The thing about The Best American series is that it can be hit or miss on a personal level. You’ll get some essays that don’t make too much sense and cause you to question their inclusion, and you’ll get some others that strike you perfectly and you’re so glad for having read them. The Best American Essays 2015 is no different. There were some that I loved, that I felt spoke directly to me, and there were others that left me wondering about the criteria for inclusion.
Of those that I loved, I enjoyed Meghan Daum’s “Difference Maker” most. In this essay, Daum expounds on her decision not to have a child and her concurrent calling to become a court-appointed advocate for children in the foster care system. As a woman who, similarly, is not sure she ever wants to be a mother, I identified strongly with her emotional struggle in realizing that she did not want something she, supposedly, should inherently want. “I simply felt no calling to be a parent,” she writes. “As a role, as my role, it felt inauthentic. It felt like not what I was supposed to be doing with my life. My contribution to society was not about contributing more people to it but, rather, about doing something for the ones who were already here.” She describes her work as an advocate as challenging and frustrating and she doesn’t wrap up her story neatly, declaring her maternal needs met by the child she advises. Instead, we get her concern that she can never make a truly great difference in any of theses children’s lives. Her admissions were real and unapologetic and the uncertainty of her contribution rang so true to me.
Mark Jacobson wonderfully explored aging in “65.” At just my mid-thirties I am starting to look back and ponder the different versions of myself that I have been, feeling that they existed not so long ago. For Jacobson, the arrival of 65 heralded the realization that, “I remain resolutely myself. I am the same me from my baby pictures, the same me who got laid for the first time in the bushes behind the high school field in Queens, the same me who drove a taxi through Harlem during the Frank Lucas days, the same me my children recognize as their father, the same me I was yesterday only more so by virtue of surviving yet another spin of the earth upon its axis. I was at the beginning again, stepping off into one more blank space into the Whitmanesque cosmos, a Magellan of me.” His illustration of age as the opportunity to explore oneself more is gloriously hopeful, even while taking of stock of the limited years he has left.
In “My Daughter and God,” Justin Cronin finds himself questioning his belief – or, lack thereof – in God and faith after his wife and daughter survive a car accident that should have been fatal. Following the accident, his wife begins to feel drawn toward religion and spirituality, but their daughter, who has been raised outside of religion, refuses to have any part of it. He grapples with the gnawing question of how to process this event that is, by all accounts, miraculous, while not ascribing it to a divine entity: “[Meaning] is there is you look for it, and the willingness to search – whether this search finds expression in religious ritual or attentive care for one’s children or a long run through falling autumn leaves – is what is meant, I think, by faith.” His essay is a thoughtful look into the ways we turn to spirituality to explain what is unexplainable and how we find ways to cope without it.
Rounding out the book are essays by familiar names such as Zadie Smith, David Sedaris, Cheryl Strayed, and Margo Jefferson. Although I didn’t love or identify with every piece in this collection, I come to such anthologies with the hope of discovering a few new voices that stick with me. In that vein, this book performed marvelously.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a book of essays]