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Sideways Review: A Charming Combination

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John Proctor on
Francis Spufford’s “The Habit” and
Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life”
from
The Best American Essays 2003

~7th in a series
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To be a charming combination turns me on.
The Sugarcubes

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I’m writing this review listening to “Lucky Night” by the Sugarcubes, and I encourage you, Dear Reader, to listen to it while reading the review.
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Some of the most pleasant, serendipitous moments I’ve experienced while reading each volume of The Best American Essays come with the discovery that two essays listed sequentially merely because the last names of the authors fall together alphabetically—so they can be perceived as a pair completely by chance—actually do seem to belong together for deeper reasons. In The Best American Essays 2006, for example, Susan Orleans’ “Lost Dog,” a piece of literary journalism about the search of a man and a woman for a dog, ends with little sense of closure. I felt vaguely dissatisfied until I read the next piece in the volume, Sam Pickering’s “George,” a quotidian essay about his family putting their twenty-year-old dachshund to sleep, which gave me the narrative closure, albeit grim, I needed for Orleans’ piece.

Other times, two essays go together for reasons that are entirely personal to me. I had to stop reading the 2003 volume for a few days when Francis Spufford’s “The Habit” and Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” two of the few purely memoirist essays in the volume, broke my damn heart so badly that I needed time to grieve.

Perhaps the reason these essays work so well together is that, after a first read at least, they couldn’t seem more different. I felt many times while reading Spufford’s essay, about his childhood as a reader, that his thoughts were mine, that his story was mine. The last line, referring to the books he’s read in his life, sums up my empathic response:

Among these drifting pillars, the true story of my life looks no different; it is just a story among stories, and after I have been reading for a while, I can hardly tell anymore which is my own.

The first section of Strayed’s essay, on the other hand, begins and ends with statements that could never apply to me:

The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.

And this was like that—the end of one thing, the beginning of another: my life as a slut.

Strayed’s essay was perhaps even more personally affecting than “The Habit,” because it won my intense empathy on the basis of almost no shared experience. I’ve never cheated on my wife and would, in all honesty, probably react similarly to Strayed’s husband if I found out my wife had cheated on me with as many men as she documents.

Spufford’s  fearless and thorough excavation of his own experience with his family and with books gave me, by the end of the essay, the feeling that not only did I know him but also that he was an old friend. No detail of Strayed’s life, on the other hand, is something I’ve directly experienced—her divorce, crabs, heroin addiction, abortion, dropping out of college, deciding to walk the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail alone without any hiking experience to speak of (the memoir of which, Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, will be released on hardcover on March 20)—but Strayed goes so deeply into herself, baring every motivation, every weakness, every excuse and every disapproval, that it was impossible for me to judge her; I knew her, like Spufford, too well.

And they do indeed make a charming charming combination.
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John Proctor is the Assistant Editor of Reviews Gone Sideways. He’s reading one volume of The Best American Essays a month for the next two years. His Photoshop skills remain remedial.
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 The Best American Essays 2003
Anne Fadiman, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor
Houghton Mifflin
2003

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More of John’s Hunger Mountain BAE reviewsAnd if that’s not enough, check out his contributions to The Best American Reading Club.

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