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on November 4, 2012
Every year I look forward to diving into the Best American Essays volume. It is usually the most intelligent and educational book that I read all year, which is why I call this series "brain food". This year is no exception, although I wouldn't quite rate this year's volume as highly as others. I still strongly urge readers to give it a try because if you actually make it all the way through it, your brain will feel as though it had a good workout.

Guest Editor David Brooks appears to have utilized a fairly broad definition of "essay" for this volume. Some of the selected works are what I would call "traditional essays": first-person narratives in which the experiences, emotions and thoughts of the author dominate, such as Wesley Yang's "Paper Tigers", in which he confesses to being an illegal immigrant and explains exactly how he has gone about concealing his nationality. Others selections are dispassionate fact-based articles about a topic, such as Alan Lightman's "The Accidental Universe", which discusses some of the latest scientific thinking about dark energy and the laws of physics. Because of this spectrum of essay types, and because the selections are organized by the author's last name, you don't know what you are going to read next as you traverse this volume. One way to view this book is that you are reading a selection of some of the best non-fiction magazine articles published in the U.S. in the past year.

That said, the best essay by far in this volume falls into the highly personalized essay category: Jonathan Franzen's "Farther Away", his account of a life-threatening solo journey to the frontier of civilization that he undertook to help understand and deal with the suicide of his friend (and the Guest Editor for the 2007 volume of this series), David Foster Wallace. Franzen reveals much about both Wallace and himself in this essay, some through what he says and some through what he does. Wallace was a brilliant writer and much lauded by some, and while I still need to make my way through his voluminous masterpiece "Infinite Jest", Franzen's essay certainly helps readers understand this complex individual and what his writings and actions say about himself and our society.

Other top-notch essays, in my opinion:

-- Marcia Angell's "The Crazy State of Psychiatry", which falls on the fact-based article end of the spectrum and which provides a skeptical assessment of the current state of the psychiatric profession and its (over)reliance on psychoactive drugs. Later in the volume Lauren Slater's "Killing My Body to Save My Mind" provides a first-person view of a patient undergoing an intense drug therapy to deal with mental illness that, perhaps, illustrates some of Angell's points. Interestingly, Slater was the 2006 Guest Editor for this series - one can only imagine what fate awaits this year's editor, David Brooks. Perhaps guest editing this series is an even worse fate than the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.

-- Miah Arnold's "You Owe Me", which attempts to explain how a teacher of terminally ill children deals with that tragic scenario, and does so in a very humanistic way.

-- Joseph Epstein's "Duh, Boring", which provides some interesting historical background and current-day views on what may be solely a First World affliction.

-- Sandra Tsing Loh's "The Bitch is Back", which may unveil more than you need or want to know about women's late middle-age "change of life", but does so in an intense, compelling way.

The one major dud, in my opinion, was Richard Sennett's "Humanism". After lecturing against academic essays in his introduction, I was surprised to see that Brooks' included this one, which is too abstract and academic for the average reader to know whether the author is stating truths or is merely scoring semantic points.

I almost always get more out of The Best American Essays than I do from The Best American Short Stories, yet the short stories volume outsells the essays volume by quite a bit. That is unfortunate. If you are not frightened off by the word "essay", which often induces dreadful school-age memories among readers, by all means get this volume and feed your brain.
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on October 17, 2012
Another near-excellent collection of essays from the folks who do it best. This year, it seemed, the editor wanted to explore the themes of technology, boredom, and the quality of life. But in the end, as is inevitable these days, the volume ends up getting swamped by essays concerned with gender and ethnic issues. I don't think it takes much to choose the essays for one of these collections. Basically you've just got to say, Have we got a gay issues essay? Check. A feminism essay? Check. Minority issues? Check. And so on.

THE FOUL REIGN OF SELF-RELIANCE, by Benjamin Anastas. The author asserts that Emerson's philosophy of self-reliance is naïve and unhelpful. He doesn't really make a case; the "essay" is really just an undeveloped statement. Probably the worst essay of the bunch.

THE CRAZY STATE OF PSYCHIATRY, by Marcia Angell. Author discusses how crazy it is that everybody these days seems to be diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder, and how psychiatric treatments have nearly all become chemical-based.

