When Susan Orlean's name turns up in a magazine (most often The New Yorker), it's virtually impossible to predict what she'll be covering. Her only beat is the offbeat, but usually not in the fluffy sense of the term, unless trailer parks and seedy Thai tourist stations count as fluff. Now best known as the author of The Orchid Thiefa superb look at one disreputable corner of the rare-flower world that drove Nicolas Cage to fits of frustration in the film AdaptationOrlean's bread and butter remains shorter pieces, seemingly on any subject that captures her interest. My Kind Of Place bills itself as a travel collection, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Sure, some pieces take Orlean as far as Japan and Cuba. Others take her no further than a subway stop. But in each place, Orlean's unspoken axiom remains the same: Look where others don't.
In her native New York, this instinct takes her to a student-body meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, where Tiffanie Lewis brings a commanding presence to the student presidency, and to the Sunshine Market in Queens, where regulars browse to the accompaniment of Frank Sinatra, and the owner has no patience for pushy sales reps. In Paris, she hangs out in a record store that doubles as a refuge for homesick Africans. Even when she goes to places in the public eye, she looks to the margins, checking out the fringe industries that spring up around the Super Bowl, or talking to Sydney residents disgruntled by the Olympics' arrival.
Orlean's uncanny ability to know where to go would mean nothing if she didn't know what to bring back. No one traveling to the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships in Springfield, Illinois would fail to notice "a coyote whose torso was split open to reveal a miniature scene of the destruction of the World Trade Center, complete with little firemen and rubble piles." It takes a different kind of talent to go deeper, to sit down for a dinner of barbecued ribs and overhear one taxidermist say, "You could take these home and use them to make a skeleton." Whether she's exploring fertility rituals in Bhutan or visiting a woman running a questionable tiger sanctuary in New Jersey, Orlean knows she doesn't have a story until she hits moments when the truth emerges from the everyday details. They're places most people would never think to go, but as Orlean repeatedly proves, that's usually where the best stories hide.