cover image The Best American Essays 2004

The Best American Essays 2004

. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $27.5 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-618-35706-2

Medical trauma is a recurrent theme in the latest edition of Houghton Mifflin's popular Best American reprints series, which is edited this year by The Metaphysical Club author Menand. In her essay ""An Enlarged Heart,"" poet Cynthia Zarin recalls the anxiety and helplessness of caring for a seriously ill child. ""A Sudden Illness"" by Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) chronicles her fight against an untreatable illness that would confine her to bed for days at a time. And Gerald Stern's ""Bullet in My Neck"" reveals that the author is so accustomed to his injury that he never thinks of it, ""only when the subject comes up and someone--full of doubt or amazement--gingerly reaches a hand out to feel it."" Menand also selects several pieces of cultural criticism: Rick Moody's ""Against Cool,"" Alex Ross's ""Rock 101"" and Wayne Koestenbaum's head-spinning tour of the explosion of AIDS in New York during the 1980s. Humor makes appearances in Anne Fadiman's ""The Arctic Hedonist"" and Leonard Michael's recollection of growing up in New York's Jewish culture, ""My Yiddish."" But it's the artful, unsentimental examination of personal experience--stunningly exemplified in Kathryn Chetkovich's ""Envy""--that really glues these disparate pieces together. Only two them--Jared Diamond's essay on the inevitability of environmental devastation and Adam Gopnik's extended critique of the Matrix Reloaded--dispense with the first-person altogether. Although regular readers of the New Yorker, Harper's, the Threepenny Review and Granta may have encountered at least a few of these works before, each of these essays merits rereading. They may even be improved by each other's fine company.