23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on December 22, 2003
Last year's Best American Essays collection was edited by renowned (now, deceased) biologist Steven Jay Gould. Anne Fadiman, the editor for this year's collection, is by profession an essay editor, and the positive results show in this collection. Fadiman has chosen 24 essays whose common attribute is, as she states, that they are "crammed...the essays in this book... have no extra air. They're all Haagen-Dazs," for the brain, I might add.
My favorite was also Fadiman's, Andre Aciman's "Lavender", which just might revitalize the personal fragrance industry if it becomes read widely enough. Other highlights, in my opinion, were Atul Gawande's "The Learning Curve," a firsthand account of how medical professionals learn through trial and error (and the impact on society which this unavoidable fact causes), Francis Stufford's "The Habit," about growing up as a bookworm, and "Home Alone," in which Caitlin Flanagan skewers Christopher Byron's biography of Martha Stewart (she provides all the evidence needed to back up her arguments, so this is a successful, highly entertaining, vicious intellectual attack from one writer to another). However, I found all the other essays save one to be almost equally as memorable and powerful.
Just one of the 24 essays is fatally, logically flawed, Elaine Scarry's "Citizenship in Emergency". I'm surprised Fadiman chose it, since it clearly violates her prescription that "monumentality can be catastrophic" in an essay. Scarry uses selective evidence from the events of 9/11 to expound upon her obviously deeply held belief that the defense of the U.S. should be returned in some manner to the citizenry (she doesn't say exactly how, other than to cite the founding fathers' reliance on citizen militias). She launches into the typical left-wing tirade against the Bush administration and the war on terrorism, and even states that the fact that the U.S. possesses nuclear weapons means we are a monarchy, not a democracy. This ignores the fact that we elect our Commander in Chief every four years, and that there was a vote of the people's representatives (i.e. Congress) authorizing the Commander in Chief to invade Iraq. To construct her initial argument in favor of citizenry-led self-defense, Scarry brushes aside the fact that the passengers on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon had almost as much time and opportunity to figure out a way to stop the hijackers as did the passengers of United flight 93, and ignores the strong likelihood that the military, which by the time United flight 93 crashed had figured out what was going on that day, would have brought down the flight if the passengers had not (this is not to take anything away from the passengers of United flight 93, who pulled off one of the most heroic acts in recent American history). Furthermore, 9/11 represented not only a failure of the military to protect the Pentagon after the planes were hijacked, but equally prominently a failure of the U.S.'s non-military airline security system. Would Scarry propose that we American citizens invoke our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms on flights to solve this problem as well?
The other overtly political essay, John Edgar Wideman's "Whose War", which argues that U.S. was wrong to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11 and instead should have negotiated with Osama bin Laden (to quote Wideman: "by speaking to one another we might formulate appropriate responses, even to the unthinkable"), is perfectly counterbalanced by Francine du Plessix Gray's "The Debacle", which shows firsthand what the French policy of appeasement towards (and military underestimation of) Hitler led to: a mass exodus and four years of Nazi occupation of France that was only reversed when the U.S.- and U.K.-led Allies landed at Normandy.
Aside from the issues cited with the two most political essays, this collection is smart, entertaining, thought provoking, well written, and diverse in its subject matter, exactly as one would hope from an essay anthology.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I enjoy reading essays. Unlike many of my peers, it is a form of writing that I have enjoyed ever since I first learned to read. An essay allows a writer to say something, to deliver a message, to make a point, or tell a story in a very refined and distinct way. If a writer tries to do the same things in a short story, poem, or book, things can become convoluted and readers might not understand what the writer was trying to say.
THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS series is a part of the BEST OF series in American writing that collects some of the "best" essays written in a certain year from a variety of sources and places those essays in one volume for all to read. It sounds like a great process, but there is a catch. Those essays are selected by one editor each year under the guidance of the series editor. Therefore, sometimes the volume contains works of writing that might be very well written, but really aren't the best essays from a given year and instead reflect that year's guest editor's style and preferences. Despite an introduction that described the process that Fadiman went through in selecting the 2003 choices and claiming otherwise, after reading through THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2003, I believe that this is one of those editions.
The volume does include a huge variety of essay written in many different styles and some of these are very good. I particularly enjoyed Brian Doyle's "Yes"-an essay about the word and how it ties to life; Ian Frazier's "Researchers Say" a piece of writing that punctures the research journals and magazines that so many people follow with such devotion sometimes against reason; Adam Gopnik's "Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli" where he tells about his daughter's imaginary friend Mr. Ravioli and how their relationship came to imitate the world at large and an innocence lost; and Edward Hoagland's "Circus Music" that examines life in a circus and the correspondence to our own lives. These essays are completely engaging and are some of the best American essays of 2003.
There are others, however, which aren't as engaging but were probably chosen because of the author's writing style or the topic that the writer was writing about. For example, Andre Aciman's "Lavender". This essay opens with a wonderful opening sentence, however, the author then goes on to "tell" the story of his life (not really) through the variety of smells that he has sniffed in his life and the different bottles of cologne and perfume that he has owned.
Another example is "Swann Song" by Judith Thurman. This is a much shorter essay than "Lavender" but is told in a similar way-Thurman writes about her life through the pieces of fashion that she has owned. Not only that, but the essay really isn't an essay at all but is more like a report and interview about the retirement of a Paris fashion designer that no one in America outside of the fashion industry has ever heard of before. Also, like previous books in the series, BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2003 contains a glut of essays from THE NEW YORKER. I like THE NEW YORKER. It is a prestigious piece of literary media and someday I would like to see some of my own writing appear in it. However, when a third of the essays in a series that is supposed to represent the best of America come from the same regional magazine, it smells of snobbery. As she did with some of the lesser quality pieces in the book, the editor attempts to justify her choices in the introduction. That justification might be enough for readers from New York, but for the rest of the country it really doesn't quite cut it.
Still there is a lot of great writing in the book and some of the best American essays of 2003 are included. Readers should just be aware that not everything in the book is as good as the title would imply.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2003
This year's edition of The Best American Essays is the best one I've read so far. Almost every essay is worth reading (there are a few that weren't very good), and half of the essays are phenomenal essays. Pick any essay in this collection (go with Spufford's "The Habit") and you can't go wrong. This is what all the various best of volumes should be like. Excellent.