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Book Review: The Best American Essays by Mary Oliver

Updated on November 15, 2016
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Alem is an entrepreneur and writer with an A.S. in digital filmmaking.

A Book For Those Who Don't Like To Read?

When I started reading the stories in this book, there is one thing that I instantly realized. This is a book for people who don't like to read books. Let me explain. This book is one of a series of books comprised of several short stories, all of which are quite different from each other. As I have said before, America is a nation of speed. If you read my hub, The Social Network: Is Facebook Killing Us?, you know where I'm going here. We like speed. If it ain't fast we ain't glad, even when it comes to reading. A large number of people (including myself) get bored or distracted while trying to read something. Often they end up skimming through it or just giving up. That's where the beauty of this book comes in. Its not one long story, its several short ones. And they all have the tendency to keep you reading to the end. Even while reading certain stories that some would consider to be confusing or boring, the reader is compelled to finish the story strictly because other stories they've read in the book ended up surprising them at the end. Below is a passage form the back of the book that may explain the concept of the series better.

"The Best American series is the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. Each volume's series editor selects notable works from hundreds of periodicals. A special guest editor, a leading writer in the field, then chooses the best twenty or so pieces to publish. This unique system has made the Best American series the most respected- and most popular- of its kind."- The Best American Essays Series

So now that you know what the book is all about, I will leave you with my responses to some of the essays.


1. The Greatest Nature Essay Ever by Orion

This should be the first essay you read out of this book. If I was to tell you any more than that, it would be considered a spoiler. All I can say is, this essay sets the tone for the entire book.

2. Cuss Time by Jill McCorrkle

"Cuss Time" is an interesting look at the marriage between freedom and parenting. I was very impressed with the mother's epiphany while catching her son mouthing bad words to himself. I think the invention of "cuss time" would be very intriguing to most people. Certainly it is something that almost demands an opinion. For me the intrigue comes from the curiosity of wanting to know how this experiment effected the life of the child as he went from adolescent to adult. After all, she is the polar opposite of her parents when it comes to cussing. It seems like she has been affected by it.

As for the ideology of the author I can agree with most of her thoughts on freedom of speech. I am especially fond of the Lenny Bruce quote, "take away the right to "say fuck and you take away the right to say fuck the government." That is brilliant, comedic, genius straight from a comedy pioneer. The thing I can't agree with is the statement she makes about human nature. She says, "the more we are denied something the more we want it?" I cannot agree with this because that is not always the case. For example, give an alcoholic free liquor everyday for the rest of their life and I guarantee that person will wake up every morning with not only the "want" but the "need" to get that next bottle.

The author's opinion concentrates on the "nature" but not the "nurture" of human psychology. We may all be susceptible to human nature, but how we are raised also plays an important role in how we end up. And the mothers and fathers are the "Role Models." She throws me for a loop by punctuating her statement about human nature with a question mark. This makes me believe that she agrees with the words but, she is not sure if she is right or wrong. She leaves it open for discussion or response. Very cleverly written. All in all this essay made me think less about the words and the story and more about the author and her opinions. The creation and concept of "cuss time" was the catalyst but to me the main focus was on the mind of the author. The last three words of this essay are, "let freedom ring." Perfect material for a book titled, "The Best American Essays."

3. First by Ryan Van Meter

This is another story that requires me to keep quiet about it. It would be hard to tell you what I thought about this essay without spoiling the twist in the story. Sorry, you have to read it first. Then you can ask me what I thought about it.

4. The Mansion: A Subprime Parable by Michael Lewis

This essay starts off as an informative inside look at both sides of the housing market, but ends up being a psychological theory of American cultural behavior and its consequences. The author considerers himself as "upper-middle class," which in his words is a sneaky way of saying, "I am well off" without having to say "I' m rich."

After falling victim to America's brainwashing he decides to move his family into a mansion only to realize that he did not belong in or need to be in one. At one point he goes as far to suggest the mansion itself was in agreement saying, "I turned my attention to survival. The mansion was not satisfied with making us uneasy. It wanted us out." After this statement he goes on to give examples of eerie, annoying, and unpleasant things that were happening in the house. For instance, hearing the cries of a previous owners dead cat and getting a call from the equipment-supervisor about his unknown house surveillance system.

At the end of this reading many sentences stood out to me but one of the authors statements really got me thinking. He says, "people who buy something they cannot afford usually hear a little voice warning them away or prodding them to feel guilty. But when the item in question is a house, all the signals in American life conspire to drown out the little voice." Why is that I ask? I have always wondered why rich people, mainly celebrities, always buy these big mansions. I mean just because you have a lot of money doesn't mean you need a 50 room estate to accommodate you, your wife and your 2 or three kids, and maybe a dog or two.

