Meghan Daum. Open City (PGW, dist.), $14 paper (180p) ISBN 1-890447-26-9

Essay lovers can take heart. There's a new voice in the fray, and it belongs to a talented young writer. In this collection of (largely previously published) on-target analyses of American culture, Daum offers the disapproval of youth, leavened with pithy humor and harsh self-appraisal . In each essay, she sustains interest with a good story and pricks the reader's conscience with observations that reverberate personally, whether about the secret desires of Christian women or the stunning ease of accumulating debt while existing unluxuriously in New York City. Publishing veterans will be amused and chagrined to see their profession skewered in "Publishing and Other Near-Death Experiences"; and for a hard take on one's responsibility for mourning, there is the book's best work, "Variation on Grief." Daum's decidedly agnostic outlook sometimes makes for easy moral outs, and time may render her phrasings cute. While her main premise that many Americans live "not actual lives but simulations of lives... via the trinkets on our shelves" leaves room for disagreement, on the whole, readers will enjoy an edgy read. (Mar. 15)

Forecast:Daum's pieces have appeared in traditional magazines like the New Yorker, as well as in cutting-edge venues like Nerve, and have earned her a considerable reputation as a sharp Gen-X voice. Review attention and good word-of-mouth should earn this book brisk sales.