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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Best American Essays 2015

These Best American books are always a mixed bag, but as I look over the table of contents of The Best American Essays 2015, I must say that the batting average here is pretty high, including three terrific essays right in a row (the essays are arranged alphabetically by author).

I'll get to those at the end, but I'll by praising some of the more light-hearted ones. David Sedaris, one of the great comic writers of this or any generation, writes about his deepening obsession with one of those step counters in "Stepping Out" (he gets up to sixty-thousand a day!) In "A Man and His Cat," Tim Kreider edges into very familiar territory--writing about a pet. What could have been junk for Reader's Digest instead is witty. "I lived with the same cat for nineteen years--by far the longest relationship of my adult life. Under common law, this cat was my wife."

Staying in the less serious vein, Cheryl Strayed writes about her sweatpants in "My Uniform," and two essays about old age: Mark Jacobson's "65," about turning that age: "Only yesterday I was twenty-six, a strapping Icarus, soaring on the drunken tailwind of my own infinity. Or was that last week?" And the venerable Roger Angell, thirty years older, details the infirmities of a nonagenarian in "This Old Man." "The lower middle sector of my spine twists and jogs like a Connecticut country road, thanks to a herniated disk seven or eight years ago. This has cost me two or three inches of height, transforming me from Gary Cooper to Geppetto."

Other essays worth noting are "Smuggler," Phillip Kennicott's lovely remembrance of how literature helped him deal with his homosexuality in a time when coming out was not an easy option, and John Reed's "My Grandma the Poisoner," in which the author puts two and two together and comes up with some troubling questions about his grandmother and the convenient deaths that occurred around her.

My favorite essays came one after another, and I read two of them back to back, which was a great pleasure. "Visions," by Tiffany Briere, is a terrific work that contrasts the superstitions of her Jamaican people and the work she does for a pharmaceutical company (you'll learn a lot about how to dissect a mouse). This is followed by "My Daughter and God," by Justin Cronin, in which the author's wife and daughter are in a car accident that by all right should have killed them. The wife turns religious, but the daughter, a teenager, resists going to church. The third in this trio is Meghan Daum's "The Difference Maker," about her reluctance to have children, but instead becomes a Big Sister. It's a fascinating look into a woman's decision about motherhood.

Although it wasn't my favorite essay, I did find Kendra Atleework's "Charade," a remembrance of a childhood friend, to have some lovely passages. This is my favorite: "The best rains fell at night in the autumn, out of clouds resting on the side of Wheeler Crest, fat and freezing. They rolled down the mountains, swallowing my house and the surrounding blue spruce, the skeletons of silver poplars, peaks bristled by evergreens. By November snow had reached the ridge, and the air was tangible, flavored with frost and the slow death of plants and birds. In the evenings came the smell of smoke, the metallic ping of my father's ax against knotty wood." Wow.

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