There are triumphs here--of will, style, candor, thought and even form.
Essays, including the dozen in this collection, are an old-fashioned testing--by writer for reader--of opinions and literary graces. The ideas matter, but the manner of presentation may matter even more, a literary standard of function following form. Nancy Mairs, a sometimes poet and professor, may be the most risk-taking practitioner of this noble, now-not-so-popular art.
She sits in Tucson winning regional literary prizes, directing research projects on women's issues, teaching school and rearing two children with her husband. The only almost-extraordinary fact of Nancy Mairs' life is that she suffers from multiple sclerosis, and she writes about it, in "On Being a Cripple," with all intellectual-emotional flags flying: on degeneration, pain, immobility, fury, self-loathing, embarrassment; on accommodation, humor, hope, empathy, self-discovery, self-dignity. On one page, Mairs is her own object of derision; on the next, she is her own subject of determination. With hardly any space for self-pity, she comes to realize that she has a disease but is not defined by it.
The same sort of sensitivity tempered by toughness carries through essays on being a parent, meeting another culture, taking a troubled stranger into the family, trying to write, making peace with men, making love to men--all those intimate and wholly unextraordinary events experienced by all of us who do not write as critically or as honorably. Mairs even offers an analysis of what was wrong with one of her own earlier pieces in an essay called "On Not Liking Sex," now describing the first attempt as "a kind of pretense at serious writing," as "brittle, glittery" but not going below surface to bone.