when he was diving for cover, dazed and terrified at any old loud noise. It’s to stop people who have suffered greatly from having to relieve that suffering or potentially trigger a PTSD response. And indeed, the two back-to-back child abuse essays in 2014 (a mean trick of listing things in alphabetical order) are devastating, important, and extremely well written; but I would never ask someone who had experienced anything so terrible to read either without warning.

Instead, Atwan sees trigger warnings as a content endorsement for the general ‘young’ American populace to avoid reading anything that makes them uncomfortable. He also refers to a story written in 1980’s Baltimore street vernacular as ‘A Clockwork Orange-esque’. Uh. Being embarrassed by Grandpa here…

The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed

bae2013Consider 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).