The Best American Essays 2001

The Best American Essays 2001

by Kathleen Norris

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This year’s Best American Essays is edited by the best-selling, award-winning writer Kathleen Norris, whose books include Dakota andThe Virgin of Bennington. “The writers in this volume invite us into hidden places: a surgical pathologist’s laboratory, the boxing gym where a college professor and his student learn unexpected lessons about… See more details below


This year’s Best American Essays is edited by the best-selling, award-winning writer Kathleen Norris, whose books include Dakota andThe Virgin of Bennington. “The writers in this volume invite us into hidden places: a surgical pathologist’s laboratory, the boxing gym where a college professor and his student learn unexpected lessons about discipline, pain, and growing to adulthood. There are many discoveries to be made here, and I gladly invite the reader to an uncommonly rich and rewarding book.” — Kathleen Norris

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Marking its 16th year, this series shows no sign of flagging. In fact, American nonfiction doesn't get much better. Culling from the country's finest periodicals the New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, American Scholar guest editor Norris (Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, etc.) has assembled 26 pieces of outstanding grace and beautys. Norris has done her part in restoring the joy of discovery for jaded readers Bert O. States explores the terrors that choke the brain; Marcus Laffey, a pseudonymous policeman, takes readers through a Bronx state of mind; Stephen King tackles trauma, and writing as recovery; Carlo Rotella studies pain and discipline through the boxing gloves of one of his literature students. In most cases, these writers leave behind at least one image to forever haunt the reader, lending these pieces that sense of the eternal: trays as "heavy as bad news," "the spear point of anxiety lodged in the heart," collapsed tenements left "open like dolls' houses," thick "cataracts of suspicion" clouding the eyes, nightmares like "sudden holes in one's pressurized suit in the deep of a dream." The drawbacks of this collection are negligible, mainly that Norris verges on thematic repetition by including several essays on Judaism and another on religious faith. This spiritual bent undoubtedly reflects her own concerns and may also be reflective of a certain spiritual thirst as America speeds into the new millennium. For as Norris has written in her introduction, this collection constitutes "a welcome open space in the crowded, busy landscape of American life." Other contributors include Diane Ackerman, Mary Oliver, Edward Hoagland, Francine du Plessix Gray, Ashraf Rushdy and William T.Vollmann. (Oct.) Forecast: With a $200,000 marketing campaign, this latest entry in the popular series should sell handsomely. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In its 16th year, this always interesting annual collection lives up to its predecessors. Series editor Robert Atwan and guest editor Norris (Cloister Walk) have chosen 26 essays from American Scholar, The New Yorker, Harper's, and other top periodicals. Several pieces reflect Norris's interest in religion, but the topics range far and wide. Earl Shorris contemplates what is lost when a language dies. Francine Du Plessix Gray tells of her complex, belated mourning for her father, extending her experience to the work of mourning in general. Bert O. States explores his recurring suffocation nightmare, while Rebecca McClanahan reads between the lines of the notes left in a library book by a previous reader. Other contributors include Diane Ackerman, Edward Hoagland, Stephen King, Reynolds Price, and Mary Oliver. Recommended for most libraries. Mary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The well-known poet and memoirist presents the 16th installment in this flawless series. Last year's millennial edition may have been the best ever. Edited by Alan Lightman, it took a philosophical turn, pondering 21st-century issues of technology and dehumanization; particularly striking were Andrew Sullivan's wrenching essay on hate crimes and Wendell Berry's passionate case for small farms. Under Norris's guidance, the new compendium is more literary, with an evident preference for creative nonfiction. Jeffrey Heiman's "Vin Laforge," about a little town in the Berkshires as seen through one old man's memories, could as easily be called a short story-a sly essay of the kind Ring Lardner might have written. The same is true of Yusef Komunyakaa's "Blue Machinery of Summer," a Vietnam veteran's reminiscences of the factory jobs he held upon his return from the war. Eight out of 26 pieces are from only two publications, The American Scholar and the perennially dominating New Yorker. One of the selections from the latter may be the best of the best: Marcus Laffey's broodingly ironic essay on police work in the Bronx after midnight, "The Midnight Tour." The star-author entry is also from the New Yorker, Stephen King's "On Impact," about the his accident while jogging (he was hit by a van) and difficult recovery. There's some literary criticism-James Campbell's entertaining snippet on Robert Louis Stevenson as a travel-writer-and a roundup of grief literature, including "The Work of Mourning," Francine Du Plessix Gray's meditation on the death of her father. Though William T. Vollman plays with form a bit ("Upside Down and Backward"), these are mostly traditional essays. In the currentfashion, they shy away from grandiose pronouncements and booming conclusions. But there's no need to quibble. This is fine, fine reading.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Best American Essays Series
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While teaching college writing courses years ago, I remember hearing a syllogism that may, it strikes me now, help explain the enormous popularity of the personal memoir. It went something like this: "You write best when you write about what you know; what you know best is yourself; therefore, you write best when you write about yourself." As a syllogism, this seemed valid: the conclusion followed logically from its premises, no? So why didn't I then receive better essays when I assigned personal topics? As anyone can see, the conclusion rests on dubious assumptions. The premises sound reasonable, but they raise some fundamental questions. Do people really write best about the subjects they know best? We see evidence all the time of experts not being able to communicate the basic concepts of their professions, which explains why so many technical books are written by both an expert and a writer. There are brilliant academics so committed to their vast research that they can't bear to part with any detail and thus clog up their sentences with an excess of information. