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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PW's Best

PW’s Bests

The 10 Best Mystery Books

1. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins – This is still a wonderfully mysterious novel. It is large and sweeping, with skillfully drawn characters, lovely passages and absolutely haunting scenes, a fully formed 19th century novel with all the trimmings. The story is complicated, but it was originally written in serial form, so the story moves forward in carefully measured steps. Much of what became standard in crime fiction was first done here, so it is not only an engaging read, but a fundamentally instructive one.

2. A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne – I have recommended this book many times to all kinds of readers. For me, it is a novel that uses suspense in the best possible way, not by having a character confront one contrived obstacle after another in a mindless stream of action, but by creating an atmosphere of deep moral peril in which the culminating tragedy seems as inevitable as it is, well…tragic. It is also one of those books in which the title become completely apt, and very moving, after one has completed the book. In this case, the “crime in the neighborhood” turns out to be far more profound and long lasting than any single act of violence could be.

3. A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell – I confess that this is one of the most beautiful titles in mystery fiction. The good news is that the book lives up to the title. It is intricate, with genuinely surprising revelations, and the depth of the characterizations makes a major contribution to the novel’s suspense. This is psychological suspense for adults, with real people confronting real, and very dark problems.

4. A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler – “It is not who fired the shot but who paid for the bullet.” It is a line that has since become famous, but it is only one of the many literary beauties of the book. Dimitrios, in life and death, is a figure of surpassing fascination, his life a tale of struggle and fierce intrigue that I have never forgotten. The secondary characters are wonderfully drawn. From the moment Charles Latimer meets Colonel Haki and hears of the mysterious Dimitrios, the reader is returned to the lost Balkan world that flourished between the two world wars, a boiling cauldron of expediency and deceit that Ambler renders in exquisite detail.

5. True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne – The novel begins with a crime based on the Black Dahlia murder, and from there steadily deepens into a work of great emotional power, complete with an unforgettable portrait of Los Angeles in the ’40s. It is a story of two brothers, one a cop, the other a priest, and by following their relationship along the trail of a gruesome crime, it ultimately becomes one of the most movingly redemptive novels I have ever read.

6. The Eye of the Beholder by Marc Behm – I read this novel years and years ago, and have never been able to get it out of my mind. It is a story of obsession, with a private detective called only The Eye who follows a nameless female serial killer for more than a decade. The Eye is the classically damaged PI, not just solitary, but deeply lonely, and the woman he pursues is a heartless–yet in some sense comprehensible–hater of men. The macabre dance of death that becomes their lives is one of the strangest and most intriguing relationships in mystery fiction

7. A Simple Plan by Scott Smith – In this wholly realistic novel, two brothers and a friend come upon a crashed plane in whose shattered ruins they find an enormous sum of money. Before that moment, none of these men has ever needed to concoct a simple plan to keep and conceal a fortune that quite obviously does not belong them. In the midst of doing just that, they become criminals, as well as victims of crime. The story builds steadily as the wages of sin become more and more costly. Here is a classic cautionary tale about the penalty dishonesty may exact upon ordinary, and largely innocent, human beings.

8. Sneaky People by Thomas Berger – This is arguably one of the funniest crime novels ever written. It is set in the 1930s, and its main character is Buddy Sandifer, a used car dealer who wants one very simple thing: his wife dead. The reason is no less simple. He yearns to live the rest of his days with Laverne, a woman who on occasion dimly realizes that sleeping with men for money adds up to prostitution. Buddy’s efforts to plot his wife’s murder creates one of the most hilarious tales of misadventure you will ever read.

9. The Quiet American by Graham Greene – Published in 1955, The Quiet American provides an intensely observed portrait of Vietnam on the eve of French defeat. Fowler, the world-weary British journalist whose observations enrich this fiercely observed novel, provides just the right counterpoint to Alden Pyle, the idealist “quiet American” whose mysterious death provides the narrative heart of the story. Part novel of intrigue, part mystery, part love story, The Quiet American remains as powerful today as when it was first written.

10. Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg – Hailed by the New York Times as the best novel of its kind in 10 years, Cutter and Bone is the story story of one man’s obsession with another man’s crime, in this case, a murder. What makes Thornburg’s story unique is that the “murderer,” a big money man by the name of J.J. Wolfe, may not have committed the crime at all. For that reason, it is Cutter’s mad pursuit of Wolfe, rather that the justice of that pursuit, that gives the book its passionate momentum.

Take note

PW’s Top Authors Pick Their Favorite Books of 2014

We’ve asked the authors of PW’s Top 10 Books of 2014 to each share a favorite title published this year. Their picks are as diverse as you’d expect from a group that includes two genre-bending nonfiction writers, an Italian recluse, an Iraqi exile, and a Jamaican novelist who has written an epic of his native island. This year, our authors fell hard for memoirs, essay collections, Graywolf Press, and international gems that are not yet available in English. Being creative types, they didn’t follow all our rules, but we’re pleased at their responses.
Eula Biss
Biss’s On Immunity uses history, research, mythology, and her own experience as the mother of a young son to delve into a complex issue: immunization. Biss’s pick, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, similarly takes inspiration from many sources as it tackles another weighted topic: race.

Biss’s pick: Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf)
“I’ve read Rankine’s new book, Citizen, twice and will read it again soon. The book defies summary, and there is little I can say about it that it doesn’t say for itself much better. It’s about, among other things, ‘the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.’ Citizen does not allow us to dismiss this anger and does not allow us to read rage as insanity. ‘You begin to think, maybe erroneously,’ Rankine writes, ‘that this… anger is really a type of knowledge: the type that both clarifies and disappoints.’ When I read Citizen for the first time, I had the distinct sense that this was a book I had been waiting for someone to write. (Shortly after, I saw Claudia Rankine read at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and I tried to tell her this, but in a Freudian slip I told her that Citizen was a book I had been waiting to write. Writing this book as Rankine has written it would be impossible for me, but the fixations and questions of the book are all concerns that I would call my own. I too, after all, am a citizen.) Reading Citizen for the second time, I reconsidered my own rage. I remembered a moment in which I had raged over a small injustice suffered by my son. Even as I raged, I had to step outside myself long enough to ask if there was any way I would survive the rage of raising a child who was not routinely treated the way white children can expect to be treated. Would I have any choice? If rage is not the most reasonable response to injustice, Citizen asks, then what is?”
Lawrence Wright
Wright is not only on 2014’s top-10 list—he wrote Going Clear, one of our top 10 books of 2013. This year, we fell hard for Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, a painstaking and riveting account of the 1978 Camp David Accords. Though it might seem impossible that Wright still has time to read after publishing two new books in two years, he does. His favorite of the year is All the Truth Is Out, a thoughtful piece of reportage by Matt Bai, which chronicles Gary Hart’s failed presidential campaign.

Wright’s pick: All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai (Knopf)
“The decline of fairness, impartiality, and respect for privacy in the American press has many causes, but they all seemed to collide in the sinking of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1987. In his bracing book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, Bai persuasively argues that the rumors surrounding Senator Hart’s marital infidelities, ignited by the 24-hour news cycle and the diversification of media platforms, permanently transformed the ethos of the political media. Within a few days, the press brought down the leading figure for the Democratic nomination. After that, the hunger for such trophies turned private lives into public commodities whenever they wandered onto the political stage, and entertainment value trumped the ethical considerations that had once allowed reporters and public figures to deal with each other as something other than predator and quarry. Bai’s book should prompt reflection on what we have lost in the process.”
Joseph O’Neill
The Dog is Joseph O’Neill’s story of an American man alienated by his native country who ends up in Dubai, where he must make decisions that challenge his identity. O’Neill’s choice is a story collection by the MacArthur-winning Donald Antrim that, like The Dog, parses what it means to be lost in modern society.

O’Neill’s pick: The Emerald Light in the Air, by Donald Antrim (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“These Antrim stories—brilliant, antic, emotional—are tremendously funny and moving. I read them with that dreadful exhilaration that only the best writers can elicit.”
© Patrice Normand, Agence Opale
Héctor Tobar
In 2010, 33 miners spent 69 days trapped in a Chilean copper mine while the world held its breath. Pulitzer-winning journalist Tobar dives deep into their story of survival in Deep Down Dark. His top read of 2014 is a memoir that hinges not on a newsworthy event but on one writer’s love of a city, surfing, and Moby-Dick.