YOU OWE ME, by Miah Arnold. One of the most painful essays in this collection: the thoughts of a woman who teaches creative writing to children with cancer.

EDWARD HOPPER AND THE GEOMETRY OF DESPAIR, by Geoffrey Bent. An appreciation of the compositional acumen of Edward Hopper, an American painter. The essay therefore seems focused but ultimately has nothing deeper to say than that he uses light and empty space well.

A BEAUTY, by Robert Boyers. A rumination on beauty being skin-deep. The author had a startlingly handsome friend who was something of a cad, etc.

THE GOOD SHORT LIFE, by Dudley Clendinen. Famous essay from a senior citizen who is willing to call it a life and simply die than prolong his life using all sorts of medicines and procedures.

VANISHING ACT, by Paul Collins. Tells the story surrounding the disappearance of a child prodigy, Barbara Follett, and what likely precipitated it.

INSATIABLE, by Mark Doty. Rumination on how Stoker's Dracula was supposedly based on Walt Whitman. The author has no hesitation in shoehorning his own homosexuality into these ruminations, including his experience with fisting (p. 81)! The most laughably inept essay of this bunch: if the author hadn't obtruded his sexual orientation into the mix, it's hard to see how this would have been given a second look.

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? by Mark Edmundson. My favorite essay in this collection. Basically a Robert Hutchins-style argument that success in college is not the same thing as successfully getting an education. The only essay in this collection that I'll be re-reading.

DUH, BOR-ING, by Joseph Epstein. A rumination on the varieties and value of boredom.

FARTHER AWAY, by Jonathan Franzen. To my thinking, the most technically competent essay of the bunch, although not very memorable. Franzen seamlessly interweaves his mediations on the suicide of a friend with the story of how he took a bird-watching trip to Alexander Selkirk island.

CREATION MYTH, by Malcolm Gladwell. Not a remarkable essay. After assuring us that the story we commonly hear about Steve Jobs lifting the idea for a GUI from Xerox's PARC is not as simple as all that, Gladwell proceeds to look at the circumstances surrounding this famous "theft." Unfortunately, after reading the essay, you are left to conclude that, basically, it really was as simple as all that.

DR. DON, by Peter Hessler. A portrait of a pharmacist and town leader in a remote area on the Colorado-Utah border.

OBJECTS OF AFFECTION, by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough. A descendant of Poles whose belongings were stripped away during WWII reflects on the origin and value of the impulse to keep nostalgic items around the house.

GETTING SCHOOLED, by Garret Keizer. A public school teacher returns to the classroom after a hiatus of 15 years and reflects on how things have changed.

MY FATHER/MY HUSBAND, by David J. Lawless. A shockingly painful essay to read about Alzheimer's disease. Probably the most unforgettable of the bunch. Just searing.

THE ACCIDENTAL UNIVERSE, by Alan Lightman. A rumination on matters cosmological, such as dark matter and the possibility that our universe is only one of a virtually infinite number of universes.

THE BITCH IS BACK, by Sandra Tsing Loh. A rambling, annoyingly-voiced rumination on menopause. The author has no meaningful contributions to make on this topic, it seems to me, and seems to be writing merely to hear her own voice, which I found shrill, grating, and nearly incoherent.

HOW DOCTORS DIE, by Ken Murray. Points out how doctors themselves, at the end of their lives, typically forgo medical treatments that stress quantity of life over quality of life, and how the author hopes that he'll do the same. Not really an essay; just an observation.

OTHER WOMEN, by Francine Prose. The author's mature reflections on her involvement with a feminist consciousness-raising group in the early 70s, and what feminism means to her now.

HUMANISM, by Richard Sennett. Stuffy: a look a what humanism has meant through various ages. Flat and academic: doesn't really seem like it belongs in this collection.

KILLING MY BODY TO SAVE MY MIND, by Lauren Slater. The author recounts how her depression was lifted by a drug that causes her to gain a lot of weight.

OUTLAW, by Jose Antonio Vargas. A powerfully affecting essay about a productive, model American who doesn't have legal permission to reside in the U.S.