Another thing, the people who buy these "homes" are rarely ever "home." They are usually out on the road making a movie or playing sports. Is it for safety? Do they want to protect themselves from the poor savages who live on fixed incomes? Are they superficial and vane to the point of excess over access? Or are their minds just trained to follow a basic formula, get rich-get big house? I think it's all of the above but, all of the above caused by the last of the above. I've always wanted to live in a mansion myself. Why? After reading this essay I think it's because this country brainwashed me into believing that if a big house means success, and by that logic, the biggest house means the biggest success. Who ever stops to think about the upkeep that a mansion requires? That would mess up the fantasy! But what if the fantasy became reality?

Living in one of these things appears to be like owning a strip club, which is one of my other dreams. By the end of each month you have to pay, rent or mortgage, lights, liquor(food), water, strippers(workers), surveillance, security, and the list goes on. No wonder all of these actors never have enough money even after making enough in one film for you or me to live on for the rest of our lives. They bought a mansion!!! Some bought Two or three!!! And they don't want to give them up. So next time I see an actor starring in a movie they previously wanted no part of or appearing in numerous movies back to back, I just may go online and see how many houses they own. What have we become?

5. The God of The Desert by Richard Rodriguez

"I tell myself I am not looking for God. I am looking for an elision that is nevertheless a contour." This is how the story begins.

In other words I think he's looking for an area of omission that eventually reveals itself as the outline of a body. That body being "The God of The Desert," or simply God. In his next sentence he says, "The last great emptiness in Jerusalem is the first." This sentence says a lot about where the author's mind is at this point in his life. Throughout the book he almost complains about how empty and non spiritual he feels being in the "Holy Desert," Jerusalem. Even after his many excursions throughout this vast wasteland he never quite has a feeling of spiritual fulfillment or anything close to it for that matter, yet he still conceits to the notion that this place has great meaning encased in nothingness. My question is why? Not why he went there, the answer to that is simple (once you read to the end). I want to know why this piece of empty, seemingly dead space has been, destroyed, besieged, attacked, captured and recaptured so many times. In a land that is thought to be sacred and pristine, it is marred in blood and death. This is probably the greatest irony that this world will ever know of. Does the desert "create warriors" as the monk said? Or did warriors that were somehow drawn to these locations create the desert itself?

Maybe deserts were flourishing with green plants and water a long time ago and man just sucked all of the resources dry like we do with everything else. Deserts are hot, empty, sandy, dehydrated, large land masses, that appear to be devote of much life. If you look at the word deserted, which is derived from the word desert, it means to be abandoned or alone, that basically is what a desert signifies. Yet despite all of these negative aspects one desert is believed by a large number of humans as, the greatest place in the world you could possibly be. The author says "I have come to the Holy Land because the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims-a common God revealed Himself in the desert." This is very logical reasoning for him to believe there's some truth in these religions.

If three of the world's biggest religious groups all look to the same location and call it The Holy Land, there is a good possibility it could be true. But it's also logical that it is not true. Just like the map of the world he saw on the plane with Jerusalem at the center, all of these religious tales could have just been told through the eyes of the conquerors. And although it is evolutionary fact that the strong survive, that does not mean the winners are always right.

I often go back and forth in my head wondering how much proof is needed before I would begin to believe any of this rhetoric about the Holy Land. You can find skulls and scrolls but we can't put a definitive truth behind what the hell really happened from the beginning of time up until now. All the people to be questioned are dead. The only thing we can do is play CSI with all the artifacts left behind for us and try to put together puzzle pieces in an attempt to solve a mystery. After reading this essay I went online to search images of the desert. Between the sand mountains, pyramids, rock structures, and the unusual plant and animal life, I can say that they definitely have some extraordinary features that make me wonder the same thing the author does. He is playing CSI and wondering if the desert of Jerusalem is the chalk outline that contours the body of God. Or if it's just a mass of deteriorating garbage that is just the next man's treasure because he doesn't know any better.

The End?

6. Such a Small Deer by Garret Keizer

As I suggested that you read number one on my list first, I suggest you read this one last. This one ended the book with a bang for me. This story starts off with a guy who is frustrated with a single deer that keeps ruining his hedges. For this one I will simply leave you with quotes;

"We sense the same futility in history. The enduring cliché that history repeats itself implies a comparison to the cynical patterns of nature."

"Like weeds and whisker, everything grows back. And what you want to grow-the saplings the school music program, some notion of humanistic civilization is eaten down to the root."

"But when God reveals himself, he starts talking about animals. none of them are domesticated. The Ostrich, the mountain goat, behemoth and leviathan-all are creatures with no use and little resemblance to the lives of men and women. It seems that nature was not made for Job."

"The challenge of living close to wild animals, I decide, is not all that different from the challenge of living close to human beings: how to keep the exertion of preserving your sanity from making you nuts."

"I know nothing about living in harmony with nature. Harmony with nature is the conqueror's old cant, a slave master's fond illusion of happy slave."

Wow, powerful stuff there. That's it! If your interested get the book, there's a link below. I think the lowest price I saw was about ten bucks. The book is well worth the money.

"A good book has no ending." ~R.D. Cumming

The Best American Series


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