Tobar’s pick: The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir, by Justin Hocking (Graywolf)
“Hocking’s memoir is a love poem to two quintessential creations of American culture—surfing and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. As the book opens, Hocking, an avid skateboarder, arrives in New York City from Colorado to reboot his writing career. He ends up in Brooklyn, just as the hipster boom is gaining steam, and takes up with assorted skateboarding soulmates. Hocking is an enormously talented wordsmith, and this account of a cash-poor but culturally rich New York life is funny, self-effacing, and unfailingly erudite. He is a writer’s writer, a master of drop-dead gorgeous similes and metaphors. Like his hero Melville, Hocking finds himself drawn to the sea. He falls in with a community of misfit surfers at Rockaway Beach. (Surfing in New York City? Who knew?) The ghost of the long-dead Manhattanite Melville is ever present during Hocking’s repeated encounters with the city’s unexpected natural and human wonders. Life eventually turned harsh for Melville in Manhattan, Hocking tells us, as he tracks the great writer’s sad biography while recounting his own literary failures. The Great Floodgates is as original a New York writer’s memoir as you’re likely to read. Rarely has modern-day New York been captured so viscerally and sensually.”
Elena Ferrante
The third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, continues the epic story of two friends in Naples whose lives intersect and diverge throughout the years. Ferrante’s top pick is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, about two brothers and the woman they share, with a setting that moves from India to the U.S.

Ferrante’s pick: The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)
“When I’m writing, I read very little. The only book that I read this year in English is The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri conveys the collision of two worlds to excellent effect. But what makes the book memorable is Gauri [the female protagonist]. In Italy the novel was titled La moglie (The Wife). It’s one of those extremely rare cases where the publisher’s nonliterary rationale indicates to the reader a great literary accomplishment.”
© Annie Samuelson
Emmanuel Carrère
Carrère doesn’t recede into the background in his biographical portrait Limonov. Instead, the author interacts with the story, interrogating his own relationship to Limonov as closely as he studies the facts of the Russian dissident’s life. This year, he recommends a French bestseller by Maylis de Kerangal, To Repair the Living (FSG has acquired U.S. rights). The novel follows a heart as it moves, literally, from one body to another.

Carrère’s pick: To Repair the Living, by Maylis de Kerangal
To Repair the Living is a splendid title and a splendid book. The title comes from Chekov; the book tells of the heart. The heart in question belongs to a young man who dies in a car accident after a surfing session on the French coast of Brittany. First comes the announcement to the mother, then the mother breaking the news to the father, and then finally the doctor, at the hospital where the corpse of the young man lies, asks the parents if they will agree to donate their son’s organs—particularly his heart. The parents are in shock, of course. They need time to think. But there is no time. A heart transplant must be performed in the 24 hours following death, or not at all. This novel is about what happens during these 24 hours. Between the moment when a 20-year-old dies and the moment his heart finds a home in the body of a 50-year-old woman. Maylis de Kerangal describes with frantic energy and wonderful tenderness all the people, all the individual stories, all the griefs and hopes that are involved in this process. She writes about performing both mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart surgery. Before this fifth novel, she was considered one of the most promising French novelists. Réparer les vivants is more than a promise; in France it was an immediate bestseller, and has remained so from the beginning to the end of 2014 and reconciled the most demanding literary critics with the largest audience. It will be published next year in the U.S.—don’t miss it.”
© Ahmed Al-Nawas
Hassan Blasim
Iraqi exile Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition tackles the Iraq War from an Iraqi perspective. He has been compared to Gogol and Borges, and Blasim’s stories, like theirs, are both comic and horrifying, filled with haunting images. Blasim chose Frankenstein in Baghdad by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014, a dynamic novel (soon to be translated into English) that takes as its subject the violence in Iraq in the aftermath of the American occupation.