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, too much can sometimes be an impediment to clear and robust expression. The Shakespeareans do not always write the best books on Shakespeare. And can we also safely conclude that we know ourselves best of all? If so, then why do so many of us spend so much time in psychotherapy or counseling sessions? Surely, the pursuit of the self — especially the "hidden" self — has been a major twentieth- century industry. Self-knowledge, of course, confronts us with another logical problem: how can the self be at the same time the knower and the known? That's why biographies can be so much more revealing than autobiographies. As Dostoyevsky said in his Notes from Underground: "A true autobiography is almost an impossibility . . . man is bound to lie about himself." Yet the illusion that we do know ourselves best must serve as both comfort and inspiration to the new wave of memoirists who seem to write with one finger glued to the shift key and another to the letter I, which on the keyboard looks nothing like it does on the page, thus appropriately symbolizing the relationship between that character and the "self" it presumes to represent. Today's writers' market is flooded with autobiography — now more likely to be labeled "memoir" in the singular, as though the more fashionable literary label promises something grander. Memoirs (the term was almost always used in the plural) were customarily written by public figures who recorded their participation in historical events and their encounters with other prominent individuals. General Ulysses S. Grant's two-volume Personal Memoirs (1885-86) were bestsellers. The old memoirs were penned by well-established individuals in the twilight of their careers; the new memoir is frequently the work of an emerging writer aspiring to be well established. The memoir is easily abused by those who feel that the genre automatically confers upon the author some sort of importance. It's only natural, isn't it, to be the heroes or heroines of our own lives? And as the main protagonists how can we resist the impulse to occupy center stage and not consider ourselves gifted with greater sensitivity, finer values, higher moral authority, and especially keener powers of recollection than any member of our supporting cast of characters? The most interesting autobiography ever conceived, I think, must be Mark Twain's. Partially written, partially dictated, never published in its entirety, and never according to his intentions, in many ways a colossal failure of a book, Twain's autobiography grappled with every psychological and compositional difficulty characteristic of the genre. Twain knew how easy it was to exhibit ourselves in "creditable attitudes exclusively" and tried to display himself as honestly as he could. It was a noble experiment, but it proved impossible: "I have been dictating this autobiography of mine," he wrote, "for three months; I have thought of fifteen hundred or two thousand incidents in my life which I am ashamed of but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet." To say that memoir, autobiography, and the personal essay can be easily abused is not to disparage these vigorous genres. The democratization of the memoir has resulted in many wonderful books, not a few crafted by young or relatively young writers. I remember being in a Greenwich Village bookstore in 1976 with a friend who was struck by the arrogance of Paul Zweig's newly published Three Journeys: "Autobiography — hell, the guy's not even forty!" I remember chuckling at that remark and later agreeing that an autobiography composed in one's mid-thirties perhaps was, as Christopher Lasch argued shortly afterward, a prime example of what he memorably called The Culture of Narcissism. Yet I would feel terrible about my response only a few years later when I learned that Zweig had been diagnosed with a nasty form of lymphoma. He would die at forty-nine, struggling to complete a second series of memoirs, Departures (1986); its conclusion remains one of the most compelling and illuminating essays I've ever read about someone's final days. What prevents personal writing from deteriorating into narcissism and self-absorption? This is a question anyone setting out to write personally must face sooner or later. I'd say it requires a healthy regimen of self-skepticism and a respect for uncertainty. Though the first-person singular may abound, it's a richly complex and mutable I, never one that designates a reliably known entity. One might ultimately discover, as does Diane Ackerman in the intricately textured essay that opens this collection, "a community of previous selves." In some of the best memoirs and personal essays, the writers are mysteries to themselves and the work evolves into an enactment of surprise and self-discovery. The "strange thing about knowledge," William T. Vollmann says in the essay that closes the collection, "is that the more one knows, the more one must qualify perceived certainties, until everything oozes back into unfamiliarity." Surprise is what keeps "life writing" live writing. And, finally, as Kathleen Norris aptly observes in her introduction, there must be what she calls resonance — a deep and vibrant connection with an audience. The mysterious I converses with an equally mysterious I. The Best American Essays features a selection of the year's outstanding essays, essays of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and forcefulness of thought. Hundreds of essays are gathered annually from a wide variety of national and regional publications. These essays are then screened, and approximately one hundred are turned over to a distinguished author, who may add a few personal discoveries and who makes the final selections. To qualify for selection, the essays must be works of respectable literary quality, intended as fully developed, independent essays on subjects of general interest (not specialized scholarship), originally written in English (or translated by the author) for publication in an American periodical during the calendar year. Periodicals that want to be sure their contributors will be considered each year should include the series on their complimentary subscription list (Robert Atwan, Series Editor, The Best American Essays, P.O. Box 220, Readville, MA 02137). I would like to dedicate this sixteenth volume in the series to the memory of Charles Frederick Main (1921-2000), a marvelous teacher, Renaissance scholar, and warm and generous man. As always, I appreciate the enormous help I receive from the people at Houghton Mifflin, especially Janet Silver, Eric Chinski, Larry Cooper, and Erin Edmison. It was a great pleasure this year to work with Kathleen Norris, whose prose and poetry I've admired ever since I began this series in 1985. In fact, hers was one of the first essays I encountered back then. It appeared in The North Dakota Quarterly and later grew into her wonderful book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. In 1985 my publishers and I weren't sure we'd find enough genuine essays in a given year to issue an annual volume. Coming early on, her essay convinced us that the series was indeed possible. In subsequent essays and books, Kathleen Norris has subtly and patiently explored the dynamic relations between our participation in communities and (to borrow an outdated expression from the Dominican nuns who taught me as a child) our "inner resources." That theme and its variations can be discovered at play throughout her splendid collection. R.A.

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