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.