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The Best American Essays 2004 (The Best American Series) Paperback – October 14, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Medical trauma is a recurrent theme in the latest edition of Houghton Mifflins popular Best American reprints series, which is edited this year by The Metaphysical Club author Menand. In her essay "An Enlarged Heart," poet Cynthia Zarin recalls the anxiety and helplessness of caring for a seriously ill child. "A Sudden Illness" by Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) chronicles her fight against an untreatable illness that would confine her to bed for days at a time. And Gerald Sterns "Bullet in My Neck" reveals that the author is so accustomed to his injury that he never thinks of it, "only when the subject comes up and someonefull of doubt or amazementgingerly reaches a hand out to feel it." Menand also selects several pieces of cultural criticism: Rick Moodys "Against Cool," Alex Rosss "Rock 101" and Wayne Koestenbaums head-spinning tour of the explosion of AIDS in New York during the 1980s. Humor makes appearances in Anne Fadimans "The Arctic Hedonist" and Leonard Michaels recollection of growing up in New Yorks Jewish culture, "My Yiddish." But its the artful, unsentimental examination of personal experiencestunningly exemplified in Kathryn Chetkovichs "Envy"that really glues these disparate pieces together. Only two themJared Diamonds essay on the inevitability of environmental devastation and Adam Gopniks extended critique of the Matrix Reloadeddispense with the first-person altogether. Although regular readers of the New Yorker, Harpers, the Threepenny Review and Granta may have encountered at least a few of these works before, each of these essays merits rereading. They may even be improved by each others fine company.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
One of the many pleasures found in each year's incarnation of this consistently refined and lively series is the guest editor's introductory essay. It will come as no surprise that Louis Menand, author of the highly acclaimed The Metaphysical Club (2001), begins by musing over the metaphysical properties of writing, particularly what we mean by voice, but his description of writing as a form of singing is unexpected and felicitous, as is his confession that he chose most of these essays by ear. So whose voices seduced Menand? James Agee, in a long-lost and hard-hitting rumination on hatred and violence, and, in another discovery, Tennessee Williams, on becoming a playwright. Then there's Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond on the collapse of civilizations and today's precarious environmental realities; Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling Seabiscuit (2001), on her horrendous bout with chronic fatigue syndrome; as well as Cynthia Ozick, Kyoko Mori, Luc Sante, the poet Gerald Stern, and 14 other superb stylists and crisp thinkers. Menand's selections make for a particularly stimulating and sonorous essay collection. 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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The two most powerful essays in the book are two of the most personal. Kathryn Chetkovich's "Envy" pulls no punches in her analysis of how she reacted to the success experienced by her boyfriend and fellow writer, Jonathan Franzen, who rocketed to literary stardom in 2001 with "The Corrections". Interestingly, Chetkovich doesn't name Franzen, but Menand chose also to include an essay by him ("Caught"), which, although interesting, doesn't have the same emotional depth or power as Chetkovich's essay. The other extraordinary essay in the collection is Laura Hillenbrand's "A Sudden Illness", which describes her incredible struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Her personal story is every bit as poignant as the story of the racehorse Seabiscuit, which she chronicled in her best-selling book.
Other essays of note, I feel, include Luc Sante's "My Lost City", which actually celebrates the crime-ridden, graffiti-covered, anarchic, decaying, pre-Rudy Giuliani New York of the 1980s, and Oliver Sacks' "The Mind's Eye", which describes differences in the extent to which several blind people use visualization techniques, thereby illustrating the power of (and structural differences among) human brains.
As for the minor complaints: Menand openly admits, "I like to read stories about my own times." This bias shows up most obviously in the inclusion of an essay by a CUNY colleague of Menand's: Wayne Koestenbaum's "My `80s" will likely not at all resemble your `80s unless you are a NYC opera buff who kept up with the cutting edge of male homosexual intelligentsia literature. The other complaint is that a small number of essays exhibit the stereotypical upper West side salon superior-than-though attitude which sneers at red state values and culture (e.g. Fox News). Of course, if you are of a similar opinion, this won't bother you a bit. However, one essay takes this attitude to completely illogical extremes: Jared Diamond's "The Last Americans", which somehow claims a linkage between Enron's financial shenanigans and global warming (hey, it's all George Bush's fault, right?). Diamond's essay will leave some readers fuming and others shaking their heads, while still others applaud, but it will cause all readers to think, as do all the essays in this collection. Thus, Menand has created a collection well worth spending the time to read and ponder.
1. "Envy" by Kathryn Chetkovich. In this autobiographical essay, Chetkovich, an obscure short story writer, chronicles her romance to Jonathan Franzen who with his novel The Corrections becomes a publishing phenon, making her consumed with guilt for experiencing, against her own will, envy. She combines narrative with a sharp analysis of the causes and effects of envy in her life and shows how the condition is a universal one.
2. "Caught" by Jonathan Franzan. Franzan writes about his high school years as a misfit trying to find belonging among the hipsters by challenging authority and the icons of authority. An amazing feat, he writes a comical narrative combined with a penetrating analysis of the pitfalls of adolescence.
3. "A Sudden Illness" by Laura Hillenbrand. The author of the famous nonfiction book Seabiscuit which was made into a hit film, the author traces the origins of a consuming fatigue disease for which no real specific diagnosis can be found. The result is a lack of sympathy from others and a heroic struggle for which she somehow, as a sort of miracle, wrote Seabiscuit.
4. "The Last Americans" by Jared Diamond. Diamond compares our piggish, consumer-obsessed country with other fallen empires and refutes the fallacies and misconceptions that afflict us: our dismissal of the environment as a crucial part of our survival; our blind faith in technlogy to cure all our woes; our tendency to demonize environmentalists as extremist crackpots who are overstating their catastrophic predictions.
5. "Against Cool" by Rick Moody. Denying that he is cool, Moody, in a sneaky rhetorical technique, proves just how cool he is by giving us a thorough, definitive, and historical definition of cool.
6. "Arrow and Wound" by Mark Slouka. Somehow Slouka takes an ambitious, philosophical theme of human suffering, mortality, and our intuitive ability to prepare for our agony and makes the theme both accessible and readable, quoting Kafka, Dostoesvsky, and the poet Jaroslav Seifert and weaves their philosphical ruminations into a frightening and bizarre narrative he experienced.
After reading excellent quality essays like "The last Americans" & "Passover in Baghdad" & to then get dragged through "On TV I saw Brideshead Revisited and the Patrice Chereau production of Wagner's Ring...and then "Sometime in the mid-'80s I stopped swallowing cum. I don't miss its taste".
Nothing inherently wrong with that, I guess, but I submit not one of the best American essays of 2004. Sorry, call me low brow.
"My Lost City" & "My Fathers a Book" make it worth buying.