Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review: The Best American Essays 2015

The Best American Essays 2015 The Best American Essays 2015 by Ariel Levy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read most of these Best of collections cover to cover because I often use them as text books in my creative nonfiction writing classes. The challenge in reading them (and I imagine in editing them, too) is that have a yearbook/miscellany quality to them. They can’t really be thematic because they’re trying to acknowledge the “best of” a given year. So, like buffets or potlucks, there can be real high points, but there’s also a necessary (and often enjoyable) sameness. We don’t get the focused collection of essays that stands out from other collections, but we are guaranteed good eating…or reading as the case may be.

That said, I think this is a stronger offering than most. To begin with, Bob Atwan’s customary opening reflections on the nature of the essay are even stronger than usual. For me, who’s read all of his introductions for close to a decade and who’s even had the distinct pleasure of knowing him a bit, he manages to build on his ongoing meditations on how we might define “essay,” but he does so in a way that I imagine is open to a first-time reader. And, paired with that, Ariel Levy has the insight to write as thoughtfully as a guest editor I can remember (with the possible exception of the great Lauren Slater in 2006) and then the grace to do so briefly. It’s a very good way to start.

After that, the clear highlight here is Roger Angell’s “This Old Man.” Writing as a 93 year old man surprised still to be “vertical,” and even more than that surprised to find moments of joy after the unthinkable losses of his wife and daughter (and the lesser but still painful loss of a beloved dog who fell to its death from a window), Angell gives a beautiful description of the everyday work of making life matter. It’s both matter-of-fact and flat-out inspiring.

I expect “This Old Man” will wind up in high school textbooks before too long, likely paired with E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.” Not only do both deal with the sense that we have to work to understand our mortality, that there is a powerful beauty we have to extract from the ambivalent and varied world around us, but Angell is the boy – White’s son – in that now 75-year old essay. Both are brilliant and substantial works of American art. White talks about Angell, without naming him, as the son who will go on to make memories of his own; Angell, without naming him, thinks of the father (step-father if you want to be technical) who’s one of many beloved presences he can still recall to the now, can still recognize as part of what has given his life joy.

There are some other quite strong ones, too. Meghan Daum’s “Difference Maker” reflects on parenting from a different angle. She knows she doesn’t want to be a mother, but she weighs what it means to disappoint her husband, and she diverts her near-maternal feelings to trying to help foster children. In the way the best essays do, she lays bare her sadness and then lets it linger. She finds no easy answers, but she shares her hurt, and the beauty of her hurt, in a brave and open way.

Another top essay is Kelly Sundberg’s too-brutal-to-take-your-eyes-off “It Will Look Like Sunset” in which she recounts how she came to be an abused wife. Sundberg can write – I learn here that she’s one of the editors at the excellent Brevity – and she has a powerful story to tell. I will certainly share this one with my students, but it will come later in the term. The hurt is too much to come at directly.

I have to spare a word, too, for Rebecca Solnit’s “Arrival Gates” about her visit to Japan. But it’s not really about that visit – an overwhelming one in the wake of the Fukijima earthquake – as much as it is about an epiphany she experiences at the orange gate of a temple she quickly tours. That leads her to a profound meditation on what it means to arrive, how arrival implies a journey that may have started any number of places depending upon how we look back on it. And then she culminates in the sense that we are always arriving somewhere, that every moment, when we push ourselves to consider it, marks a potential culmination. It’s overwhelming, and in the hands of a lesser writer might be trite, but it’s inspiring here.

The next tier is strong too, essays by Sven Birkerts (in a more personal mode than I’m used to from him), Tiffany Briere, Justin Cronin, and Zadie Smith are all ones I’ll work to share with students as well.

I’ll wrap with the final observation that four top-tier essays in a Best-of is more or less par for the course. Beyond that, Levy particularly distinguishes herself in that she has almost no essays that disappoint me. (Most of these collections have two or three that make me say, “how did that get there?”) There’s quality throughout this, and that’s a tribute not just to Atwan’s general method but to Levy’s particular sensibility.

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