Book Review: “The Best American Science Writing 2009″ ed. Natalie Angier

March 25, 2010

Houghton Mifflin’s annual “Best American” series is getting far-flung. In 1915, the first Best American Short Stories anthology was published. These days, you can get a yearly dose of Best Comics, Best Crime Reporting, Best Medical Writing, Best Short Plays, et cetera. Last year I read The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008 and was pleased. This year, I just finished reading The Best American Science Writing 2009.

This is not to be confused with The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009. What the difference actually is between the two (Science versus Science and Nature) is not clear to me. The Science collection I just finished included articles on biology and animal behavior, two topics I’d say slot firmly in the nature camp. But, all right, I’m not one to deny Houghton Mifflin its god-given right to publish a lot of things.

As in all of the Best American books, this year’s science compendium includes a couple dozen short pieces in the indicated genre. These collections make for quick reading; the diversity of the selections usually keeps things interesting, by dint of variety if nothing else.

This book starts off deeply grim. It opens with a horrifying New Yorker article about a woman whose pathological, endless itching causes her to scratch right through her skull into her brain. You’re not done being totally freaked out about that when you’re hit with a follow-up sucker punch of oncology nurse/extreme anxiety/dental procedures, and then the coup de grace: a piece from The New York Times Magazine that not only postulates about fetuses experiencing extreme pain but reminds us that, just a couple of decades ago, emergency surgery on premature newborns was routinely executed without any anesthesia.

The good news is, if you’ve made it this far, you have smoother sailing ahead. There’s Jennifer Khan’s brilliant article about the death of a 9/11 first responder that leaves a gorgeous ambivalence about relative truths and the meaning of heroism. Alex Kotlowitz’s story about the treatment of violence in Chicago like a virus—quarantining it and soothing would-be assailants with palliative, panacea counseling from peers—is intriguing, and an offbeat piece from Wired about an eccentric, slightly misanthropic Polish entrepreneur obsessed with systematically remembering everything he learns is, well, offbeat.

Be warned though, because you’re about to get blindsided again. The penultimate chapter is an essay, again from an oncology nurse. “My patient died looking like one of the flesh-eating zombies from 28 Weeks Later,” writes Theresa Brown, right after describing the causal traumatic scene in spurting, nightmarish detail. I made the mistake of reading this at night. I recommend against it.

Like any anthology, this one has its ups and downs. It made for a quick read and a couple of ah-ha moments, but if you miss out on it, you won’t be hopelessly left behind.

3.0 stars
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