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The Best American Essays 2008

edited by Adam Gopnik and Robert Atwan

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The Best American Essays 2008

© Houghton Mifflin

In his introduction to The Best American Essays 2008, Adam Gopnik, author and staff writer at The New Yorker, classifies the modern essay into three categories - review essays, memoir essays, and odd object essays. Of the three, Gopnik finds the memoir essay, based in the personal story or anecdote, to be the most popular among readers, while the review essay, for which an essayist might ask his editor, "Find me an occasion to write about X," is perhaps the most common. Most interesting among the three, however, is the odd object essay, because ofthe way the author of such an essay employs a seemingly tight focus upon a small object but by the essay's end, comments more broadly on a larger subject. Take, for instance, crickets.

In "Cricket Fighting," Hugh Raffles, Victor Turner Prize winner for ethnographic writing, embeds himself in the ancient Chinese past-time of fighting crickets. from a cricket casino in a run-down neighborhood in modern-day Shanghai to the three week Golden Autumn Cricket Festival in the preserved heritage township of Qibao, Raffles and his college student translator immerse themselves in the sport - its techniques, lore, and accoutrements - while subtley in the background, layer by layer, Raffles reveals the Chinese in the light of this unique cultural aspect:
"Twenty years ago, before the construction of he new Shanhai gobbled up the landscape, when city neighborhoods were still patchworks of fields and houses, people lived more intimately with animal life. Many found companionship in cicadas or other musical insects, which they kept in bamboo cages and slim pocket boxes, and young people, not just the middle-aged, fought crickets. They learned how to judge a likely champion and train the fighters to their fullest potential and how to use the pencil-thin brushes made of yard grass or mouse whisker to stimulate the insects' jaws and provoke them to combat. They also learned the Three Rudiments around which every cricket manual is structured: judging, training, and fighting." (p.183)

The essays within this collection range from humorous to heart-wrenching and from underwhelming to unforgettable. Perhaps the most unforgettable piece is also the most heart-wrenching. This is Patricia Brieschke's "Cracking Open," which opens the collection with the line, "Four decades ago, when I was young and stupid and didn't know a baby from a wormy kapusta, according to my Polish mother, I gave birth to a tiny damaged boy on my kitchen table."

Brieschke's is a devastating memoir of a baby so disabled, born into so poor a set of circumstances that he ends up confined to a hospital that resembles an institution from the middle ages. With only a very slight, flickering kernel of hope, this story is so sad I wouldn't believe it's true were it not for the fact that it opens a collection of nonfiction.
The editors do well to follow with Richard Cohen's "Becoming Adolf," an hilarious paean to the Hitler/toothbrush mustache. At once ludicrous and genius, Cohen approaches the serious subject of Hitler comically via the odd object of that particular style of facial hair doomd by the man who made it famous.

My favorite piece in the collection is "Run Like Fire Once More," in which Sam Shaw puts himself smack in the middle of the longest foot race on the planet, something called the Self-Transcendence 3100. This is a race that occurs annually in Jamaica, Queens, in which the participants, fifteen of them the year Shaw was there, lap a single city block 5,649 times for a period of six to eight weeks in order to complete the 3100 miles. As if that's not enough, the runners are disciples of the Bengali guru, Sri Chinmoy, who created the event to give his followers an opportunity to discover their limits. Shaw attacks the story with gonzo commitment, spending a day in the race himself, during which he ran eighty circuits for a distance of 44 miles, nearly two marathons but six miles short of the minimum required of the participants.
Not every piece in The Best American Essays 2008 deserves to be here. I found John Updike's essay, "Extreme Dinosaurs," to be anything but extreme, and there was also a Jonathan Lethem essay that was similarly dry and academic. One wonders if the inclusion of these pieces was reflexive, based upon the status of the authors. Far more captivating than either of these was Ariel Levy's "The Lesbian Bride's Handbook," a loose and humorous account of her wedding preparations:

"There was no way I was going to let this thing be shoddy - some pathetic hers-and-hers imitation of the real thing or some vaguely patchouli-scented ceremony. If I was going to have a party about love, it was goingto be the classiest party about love ever. I did not experience this imperative as relaxing."

As I'm constantly reminded with any of the Best American collections, The Best American Essays 2008 is a mixed bag, but the discernment of the editors and the overall quality of the chosen pieces ensure a more than satisfying selection for the reader to choose from.
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