cover image The Best American Essays

The Best American Essays

. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $12.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-395-69183-0

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.)