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The Best American Essays 2010 Paperback – Sep 28 2010
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This collection is satisfying in its unexpected diversity and tasty juxtapositions . . . Every reader will come away delighted and enlightened." - Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A wide variety of quality writing, both reflective and reported." - Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS is the author of four collections of essays.
ROBERT ATWAN has been the series editor of The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986. He has edited numerous literary anthologies and written essays and reviews for periodicals nationwide.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Which were, unfortunately, not quite met. The 2010 collection of "best" essays is not a complete failure. Many of the contributions are excellent, though there are few that I would classify as outstanding (Steven Pinker's "My Genome, Myself" is an honorable exception, though I had already read it twice - in the NY Times when it first appeared, and in the 2010 anthology of Best American Science Writing; James Woods's New Yorker piece on George Orwell, "A Fine Rage", also shines, as does Jane Churchon's exquisite "The Dead Book"). But there were many pieces that simply failed to take off, in that the reader could only observe the writer's passion for his subject, but was never moved to share it ("Brooklyn the Unknowable", "Rediscovering Central Asia", "Gettysburg Regress" all proved too soporific for me to finish). And I remain puzzled as to the reason for including the longest essay in the collection, a 24-page profile of former Washington DC mayor, Marion Barry, whose relevance in 2010 would appear to be non-existent. Retired ophthalmologist John Gamel's beautifully written piece "The Elegant Eyeball" was spoiled for me by being about a decade behind the times as far as available treatments were concerned. I thought Zadie Smith's recent essay collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays was astonishing, but "Speaking in Tongues" is not the essay I would have singled out for inclusion here. Fans of David Sedaris will be more delighted than I was by inclusion of his piece "Guy Walks into a Bar Car", but my Sedaris-fatigue is long-established, so your mileage may vary.
A breakdown of essay by general topic/type is revealing:
# of pieces concerned with writers/writing - 8 of 21
# of pieces that are autobiographical - 10 of 21
Even allowing for some double counting between those two categories, that's still an awful lot of navel-gazing for a 250-page volume. And this is ultimately what prevents this collection from being anything more than pretty deceent. Perhaps if writers understood that the world of writers and writing is nowhere near as infinitely fascinating to the general reader as it apparently is to them, there would be a greater chance of producing an anthology of pieces that are genuinely interesting.
I thought Christopher Hitchens might have the breadth of vision to produce a genuinely dazzling collection this year. I was wrong. The 2010 anthology is not an embarrassment. But neither is it particularly exciting.
My favorites from the collection this year are -
*The Murder of Tolstoy, in which Elif Batuman presents a daringly original thesis before a gathering of Tolstoy scholars.
*When Writers Speak, in which Arthur Krystal contemplates the difference between how elegantly writers express themselves in writing and how different they sound when they speak.
*The Elegant Eyeball, in which ophthalmologist John Gamel relates his experiences with eyeballs, some attached to living humans and some not.
*My Genome, My Self, in which psychologist Steven Pinker has his genome mapped.
*Speaking in Tongues, in which Zadie Smith observes that the voice she speaks with today is vastly different from the one she grew up with, and how, like Eliza Doolittle, she can't go back to her old voice.
There is the obligatory essay by David Sedaris. He's not my cup of tea; I find him way too glib. There are some fawning pieces about Updike and Buckley from Ian McEwan and Garry Wills, respectively. I like both Updike and Buckley quite a bit, but the essays about them seem a bit forced.
Overall, I was kind of bored by this collection. The quality of the writing is often just OK. The topics tend to the arcane. For me, this volume is saved by a remarkable piece by Matt Labash on Marion Barry. I don't really care about Marion Barry in the least. But I kept reading that essay with interest throughout. That piece is right up there with the best of Gay Talese You can find the it online here ([...]). It's really a wonderful work of journalism.
The three essays that impressed me the most were:
-- Steven L. Isenberg's "Lunching on Olympus": Isenberg describes his brief encounters over lunch with four English authors that he admired. Although the events of the lunches themselves are trivial, the power of the essay is in what Isenberg conveys about hero worship, which affects everyone, from a kid idolizing a sports star to an intellectual looking up to his predecessors,
-- Matt Labash's "A Rake's Progress": Labash's bio says that Esquire has called him "one of the absolute greatest magazine writers in America", and after reading this profile of Marion Barry, I believe it. It's extremely well written, interesting and insightful - it's too bad all magazine articles aren't this good.
-- Ian McEwan's "On John Updike": John Updike is one of the biggest figures in American literature in the past fifty years, and McEwan manages to convey why in a very small number of words - this essay is a model for communicating a strong message in a concentrated form.
The quality level of the essays was pretty uniformly high. The three I enjoyed less than others were Toni Bentley's "The Bad Lion", which didn't strike me with any emotional power, the way that the author intended; and S. Frederick Starr's "Rediscovering Central Asia" and James Wood's "A Fine Rage", both of which presented so much detail about their subject matter that I felt a bit lost reading them and couldn't judge whether the arguments they were making were correct or not.
I often refer to this series as "brain food", since reading well-written essays will educate and stimulate your brain. I can wholeheartedly recommend The Best American Essays 2010 as a sizable portion of tasty brain food.
These annual collections (with changing guest editors) look at many (many) essays before whittling it down to a manageble size. Because of the large pool they begin with, the resulting volume includes essays that were originally published in a variety of publications--many more than I could subscribe to or locate on my own. Some of those publications (and indeed, the very essays chosen) were already familiar to me (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, and The New York Review of Books), but some of them were not. Not only did I get to discover some thought-provoking writing, but I discovered some new publications as well.
Overall this collection holds up well. I've been dipping in and out of it for the past couple months, reading pretty much in chronological order (with a few exceptions). Christopher Hitchens' introduction is a jewel in itself, exploring the word "essay" to expose the variety of forms this genre can take. Reading the first few essays in the collection, it seemed that some care was taken in the ordering of them, as reading one before the other opened up the meaning of another. And there are many excellent essays in the bunch. Some of my favorites are "The Dead Book," "The Elegant Eyeball," "Me, Myself, and I," "My Genome, My Self," "Gyromancy," and "Speaking in Tongues." Although all were excellently written, I was underwhelmed by some of the other selections, including Sedaris' piece. This was particularly dissappointing as I am a great Sedaris fan, but no matter...there were plenty of other selections to make up for it. Like piece by Zadie Smith I was thrilled to see was included; I have recently come to admire her reviews and essays (her own published collection,Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, is quite good as well if you enjoy her writing).
All in all, I'd highly recommend this collection to anyone who is interested in a variety of topics written by some fine writers and thinkers of today.
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