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.

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio

loiteringLoneliness.

Love.

While the essays in this collection masquerade as other topics, they all return to loneliness and love in the end. Seeking the latter while immersed in the former.

D’Ambrosio survived a tragic family life: one brother lost to suicide, another brother schizophrenic and a failed suicide, a tyrannical father unable to take responsibility. Naturally, this informs nearly every aspect of his writing, whether it be about hopping trains, the emergent culture of his hometown Seattle, an analysis of Catcher in the Rye, or pondering society’s binary judgement of a middle school teacher accused of seducing a student.

Poignant and smart and occasionally both heartbreaking and funny, but frankly exhausting. It was an endless emotional pummelling of D’Ambrosio’s life and constant searching, searching, searching. He’s camping on the coastline ostensibly writing about the conflict between the native Makah people and their traditional whaling versus the local environmentalists demonizing them, but actually it’s musings about his penis and life as a lost boy isolated on the Pacific coast. I wanted to know about the whales! About the Makah!

I’ve mentioned before that all modern essays that take the personal + topical approach are inextricably tied back to the work of Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace. Their emotional vulnerability was essential to their appeal, but they remained keen, insightful observers of the world around them. When David Foster Wallace writes, at the start of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again:

I have filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.

Not only is it a funny intro, it’s a model for the essay. We get both DFW’s deep sense of outsiderness and bafflement that a luxury cruise is supposed to be fun but this is a wonderful juxtaposition to what is actually happening on the cruise, and an overall satire/critique on vacation in general. The problem with Loitering, as well-written as it is, is that it’s so heavily skewed to the ‘Just Me’. This is not necessarily some endemic flaw, but key to how I engage with books. I love a good essay collection, but am generally lukewarm to all but the best memoir.

D’Ambrosio is a stellar writer — he has the poet’s eyes for language, his vocabulary is prodigious but the little known words he uses are intriguing to ponder and learn the meaning of. I learned some variations on words I already knew. ‘Parsonal’, which I’m not sure is truly a word, connotes all the attributes of a ‘parson’, but is somehow a far prettier word. And his life is interesting. He tells it well. I was just looking for him to tell some other things well too.

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.

Lunch With a Bigot: The Writer in the World by Amitava Kumar

lunch with a bigotReading and writing are a major topic of exploration in these essays. Kumar is an advocate of writing as an expression of the real, a way to decipher and interpret the everyday — politics, identity, culture — the sacred role of fiction in making palpable these essential things. The well known strategy of the writer infusing their personal experiences and family character into the plot.

He also determines economy of language as required. Short, direct sentences. Avoidance of adverbs, overuse of adjectives, all flowery language whatsoever. Carver, Hemingway, Roth, Naipaul*. I enjoy most of the named writers and styles. Certainly I love many books determined to translate ‘the real’. Yet, I’m utterly baffled whenever anyone makes grandiose declarations of what literature should ultimately be.

I mean when I hear anyone anyone, not just this writer, say something along the lines of:

  • Writing should be a translation of real life, serious in aim, and high in pursuit.
  • Never write anything that doesn’t directly serve the story; no diversions.
  • Vampires / magic / future technology should be done in this way. (it happens in all genres)
  • Never use two words when one would do (and don’t tell Proust!).

To that I say: literature can be a million different things! Many of them good! Use ornate language even if it isn’t strictly necessary! Divert away, so long as it is interesting! Adverbs surely aren’t always so bad.

It’s this hardline notion more than anything else that makes me unlikely to read Amitava Kumar’s fiction, or of many lit critics who espouse similar. But what he does excel at is journalistic concerns — recording public events, interviewing ‘common’ people, conducting talks with filmmakers and writers. There’s some really insightful pieces here. I’ve added Indian films to my to-watch list that I would never have heard of otherwise.

Kumar does an excellent job of translating the presence and importance of great writers to the page. And also less known personages, like a muslim taxi driver who was assaulted after the Boston bombings. The words of the bigot of the title — a Hindu radical who hates and dehumanizes muslims — are chilling and well recorded, and show that extreme right wing rhetoric is basically the same everywhere, no matter how applied. And it is Arundhati Roy’s line, in an interview with Kumar, about using court injunctions as napkins that sticks with me after finishing this book.

*Kumar names some other Indian writers too, but having not read them, I can’t recite from memory. With a handful of exceptions, the vast majority of writers namedropped are men.

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).

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

changing-my-mindTo illustrate what Zadie Smith is good at, what I enjoyed most about these essays, I will begin with what I did not like: the personal and the morally / socially critical. Smith has an interesting family — older white father, black mother, rapper and comedian brothers — and she writes a few essays on family, specifically her father. She sketches a serviceable portrait of her father, barely touches on her brothers and her mother is utterly absent. The focus of these essays, the connection between Zadie Smith and her dad feel, for lack of a better word, constructed. Like these are the feelings an overeducated writer should have about her working class father. Not that she didn’t feel these things, but the writing does not convey real poignancy. It feels guarded, sanitized, and frankly dull. Along similar lines follow the Praising Obama essay, which may suffer more from reading five years after writing than any authentic emotional lack.

