cover image BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2003


, . . Houghton Mifflin, $27.50 (339pp) ISBN 978-0-618-34161-0

In her introduction, editor Fadiman (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) proclaims that a shared attribute of the writers anthologized here is "restraint," and at times these essays do seem a bit sleepy. This may be a reflection of the volume's largely traditional sources: Fadiman confesses she simply found the writing in the New Yorker and Harper's to be superior. Indeed, the New Yorker's Adam Gopnick and Ian Frazier supply the collection's comedic quotient, the former reflecting on Charlie Ravioli, his daughter's New York–style imaginary playmate, and the latter spoofing magazine research-speak to conclude that, in fact, "life is too hard." Though Fadiman has limited her inclusion of political essays, she asserts that 2002's writing about September 11 had the benefit of emotional distance and, as such, was the most incisive analysis yet. We have, on the one hand, Elaine Scarry soberly dissecting the failure of the U.S. military to stop a hijacked plane from hitting the Pentagon, and on the other, John Edgar Wideman's incendiary definition of terrorism as a response to imperialist, racist power. Still, the most consistently impassioned writing here is in the personal essays. Cheryl Strayed and Donald Antrim turn out finely crafted, jarring explorations of what it means to mourn their dead mothers, while Katha Pollitt gives a painfully candid account of trying to understand the loss of a philandering lover. While the anthology ignores the younger crop of essayists appearing in less established publications, many of the selections are engaging and thoughtful, restrained but occasionally transcendent. (Oct. 10)