A trove of fine writing on big issues, albeit at the expense of more playful exemplars of the contemporary essay.

THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2012

Well-told pieces on a narrow range of subjects define the latest iteration of the Best American Essays franchise.

This year’s batch of selections tends toward informative—sometimes wonkish—works of reportage and memoir. That should come as no surprise given that proudly egghead-ish New York Times columnist Brooks is doing the selecting. (As ever, series editor Robert Atwan performs the initial cull.) Brooks makes his intentions clear in his introduction, writing that “I want to be improved by the things I read”—much of which includes writing on medicine and health care: Eight of the 25 selections deal with the topic in some matter—nine if you include Jonathan Franzen’s “Farther Away,” featuring some musings on his friend David Foster Wallace’s depression and suicide. Some writers attack the subject in dry expository prose, as in Marcia Angell’s “The Crazy State of Psychiatry,” which condemns the overdiagnosis of mood disorders. More often, though, the topic gets a personal touch, as in Miah Arnold’s “You Owe Me,” an essay on teaching writing to children in a cancer ward, or David J. Lawless’ brutal recollection of his wife’s descent into Alzheimer’s, “My Father/My Husband,” masterfully told almost entirely in dialogue. America’s education system is another pressure point for Brooks, who picks a clutch of pieces on the subject, the best being Garret Keizer’s straight-talking memoir of his time teaching poor elementary school kids, “Getting Schooled.” The downside of Brooks’ improvement agenda means humor is in short supply, notwithstanding Sandra Tsing Loh’s raucous meditation on menopause, “The Bitch Is Back.” Provocation and invention are rare too, though Mark Doty’s beautifully turned “Insatiable” savvily merges the friendship between Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker with the author’s own obsessions and fetishes. Other notable contributors include Francine Prose, Joseph Epstein, Malcolm Gladwell and Alan Lightman.

A trove of fine writing on big issues, albeit at the expense of more playful exemplars of the contemporary essay.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-547-84009-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

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IN MY PLACE

From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

Possibly inspired by the letters Cleary has received as a children's author, this begins with second-grader Leigh Botts' misspelled fan letter to Mr. Henshaw, whose fictitious book itself derives from the old take-off title Forty Ways W. Amuse a Dog. Soon Leigh is in sixth grade and bombarding his still-favorite author with a list of questions to be answered and returned by "next Friday," the day his author report is due. Leigh is disgruntled when Mr. Henshaw's answer comes late, and accompanied by a set of questions for Leigh to answer. He threatens not to, but as "Mom keeps nagging me about your dumb old questions" he finally gets the job done—and through his answers Mr. Henshaw and readers learn that Leigh considers himself "the mediumest boy in school," that his parents have split up, and that he dreams of his truck-driver dad driving him to school "hauling a forty-foot reefer, which would make his outfit add up to eighteen wheels altogether. . . . I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then." Soon Mr. Henshaw recommends keeping a diary (at least partly to get Leigh off his own back) and so the real letters to Mr. Henshaw taper off, with "pretend," unmailed letters (the diary) taking over. . . until Leigh can write "I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper." Meanwhile Mr. Henshaw offers writing tips, and Leigh, struggling with a story for a school contest, concludes "I think you're right. Maybe I am not ready to write a story." Instead he writes a "true story" about a truck haul with his father in Leigh's real past, and this wins praise from "a real live author" Leigh meets through the school program. Mr. Henshaw has also advised that "a character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way," a standard juvenile-fiction dictum which Cleary herself applies modestly by having Leigh solve his disappearing lunch problem with a burglar-alarmed lunch box—and, more seriously, come to recognize and accept that his father can't be counted on. All of this, in Leigh's simple words, is capably and unobtrusively structured as well as valid and realistic. From the writing tips to the divorced-kid blues, however, it tends to substitute prevailing wisdom for the little jolts of recognition that made the Ramona books so rewarding.

Pub Date: Aug. 22, 1983

ISBN: 143511096X

Page Count: 133

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983

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