The latter flaw (social criticism) is exhibited in Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend, a piece that attempts to flay American celebrity worship and the absurd hullabaloo of Oscar weekend. It is written impersonally but implies a morally present writer. The epigraph to this book is by David Foster Wallace. He’s also the subject of perhaps the best essay in the collection. DFW, like Joan Didion who is also namedropped in the Oscar essay, could effortlessly dissect, censure, and simultaneously be deeply disturbed by many aspects of contemporary culture. Smith has these writers in mind while penning this essay, but she cannot pull it off. She isn’t like Wallace and Didion who come off as fragile, vulnerable people. When David Foster Wallace prefaces an article on American cruise culture with “I filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.”, you believe him. Smith is too strong, too confident. She seems above it — not in some snobby English way, but I just can’t see her amongst the people, distraught by the people.

By contrast are the generous amount of film and literary criticism in this collection. When Smith is being serious and specific and the topic is something she clearly loves, the result is stellar. There’s an essay juxtaposing the hardline author focused literary perspective of Vladmir Nabokov versus the free-floating borderless version of Roland Barthes. And it feels important. How much should we interrogate what we read? How important is the author’s intention in this interrogation and analysis? She nails a similar topic again in her longest essay — a moving eulogy of David Foster Wallace via an analytic piece on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Self, solipsism, our consumption and immersion in media and advertising culture. The voracious reach of capitalism in her (our?) generation. It made me sad for DFW all over again.

This collection has increased by reading list. I feel mildly embarrassed for not having read any Henry James (who expressed similar sentiments to DFW for his time). Smith’s tribute to Zora Neale Hurston as a meditation on how, if it all, we might identify with writers or their protagonists and what this means to the work overall was enough to make me add Their Eyes were Watching God to my to-read pile. I am generally hostile to the notion that one must “identify” with the protagonist due to features like race, gender, class, but I guess that’s easy for me to say when my specifications (white/male/middle) fit the dominant cultural narrative. The film reviews are good too. A paragraph about Grizzly Man saying things I already knew still made me happy.

So wait. I have to rescind my earlier point about a lack of pathos or emotional oomph. When writing about literature and film, Smith nails it, concretely and via personal authorial voice. When she mourns Alyson Flannigan’s fall in her review of Date Movie, and describes feeling disoriented and weepy afterwards, I believe her. The connection and love she has for her father is not communicated nearly as fully or believably as her connection and love for Katherine Hepburn. Or Nora Neale Hurston. It reminds me of all time NBA great Larry Bird, when confronted by a kid telling him he was his (the kid’s) hero, replying when I was a kid, my dad was my hero. I hope I am not coming off as overly sentimental or critical here. I just think it’s funny. I am sure many of us, including myself, would be similar. Does this speak to Smith and Wallace’s distrust of our deep and concupiscent investment with media culture? Maybe. Probably.

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

https://scryingorb.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/owls1.png(I won this book from goodreads first-reads giveaway.)

This is the first David Sedaris book I have ever read. Due to this, it took some time for me to get into and enjoy these essays. They are stories of the author’s life and your enjoyment of them is tied to the notion that you like David Sedaris. The first few essays were frankly boring and I was afraid this was going to be a slog, but as I got to know the author, his style and persona, it vastly improved.

While I did like some of these stories, I rarely felt they were as laugh-out-loud funny as many of his fans purport. The writing is best when he is being insightful, touching, or reflective rather than funny. And the humor works much better when it is secondary then when it is the focus. Some of the best essays were one about missed romantic opportunities on trains and another about capturing wild sea turtles and trying to feed them hamburger. Insightful and melancholy but when they’re funny, the humor is far better than a lot of the “funny man” pieces. And the less said about the book’s fictional monologue pieces, the better.

There’s also cases where I am not even certain if a story is supposed to be funny or not — for instance the antics of his parents, especially his father are not really wacky or funny, usually they are just straight-up awful. I found myself bewildered and wondering does his father read his books? How are they even still talking? If his dad isn’t blaming his sister for being assaulted on her walk home from the grocery store, he’s going on and on about how much better at swimming/school/life another boy in his son’s class is than David himself. In the latter example, I kept expecting the punchline to be how David was mistaken or his dad suddenly realizes he praises some random kid more than his son, and does something about it. But no! There is no punchline. His dad really did just like the other kid more.

I shouldn’t harp on the humor too hard. There are some legitimately funny pieces. The essay on taxidermy and owls (that does not reference diabetes at all, I have no idea why the book is titled as such) and the one about book tours are both funny, just not side-splittingly so. I think more than anything else, I’m ambivalent about the book. I didn’t hate. In fact, I think I enjoyed it. I just don’t feel much about it. Forgettable you might say. Eh.