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'Best of' Collections Offer a Mixed Bag of Literary Efforts

Writers muse on family relations in top essays of 1997

The Best American Essays: 1997

Edited by Ian Frazier

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Series editor Robert Atwan

Houghton Mifflin

226 pp., $27

Inviting silent looks

* I have since moved away from Minnesota, and old friends (those of the aforementioned June Cleaver-type stunned silence) have begun to ask if I have decided to stop wearing a nose stud now that my initial reason for acquiring it has passed. And here, to me, is the interesting part: the answer, categorically, is no. ...the glances of strangers seem less invasive, ...a long look is just that - a look- and what of it? I've invited it...

- From 'Ring Leader' in 'The Best American Essays 1997'

The essays included in "The Best American Essays 1997" may be diverse, but they don't appear to have been chosen randomly. Nearly all touch on issues having to do with family - reminiscences, regrets, sorrow, even humorous remembrances.

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The essays are chosen from a wide range of publications - from The Paris Review to the Oxford American, from The New Yorker to Esquire. And it's that diversity - the diversity of the essays themselves - that makes this compilation appealing.

While readers may ask how in the world certain selections made their way through the screening process, they're likely to find others they would nominate themselves.

Relationships with parents, sometimes good but often not, compel many of the writers to, as guest editor Ian Frazier puts it, "yield to the simple desire to tell."

They yield, too, to the natural desire to sort out lives - to say, "This is what I thought 40 years ago, but this is what I think now." Or, "This is what my parents were like, and though I didn't understand them then, I think I understand them better now." Or even, "This happened in my life, it seems simple, but it helps define me."

Hilton Als, in "Notes on My Mother," describes his fascination with his mother and his homosexuality, which she wouldn't acknowledge. In "Labyrinthine," Bernard Cooper tells of how, as a child, he loved to draw mazes, which his parents were always reluctant to try. Thirty years later, he writes, "I understand my parents' refusal. Why would anyone choose to get mired in a maze when the days encase us, loopy and confused?"

Two of the best essays in this collection (at least according to this reader) involve women trying to find their way through their own mazes. In the surprisingly delightful "Ring Leader," Natalie Kusz tells of growing up fat, with only one eye and facial scars, the result of a dog attack. "If you add the oversized body to the disfigured face, and add again my family's low income and my secondhand wardrobe, you have a formula for pure, excruciating teenage angst."

At age 30, teaching at a private college in the Midwest, Ms. Kusz decides to pierce her nose, and this, for her, is an act of liberation. The stares no longer bother her - she has chosen her own "facial flaw."

In the more somber, equally moving "My Father," Lukie Chapman Reilly writes about growing up terrified and resentful of her alcoholic father. "He was critical of everyone and everything, and especially of his children."

At the end, her father ends up alone, living in a nursing home, visited occasionally by his children and some grandchildren. The best the author can do is arrange to have The New York Times delivered to him daily. "I couldn't do more."

In his introduction to "The Best Essays: 1997," Frazier likens the writing process to a golf swing: The swing is taken, the missile goes out into the world, and sometimes - not very often, but sometimes - it hits something out there. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech - a spoken essay, after all - was like that, Frazier argues. Every syllable he spoke "hit bone."

Some of the essays in this collection do that, too. Others do not. Inevitably, not every reader will agree that each essay included is "best." Yet, without a doubt, most will find a few here to love.

* Suzanne MacLachlan is on the Monitor staff.

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