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Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Best American Essays 2016

This year's The Best American Essays was an eclectic and interesting collection. Again they feature personal reminisces over almost everything else, but once I've understood that's what they think essays are, I've accepted it. There's even an essay about salamanders ("Big Night" by Jill Sisson Quinn) that manages to tie into her life.

This year's book was guest edited by Jonathan Franzen, most notably known as the author of doorstop novels, but I found his selection pretty good. Of course, I have no idea what he passed over, but I was engaged by almost every essay. Many concerned disease or death, always pleasant topics. Consider the opening line of "Family Tradition," by Lisa Nikolidakis: "On my twenty-seventh birthday, in a two-bedroom bungalow in New Jersey, my father murdered his live-in girlfriend, her fifteen-year-old daughter, then shot himself. I never sensed the shots." Now that's a grabber.

There's also a fascinating essay about treatment for OCD by Jordan Kisner called "Thin Places," which starts with a description of a type of brain operation. The late Oliver Sacks, one of the greatest medical writers of all time, writes about migraines with "A General Feeling of Disorder," and Amitava Kumar lets Westerners know about Indian funeral rites in "Pyre," dealing with the death of his mother. For one thing, sons are expected to shave their heads. Justin Phillip Reed writes about the death of his uncle by lynching, and how it relates to death in movies, in "Killing Like They Do in Movies."

The prolific Joyce Carol Oates writes about her sister, who was institutionalized for severe autism, in "The Lost Sister," which is very moving. Oates hasn't seen her sister, eighteen younger than she, for more than forty years, and while that may sound harsh, it seems completely reasonable once the article is read.

In more buoyant topics, Charles Comey writes about that magic trip after the wedding in "Against Honeymoons," where we learn that the name Viagra resembles Niagara, a frequent honeymoon destination, on purpose. Irina Dumetrescu, in "My Father and the Wine," opens with "Now and then I click a link to find out what the hipsters are up to. The hipsters are raising chickens and
slaughtering them at home, I read; the hipsters are distilling hooch." Her father made wine.

Laura Kipnis writes a very controversial essay in "Sexual Paranoia," which takes on the statistics of college rape. Mostly she's writing that it's not so terrible when a student and a professor hook up/ "But somehow power seemed a lot less powerful back then. The gulf between students and faculty wasn't a shark-filled moat; a misstep wasn't fatal. We partied together,  drank and got high together, slept together." Sticking with sex, I very much enjoyed Katherine E. Standefer's "In Praise of Contempt," which reads at times like a Penthouse Forum letter: "Back in the wash, night settles. Owls. The flutish, descending song of canyon wrens. Stars brightening. The rock ledge, radiating heat. Bats flutter over the wash. Some bird makes a kind of vibrating sound, high-pitched, almost electronic. Then my phone buzzes. It is a picture of his erect cock."

My favorite essay belongs to Jaquira Diaz for "Ordinary Girls," a remembrance of her time as a juvenile delinquent: "All those people, they just didn’t get that there was no way in hell we could care about homework, or getting to school on time—or at all—when our parents were on drugs or getting stabbed, and we were getting arrested or jumped or worse." I would love to have my sixth-grade students read this, but the profanity in it would get me fired. As if my students don't deal with profanity every day.


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