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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A return to normalcy: a merit-based selection of the year's best essays
Wow - I am stunned to see that the first five reviewers gave this volume only two stars, whereas I am awarding it five. Last year it was just the opposite: the most popular rating applied to the volume edited by the late David Foster Wallace was five stars, whereas I gave it two. I think this is more than coincidence. Last year's volume was heavy on grim politically...
Published on July 5, 2009 by cs211

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53 of 58 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing.
I thought this was a pretty disappointing effort this year. Adam Gopnik's meandering, pretentious introduction is a painful reminder of just how much David Foster Wallace's brilliance, wit, and low tolerance for BS will be missed (DFW was last year's editor).

Really slim pickings this year. I'd break it down roughly as follows.

Brilliant essays:...
Published on December 4, 2008 by David M. Giltinan


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53 of 58 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing., December 4, 2008
I thought this was a pretty disappointing effort this year. Adam Gopnik's meandering, pretentious introduction is a painful reminder of just how much David Foster Wallace's brilliance, wit, and low tolerance for BS will be missed (DFW was last year's editor).

Really slim pickings this year. I'd break it down roughly as follows.

Brilliant essays:
Anthony Lane on the Leica camera;
Hugh Raffles on cricket fighting in Shanghai

Engaging:
Atul Gawande on geriatric medicine;
Emily Grosholz on necklaces

Moving personal reminiscence:
Separate essays by Patricia Brieschke and Bernard Cooper, though be warned that each documents the horrific suffering of a terminally ill child and life-partner respectively.

Personal reminiscences that were only mildly amusing:
Ariel Levy ("The lesbian bride's handbook");
David Sedaris mining his adolescence for yuks according to his standard formula (if you've read any of his previous books, you probably could have written the essay yourself).

There were also two personal reminiscences that came across as just whiny and self-indulgent.

A number of "quirky" essays just didn't succeed - the author simply failed to transmit his own enthusiasm to the reader:
Albert Goldbarth on science-fiction comics of the 1950's;
Sam Shaw on trying to attain transcendence through extreme long-distance running;
John Updike (?!) on dinosaurs (it's only my admiration for Updike as a critic that is keeping this out of the "embarrassing" category).

Three essays had a reasonable idea, but were poorly executed, marred by excessive cleverness, smugness, or implied condescension (the 'elite writing for the elite' tone):
Jonathan Lethem on plagiarism (some interesting points, buried in 30 pages of undisciplined prose);
Louis Menand ("Notable Quotables");
Ander Monson ("Solipsism" - a thin idea, pushed way too far)

Cringeworthy, embarrassing, annoying, and/or just plain stupid:
Rick Moody "On Celestial Music".
Rich Cohen on how his neighbors reacted when he grew a Hitler moustache
Joe Wenderoth on -- well, it's hard to know what it was about, actually. Something to do with a strip club; largely incoherent.

The remaining two essays, by Jamal Mahjoub and Charles Simic were inoffensive, but also completely unmemorable.

I am annoyed at Adam Gopnik for this subpar selection. He forces me to be mean in public.

Give this one a miss. 2 out of 21 home runs is pathetic. You may think I'm being unduly harsh. But there was very little joy in reading this book. Life is short. We have a right to expect more joy than is provided by this sorry collection.

Now, here's the good news. Probably right next to this volume, on the same shelf in the bookstore, you are likely to find a book called "The Best American Magazine Writing 2008". It's roughly twice the length of the Gopnik disappointment, and is introduced by Jacob Weisberg. It might cost you a few bucks more. No matter. Buy it!
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A return to normalcy: a merit-based selection of the year's best essays, July 5, 2009
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Wow - I am stunned to see that the first five reviewers gave this volume only two stars, whereas I am awarding it five. Last year it was just the opposite: the most popular rating applied to the volume edited by the late David Foster Wallace was five stars, whereas I gave it two. I think this is more than coincidence. Last year's volume was heavy on grim politically charged essays, whereas this year's volume is void of politics and instead features essays on topics such as cameras, a road race, and dinosaurs. Guest editor Adam Gopnik no doubt has political viewpoints, but he took his job much more seriously than David Foster Wallace, and selected essays on the basis of their merits as work of literature. But this is just my opinion; perhaps all this proves is that, in art and literature, quality truly is subjective.

