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…