three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
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Travel Stories From a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere

A-MyKindPlaceOrlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, is a master at examining ordinary people and the ethos that rules their lives. These essays, many previously published in The New Yorker, examine human behavior as it ranges from the everyday to the exotic. She follows the Sunshine Market owner in Queens, talks to taxidermy champions in Springfield (a "surreal carnality"), peruses an African record store in Paris, and observes a fertility ritual in Bhutan. If Orlean sheds more light on human behavior than the places she visits, it’s because she views the journey of a life to be just as compelling.
Random House. 280 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0679462937

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Orlean is still, bless her stilettos, one of our best essayists, and her ability to evoke a place or person in a sort of literary shorthand is as solid as it ever was. … She is able to give a person his voice, something that is trickier than it sounds as individual cadence (not to mention word choice) is often sacrificed at the altar of the writer’s own narrative style." Chelsea Cain

Baltimore Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For the most part, these stories describe people, or cultural events, rather than places that one would visit. … The weaker stories in the collection come when Orlean shines the light on herself." Annie Linskey

Chicago Sun-Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Most remarkably, for a magazine writer who is expected to have a strong point of view, she is non-judgmental and unusually empathetic about the people she interviews. … Several [essays]—notably the one about Kinkade and the one about Keiko the killer whale—have lost their freshness, particularly because they’ve been the focus of so much other reporting." Jennifer Hunter

Kansas City Star 3 of 5 Stars
"She has a remarkable openness to her subjects, resulting in articles full of dead-on details, odd facts and solid history. … If one were going to be snide, one might warn Orlean about the seduction of celebrity culture. She is pictured on the dust jacket wearing stiletto heels, surely not the shoes she wore when she climbed Mount Fuji in a rainstorm." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"[T]here are some problems with the set-up of this book: While there’s a list of when and where the pieces first appeared at the end of the book, My Kind of Place would have been more informative had Orlean’s editor asked her to write short introductions to the pieces, and, where applicable, a brief follow-up at essay’s end. … Nonetheless, readers will find much to admire in this collection." Ed Halloran

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"It’s not that the other ‘Everywhere’ stories wouldn’t have a shelf life elsewhere—even the snow-angel snoozer was published back in 1990 by The New Yorker—but they feel out of place in My Kind of Place, and they threaten to dampen an otherwise enjoyable collection." Dewey Hammond

Critical Summary

Orlean is best known for The Orchid Thief, which was recast as the movie Adaptation. These essays similarly cast ordinary people in a most extraordinary light, from parents of beauty pageant girls to Cuban farmers. Critics don’t call her one of our best essayists for nothing. Orlean approaches her subjects with intense curiosity and fairness, has an unusually good ear for language and dialogue, and arrives at perceptive conclusions about human behavior. Still, My Kind of Place is an uneven collection. Most critics found the first two parts ("Here," for pieces set in U.S., and "There," for abroad) clever and insightful. But the last part, "Everywhere", due to some rather self-indulgent pieces, flagged. Finally, some critics felt the cover photo belies Orlean’s adventurous spirit. Perhaps that shouldn’t matter; few essayists traverse such varied terrain with such clear eyes.

Also by the Author

The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup My Encounters with Extraordinary People (2001): If collections of Susan Orlean’s profile pieces from major magazines are your cup of tea, here’s another.