Now in its 26th incarnation, The Best American Essays series has boasted guest editors including Christopher Hitchens, Kathleen Norris, Stephen Jay Gould, and David Foster Wallace. To that elite roster, we can now add the name of this year's editor, Edwidge Danticat, best known for her Brother, I'm Dying and Creating Dangerously. A foolproof gift; editor's recommendation.
In this year's entry in the 25-year-old series, first-time editor Danticat (Brother, I'm Dying) insists that essayists, "a bit more vulnerable these days," must "push beyond certain boundaries, to be less formulaic and stereotypical." She makes good on her assertion and populates the collection with pieces more lyrical than explanatory, like Hilton Als's "Buddy Ebsen" and Lia Purpura's "There Are Things Awry Here." Don't be scared off: there are plenty more conventional—and admittedly more engaging—pieces to read. Charlie LeDuff's "What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?" and Zadie Smith's "Generation Why?" provide good, old-fashioned reportage and analysis. Katy Butler's "What Broke My Father's Heart," Toi Derricotte's "Beds," Victor La Valle's "Long Distance," and Jerald Walker's "Unprepared" are stellar examples of personal narrative. Christy Vannoy's "A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay" pokes fun at the whole enterprise. An enjoyable read with a few hiccups, this title offers a solid survey of the state of the essay genre today.—Molly McArdle, Library Journal
Sickness, murder, death, sudden loss--the latest installment in this venerable series skews heavily toward personal essays in which people face up to life's overwhelming sadness. Paul Crenshaw ("After the Ice") recalls the infant nephew who was murdered by his stepfather; Madge McKeithen ("What Really Happened") details her prison visit to see a man who murdered his wife, who was the author's best friend. The poet Toi Derricotte ("Beds") tells of her lifelong love-hate battle with an abusive father. In "Grieving," Meenakshi Gigi Durham watches as her academic husband is denied tenure, and assesses what it means for a dedicated professional to suddenly find himself in free-fall. Christopher Hitchens ("Topic of Cancer") faces a wretched diagnosis with his usual unsentimental eloquence, as he goes "from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady." The strongest, most interesting essays put a face on larger issues. In "What Broke My Father's Heart," Katy Butler tells how her father's pacemaker allowed his body to live long after his brain stopped functioning; the essay raises tough questions about how expensive medical care can exacerbate more pain than it relieves. Charlie LeDuff's deeply reported "What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?" takes a case that went horribly wrong--a 7-year-old girl killed when cops busted into the wrong apartment--and uses it as a reflection on how crime-ridden Detroit has become a toxic environment for residents and innocent bystanders alike. In another big-picture piece, "Generation Why?" Zadie Smith assesses how Facebook is a perfect reflection of the shallow mind of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Other contributors include Hilton Als, Mischa Berlinski and Pico Iyer. This collection could have used more variety, but the preponderance of stories on human mortality doesn't make it a downer; the brave voices behind these experiences keep the pages turning.