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The Best American Essays 2000 (The Best American Series) Paperback – October 26, 2000
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Alan Lightman has put together a collection chock full of questioning and struggling. As he writes in his introduction: "For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection. I want to see a piece of the essayist. I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand." The Best American Essays 2000 features the usual forays into memory (Fred D'Aguiar on his family), travelogue (Mary Gordon on Rome), and identity (Geeta Kothari on learning to eat like an American). But this guest editor has a marked fondness for essays that make the reader engage with ethical or philosophical problems. In an arresting piece, Peter Singer describes the Brazilian film Central Station, wherein a woman is promised a thousand dollars if she will deliver a homeless boy to a certain address. "She delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some of it on a television set, and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition." When she learns the boy will likely be killed and his organs sold for transplantation, she resolves to return the money and save him. Singer asks, "What is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one, knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?" He follows his logic to the end of the essay, where he concludes, "whatever money you're spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away."
Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, struggles with the appellation "hate crime." He contrasts the gay-bashing murder of Matthew Shepard with the abduction of a girl by her boyfriend: "Which crime was more filled with hate? Once you ask the question, you realize how difficult it is to answer. Is it more hateful to kill a stranger or a lover? Is it more hateful to kill a child than an adult?" And physicist Steven Weinberg takes on the most infinite of domains, wondering "whether the universe shows signs of having been designed by a deity more or less like those of traditional monotheistic religions...." This kind of passionate questioning is the stuff of late-night bull sessions, something most of us don't have time for in our day-to-day lives. It's refreshing, for once, to be put on the spot. --Claire Dederer
The editors of the newest volume in this consistently excellent series have selected 21 vigorous essays, many of which address an issue crucial to our time: just how seduced and addled are we by technology? Some essays are intimate, such as Andre Aciman's haunting narrative on memories of place, and Guyanese poet Frank D'Aguira's musical and arresting account of his parents' mythic courtship and doomed marriage. Others are invigoratingly polemic, including Wendell Berry's discussion of the urgent need for renewed respect for such essential human activities as farming, and Ian Buruma's finely shaded inquiry into the cult of victimhood. And two are poetic: William Gass' meditation on books, reading, and libraries; and Mark Slouka's musing on the death of silence. But all share the vitality of thought and clarity of style the best of the form exemplifies, and many deepen the conversation about how science, technology, and rampant commercialism are changing our environment and our consciousness. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
This year's volume seems particularly rich to me.
Cynthia Ozick's essay "The Synthetic Sublime," an homage to New York City, is my favorite. It is a stylistic tour de force which for me echoes James and Wharton, two other writers with New York on their minds.
Eight others merit my highest rating: Fred D'Aguiar's poignant "A Son in Shadow," where the author attempts to capture in an amber prose the father whom he never knew; William Gass's "In Defense of the Book," an erudite and witty apologia for the printed page; Richard McCann's "The Resurrectionist," a sensitive exploration of a liver transplant; Scott Russell Sander's heart-of-the-country meditation on mortality and God, "The Force of Spirit"; Lynne Sharon Schwartz's sardonic "At a Certain Age," a more comic take on mortality; Peter Singer's provocative (and slightly annoying) "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" (in which Mr. Singer reveals to me that he must be a lucky man without credit card debt or a thankless job); Floyd Skloot's astonishing "Gray Area: Thinking with a Damaged Brain," which reveals a remarkable life force hard at work in a man who refuses to give up after a virus destroyed much of his brain; and Mark Slouka's "Listening for Silence," a much needed commentary on our noisy modern world.
High marks also go to Ian Burma's "The Joys and Perils of Victimhood," which rightly warns against the Romantic cult of kitsch and death often growing out of communal suffering, where rationality takes a backseat to sentiment; Edwidge Danticat's "Westbury Court," a Brooklyn childhood remembrance; Mary Gordon's "Rome: The Visible City," an idiosyncratic contrast between the sacred and secular in this ancient yet modern city; Edward Hoagland's "Earth's Eye," a lovely meditation on water and Nature; Jamaica Kincaid's postmodern "Those Words That Echo...Echo...Echo through Life," an essay less about her father (its starting point) than about the mysteriousness of the Particular; Geeta Kothari's humorous and pungent memoir on culture-clash and food, "If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?"; and Terry Tempest Williams' clever analysis of wilderness as Art, "A Shark in the Mind..."
I also loved the ending of Andre Aciman's "The Last Time I Saw Paris," which for me validated the essay as a whole; the wisdom of Wendell Berry's "In Distrust of Movements," where holism takes precedence over labels in saving the planet; and the lyrical sadness of Cheryl Strayed's "Heroin/e," a bitingly honest memoir on parent loss and addiction.
There was merit in even my two least favorite essays, Andrew Sullivan's philosophizing on "What's So Bad About Hate?" (which notes that "A free country will always be a hateful country"); and Steven Weinberg's anti-theist "A Designer Universe?" (which notes that "[it takes religion] for good people to do evil."
I am unfamiliar with Alan Lightman's writing, and his introduction about a Millennium party did not move me; however, I applaud his taste in essays. This is a memorable addition to an already excellent series.
My six favorites are William Gass' "In Defense of the Book" (Harper's Magazine) which poetically describes the many ways books are superior to digital. This is a common theme among many writers but Gass approaches it in a new and original perspective, and without being Luddite. In Richard McCann's "The Resurrectionist" (Tin House) he describes what it was like to loose a kidney and have a transplant, I was really moved by his heroic fortitude and truth of experience. Peter Singer in "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" (New York Times Magazine) lays bare the ethical delima of rich nations and poor nations on a very personal level. He posits, what would you do if you could save a child from being hit by a train by sacrificing your car in its path (which contains all your worldly goods). Likewise he provocatively suggests individuals from rich countries should be sending excess wealth - beyond basic needs - to those in the poor countries. The essay "Gray Area: Thinking with a Damaged Brain" (Creative Nonfiction) is a fascinating first-person essay by Floyd Skloot who has a serious brain injury. He describes its effects both in an external social sense and inner self. Cheryl Strayed in "Heroin/e" (Doubletake) writes about her mothers death from cancer and her own subsequent degeneration into a serious heroin addiction. A dark, sad and aesthetically beautiful piece. Andrew Sullivan in "What's So Bad About Hate?" (The New York Times Magazine) discourses on what exactly is a "hate crime" and concludes there is no such thing, every person is motivated by complex inner motivations and not an external single emotion. Similar to the "war on terror", the "war on hate" is a war on an emotion that is misplaced and causes more problems than it solves.