PAPER TIGERS, by Wesley Yang. Probably the most insightful essay of this bunch -- and the longest. An analysis of why Asians don't dominate American culture and business even though they have long dominated our classrooms.
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on October 13, 2012
The real truth behind non-fiction, is that you can't make it up--the emotions, the stories, the thoughts--the best fiction can do, at its very best, is approximate. Read these essays, and you will be touched, outraged, amused and above all jolted into thought. Read, think, and rebut if you don't agree or argue in support if you do--reading non-fiction may not make you smarter, but it will make your brain work--so readers; read, think and write--an essay really is thinking on paper.

All but the most mindless readers will find one story here that will speak to them in a way even the best fiction can't--try it and enjoy a new kind of read.
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VINE VOICEon February 2, 2013
The collection contains its share of essays that are strong enough, with a shortage of "Wow" and an excess of relative lightweights, such as the worst contribution, a dud by Mark Doty on Bram Stoker. My favorites included:

* Wesley Yang on Asian stereotypes and attempts to break them by Asians themselves (he really means east Asians) who want to move beyond academic success.

* Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough on connection to her grandmother in Poland through her attachment to objects and other artifacts. Sweet story.

* Dr. Don is not your usual druggist, this time in rural Colorado, tending to the various needs of his isolated cohort.

* The examination of Edward Hopper works best with a computer at hand for viewing the art along the way.

* You Owe Me - how could it not be difficult to teach writing to children dying of cancer? She writes strongly in an area susceptible to going over the top.

* The Crazy State of Psychiatry is distressed about the rise of medication as the central force in the field.

* Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here? - with a third offspring finishing college, there seems to be enough truth in here to be solid. One thing for sure: you can get by even in elite colleges without doing a whole lot, but the opportunity to get a lot more out of it is there for the motivated.

Sandra Tsing Loh is clearly a writer who can yield high negatives. Her aggressive and loud style is entertaining in The Atlantic, from where this piece came.

Sure, Jonathan Franzen's personal travel memoir is well crafted, but is not interesting enough to be notable, perhaps because David Foster Wallace means little to me.

The essay on a father's dementia, more of a story with mostly dialog rather than an essay, is another one that is uncomfortable, about that possibly terrifying future.
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on May 18, 2014
Every morning as I get on a treadmill, I opened this book and read an essay. Funny, thought provoking, and enlightening, would describe those essays that still have me discussing them throughout the day and beyond. I bought this book because I am a fan of David Brooks and trusted it would be interesting. How wonderful to report that it far exceeded my expectations.
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on March 5, 2013
I read this annual annually and usually love at least one of the essays so much I'd never consider giving away or donating the book because I know I'll want to revisit at least the one great one -- but often there are more than just one. This year (or last year --2012) none of the essays really grabbed me. Many were too short to go deep; many were boring; many were okay but not my cup of tea. But that doesn't mean I won't eagerly await and read when it becomes available the collection for 2013. This is a wonderful series and even when I am disappointed, as I was with 2012, I'm glad to have had the opportunity to read what was considered important enough to include.
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on March 15, 2013
This book has a few good reads and if you get a good deal on it, pick it up.

Pros:

Great for short waits, hot baths, plane trips, and "also reading" lists.

Cons:

No underlying theme. Pretty diverse subjects which means you will probably not want to chain read these essays. You'll find it hard to suddenly switch gears when a new essay goes in a different direction with totally different tone and feel.

Overall, I feel there is some contemporary merit in these essays, but only the sort of merit that lightly titillates the ruminating mind and not the sort of merit that knocks your socks off.
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on March 4, 2013
This has been a surprise find. I have learned so much from these essays and searched many of the names referenced on the internet. The one that stimulated much discussion in our family was about drugs for depression. There are a variety of subjects included in this collection and each gives pause for reflection or invites research.
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on April 11, 2013
This series of selected short stories, essays, travel writing, etc. is always of extremely high quality. I buy them every year even though I may have already read many of them in certain magazines, to which I subscribe. Don't mind reading them again since the writing is excellent.
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on February 9, 2013
Although essays are not generally at the top of my reading list, I couldn't resist the price for the Kindle version. I forget if I paid $1.99 or just $.99, but either way, this book was a huge bargain. Many familiar names among the authors, lots of food for thought.
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