Blasim’s pick: Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi
“Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad courageously confronts the bizarre events set in motion by the violence after the American occupation of Iraq. In an enjoyable and intelligent style, Saadawi tells the story of Hadi, a peddler in a poor part of Baghdad who collects and repairs body parts from people who have been ripped apart in explosions. A spirit breathes life into the assembled parts to produce a creature that Hadi calls the Whatsitsname, while the authorities call it Criminal X. The creature exacts revenge on all those who helped kill the people to whom the body parts belonged. It’s a painful and powerful story that goes beyond the limits of reality, in an attempt to reach the essence of the cruelty of wars that disfigure the human spirit and society, as fire disfigures skin. In vain, Saadawi’s novel seeks justice in the labyrinthine chaos of violence in Iraq. His lively style is reminiscent of horror movies and detective stories, with touches of black comedy. The novel will soon be translated into English, and I hope that will be a step toward recognition of the new Iraqi literature that has emerged from under the rubble of constant wars, which I like to call the literature of nightmarish realism.”
© Jeffrey Skemp
Marlon James
James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings is a sweeping epic that chronicles three decades of violence and unrest in Jamaica, centered on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Like Eula Biss, James picked Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as his top book of the year.

James’s pick: Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf)
“Courageous. Painful. Necessary. Words that we use to describe capital-I important books. It’s also the kind of language that guarantees that people will not read them. But Citizen is too big a work for such reductive paraphrasing. In fact, it anticipates this language in the stunning second section, which pivots between Serena Williams’s ‘stubbornness and grudge,’ and Arthur Ashe’s dignity and courage, to expose the polite racism behind what is deemed acceptable black behavior. The question isn’t asked so much as unmasked: is America still so in love with the concept of the good black because it makes for great art and sports, or because it provides a racial template safe to categorize and eventually ignore? What about the inverse, America’s equal fear and fascination for the angry black woman and the black male sex machine gone berserk? And yet, even at its most boldly confrontational, Citizen grabbed me with its huge heart and disarming openness. Rankine is far more interested in revelation than confession. It’s the pre-Ferguson book that feels post-, not just because of how it confronts race and identity but because it already feels like an ageless and peerless work of art. Several times I found myself walking into a conversation already happening, in which Rankine simply scooted over, never breaking thought, but making space for me to listen, and to eventually speak.”
© Colleen Kinder
Leslie Jamison
Jamison’s The Empathy Exams is a collection of essays that explore pain, femininity, art, love affairs, and yes, empathy, in language that’s daring and compassionate. For her, this year’s standout is another essay collection: Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering.

Jamison’s pick: Loitering: New and Collected Essays, by Charles D’Ambrosio (Tin House)
Loitering is a book I will keep returning to for years. I love its fidelity to the complexities of life. I’m excited by the surge and charge of its thought. You get to watch a mind moving through the world with insight and sensitivity and something like the opposite of perceptual laziness. A doctor once told me I had an extra electrical node in my heart—sending out extra signals saying, ‘Beat, beat’—and this collection is like another runaway node, making my heart beat faster with its synthesis of ferocious nuance and unapologetic feeling. Its essays are about a rundown utopia and a Christian haunted house, a Russian orphanage and a woman on trial, a brother’s suicide and another brother’s survival. They make the boundaries between the personal and the exploratory—the journalistic or the critical—feel not just permeable but somehow beside the point: why polarize these modes of encounter and awareness? Another Charles (Baudelaire) once protested the segregation of thought and feeling in writing, insisting that ‘passion… raises reason to new heights,’ and there is an emotive force to D’Ambrosio’s intelligence that never fails to take my breath away. These essays are smart without being overserious: they resist easy answers and treat rigorous thinking as an ethical imperative rather than a chance to showcase intelligence. They are generous to the world. I’m so glad they are in it.”

To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process–reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1955)
“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.
Read the essay here.

Norman Mailer, “The White Negro” (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957)
An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?
Read the essay here.

Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp'” (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964)
Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black– read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.
Read the essay here.

John McPhee, “The Search for Marvin Gardens” (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972)
“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).
Read the essay here (subscription required).

Joan Didion, “The White Album” (originally appeared in New West, 1979)
Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).

Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse” (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982)
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.

Phillip Lopate, “Against Joie de Vivre” (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986)
This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989.
Read the essay here.

Edward Hoagland, “Heaven and Nature” (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)
“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.

Jo Ann Beard, “The Fourth State of Matter” (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996)
A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997, the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).
Read the essay here.

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)
They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).
Read the essay here. (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)
I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).