by Charles D'Ambrosio (Clear Cut Press),
appearing with Matt McCormick at New American Art Union, 922 SE Ankeny, Thurs Feb 10, 7:30 pm, Free

Essay collections tend to be a pretty mixed bag. There are usually a few hasty, slapdash pieces, and often one or two brilliant gems. The best collections I've read consistently strike a balance between awe-inspiring analytical savvy and poignant humanity, a mixture of elements capable of sparking more interesting, deeper thought processes in our everyday lives. Orphans, the latest installment in the Clear Cut Press catalog, is a successful addition to the genre. The essays follow frequent New Yorker contributor Charles D'Ambrosio on a probing journey into subjects like modular homes, whaling, and 1974 Seattle. In the title essay, D'Ambrosio recounts a brief stay amidst dislocated Russian children at an orphanage in St. Petersburg. In it, he insightfully depicts the difficulty of communicating across language, culture, and wildly disparate experiences of the world.

D'Ambrosio's human immediacy offers a counterbalance to his acute mind. The result is an intriguing dynamic of opposites: humane and objective, detached and intimate, the essays touch on a complete, meandering view of human experience. A shimmering, tender sampling: "Paradoxically, translation and the stripping of tenses forced us to live together in a physical, shared world. We enjoyed games that didn't require talk, and we walked the trails and pathways, letting those old sentences in the forests surrounding Svirstroy speak. " Such sentences are commonplace; the collection reads like a personal diary, finding revelation in the specific, and illuminating the modes of thought that dominate our time.

The essays that really stick out in my mind are "Mary Kay Letourneau" and "Hell House." D'Ambrosio is at his best when addressing a pin-sized focal point, a target for his deconstructive gaze. Drawing on insights from linguistics, sociology, and his own wandering opinions, the more specifically aimed essays in the collection rise above the others, distinguished by their original and relevant interpretations of unlikely subject matter.

With its trademark pocket-sized, soft-bound, and beautifully designed packaging, the rapidly rising Clear Cut Press is a perfect match for D'Ambrosio, and Orphans provides a portable jumpstart for the emotions and intellect of interested readers everywhere.