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:
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.
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.
"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.