THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1997

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 Là Thi Diem Th£y'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.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 1997

ISBN: 0-395-85695-7

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1997

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IN MY PLACE

From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

A LITTLE HISTORY OF POETRY

A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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