Readers expecting Kincaid's choices for best American essays to reflect her own fiction style-i.e., taut and direct-are bound to be disappointed. There are some accessible pieces-Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s on African American hair and Maxine Kumin's on gardening stand out as the kind of engaging and illuminating essays that readers have come to expect from this annual collection. But these pieces-as well as memoirs by Grace Paley, John Edgar Wideman and Tobias Wolff-are overwhelmed by pedantic ramblings that uneasily straddle the line between intellectual and pretentious. Consider this: Josephine Foo's title, ``Endou'' had to be footnoted (it means ``endow'')-and the content's not much more accessible or Elaine Scarry's ``Counting At Dusk (Why Poetry Matters When the Century Ends)'' which includes convoluted prose like this: ``Against this impossibility of experiential sequence is the poet's own act of lifting forward, making sensuously available, the phenomenon of sequence.'' Perhaps Kincaid appreciates this sort of writing. But this series isn't supposed to be a forum for abstruse musings-that's what academic specialty journals are for. (Nov.)
Guest editor Kincaid delivers a satisfying if wonderless selection in this year's Best. From Joseph Brodsky's weighty "Homage to Marcus Aurelius," which opens the collection, to Elaine Scarry's academic "Counting at Dusk (Why Poetry Matters When the Century Ends)," Kincaid has brought out the heavy guns. William H. Gass's "The Art of Self," a long-winded, solipsistic take on biography, is juxtaposed with Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s humorous childhood depiction of "good" and "bad" black hair in "In the Kitchen." Edward Hoagland offers bittersweet remembrances of cheating on his wife in "Strange Perfume" and Cynthia Ozick of her six days without pen or paper in Greenwich Village's Women's House of Detention. Maxine Kumin's "Jicama, Without Expectation," a diary of the growing season from her farm, punctuates the collection like a sudden, refreshing shower. The essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Artes, Harper's, the Threepenny Review, and others. For literature collections.Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
Each year, one reviewer or another raves about the latest volume in this outstanding series. That's because each editor of "The Best American Essays", talented writers in their own right (and we're talking about people like Susan Sontag, Tracy Kidder, and Annie Dillard), truly does choose the most vital of that year's crop. Kincaid, a uniquely sensual and sensitive novelist as well as an essayist, bluntly explains that she chose each of these 20 essays because they pleased her--as they will please all essay enthusiasts and fans of such writers as Edna O'Brien, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Brodkey, William Gass, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolf, and John Edgar Wideman. The volume begins with a witty and masterful piece about antiquity by Joseph Brodsky and includes essays by two other poets, Maxine Kumin and Charles Simic. Bernard Cooper's essay about his first encounter with transvestites and recognition of his attraction to men is as supple and moving as essays get, and Edward Hoagland's discussion of marriage is gratifyingly candid. Kincaid writes, "Living is urgent, not to be taken lightly" ; we concur and praise essayists for giving voice to this urgency and import.