David's Reviews > The Best American Magazine Writing 2008

The Best American Magazine Writing 2008 by American Society of Magazin...
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's review
Dec 04, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2008, anthologies-and-collections
Read in November, 2008

This collection delivers everything that was missing from the 2008 essay anthology edited by Adam Gopnik. The writing is crisp and engaging throughout, with very few exceptions. What really sets it apart though are the topics discussed. The best pieces in the book -- Jane Meyer's "The Black Sites" (on CIA interrogations post 9/11); Joshua Kors on the denial of medical and disability benefits to Iraq veterans; George Packer's scathing account of the shameful betrayal by the U.S. government of the Iraqi interpreters who had provided invaluable help at great personal risk; Steve Oney's profile of one young marine who served and died in Iraq -- derive their power from the writers' outrage at the events being described. There is none of the "look at me, what a terrible life I've had" solipsism that contaminated so many of the essays in Gopnik's collection. Instead, the reader is led to understand, through detailed consideration of some very specific cases, just how devastating the consequences can be when a government and its military pursue an ill-considered strategic objective, with little or no attention to practical issues of implementation, and scant regard for the welfare of the very people trying to execute it.

The four pieces dealing with Iraq alone would make the book worthwhile. But they are joined by five equally fine pieces:

# Mike Kessler on the failure of the federal government to honor its promise to compensate cancer-stricken workers who assembled nuclear bombs at the Rocky Flats plant near Denver.
# Jeanne Marie Laskas writing about the lives of coalminers in south-eastern Ohio.
# Paige Williams's account of a teenage refugee from Burundi who has to rebuild her life from nothing in Atlanta.
# Peter Hessler writing about China's economic transformation ("China's Instant Cities").
# William Langewiesche reporting on how a gang of criminals reduced Sao Paolo to a state of chaos for a 7-day period in May 2006, in a coordinated attack so fierce it took the police a week to mount a credible response.

All nine of these pieces benefit not only from excellent writing; it is obvious that each was based on exhaustive, on-the-ground, research and reporting. The book has more to offer: interspersed with the longer pieces of "serious" reporting there are some very funny essays:

"I am Joe's Prostate" (Thomas E. Kennedy)
"The Autumn of the Multitaskers" (Walter Kirn)
"So Many Men's Rooms, So Little Time" (Christopher Hitchens)

as well as short pieces on the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns, the financial meltdown, and Ken Burn's WWII documentary, by Matt Taibbi, Hendrik Hertzberg, Kurt Andersen and Tom Carson, respectively.

There were only three of the twenty pieces in the collection that I found weak -- Vanessa Grigoriadis on the media-gossip blog Gawker.com, Caitlin Flanagan's somewhat aimless remarks about the risk posed by online predators, and Matthew Scully's risible mudslinging at his former speechwriting colleague in the Bush White House about who deserved credit for exactly which piece of turgid, forgettable pablum inflicted on the nation by President Bush over the last eight years.
Scully's delusion that this is something worth bickering over, or something that more than a dozen people might care about, is so surreal it's almost endearing. If he weren't so ridiculously petty.

The final piece in the book is Evan Wright's long (70-page) profile, "Pat Dollard's War on Hollywood", which I haven't yet had the chance to read. Nonetheless, the overall quality of the other pieces is so high that I don't hesitate to give this book a four-star rating.
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