I’m a huge essay reader, and I love the collections of Best Essays and Best Magazine Writing each year. Essay is my favorite genre to teach because students can use all their creative writing skills to infuse a breathing life into serious issues. A well-written essay is never boring. The best essays are compelling stories that the author crafts into an argument. Sometimes we have to reread to discover its thesis—but it’s always there. So here are four books of essays I read this past year and a few of the most notable (for me, anyway) essays in them. If available I’ve included a link to the essay should you want to read it.
The Best American Essays 2013 Ed by Cheryl Strayed
My two favorites:
The Art of Being Born by Martha Aldrich. A mother giving birth writes about feeling unloved by her own mother. Confessions of an ex-Morman by Walter Kirn. A personal essay about how he came into—and out of–Mormonism.
This collection is stronger as a whole than the 2013 collection. Here are three of my favorites:
Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy. An author and investigative reporter loses her child in the 5th month of pregnancy while on assignment in Mongolia. Sliver of Sky by Barry Lopez. A personal essay about sexual abuse by a doctor.The Devil’s Bait by Leslie Jamison. A personal and investigative and medical essay about Morgellons disease, a real but usually undiagnosed and strange skin disease. Fascinating stuff.
The Best Magazine Writing 2012
I still think the 2010 anthology is the best one so far, but I enjoyed many pieces in this one as well. Particularly these essays: Joplin! by Luke Dittrich. 24 strangers find themselves taking shelter in a gas station as a tornado roars through. Dittrich writes this as if it is unfolding before our eyes, chronicling each person and how they came to be at the station. The Apostate by Lawrence Wright. This is a fascinating piece about the church of Scientology, and specifically the story of screenwriter and director Paul Haggis who left the church. After reading the essay, I heard the author interviewed on NPR, and this is one of the only times that the church did not sue an author or publication. Apparently Wright did his research well. Arms and the Dudes by Guy Lawson. This is an unbelievable essay about two stoner kids from Florida who become major arms dealers supplying the Afghan army. Lawson has expanded this essay into a book and it’s set to become a movie to be released in 2016. Hard to believe, but true. The Secret that Kills Four Women a Day by Liz Brody. I use this essay about domestic violence at school. It’s eye-opening and horrifying.
The Best Magazine Writing 2014
Good but not as good as 2012 or 2010. Three essays stand out in this collection: Orders of Grief by Lisa Miller about the Sandy Hook school shootings and its aftermath for this quiet community. Jahar’s World by Janet Reitman which chronicles the boy behind the Boston Marathon bombing–a boy who had a bright future but a dark mind. Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us by Steven Brill. This is an excellent follow-up to Atul Gawande’s article in the 2010 collection titled “What a Texas town can teach us about health care.” Both authors research and discuss why and how health care costs are out of control.