THE ASTONISHING WORLD by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (Ticknor & Fields: $22.95; 240 pp.). Essayist and occasional short-story writer Harrison earned my undying admiration with a single sentence: "The facts are objective; the writer can't be--to rejoice in objectivity is to rejoice in divesting one's self of self; to lay claim to objectivity is to lie." Granted, Harrison's essays are infinitely more personal than today's newspaper front page--she is a character in her own work--but she accepts, and even exalts, that which most journalists spend a career trying to deny, or defend against: Any report is informed by the personality of the writer, by his or her history, by a point of view that has been distilled from personal experience. She has no interest in purging her work of its idiosyncrasies, which is what makes much of it so powerful. An essay on the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, "Women and Blacks and Bensonhurst," is not so much a consideration of the events surrounding his death as it is an attempt to reconcile Harrison's memories of her childhood in the same neighborhood with the brutal landscape she encountered as an adult. A reader wrote to Harper's, where the essay first appeared, to complain that Harrison was more concerned with her childhood than with current events, but she missed the point: Harrison arrived at an understanding of the present through her own experience in the past. If she seems to wander off the track, no matter. Where she takes the reader will be just as interesting--and somehow, she will find her way back.