Best American Essays 2006

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (hardcover); Mariner Books (paperback), 2006
Lauren Slater, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor

“The essays in this volume are powerful, plainspoken meditations on birthing, dying, and all the business in between,” writes Lauren Slater in her introduction to the 2006 edition. “They reflect the best of what we, as a singular species, have to offer, which is reflection in a context of kindness. The essays tell hard-won tales wrestled sometimes from great pain.”

The twenty powerful essays in this volume are culled from periodicals ranging from The Sun to The New Yorker, from Crab Orchard Review to Vanity Fair. In “Missing Bellow,” Scott Turow reflects on the death of an author he never met, but one who “overpowered me in a way no other writer had.” Adam Gopnik confronts a different kind of death, that of his five-year-old daughter’s pet fish — a demise that churns up nothing less than “the problem of consciousness and the plotline of Hitchock’s Vertigo.”

A pet is center stage as well in Susan Orlean’s witty and compassionate saga of a successful hunt for a stolen border collie. Poe Ballantine chronicles a raw-nerved pilgrimage in search of salvation, solace, and a pretty brunette, and Laurie Abraham, in “Kinsey and Me,” journeys after the man who dared to plumb the mysteries of human desire. Marjorie Williams gives a harrowing yet luminous account of her life with cancer, and Michele Morano muses on the grammar of the subjunctive mood while proving that “in language, as in life, moods are complicated, but at least in language there are only two.”

PRAISE FOR Best American Essays 2006

Veteran essayists (Joseph Epstein, Oliver Sacks, Susan Orlean) share space with accomplished newcomers (Michele Morano, Laurie Abraham, Poe Ballantine) in this rich and thoughtful collection. Ethnic variety is one strain: Emily Bernard writes about being a black teacher in a white class; Ken Chen deciphers the cultural mix of Hong Kong. Peter Selgin’s account of the maiming of his hand and Robert Polito’s search for his unknown grandmother convey the poignancy of loss, and Scott Turow regrets never having met Saul Bellow. But the dominant theme is death. Toi Derricotte, Kim Dana Kupperman and David Rieff write about the deaths of their mothers (Rieff’s mother was Susan Sontag). Sam Pickering’s elegiac essay about putting his dog to sleep is also a lament on lost youth and coming age; Adam Gopnik wittily demonstrates how the death of a goldfish provides a watershed moment for his family. The most affecting piece is an excerpt from Marjorie Williams’s elegant, unsparing “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” in which she describes the progress of the cancer that was to kill her in 2005. Eugene Goodheart explains this preoccupation best: “I think of [the personal essay] as the genre of the posthumous,” he says.—Publisher’s Weekly

As always with this high-quality annual, readers are presented with not only a vivifying set of essays on diverse topics in splendidly varied voices but also fresh insights into the essay form, thanks to the ever-insightful series editor, Robert Atwan, and his guest editors. This time around, Atwan revisits Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge, a novel that devilishly takes the form of a memoir, and then Lauren Slater chronicles the uproar aroused by her collection, Opening Skinner’s Box (2004). Twenty clear and striking essays about sex, celebrities, illness, and death follow. Toi Derricotte remembers her mother, as does David Rieff, son of Susan Sontag. Robert Polito muses over lost family photographs, Scott Turow pays homage to the late Saul Bellow, and Eugene Goodheart ponders aging. Sound somber? Yes and no, given that assaying feelings affirms the life of the spirit, the power of the mind, the pleasures of expression, and the hope of being heard and understood. As Slater aimed for, there are intelligence, art, and kindness here, and those are great gifts.
—Donna Seaman, Booklist