The Best American Essays 1996by Geoffrey C. Ward (Editor), Robert Atwan (Editor)
The Best American Essays 1996 celebrates the acclaimed anthology's tenth year with a lively, wide-ranging volume that takes the essay into diverse worlds far beyond the personal. The territories these essays explore are sometimes astonishing, amusing, or disturbing. Ian Frazier takes the F train to Brooklyn, with its continuous parade of urban surprises; Amitav Ghosh visits New Delhi during a moment of social upheaval; and Chang-Rae Lee welcomes us into his family kitchen, where he prepares Korean meals for his dying mother. While Gerald Early analyzes the Afrocentric dream of a world without whites, Jonathan Raban hears " the last call of the wild" on the Pacific coast, and Nicholson Baker peruses an upscale world in which books are part of the furniture. Guest editor Geoffrey C. Ward has assembled an outstanding group of essays with a slightly different twist - one that looks outside instead of in.
In contrast to some past editions in this series, this volume largely dispenses with self-fixation. Some of the essayists, in fact, are more like eyewitnesses to history. Amitav Ghosh, for instance, recalls India's terrifying anti-Sikh violence after the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi; and Darryl Pickney mocks "the numerology and self-election of Louis Farrakhan" that he believes marred the Million Man March. Intensely personal essays are represented by Edward Hoagland and Joseph Epstein, writing about, respectively, the restored world of sight following an eye operation, and "the art of the nap." For nature buffs, environmental historian William Cronon explains how a preoccupation with wilderness has diverted attention from more urgent ecological dilemmas; Mary Oliver examines the owl; and Gordon Grice refutes the idea of a god-designed Nature in his chilling rumination on the black widow spider. Two musical superstars are treated as cultural touchstones: Michael Jackson (Stanley Crouch, stiletto-sharp) and Elvis (Julie Baumgold, windy). Finally, there are personal histories: Jane Brox on the 1918 flu epidemic as experienced by her father, Chang-Rae Lee on his deceased Korean mother, and William Styron on being confined to a Marine Corps "clap shack" for syphilis. Although Ward has cast his net wide, with pieces from obscure as well as well-known periodicals, most of his catch comes from the same spot: the New Yorker, with 8 of the 22 pieces (though this would be a poorer collection without Adam Gopnik's dissection of Lewis Carroll's attraction to young girls and Joan Acocella's discussion of Willa Cather as a victim of literary trends).
A welcome mixture of veteran and relatively new writers in an installment that maintains this series' level of high quality.
Meet the Author
Since the inception of The Best American Essays in 1986 as a trade book title, Robert Atwan has been series editor. He has published reviews and essays in a range of periodicals and edited a number of other literature anthologies. Atwan most recently edited two collections of poetry with a Biblical theme, Chapters into Verse by Oxford University Press and Divine Inspiration by Oxford University Press.
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