Book Reviews

Brevity Home | Book Review Page |   |  


Review of

The Best American Essays 2009, edited by Mary Oliver

Mariner Books, 2009

By Karen Babine

baeI’ll be blunt: the last few years I’ve been pretty disappointed with Best American Essays. There have been a few essays in the collections of the past few years that I thought were worthy of the distinction (ones that I’ll tack up on my mental Wall of Fame), but I’ll chalk that up to personal taste. I know what BAE does and it’s not really my aesthetic. There’s always too much emphasis on the New Yorker aesthetic of essays, which doesn’t represent much of the nonfiction publishing world, especially in the literary journals that are well known among writers for nonfiction. (And that’s the reason that the 1989 BAE remains my favorite.) But I also consider BAE something that I need to suffer through as an essayist, something I should read because I should, not because I necessarily want to, just because I need to know what’s going on in the nonfiction world right now. And there are more than a few BAE on my shelf with the bookmark still marking a place halfway through, because I didn’t have enough reason to keep reading its contents. Sad but true. But I view it as participating in the conversation of nonfiction, something that binds us together.

When my 2009 Best American Essays arrived and it was only half the thickness of my Best American Travel Writing, I frowned at it. What is this? Where’s the rest of my book? But I sat down on the couch with it and my highlighter and did what I always do: I flip to the back and check out the Notables, because this is where I think the neat stuff is happening. I highlight people I know or magazines I really like. My highlight was back in 2003, when my brother-in-all-but-blood Matt had an essay in the Notables. This time around, there were quite a few names I recognized and that thrills me as much as anything else about my BAE

Here’s my overall impression of this collection: well done. I’ve got a fairly specific aesthetic, one that likes to see essays not only work through an idea, but I want to be able to see the author’s brain on the page working through the idea. But there has to be more than that. I want the author’s work to illuminate some other area that I didn’t expect, something that’s at stake for me as the reader. And I want language. Too many of the essays I’ve seen in past years have completely neglected the language.

Mid-American Review had not only a Notable—but we had a reprint! As the former associate and nonfiction editor who chose this work, this is awesome. We’ve had Notables before in the years I was nonfiction editor, but this is the first reprint we’ve had in a very long time. But I didn’t realize that until much later, because other than a cursory glance down the table of contents, I don’t really pay much attention to the reprints until I’m ready to sit down with it. Every year, I do, however, lament the change in cover design that changed after 2000. I miss having the table of contents on the back cover.

Other people have their own methods of reading their BAEs, but I tend to be a cover-to-cover reader. And it’s important to mention that I’ve got a fairly good view of most things, unless I find a reason not to like something. I very rarely hate something. If something doesn’t appeal to me, I never think that it’s bad or wrong—it’s just not my taste. So I’m predisposed not to like books, movies, music, that kind of stuff. So there won’t be a whole lot of negative comments here. 

So, it being first, I started with Sue Allison’s “Taking a Reading,” Mid-Am’s reprint and, not surprisingly, still love it. I’m getting more into short-short essay forms and what they do—and what they’re capable of doing. 

Brian Doyle’s “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” blew the top of my head off, rearranged my brain, and completely changed everything. His “Joyas Voladoras” (BAE 2005) is one of my favorite essays in the world and what that man can do with language and turns in a very short space just makes my world go ‘round. I brought it to my 1110 classes this morning (1120 classes next week) and asked them if they remembered me bringing in “Joyas Voladoras” a while back and there were quite a few of them who nodded (the rest still asleep on this rainy morning at 8:00)—and as I read “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” to them, I watched with some amazement how the light behind their still sleepy eyes changed. It doesn’t mean anything to them, as comp students, not nonfiction writers, but the transformative power of the language was exactly what they needed as we started working on their third paper— and it would be worth doing nothing more than bringing in this quote (but the essay is short, so I read the whole thing to them):

"...but then there would suddenly be a sharp sentence where the dagger enters your heart and the essay spins on a dime like a skater, and you are plunged into waaay deeper water, you didn't see it coming at all, and you actually shiver, your whole body shimmers, and much later, maybe when you are in bed with someone you love and you are trying to evade his or her icy feet, you think, My God, stories do have roaring power, stories are the most crucial and necessary food, how come we never hardly say that out loud?"

Go ahead. Read that again. I’ll wait for you. There comes a time in every writer’s life when somebody else says what we’re thinking better—and this is one of those moments. Hasn’t everybody had this moment? Multiple times? It’s moments like this that reaffirm that I’m a writer and I’m doing what I’m meant to do. Hoo-yah!

