cover image The Best American Essays 1997

The Best American Essays 1997

. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $13 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-395-85695-6

Anyone who fears that essay writing has fallen prey to endless intellectual pandering or personal drivel should peruse this collection. While Frazier (Great Plains) includes highbrow pieces (among them Susan Sontag's rumination on the death of cinephilia), most of his choices stake out territory that's fresh, accessible, and often fascinating. At their best, they provoke a reader into seeing what's obvious but easily overlooked. In ""Ring Leader,"" Harvard writing instructor Natalie Kusz makes no apologies for getting her nose pierced; the victim of a childhood accident that disfigured her face, the piercing is something she chose, not something ""inflicted upon me against my will."" Australian journalist Paul Sheehan goes into great detail on what at first seems absurd: how he's come to assemble ""what is almost certainly the world's largest collection of crack vials."" Yet in so doing, he also provides a unique look at the crack trade, Manhattan's drug neighborhoods, and the nature of collecting (when plastic bags replace vials, he figures, his collection ""will have genuine anthropological value""). Other standouts include Lauren Slater's beautiful memoir of being diagnosed with and ""treated for"" obsessive compulsive disorder; Joy Williams's pointed commentary on society's obsession with fertility--""When you see twins or triplets, do you think awahhh or owhoo or that's sort of cool, that's unusual, or do you think that woman dropped a wad on in vitro fertilization...'; and Gay Talese's intimate chronicle of Muhammad Ali's 1996 visit to Cuba, during which Fidel Castro weighs in on, among other things, the benefits of breastfeeding. (Nov.)