Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Anyone who fears that essay writing has fallen prey to endless intellectual pandering or personal drivel should peruse this collection. While Frazier (Great Plains) includes highbrow pieces (among them Susan Sontag's rumination on the death of cinephilia), most of his choices stake out territory that's fresh, accessible, and often fascinating. At their best, they provoke a reader into seeing what's obvious but easily overlooked. In "Ring Leader," Harvard writing instructor Natalie Kusz makes no apologies for getting her nose pierced; the victim of a childhood accident that disfigured her face, the piercing is something she chose, not something "inflicted upon me against my will." Australian journalist Paul Sheehan goes into great detail on what at first seems absurd: how he's come to assemble "what is almost certainly the world's largest collection of crack vials." Yet in so doing, he also provides a unique look at the crack trade, Manhattan's drug neighborhoods, and the nature of collecting (when plastic bags replace vials, he figures, his collection "will have genuine anthropological value"). Other standouts include Lauren Slater's beautiful memoir of being diagnosed with and "treated for" obsessive compulsive disorder; Joy Williams's pointed commentary on society's obsession with fertility"When you see twins or triplets, do you think awahhh or owhoo or that's sort of cool, that's unusual, or do you think that woman dropped a wad on in vitro fertilization...'; and Gay Talese's intimate chronicle of Muhammad Ali's 1996 visit to Cuba, during which Fidel Castro weighs in on, among other things, the benefits of breastfeeding. (Nov.)
The selections in this year's "best" no doubt reflect the unorthodox interests of the series's current editor, humorist Frazier (Coyote v. Acme, LJ 6/15/96): fishing, fighting, body piercing, and gee-gosh family memoirs. There are also rants against politeness, conventionality, and overpopulation (Joy Williams's hysterical "The Case Against Babies"). The two notable essays are assuredly those that open the collection, Jo Ann Beard's gripping "Fourth State of Matter" and Hilton Als's affecting "Notes on My Mother." Readers of major magazines won't find many nuggets here, save L Thi Diem Thy's account of his Vietnamese migr family, "The Gangster We Are All Looking For," from the Massachusetts Review. Overall, the essays seem to have been chosen for their quirky social appeal rather than for the excellence of their writing. For libraries that collect the series.Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
The latest sampling of choice nonfiction from America's literary journals and magazines, in a series that is a perennial success.
In his introduction, this year's editor, humorist Frazier (Acme v. Coyote, 1996, etc.), describes the essay as a piece that happens when a writer quits longing for form and just writes "for no better reason than the fun and release of saying." And because the genre "provides a way to tell the narratives and speculate on them at the same time," he suggests, it has a particular appeal for an age quite self-absorbed and anxious to puzzle out where it is going. There are some familiar practitioners of the form here, including Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and Gay Talese. Other veteran writers, such as poet Charles Simic and novelists Richard Ford and Thomas McGuane, are less well known as essayists, though equally strong. And some less familiar writers contribute startling work. Among the standouts is Jo Ann Beard's tour-de-force "The Fourth State of Matter," which describes in fascinating detail the events leading up to tragedy when a disillusioned physics doctoral candidate named Gang Lu shot up the offices of the Iowa City scientific journal where Beard was the managing editor, killing several people; and Paul Sheehan's "My Habit," on his crack-vial collection, which retains its allure even without the cool photographs of his unusual archive that accompanied the essay's original publication in the New Yorker. Boston-based psychologist Lauren Slater's "Black Swans," in which she describes her battles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, has a painful vibrancy. Vietnamese-American Lê Thi Diem Thúy's "The Gangster We Are All Looking For" is a wrenching exploration of immigrant life in California.
Discrete but complementary entertainments in a range of keys that continue to define what is surely one of our most robust literary forms.