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The Best American Essays 2003 (The Best American Series) Paperback – October 10, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
In her introduction, editor Fadiman (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) proclaims that a shared attribute of the writers anthologized here is "restraint," and at times these essays do seem a bit sleepy. This may be a reflection of the volume's largely traditional sources: Fadiman confesses she simply found the writing in the New Yorker and Harper's to be superior. Indeed, the New Yorker's Adam Gopnick and Ian Frazier supply the collection's comedic quotient, the former reflecting on Charlie Ravioli, his daughter's New York-style imaginary playmate, and the latter spoofing magazine research-speak to conclude that, in fact, "life is too hard." Though Fadiman has limited her inclusion of political essays, she asserts that 2002's writing about September 11 had the benefit of emotional distance and, as such, was the most incisive analysis yet. We have, on the one hand, Elaine Scarry soberly dissecting the failure of the U.S. military to stop a hijacked plane from hitting the Pentagon, and on the other, John Edgar Wideman's incendiary definition of terrorism as a response to imperialist, racist power. Still, the most consistently impassioned writing here is in the personal essays. Cheryl Strayed and Donald Antrim turn out finely crafted, jarring explorations of what it means to mourn their dead mothers, while Katha Pollitt gives a painfully candid account of trying to understand the loss of a philandering lover. While the anthology ignores the younger crop of essayists appearing in less established publications, many of the selections are engaging and thoughtful, restrained but occasionally transcendent.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
It's always worth checking in with Atwan, series editor for this excellent essay annual. In the eighteenth installment, Atwan celebrates the bicentennial of premier American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and his "landmark" piece, "The American Scholar," a powerful indictment of the "awesome danger of influence." Serendipitously, this year's guest editor is Fadiman, editor of American Scholar and also a fine essayist, and she presents a splendid array of unpredictable and delectable essays that would simply floor Emerson were he to return. Adam Gopnik writes about his three-year-old daughter Olivia's very busy imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli. Francine du Plessix Gray remembers her nine-year-old self, the fall of France, and her Resistance-fighter father's death. Edward Hoagland writes about the circus and our inner freak; Michael Pollan records his awakening to the plight of industrially farmed animals; Judith Thurman considers fashion and faith; and scent-triggered and technology-sparked memories occupy Andre Aciman and Marshall Jon Fisher. The death of loved ones, the reading habit, and 9/11 are also broached in this superb literary showcase. 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
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.
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.