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The Best American Series

Posted on Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 12:46 PM

Books to keep you occupied and satisfied.

By Peter P. Jacobi

This is column number 216 from me to you, meaning 18 years of them. From near the start, they've periodically included ones that sought to bring new books about writing to your attention. And if you've followed my advice slavishly, by now you should have for yourself quite a library.

Not that I would expect such total response from you, of course. Each of you has different needs. But I have tried to keep you posted on books that might make your work easier and potentially more effective. There were books on grammar, language usage, style and voice, vocabulary, writing techniques, editing. Once in a while, I pointed you toward works that provided good reading, not only to tempt you toward pleasure but to remind you that we learn from what other writers do. Just recently, for instance, I featured Deadline Artists, a generous anthology of historically noteworthy newspaper columns.

Topnotch Writing

Occasionally, I've reminded you also of the annual "Best American Series," put out by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in which topnotch writers are represented by topnotch writing of their making. With this column number 216, I call your attention to the latest, the 2011 set, particularly within it the collections devoted to essays, science and nature, travel, and sports. They're loaded with fine examples of the writing art, and they'll give any connoisseur of our shared craft ideas, lessons, and satisfaction.

Best Essays

In The Best American Essays, Mischa Berlinski takes us through the Haitian earthquake from a personal perspective: "My chair was on casters and began to roll. A large earthquake starts as a small earthquake. I save my novel: Control + S. The horizon swayed at an angle." "Port-au-Prince: The Moment" first ran in The New York Review of Books.

Bernadette Esposito's "A-Loc," published by The North American Review, recounts an air crash experience. Within its gripping details, one reads: "As we ascended over the Mediterranean on a routine flight to Paris, the engine over which I was seated exploded. It was a systematic and orderly blow. It did not build as in a Berlioz cantata or culminate from a collection of small, meaningless gestures -- a whistle, a hiss, a persistent rattle -- in a cacophony of tearing metal, snapping cables and shattering glass. It was a noise so full and palpable, so concise and final, that whatever followed I hoped would follow swiftly."

Patricia Smith follows a young woman from the South seeking her destiny elsewhere. In "Pearl, Upward," written for Crab Orchard Review, she tells us: "Just the word city shimmies her. All she needs is a bus ticket, a brown riveted case to hold her dresses, and a waxed bag crammed with smashed slices of white bread and doughy fried chicken splashed with Tabasco. This place, Chicago, is too far to run. But she knows with the whole of her heart that it is what she's been running toward."

There are lessons in the approaches chosen, the details selected, the language employed. And the reading, believe me, is good throughout 24 essays.

Best Science and Nature Writing

Here's a sample from The Best American Science and Nature Writing, taken from Abigail Tucker's "The New King of the Sea" (Smithsonian), which is all about jellyfish "behaving badly -- reproducing in astounding numbers and congregating where they've supposedly never been seen before. Jellyfish," Tucker writes, "have halted seafloor diamond mining off the coast of Namibia by gumming up sediment-removal systems. Jellies scarf so much food in the Caspian Sea that they're contributing to the commercial extinction of beluga sturgeon -- the source of fine caviar. In 2007, mauve stinger jellyfish stung and asphyxiated more than 100,000 farmed salmon off the coast of Ireland as aquaculturists on a boat watched in horror. The jelly swarm reportedly was 35 feet deep and covered ten square miles."

Among the book's 25 pieces, you'll find Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's "The (Elusive) Theory of Everything" (Scientific American), Jaron Lanier's "The First Church of Robotics" (New York Times), and Sandra Steingraber's "The Whole Fracking Enchilada" (Orion). You'll learn an awful lot and appreciate the learning.

Best Travel Writing

Christopher Buckley, Maureen Dowd, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and Annie Proulx are among the authors of 18 articles in The Best American Travel Writing. So is Ariel Levy who, in "Reservations" (for The New Yorker), asks: "Do you like sand, quaintness, 28-dollar salads, parties under white tents, investment bankers, hip-hop stars, Barbara Walters, locally grown produce, DJ Samantha Ronson, and lovely tablescapes?" Her answer: "Then Southampton is the place for you, a land of natural splendor and immodest indulgence. A Victorian cottage on Hill Street -- nowhere near the beach -- rents for $100,000 a summer.... A spacious place with a water view will set you back about $500,000. The real cost, though, isn't money; it's time. To get to the Hamptons, just east of Manhattan, you must sit on the Long Island Expressway -- the biggest parking lot in the world, as they say -- for hour upon hour of overheated immobility."

I love the details and the rhythm of the writing. Levy's voice is on display.

Best Sports Writing

The Best American Sports Writing features 29 stories with enticing titles such as "School of Fight: Learning to Brawl with the Hockey Goons of Tomorrow," "The Surfing Savant," "Eight Seconds," "The Short History of an Ear," and "The Dirtiest Player."

"Breathless," reported for ESPN the Magazine by Chris Jones, introduces us to Herbert Nitsch, who, "Even before he was a free-diver ... dreamed he could stay underwater. He wouldn't need a fish's gills or tanks filled with oxygen. In his dreams, he could live underwater as he did on land -- could live a better life, maybe even a perfect one. Hidden below the ocean's surface, he could move effortlessly in three dimensions and know the freedom of birds without having to fly. All he had to do was trade liquid for air."

It has to do with the spleen, Nitsch informs us. Continues Jones: "If the idea sounds crazy -- our spleen as a third lung -- know that Nitsch is, in fact, alarmingly rational. He is quick to point out that one of the ocean's greatest swimmers, the seal, can remain submerged for more than an hour in part because of the enormous capacity of its giant, enviable spleen. Nitsch believes blood squeezed from his own spleen can sustain him through the most difficult parts of his dives. In that fist-sized organ, he sees remarkable adaptability and a reason to believe humans, like seals, are purpose-built to dive."

Fascinating information comes our way in "The Best American Series." I recommend these books. They'll keep you occupied and gratified.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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