There are a series of essays in this compilation that went after some really interesting ideas, absolutely worthy of inclusion here in my opinion, but that didn’t resonate with me for long after I turned the page to the next essay. I have no explanation for this. I enjoyed them immensely while I was reading them, but they didn’t make me want to reread them just for the fun of it. So I won’t go through the essays that didn’t do it for me, for whatever reason. Again, I chalk these things up to personal taste and aesthetic. It’s been a long time since I would describe any BAE as containing a majority of essays that I “enjoyed immensely.”

Jill McCorkle’s “Cuss Time” was terrific, everything I think an essay should be, layers upon layers, and somewhere in those layers, as you’re seduced by all that you’re seeing—knowing that you’re probably missing something—you get smacked upside the head with the whole reason the author wrote the essay in the first place. The way that it’s structured, though, is what my friend Jim calls the Sermon essay—start off with the illustration and meander your way to your point—but I’ve never thought that was a bad thing. This essay was a fresh look at an interesting topic, an illustration that you really can write on anything. (With all possible interpretations of that last statement. You’ll understand when you read the essay.) 

As I teach introductions to my comp students, I usually bring in first lines and first paragraphs from my favorite nonfiction essays. Usually it’s Tim Cahill’s book Hold the Enlightenment—but we talk about the grammatical imperative of starting with a command (like “Joyas Voladoras”—“Consider the hummingbird for a long moment”) and my favorite first line of all time: Bill Bryson’s “Fat Girls in Des Moines,” which begins “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” But Gregory Orr’s first paragraph to his essay “Return to Hayneville” starts off as powerfully as I’ve ever seen an essay, simply by the content itself and the almost emotionless telling of two gun-related incidents:

“I was born and raised in rural upstate New York, but who I am began with a younger brother’s death in a hunting accident when I was twelve and he was eight. I held the gun that killed him. But if my life began at twelve with my brother’s sudden, violent death, then my end, determined by the trajectory of that harsh beginning, could easily have taken place a scant six years later, when, in June 1965, I was kidnapped at gunpoint by vigilantes near the small town of Hayneville, Alabama.”

Nicely done.

I’ve long admired Richard Rodriguez’s work, especially what I’ve read of his religious ecology pieces. “The God of the Desert” is a fine addition to that, predictably a portion of the book he’s writing on monotheism and the desert (the three principal religions of the world all come out of the same plot of land)—and beyond the subject matter, I like how he writes, I like how he structures the essay.

Janna Malamud Smith’s “Shipwrecked” was a fresh take on an old subject, which reminded me of something I’d heard once: write something new in an old way or something old in a new way. The loss in our lives continues to be fodder for the page, our way of working through important moments, all the grandmother essays we see in intro courses—but I really appreciated the shipwrecked metaphor she uses. 

I was surprised to see as many essays about writing as there were—but they took the place of the Foreword and Introduction for me. I was pretty disappointed with both this BAE’s intro and foreword, as I’ve come to expect those two pieces to provide the editor’s personal views on the state of nonfiction, something to point to to help nail down What Nonfiction Is—which, of course, is impossible, but these pieces seems to help illuminate another dark corner of the form. I don’t write memoir, but Patricia Hampl’s “The Dark Art of Description” seemed to apply to more than just the memoir form. Cynthia Ozick’s “Ghost Writers” was another unexpected piece of this puzzle—even as I disagreed with her fundamental premise. Yes, I believe that what matters is what happens between the writer and the page. This much is obvious. But without some kind of interaction with other writers—especially for the nonfiction writer—part of the writer shrivels. Whether the interaction is with the written word of other writers (reading) or actual conversations, there’s great benefit in it. At the moment, I’m suffering from that lack, as nobody else here writes nonfiction. I feel like I’m dying of thirst in the middle of a desert here. I finally realized that my rather long dry spell of writer’s block coincides with my resignation from Mid-American Review. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. And then there was Updike, with his knack to put to words everything I can’t—and what he can’t:

With ominous frequency, I can’t think of the right word. I know there is a word; I can visualize the exact shape it occupies in the jigsaw puzzle of the English language. But the word itself, with its precise edges and unique tint of meaning, hangs on the misty rim of consciousness. Eventually, with shamefaced recourse to my well-thumbed thesaurus or to a germane encyclopedia article, I may pin the word down, only to discover that it unfortunately rhymes with the adjoining word of the sentence. Meanwhile, I have lost the rhythm and syntax of the thought I was shaping up, and the paragraph has skidded off (like this one) in an unforeseen direction.

All in all, the best thing I can say about this collection is that I will read it again and I will recommend it to even those who do not write nonfiction. I cannot say the same for most of the other BAEs on my shelf.


Have your own opinion on Best American Essays? Add your comments to the Brevity Blog.


Karen Babine teaches composition at Bowling Green State University.  Her essays have most recently appeared in Weber: The Contemporary West, River Teeth, Ascent, Fugue, and are forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly.