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Susan Orlean's collection of profiles ranges from the well-known (Marky Mark) to the unknown (Colin Duffy, a typical American man, aged ten) to the formerly known (the cult sixties girl group the Shaggs). Orlean meets with Cristina Sanchez, Spain's first fully-qualified female matador, Silly Billy, New York's most successful children's clown, an African king who is a New York taxi-driver, and a champion show dog called Biff, who from a certain angle looks like President Clinton. As in her remarkable bestseller The Orchid Thief, soon to be the basis of Spike Being John Malkovich Jonze's new film, starring Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage, Orlean's eye for the fascinatingly bizarre and her wonderfully witty way with language make her take on the world utterly original and unique.
One of the New Yorker's most distinctive stylists, Orlean (The Orchid Thief) has a knack for capturing "something extraordinary in ordinariness" of her subjects. Most are completely unknown, or were before she wrote about them in these 20 essays and profiles. Sure, there's a piece on designer Bill Blass and another on figure skater Tanya Harding, but Orlean clearly prefers to write about lesser known people like Felipe Lopez, New York's first Dominican high school basketball phenom, or Kwabena Oppong, a New York taxicab driver who also happens to be the king of the Ashanti living in the United States. (He attends to his Ghanaian subjectsDsettling disputes, presiding over ceremoniesDaround his cab-driving schedule.) Disarming but disciplined, Orlean's style is unobtrusively first person, with deft leads: "If I were a bitch, I'd be in love with Biff Truesdale," she writes, opening a story on a prize show dog. While some stories obviously evolve from her lifeDa profile of a smalltown news reporter who inevitably knows everyone, a hairdresser who is a "perfect master of ceremonies"Din others, she ventures far afield: the cult-fave 1960s sister rock band, the Shaggs; teenage Hawaiian surfer girls with offhand fearlessness; a female Spanish matador.