Best American Magazine Writing 2007

February 15, 2008 at 7:42 pm (Best of 2007, Book review, books, Magazines and newspapers, Music, Nature)

best-american-magazine.jpg I’ve already written about “Living with Geese” by Paul Theroux; now, I’d like to recommend several other pieces that are included in this outstanding anthology. (Where possible, I have linked to the stories that are full text online.)

“Murdering the Impossible” by Caroline Alexander (National Geographic) is a riveting profile of mountaineer Reinhold Messner. messner1.jpg Messner was born in northern Italy’s South Tirol, a region that identifies almost as strongly with Austria as it does with Italy. Writes Alexander: “To non-climbers it may be difficult to convey the extent and grandeur of Reinhold Messner’s accomplishments.” He is especially famous for climbing Mount Everest without oxygen, a feat he achieved in 1978 with his longtime partner Peter Habeler. Messner’s life story is studded with similar triumphs – and one terrible tragedy.

[On its website, National Geographic has posted an excerpt of “Murdering the Impossible.” I found the full text of the article on the proprietary database Academic ASAP, available through many public and academic libraries.]

In “Russell and Mary” (The Georgia Review), Michael Donohue literally stumbles on a box of papers belonging to his newly deceased landlady. The papers pertain to her long dead husband, Russell. From these fragments, Donohue reconstructs an entire life. At first, I wasn’t sure why I should care about Russell – there were aspects of his personality that were repugnant and unsavory. But this essay has a cumulative power, and by the end, I found myself immensely moved by Russell’s sad story.

“Inside Scientology” by Janet Reitman (Rolling Stone). I don’t want to say say much about this piece except that Reitman was granted unprecedented access to the inner sanctum of scientology. Her fair-minded report back to the rest of us is a real eye-opener.

On a lighter note, I thoroughly enjoyed “Rhymes with Rich” (The Atlantic Monthly), in which Sandra Tsing Loh takes cheerful aim at well-to-do wives and mothers who bemoan the logistical challenges of their lives, all the while consoling themselves with high-end brand name purchases and other perquisites of the monied classes.

There were two essays that I found immensely provocative and disturbing: “Our Oceans Are Turning into Plastic…Are We?” by Susan Casey (Best Life) and “Prairie Fire” by Eric Konigsberg (The New Yorker). In the first, Casey describes the discovery, in 1997, by California sailor and sportsman Charles Moore of an enormous accretion of junk in an area of ocean called the North Pacific subtropical gyre:

“It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.” plastic-ocean.jpg

This spot in the Pacific, presently called the “Eastern Garbage Patch,” is now roughly twice the size of Texas.

Casey goes on to describe the deleterious effect that an enormous quantity of non-biodegradable plastic is having on other aspects of the environment – and on us, as it insidiously infiltrates our own bodily systems. Very, very scary.

In “Prairie Fire,” Eric Konigsberg writes about the death of child prodigy Brandenn Bremmer. Brandenn, whose IQ was measured at 178, “…liked the musician Yanni, medieval history, making jewelry, baking cheesecake, lifting weights, playing video games (especially SimCity, SimFarm, and the Command and Conquer series) and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He was intersted in animals, gross-out humor, and science experiments that he could devise at home.”

But that immense vitality was extinguished by a single violent act. Brandenn was fourteen years old when he died. “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now…”

brandenn_concert_mic_72_dpi.jpg Brandenn Bremmer (1992-2005)

[As with “Murdering the Impossible,” only an abstract of “Praire Fire” is posted on the New Yorker site. It too is available full text on Academic ASAP.]

From the depths of sadness engendered by “Prairie Fire” to the exalted heights of artistic brilliance, from one prodigy to another: in “The Storm of Style” (The New Yorker), Alex Ross shares with readers his wonder at the fireworks display of Mozart’s genius. mozart.jpg Along the way, he treats us to some verbal pyrotechnics of his own, and more of the same by other Mozart scholars. To wit:

“The scholar Scott Burnham recently observed that Mozart offers the ‘sound of the loss of innocence, the ever renewable loss of innocence.’ There is no more potent subject for an artist, and it explains why Mozart remains so vivid a presence. As ever, the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 23 sends us into a wistful trance; the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony wakes us up into a uniquely Mozartean kind of intelligent happiness; and the apocalyptic climax of Don Giovanni stirs our primal fear of being weighed in the balance and found wanting. The loss of innocence was Mozart’s, too. Like the rest of us, he had to live outside the complex paradise that he created in sound.”

[That finale of the Jupiter Symphony is incredibly sublime. Get the recording made by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in the early sixties. jupiter.jpg By all means, listen to the entire symphony. Then brace yourself for the incandescent conclusion]

Alex Ross seems to have ready just about every book ever written about Mozart. Even more impressive: he has worked his way through virtually all of Mozart’s oeuvre. In 1991, the Philips label issued the complete edition of the composers works on 180 CDs; we are informed that the set has recently been reissued “in a handsome and surprisingly manageable array of seventeen boxes.” Ross transferred all of it to his iPod and informs that “Mozart requires 9.77 gigabytes.”

rest-is-noise.jpg alex-ross.jpg Alex Ross is a terrific writer on a subject – music – that is very hard to write about. His book The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century made several Best of 2007 lists. I very much look forward to reading it; meanwhile, I’ll continue to enjoy his columns in the New Yorker.

I particularly appreciate what Ross has to say about Don Giovanni: “In a jubilee year, when all the old Mozart myths come rising out of the ground where scholars have tried to bury them, the usefulness of Don Giovanni is that it puts a stake through the heart of the chocolate-box Mozart, the car-radio Mozart, the Mozart-makes-you-smarter Mozart.”

This splendid essay concludes thus: “Don Giovanni, which is many people’s choice for the greatest opera ever written, ends with something like a humble gesture: it dissolves its own aura of greatness.Having marched us to the brink of Heaven and Hell, Mozart abruptly pulls us back, implying that, in the manner of Shakespeare’s epilogues, all is show, a pageant melting into air. ‘I’m just the composer, I don’t have any answers,’ he seems to say. ‘Life goes on!’ And he walks away at a rapid pace, his red coat flapping behind him.”


  1. Local booklovers, mark your calendars! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] talking about: Cleaver by Tim Parks; The Ghost by Robert Harris; The Graving Dock by Gabriel Cohen; Best American Magazine Writing 2007; and In Defense of Food by Michael […]

  2. Favorite nonfiction of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of short pieces that I’d like to recommend: The Best American Crime Reporting 2007 and The Best American Magazine Writing 2007. The latter volume in particular contained some amazingly powerful articles; far from detracting, […]

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