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From Barnes & NobleThinking Out Loud
The bestial gluttony of human sexual urges. The future of our weed-infested planet. The essence of beauty. No matter what you have been thinking about lately, you will surely find some complementary thinking in The Best American Essays 1999. While the writings herein probably won't make you cry, jump gleefully about, or jab your finger in the air in protest, they are guaranteed to shake the dust off your brain. Edward Hoagland, author extraordinaire in his own right, has culled from more than 100 of the year's best short nonfiction writings to create this scintillating and thoughtful collection. To a piece, these essays are written with precision and power, and each has the ring of truth and time.
Hoagland opens by introducing us to "the essayist," writing: "[He] should be faceted rather like a friend. We might give him our keys and put him up in the guest room. He won't be stealing our silverware and debauching the children, and after sleeping on our problems, he will sit at the breakfast table in the morning sunshine and tell us what we ought to do." Each of the writings included in the anthology reflect this belief that the essayist seem reflective, reliable, and balanced.
Yet, in contrast to the written temperament of the authors, the topics they have selected are often tempestuous and fraught with conflict. Charles Bowden writes about sex crimes and of losing the distinction between criminal and reasonable desire. Joyce Carol Oates describes her humiliation on a tour through a New Jersey correctional facility. Mary Gordon looks at her mother's 90-year-old life and at the paintings of Pierre Bonnard, wondering how the two can fit together. John Lahr tells of his mentally ill father, the beloved Cowardly Lion. Cynthia Ozick offers her reflections on the story of Job, while Annie Dillard and Patricia Hampl ponder other religious questions. Ian Frazier laments the kind of development that paves over the free-form aimlessness of playing in the woods. David Quammen maps out global patterns of extinction and addresses the question of our own. Mark Slouka recounts seeing a spot of the dying Adolf Hitler's blood, and Joan Didion questions the wisdom of publishing the works and letters of Ernest Hemingway posthumously against his wishes.
Some of the essays stand out for the precision of their language and the vividness of their imagery. John McNeel describes with devastating detail a wartime experience outside Casablanca. Michael Cox's childhood memories lay out his unfolding realization of his father's brutal perversions. Hilary Masters explains the impact Robinson Crusoe had on her as a child of immigrants, and Dagoberto Gilb remembers one sweltering afternoon in a hard hat when he happened to share a bench with Victoria Principal.
While most of the essays are serious and hard-hitting -- such as Toure's exploration of himself as an African-American boxer, Scott Russell Sanders's ponderings on beauty, and Barbara Hurd's exploration of our need to go ever deeper into the world -- Ben Metcalf offers a humorous yet biting critique of our relationship with the Mississippi River, and George S. W. Trow offers a lighter essay, a sort of genealogy of America's newspapers.
Some readers will enjoy the nostalgic tone of Andre Aciman's essay on visiting Proust's childhood home, or Arthur Miller's essay that takes us back in time to a New York City summer day before air conditioning. Others will be more in tune with Brian Doyle's reminiscence of a summer camp with a tone full of acne and the ache of love, or Daisy Eunyoung Rhau's painful account of the dislocation and freedom in the silence of giving up her life as a child pianist.
Whether you agree with the authors' perspectives, the writing in The Best American Essays 1999 will set you talking. Taken together, this collection offers thinking from varying viewpoints on several linked themes: the cleaving of words and silences, and of divinity and base humanity. Even the most tired mind will enjoy bending around the ideas in it and finding the words to talk back. "Essays are how we speak to one another in print," writes Hoagland in the introduction, and this collection bristles with the beginnings of conversation.