Here are quick takes on the essays that I enjoyed the most:

-- Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism": an incredibly well-researched essay exploring the nature of originality in thought, plagiarism, and the way all creative thinkers build upon the works of others; it works on two levels, because Lethem himself openly steals almost all the thoughts in the essay from other sources (which are attributed), thus illustrating his main point.

-- Patricia Brieschke's "Cracking Open": a touching first person essay about the challenges a poor young mother goes through after giving bearing a child with a serious birth defect.

-- Bernard Cooper's "The Constant Gardener": another very touching first person essay, about a man tending to his sick partner and dealing with the physical and emotional issues of a terminal illness.

There was just one complete miss in this volume, Jamal Mahjoub's "Salamanca", which didn't register any impression on me other than having taken up space in the book and my time in reading it. There were a few other essays that caused me to question their inclusion, but on balance, I found 2008's volume to be a return to the normal standards of this series, and a serious attempt by Adam Gopnik to assemble the year's best essays.
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26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not the best in this series, October 8, 2008
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Michael (Chicago, IL USA) - See all my reviews
The Best American Essays series usually provides funny, insightful, poignant, incisive, (or all of the above) reading suitable for snatching on the bus or on a lazy afternoon. Although there are usually a few duds, the batting average is quite high. However, past Jonathan Lethem's polemic on plagiarism and a few others, I found this edition basically unreadable. I doubt it was really "a bad year for essays" so the selection had to be subpar.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Save your money for next year's collection, February 14, 2009
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I bought this book anyway, and not only are the reviewers correct but so are several other people I've since discussed this book with. I've read every Best American Essays collection (I made it a project to do so several years ago) and own ten of them, and this collection is by far the least interesting, and that includes several bumpy years in the early days. I also read many literary journals as well as other magazines, and can reassure readers that Best American Essays 2008 doesn't reflect on the state of the genre; there are many wonderful essays that could have been in this book. But good news: you can buy earlier editions used or new on Amazon, or find them at your library. While you're waiting for next year's collection, try the 1987 BAE, edited by Gay Talese.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Best American Essays, December 1, 2009
The Best American Essays is a series of compiled works from various authors. For the most part, the title goes hand in hand with the quality of work represented here. One of the most intruiging articles represented in this book is Albert Goldbarth's Everyone's Nickname is Ace. At first glance, this peice has the ability to make the reader want to flip to a new piece. It appears very ambiguous to the first time viewer. It is a piece that requires undivided attention in order to understand it. It focuses on the philosophical concept of the dual personas reflected within one individual. He alludes to the idea that just as Ace double novels come equipped as two books in one, humans have the same characteristic. Goldbarth's writing and structuring of the piece is unique. It is interesting how this is true about human nature, yet it never crossed my mind until after reading Everyone's Nickname is Ace. It is like the artwork you can not seem to understand until after viewing it for an extended period of time.

Although Goldbarth's excerpt is among one if the more difficult yet worthy reads in the book, there are also some articles that are simple to comprehend. For example, Lauren Slater's Tripp Lake. It is more like the journal entries that can be written by anyone. In this peice, she alludes to her summer at camp. The central message that she circles around is her negative realtionship with her mother. For some reason Lauren Slater dislikes her mother because she feels guilt for the way her mom's life turned out. This peice can be a striking at times because it really touches the reader and makes them gain a true understanding of the way the author is feeling.

Overall, most of the stories found in The Best American Essay is well worth the money and the investment of time put into reading it. There will be some articles that are easy to read through such as Tripp Lake and others similar to Goldbarth that may be hassle. However, with a little patience and reverse outlining, understanding the key elements and ideas within Goldbarth's theory is a no brainier. Besides, if you can comprehend pieces such as Goldbarth, then you will be able to read through most other difficult texts.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars So-so...., August 27, 2009
I always have trouble wondering how the editors of the fiction and essay best-of's make their selections. Their tastes certainly differ with mine. Some very weak sisters in this group. Hard to figure why they made the cut, or garnered any consideration for that matter.

To keep positive, since I get so much criticism for being honest, here are what I considered some decent selections:

Notable Quotables - an interesting and fun review of quotations and how they got that way.
Tripp Lake - a coming of age piece that kind of fizzled to sentimentality at the end.
Extreme Dinosaurs - an interesting science piece from none other than John Updike.
Where God is Glad - this was just an interesting story about a unique strip club.

