The Best American Essays 1991

The Best American Essays 1991

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Edited by Sontag ( The Volcano Lover ), this collection amply demonstrates the diversity of subject matter that stimulates contemporary essayists. Adam Gopnik traces John James Audubon's self-transformation from French emigre dilettante to American woodsman; John Updike probes the persistence of the Mickey Mouse icon; E. L. Doctorow tries to fathom the mysteries of songs, which ``have the capacity to represent in their lyrics and lines of melody wars and other disasters, moral process, the fruits of experience, and, like prayers, the consolations beyond loss''; Stanley Elkin contends that Hamlet and the Mona Lisa are overrated masterpieces; and John Guillory discusses the difference between the literary canon and the classroom syllabus. This collection is uneven. Low points include Patricia Storace's critique of a lackluster biography of the mediocre, probably racist Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell and Jamaica Kincaid's shriek against everything English. Highlights include Joan Didion's dissection of the Central Park jogger rape case's hold on the New York psyche, and David Rieff's critique of the recovery movement (although the fact that he is Sontag's son should have on principle kept him out of this ``best'' collection). (Nov.)
Library Journal - Library Journal
As with previous volumes of this series, one could debate whether these 20 essays are indeed the year's best. Editor Sontag introduces the essay as ``a display of intelligence'' that offers ``precision and clarity of argument and transparency of style.'' However, many of the essays here merely express opinion in convoluted form. Among the more interesting and readable pieces are William Gass's musings on the meaning of exile and Jamaica Kincaid's account, ``On Seeing England for the First Time.'' Primarily of interest to academic libraries, most of which already have access through the periodicals from which these were drawn.-- Nancy Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, N.C.
Donna Seaman
A brilliant essayist in her own right, Susan Sontag has an abiding respect for this versatile, often eccentric, and, at its peak, rigorous genre. While essays expound on a limitless range of topics in many tones of voice, their core is an amalgam of ardent thought, concentrated observations, and resonant perceptions. Sontag's introduction to her picks for this year's "Best American Essays" spins a brief history of the form, from its emergence in ancient Rome to the timeless perfection of Montaigne and its nineteenth-century flowering under the pens of such thinkers as Hazlitt and Emerson. Writers in our own tumultuous and cacophonous century have also found the essay to be a vital and flexible vehicle, as evident in Sontag's choices. John Updike is here, writing about Mickey Mouse and photographs. Jamaica Kincaid's piece is titled "On Seeing England for the First Time"; Vicki Hearne has written "What's Wrong with Animal Rights," and Leonard Michaels' "The Zipper" is about Rita Hayworth. Two of the feistiest essays are Stanley Elkin's hilarious "On Overrated Masterpieces" and David Rieff's shredding of the rhetoric of the "recovery" movement and the "politics of victimhood." In all, a superb collection.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Best American Essays Series

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