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All the Pretty Things
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All the Pretty Things
The Beautiful Anthology. Elizabeth Collins, ed. TNB Books. http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com. 264 pages; paper, $14.99, eBook, $9.99.

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From crazy beautiful to beautiful ugly and the many shades of beauty in between, The Beautiful Anthology examines the politics, sensations, and life-altering consequences of the power of perception. The anthology also reveals the powerless sensations of being perceived. An intimate portrait of types and archetypes, contemporary obsessions and timeless fascinations, the collection delves into gray areas where dichotomies break down. Beauty blurs into ugliness as what was once ugly becomes beautiful.

Essays, poems, and art offer a fresh perspective on diverse notions of beauty by revealing interpersonal and cultural conflicts. Unlike many recent works on contemporary myths surrounding the concept of beauty, this anthology focuses on both male and female perspectives. James D. Irwin’s “From The Venus de Milo to Porno Mags: The Evolution of Beauty, & Vice Versa” contemplates female desirability from Helen of Troy to the sex symbols of present day. In “Truth and Booty,” Tyler Stoddard Smith provides a hilarious cultural reality check, challenging quotations about beauty from Khalil Gibran, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pablo Picasso, Gabriela Mistral, Helen Keller, and Albert Einstein.

Going far beyond the traditional notion of the objectification of “beautiful women,” writers embrace the notion that beauty can be found not only in people (male, female, young, old, middle-aged, and of diverse races and cultures) but also in everyday objects. Steve Sparshott’s essay “Fin” proves that beauty can be found in unexpected places, even in a men’s restroom with its elegant sculptural design of fin-shaped urinal dividers. In “The Line Waver,” Greg Olear questions the popular aesthetics responsible for a McMansion’s garish windowed entryway and predicts that consumers will enter a new phase: the rejection of perfection. Careful not to fall into pop-culture snares, Matthew Baldwin explores male body image and finds “The Form within the Stone.” Celebrating the joys of sportsmanship, J. E. Fishman discovers masculine beauty in “Spinning” through a tennis miracle, where a perfectly masterful serve by a student of the game shocks his teacher.

Poetry becomes the focus of diverse notions of beauty with Uche Ogbuji’s reflective analysis in “21st Century Beauty in Poetry.” Ogbuji reveals the way literature must evolve along with personal and cultural preferences as diversity and technology change the tastes of an increasingly global population connected by social media, information, and travel. In “No Animals or Insects Were Tortured or Killed in the Making of This Poem,” Rich Ferguson exudes confident musicality, exploring linguistic freedom with the beauty of radioactive language. Judy Prince’s heart-pounding “Summate” traces the journey of a hand moving over a lover’s body, creating a map of touch as silky skin meets the sea.

Stephen Walter’s sensual poem “Upland Fall” transforms natural images of changing seasons into a poignant allegory encompassing male and female voices wondering about the splendor of natural love that fades even as it’s encountered. Catherine Tufariello’s poem “Meditation in Middle Age” reveals how the loss of physical beauty through aging allows a person to see what was once lost in the imprisonment of vanity.

Writers such as Zoe Zolbrod and Nora Burkey explore international experiences with beauty. In “Pai Foot,” Zolbrod’s trip to Thailand offers unique erotic imagery in a glimpse of a young Thai man’s thorn-pierced foot. In “The Politics of Beauty,” Nora Burkey writes about teaching young female students in Cambodia, where politically motivated views of beauty threaten to rob girls of cultural freedom.

Taking on the issue of race, Angela Tung’s “Blemished” provides an unflinchingly honest portrait of growing up as an Asian girl surrounded by images of whiteness. Tung reveals how having friends of different races and cultures sometimes impacts self-image in childhood.

A more comforting view of beauty is found in familial experiences and universal rites of passage in growing up and growing old. In Victoria Patterson’s “The Beautiful,” beauty is discovered in unique expressions of kinship. In Robin Antalek’s “Inked,” a mother finds beauty in a daughter’s personal expression through body art. In...