I won't identify the ones I found really dreadful. To be honest, I never got more than a page into them.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Review..., November 22, 2009
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Among the twenty-one essays in The Best American Essays by Adam Gopnik, there were some bad, some good and those in between. My personal favorite is tough to name. I quite skeptically read each essay, not knowing if I would actually consider what I was reading as among "The Best" of a given year. However, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Essays such as Tripp Lake, Run Like Fire Once More and Cracking Open, were among my favorites. Although, there was something quite disturbing yet heartfelt about Cracking Open, the first essay featured. Patricia Brieschke talks of quite a grim tale in describing a bad relationship with mother, father and daughter triangle and a pretty messed up marriage to a man that she doesn't really love. Rent isn't paid and a baby is on the way, which hasn't been actually nourished the way an expecting mother should nourish her unborn child. There is tension, a bit of drugs and alcohol and baby born to dirty kitchen on some newspaper and a hip defect, which turns into a kidney problem and a slew of other issues. After several hospital visits to a hospital that closes and leaves parents uninformed as to their child's well being and some nasty comments from the narrator's parents who are unsupportive, the essay seems a bit dark and convoluted.

Yet, when least expected, all things turn around and the entire essay takes a brighter approach as the sun begins to shine, the narrator is no longer a messed up figure, but a caring mother, her husband Matthew, the once alcoholic, drug addict is a reformed preschool teacher and Ollie our little helpless baby a bright eyed toddler ready to face the world, even if he is working on thirty percent of kidney function, and word has it Ollie's going to be a big brother as well. Oh, and rent is being paid. A major shift is portrayed from the opening line of the essay to the last line of the essay. Throughout the thirteen pages of the essay, the reader connects with the writer and grows with the characters and sees the light at the end of the tunnel or the sun rising when all is well and good on the front stoop by the end. I would highly recommend starting the book page one and working through each essay, there may be the need to skip a few, for instance Everybody's Nickname, however, there is a strong few essays which are worth the read. After reading Cracking Open, maybe skip towards the last half and read Run Like Fire Once More or Tripp Lake, you will be pleasantly engaged in either a spiritual run around Jamaica, Queens with the Guru, or you will enjoy a trip to camp and a final jump over the fence with Rain, leaving mom and all fears behind.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essays are back, October 16, 2009
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It was so long since reading a book of essays, I forgot what a treat they are. Each in this book is beautifully written. A broad range of topics are covered. Especially perfect for those who have only a short period of time in which to read.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A mediocre collection of essays, November 29, 2009
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The Best American Essays of 2008 is quite a misleading title. The caliber of essays in this book, although well crafted lack luster. I found myself re-reading paragraphs over to grasp a concept. Essays such as Run like Fire Once More by Sam Shaw , Louis Menand's notable quotables, and On Neklaces by Emily Grosholz were either quite confusing or mundane. Albert Goldbarth's Everbody's Nickname, although sometimes hard to follow was an exemplary essay that explored doubles in all forms. Then there were essays that were more relatable such as Atul Gawande's "The Way We Age Now" and Patricia Briescheke's "Cracking Open" although these were well written essays they were quite dismal. I found myself feeling depressed after reading them. My favorite essay in this book was Ariel Levy's " The Lesbian Bride's Handbook" it was a new age essay for today's generation. It was simple and told a tale that one could relate to. Overall at least half of the essays are a good read so in the end it is worth buying.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2008, November 23, 2009
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The Best American Essays of 2008 series is a compilation of essays by varied authors. They range in subject matter and some, of the one's I've read are quite thought provoking.
There is a particular one by Ariel Levy titled The Lesbian Bride's Handbook which takes an often controversial topic, same sex marriage, and completely humanizes it for the reader.
She gives us a heartfelt account of her wedding plans but makes us focus more on the joy of the occassion than any of the pre wedding jitters she experiences, like most brides.
Her relationship with her partner is solid, the reception details are confirmed, and she is basically just a girl who wants to look and feel good for her special day. While finding a wedding dress can be a daunting task for anyone, she is trying hard to please those around her. Knowuing she isn't marrying a man doesn't change the fact that we can all relate to the happiness she feels and her desire to get it right- regardless of anyone's political or moral beliefs on the matter.
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The Best American Essays
The Best American Essays by Robert Atwan (Paperback - January 1, 2010)
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