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Poet and nonfiction author Norris (The Cloister Walk, 1996, etc.) focuses in this autobiography on her years at Bennington College in the mid-1960s and a subsequent period of maturation in New York City.

Notorious for its atmosphere of sexual promiscuity, drugs, and bohemian liberalism, Bennington seemed a bad fit for a shy girl from Honolulu whose most cherished entertainments consisted of reading and singing in the church choir. Dubbed by her college mates “the Virgin of Bennington,” Norris spent four years in self-imposed isolation, composing verse largely out of a need for “protective coloration” in a world that seemed to have little place for her. Poetry was a defense mechanism against the intrusion of coarse reality, claims Norris, who had her first sexual experience with another girl and later became the lover of a married professor. Moving to New York after graduation, she took a job at the Academy of American Poets, performing menial secretarial tasks but benefiting from the opportunity to attend poetry readings and meet stars of the literary demimonde. Persistently describing herself as too bashful to venture out to a Manhattan grocery store, in the same breath the author portrays all-night binges in the bars and poets’ lofts she frequented, sometimes to the detriment of her daytime responsibilities. More interesting than her panorama of New York’s unbridled bohemian lifestyle is Norris’s tribute to mentor and friend Betty Kray, executive director of the AAP. Committed to helping struggling writers through grants and awards, Kray nourished many native talents while also promoting foreign celebrities. Convinced of Kray’s decisive role in her own creative development, Norris mulls over their friendship and Betty’s selfless devotion to the verbal art.

There just isn’t anything unusual enough about the author’s experiences and perceptions to make this more than a near-stereotypical tale of a provincial American emerging from a sheltered, small-town environment to confront the dangers and temptations of a big metropolis.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 1-57322-179-1
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Riverhead
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2001


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NonfictionTHE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2001 by Kathleen Norris
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