The Best American Essays 1998


The Best American Essays 1998 features a captivating mix of people and prose, as guest editor Cynthia Ozick shapes a volume around the intricacies of human memory. The reflections and recollections of Saul Bellow, John Updike, Jamaica Kincaid, John McPhee, and Andre Dubus join company with many voices new to the series, as an astonishing variety of writers share their deepest thought on ecstasy and injury, ambition and failure, privacy and notoriety.
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The Best American Essays 1998 features a captivating mix of people and prose, as guest editor Cynthia Ozick shapes a volume around the intricacies of human memory. The reflections and recollections of Saul Bellow, John Updike, Jamaica Kincaid, John McPhee, and Andre Dubus join company with many voices new to the series, as an astonishing variety of writers share their deepest thought on ecstasy and injury, ambition and failure, privacy and notoriety.
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Editorial Reviews

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The Barnes & Noble Review
Well Said

In her introduction to this year's edition of this popular anthology series, Cynthia Ozick stakes out her definition of the essay versus the article. The article may be "timely and topical" but it is "likely to be stale within a month." By contrast, the essay is timeless; it abandons "rage and revenge" and instead bears a "certain quietude...a kind of detachment...the essay is by and large a serene and melancholic form."

It's possible to read this definition as a deliberate rebuke to the current craze for memoir, the prevailing trend in nonfiction toward the explicit and confessional. First-person accounts of incest, infidelity, self-mutilation, Tourette's syndrome, heroin habits, and spanking fetishes seem to be everywhere these days, but they're absent in this volume. Instead, Ozick has defiantly chosen to present recent writing that lacks anger or sordid detail. The 25 essays she's gathered are uniformly gentle and reflective, well-crafted and calm.

The essayists in this volume eschew rage for what contributor André Aciman refers to as "the beauty of remembering." Childhood is not a battlefield but a source of constant discovery and joy. Brian Doyle lovingly recounts his experiences as a "great altar boy"; Oliver Sacks writes of the "delicious transformation" found in summer holiday swims; John Updike recalls his passionate adolescent fixation with comic-book art; Helen Barolini praises the lessons learned from a benevolent, inspirational Italian tutor. Several authors offer wry observations on culture. Saul Bellow critiques "modern imagemaking"— describing photographers as "demonic, sadistic camera technicians." Sven Birkerts ponders the fate of reading in an age of channel surfing — the "climate of distractedness that envelops us." Jeremy Bernstein describes a run-in with a rather defeated Stephen Spender, while James Wood lambastes a "tedious" Broadway production of "A Doll's House." Two essayists take on the unfashionable subject matter of aging. In "Will You Still Feed Me?" Joseph Epstein proudly details his take on reaching the "stately age of sixty," while William Maxwell reflects on his waning years in "Nearing Ninety."

A standout essay in this collection is "A Visit to Camelot." In this posthumous piece, critic Diane Trilling recounts a dinner party at the White House in 1962. Surrounded by literary luminaries such as James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, and Robert Frost, Trilling and her husband drink champagne and engage in flirtatious banter with John and Jackie Kennedy. The piece reads like a combination of Noël Coward and Edith Wharton, full of cutting observations and evocative descriptions of manners and costumes. Trilling offers a fascinating portrait of the famed Camelot: She hints at the strain in the marriage between the Kennedys, the boredom and reckless energy that existed within their world of protocol. Yet she never resorts to gossip or cruel asides as she speaks of the President and his wife, and her style is so discreet and charming, a welcome antidote to all the current tawdry and vitriolic prose about the White House today. In much the same way, these collected essays offer a genteel and calm respite from the brash and vulgar.
— Margot Towne,

Library Journal
This year, Ozick (The Puttermesser Papers, LJ 5/15/97) does not contribute an essay to this distinguished anthology but serves as editor. In her introduction, which she calls, "Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body," she writes of the "meditative temperateness" of the essay form, calling it "the movement of the free mind at play." Series editor Atwan warns, "You will find few tidy conclusions in this collection." The 25 selected essays do indeed show authors turning things over in their minds or, as Atwan says, using writing as thought process: Anwar Accawi thinks back to how the arrival of a telephone changed his village, James Wood analyzes why Chekhov's theatrical art is superior, and several contributors (including Sven Birkerts in "States of Reading") write about reading. Other essayists include Edward Hoagland, Jamaica Kincaid, John McPhee, and Oliver Sacks. The introduction explains the selection process, and brief biographies of the essayists and a list of the "Notable Essays" appear at the end. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Nancy P. Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, NC
Chicago Tribune
An eclectic assortment. . .some of the best storytellers of our day.
Kirkus Reviews
August writers and intimations of mortality mark this year's fine collection in this annual series. In her introduction, novelist and master essayist Ozick (Fame and Folly, The Puttermesser Papers) writes with characteristic firmness of the "living voice" of the essay. Maybe it's due to the coming of the end of the century, to the ages of these writers, or to Ms. Ozick's own personal outlook, but the voices bending our ears this year are often settled yet still in awe of humanity. Ian Frazier finds Queens, New York, a kaleidoscope of hopes; Brian Doyle is moved by the force of the Catholic Church; Sven Birkerts explores the "transformative" power of the act of reading, and more. Nearly without exception, the writing in the essays is so good that if you love the genre, you almost have to sit before the words and be happy. The rub? As in some previous years, it's the presence of many more Sure-to-Please Masters than Newer Writers Deserving Attention, as well as the high representation of Well-known magazines in the volume. Though who can truly quibble with a lineup that includes Coetzee, Kincaid, and McPhee, and that culls from the New Yorker and other estimable venues? It's just that while essay fans read such collections to revisit old friends, most of us also hope to find stunning work from little-known writers and magazines. For instance, itþs pleasing to be introduced to Anwar F. Accawi, who details with finality the wreck of his Lebanese village by modernity in "The Telephone," and to get a smattering from less-mined journals like Alaska Quarterly Review. Someday, please, more of the new and less of the old. For an angrier, more confessional, or more reportorialmix, we've been put on hold.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402892431
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/1/1998
  • Series: Best American Essays Series
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.27 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Cynthia Ozick

CYNTHIA OZICK is the author of numerous acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. She is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize. Her stories have won four O. Henry first prizes.

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.

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