The Best American Essays 2014

In his foreword, longtime Best American Essays series editor Robert Atwan describes the 2014 collection as "impressively diverse... intense, intellectual, and inventive." In his introduction, editor John Jeremiah Sullivan (author of Pulphead, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award) doesn't comment on individual essays but instead offers up a brief history of the essay, and notes that the form continues to flourish, which is evident from the 21 sterling selections here.

The joy of essays is that they sometimes teach us about the oddest things, as in Wendy Brenner's humorous "Strange Beads," about her passion for bidding on vintage/costume jewelry from eBay seller Bergbay310. These lessons are sometimes serious; in Leslie Jamison's "The Devil's Bait" we learn about the mysterious riddle of Morgellons disease, the key symptom of which is fibers emerging from the skin.

Some pieces are disquieting: Chris Offutt's powerful "Someone Else" deals with his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a "fatman" and the long-term psychological and emotional effects it had upon him. Kristin Dombek's "Letter from Williamsburg" delves deeply--in few pages--into her conflicted notions of religion, God and sex and the moment she figuratively threw herself "off a cliff into an empty space."

Others strike a less dramatic note. Zadie Smith's "Joy" tries to come to grips with the subtle difference between pleasure and joy. Paul West hilariously writes about a "heroic art form": "On Being Introduced." This sumptuous collection shows us the magic a fine essay--a "loose sally of the mind," as Samuel Johnson described it--can achieve. --Tom Lavoie, former publisher

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