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THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1996 by Geoffrey C. Ward

THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1996

By Geoffrey C. Ward

Pub Date: Nov. 6th, 1996
ISBN: 0-395-71757-4
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

 For this anthology's tenth anniversary, former American Heritage editor Ward (The West, p. 1228, etc.) has selected pieces that, in the words of series editor Robert Atwan, emphasize the essay genre's ``outward reach to a world far larger than the Self.'' In contrast to some past editions in this series, this volume largely dispenses with self-fixation. Some of the essayists, in fact, are more like eyewitnesses to history. Amitav Ghosh, for instance, recalls India's terrifying anti-Sikh violence after the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi; and Darryl Pickney mocks ``the numerology and self-election of Louis Farrakhan'' that he believes marred the Million Man March. Intensely personal essays are represented by Edward Hoagland and Joseph Epstein, writing about, respectively, the restored world of sight following an eye operation, and ``the art of the nap.'' For nature buffs, environmental historian William Cronon explains how a preoccupation with wilderness has diverted attention from more urgent ecological dilemmas; Mary Oliver examines the owl; and Gordon Grice refutes the idea of a god-designed Nature in his chilling rumination on the black widow spider. Two musical superstars are treated as cultural touchstones: Michael Jackson (Stanley Crouch, stiletto-sharp) and Elvis (Julie Baumgold, windy). Finally, there are personal histories: Jane Brox on the 1918 flu epidemic as experienced by her father, Chang-Rae Lee on his deceased Korean mother, and William Styron on being confined to a Marine Corps ``clap shack'' for syphilis. Although Ward has cast his net wide, with pieces from obscure as well as well-known periodicals, most of his catch comes from the same spot: the New Yorker, with 8 of the 22 pieces (though this would be a poorer collection without Adam Gopnik's dissection of Lewis Carroll's attraction to young girls and Joan Acocella's discussion of Willa Cather as a victim of literary trends). A welcome mixture of veteran and relatively new writers in an installment that maintains this series' level of high quality.