A collection of essays by novelist, poet and civil-rights activist Boyle, covering 50 years of her writing. The volume is marred by a listless introduction that speaks more about Boyle's fiction and poetry than of the essays presented here. Moreover, mention is made of New Yorker pieces, though none seem to appear. More knowledge of Boyle's life is assumed than given, and, as the essays are presented with no more introduction than date and place of publication, the reader strongly feels the lack of mortar between the bricks. The essays themselves are an uneven lot. They have been broken down into four categories, the first of which, ""On the Beginnings,"" consists of one piece, ""The Family,"" easily the most simply written and entertaining in the collection. It is the story of Boyle's childhood and is perhaps more revealing than the author intended it to be. The second section, ""On Writers and Writing,"" is the weakest. Boyle can get so highfalutin as to be unintelligible (""A tradition of four dimensions, and, in incident, dimensions of an unfixed value that leaves them free to adaptation to the manner of life which existed at the time each incident functions.""). She also tends to quote in large chunks those writers she admires--often creating a less-than-flattering contrast to her own prose. But Boyle's introduction to her biography of the poet Emanuel Carnevali, a Christlike figure who inspired in Boyle a passionate devotion, literally glows with emotional intensity. In ""On the Body Politic,"" Boyle covers everything from McCarthyism to the Vietnam war--with admirable fervor, if sometimes heavy-handed irony and symbolism. But it is to her examination of post-war Germany in the concluding ""On the Human Condition"" that she brings a vision and objectivity rarely found. And as she chronicles the horrors of the Nazi machine and the gut-wrenching efforts of Germans trying to accept being German, her prose poetry and easy empathy are pared in the enormous task of simply understanding. In sum, an uneven collection, but valuable for its example of a brave and feeling woman who can occasionally see for us what we probably could not see for ourselves.