Eighteenth edition of the annual known for its high standards lives up to its predecessors.
Editor Gould, who died in May, was himself an accomplished essayist whose columns in Natural History have earned him a place just below Thomas Huxley's in the ranks of scientific prose masters. Oddly, he did not select many scientifically oriented pieces for this collection, though there are three particularly strong essays on medical topics. Atul Gawande's “Final Cut,” which reports on the modern disregard of autopsies as well as describing in grim detail how autopsies are carried out, will provoke thought—and perhaps some reader's stomachs as well. Jonathan Franzen’s “My Father's Brain,” a beautifully written memoir of Ed Franzen's lapse into Alzheimer's, presages the author's fictional The Corrections (2001). Finally, Barbara Ehrenreich smashes through the pieties of “survivorhood and sisterhood” that surround breast cancer in “Welcome to Cancerland” (also in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002, edited by Natalie Angier, above). Reporting on the oddly infantalizing and upbeat culture enforced on breast cancer sufferers, Ehrenreich views the pink ribbons and teddy bears handed out in cancer support groups as “amulets and talismans, comforting the survivor”; she prefers anger and investigation of the environmental causes of breast cancer, an area of research not encouraged by the corporate-funded American Cancer Society. Gould’s introduction remarks with some understated dismay on the confessional tone prevalent among essayists today, which may lead readers to wonder what prompted him to include Bernard Cooper’s whiny memoir, “Winner Take Nothing.” The editor remarks more happily on the high quality of the 9/11 essays, of which the best is “Turning Point,” by Rudolph Chelminski. Taking an oblique angle to the attack, Chelminski profiles French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who walked across a cable between the Twin Towers in 1974.
Compares favorably, piece by piece, to its cousins in poetry and short story.