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The Best American Essays 2005 (The Best American Series) Paperback – October 5, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Author and New Yorker staff writer Orlean (The Orchid Thief) says in her introduction that the best essays are not mere records of a subject but are, rather, extraordinary accounts that "reflect the thinking and emotions of the writer." While many (perhaps too many) of the 25 essays here come from the New Yorker, small magazines are represented, and the writing is anything but conventional. Each work pulls the reader deep into the author's world; each is a remarkable first-person account of a life. Only one, Mark Greif's sharp rant "Against Exercise," deviates from this form. Food is a recurring theme. E.J. Levy remembers his mother by way of the romantic Julia Child meals she prepared while he was growing up. David Foster Wallace details everything the reader could possibly want to know about the lobster. Other topics vary from Cathleen Schine's moving discussion of attempting to save her dangerous and self-destructive dog to David Sedaris's humorous tribute to his boyfriend, "Old Faithful." Whatever the topic, this popular series continues to delight and surprise, and per Orlean's definition of an excellent essay, provides a singular glimpse into the authors' lives. (Oct. 5)
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.
The attractions of this distinguished annual collection are many. There's the ah-ha pleasure of recognizing the guest editor as an exemplary essayist, the quick scan to ascertain how many contributors' names are familiar and how many are new, and the pep-rally aspect of embracing a literary form cherished by many for its intimacy, versatility, and provocation yet still viewed by others as a lesser endeavor than fiction or poetry. In marking the twentieth anniversary of the Best American Essays series, Atwan remembers that in the early days he felt the need to "boost the spirit of essayists," whereas now he can confidently assert that essays are on much firmer ground. Certainly Orlean had no trouble selecting 25 superlative essays that "take a small notion and find the universe inside it." Her choices include Jonathan Franzen on Peanuts; Mark Grief's welcome critique, "Against Exercise"; poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser on the repercussions of a murder; and Sam Pickering and Cathleen Schine pondering dogs. 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
There are more than a few memorable essays in this volume. The most memorable essay is also the most maddening, Mark Greif's "Against Exercise". One hopes that Greif wrote this essay as an intellectual exercise, similar to an assignment in a debating society in which one has to create winning arguments for a position that is directly opposite one's own beliefs. Greif's essay is entirely one-sided, and he does an incredible smear job against a practice (exercise) that would certainly benefit the country as a whole if more Americans did it regularly. I was almost compelled to write a rebuttal, but refrained from doing so on the hope that Greif was just kidding.
Memorable, well-written essays that were enjoyable as opposed to maddening included:
-- Roger Angell's "La Vie en Rose": a beautiful reminiscence of the author's taste of "the good life" among the elite in post-war Europe.
-- Paul Crenshaw's "Storm Country": a powerful first-person account of what it is like to live in Tornado Alley in Arkansas.
-- Jonathan Lethem's "Speak Hoyt-Schemerhorn": an engaging essay about, of all things, a subway station in Brooklyn, whose history mirrors the changing times of the city and society.
-- Oliver Sacks' "Speed": a detailed account of the nature of speed and time, and how it is perceived differently by different people, plants and animals.
-- David Foster Wallace's "Consider the Lobster": an account of the Maine Lobster festival that turns into an exposition of the author's moral struggles with consuming lobsters and meat.
The three duds, and the reasons I feel they are duds, are:
-- Michael Martone's "Contributor's Note": other authors may identify with Martone's neurosis, but this short essay is inconsequential and forgettable.
-- David Masello's "My Friend Lodovico": very narcissistic, although instead of staring into a mirror, the author stares into a painted portrait.
-- Sam Pickering's "Dog Days": self-indulgent navel gazing by an opinionated know-it-all.
Others will no doubt have a different list of hits and misses, but the 2005 Best American Essays contains much to nourish the mind.
I think it would hard for any guest editor to go too far wrong, given that the assignment is to pick twenty-five essays from one hundred that have been selected by the Series Editor and his staff from the hundreds of essays submitted. Presumably, any twenty-five would be pretty good.
The subject matter in Best American Essays 2005 is all over the place. There are essays about hummingbirds, diagramming sentences, forgetfulness, and robots. I start all the essays and end up skipping or skimming about half. But the half that I do read are what essays ought to be, thoughtful pieces of writing that make you think, and maybe even change the way you think.
Some of the grabbers in this volume are Oliver Sacks' mind-bending Speed, about how we perceive time; Cathleen Schine's Dog Trouble, a remarkable narration about how she dealt with her psychotic dog; Jonathan Franzen's The Comfort Zone, about his childhood fascination with Charles Schulz and Peanuts; and David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, examining lobsters from more angles than you thought possible, all of them riveting.
One of the things I enjoy most about anthologies like this is that I can re-read old favorites like David Sedaris and Oliver Sacks, as well as find writers whose work is new to me. I'm delighted to find, just as I've finished reading Consider the Lobster, that David Foster Wallace has a new collection of his essays out that is going right on my to-read list.
Meanwhile I'll keep up my subscriptions to the New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, Asimov's and Antioch Review and pick up the Atlantic and New Yorker at Penn Station and I'll feel I've done my duty by the essay.