Thursday, May 14, 2020
"The essayist's job," writes Rebecca Solnit "is to gather up the shards or map them where they are, to find the pattern out there or make one with words about the disconnections and mysteries. This reading of the word is a form of travel, questing and searching and gathering. Essays are restless literature, trying to find out how things fit together, how we can think about two things at once, how the personal and the public can inform each other, how two overtly dissimilar things share a secret kinship, how intuitive and scholarly knowledge can cook down together, how discovery can be a deep pleasure."
I couldn't agree more. We're living in a Golden Age of essays due to the number of online magazines and journals that publish them -- particularly personal essays, many of them incredibly moving. It's a shame that the word "essay" connotes something dry and scholarly to many readers. The essays I love are anything but, and prejudice against the form (like the old prejudice against fantasy fiction) causes too many people to miss out on a whole field that is incredibly vital and exciting right now.
A friend of mine only recently stumbled upon the particular pleasure of essays, and in order to feed his growing addiction he wrote to ask for a list of my favorite collections published in last few years.
"The best essays?" I answered. "That's easy. Start with Best American Essays, edited by Robert Atwan, along with a different guest editor every year. I read it religiously and always discover new writers there."
"I'll check them out," my friend replied. "But what I really want are your favourite writers. Over the last, oh, two-three years, which collections did you truly love? I'm making a reading list."
I duly compiled a list for my friend -- and, with his blessing, I'm also sharing it here: an extremely subjective handful of recent favorites. (By "recent," following my friend's guidelines, I stuck to books published from 2017 to the present.)
My bias runs to personal essays (of a memoirist nature) and those on the subjects of writing, nature, or living with illness...but there's not a lot that I won't at least try. Restricting my picks to a reasonable number was hard, so I made this my measure: Did I like the book enough to re-read it? Or, in the case of more recent publications, am I likely to re-read it? That whittled the list down to eight.
In alphabetical order, so that I don't have to rank them:
1. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Martiner Books, 2018)
In this stunning collection, Chee writes about his childhood in coastal Maine, his years as a gay activist in San Francisco, and his long, fraught process of becoming a novelist in New York City. Chee's childhood included abuse, so I ought to give a trigger warning here. He writes about the subject in manner that isn't dark and heavy but the opposite: compassionate and luminous. These are wonderful essays, beautifully rendered: honest, funny, searing, inspiring. (Go here for my post on the book.)
2. Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in the Everyday by Julia Corbett (University of Nevada Press, 2018)
The title says it all really. These are wide-ranging essays on nature in urban and other non-wilderness settings: informative, eloquent, and fascinating. I picked this one up when I saw it had won the 2018 Reading the West Award, thoroughly enjoyed it, and learned a thing or two about the natural world as well.
3. Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019)
I adore this book, full of smart, beautifully written, warm-hearted essays about family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books. (The linked essays about the "friendship circle" around a fellow writer dealing with cancer are particularly wonderful.) Please read my post about it, and then please seek out a copy. I've re-read this one twice already, only to love it more each time.
4. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber (The University of Nebraska Press, 2017)
Here's another collection I still can't get off my mind -- a beautifully rendered inquiry into living with illness and disability. I know that sounds grim, but it's not -- and the quality of Huber's writing is not to be missed. (I wrote about it here: Spinning straw into gold, pain into art.)
4. Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books, 2019)
Although I've admired the previous books by this Scottish poet and naturalist, nothing prepared for the power and beauty of Surfacing. With settings ranging from the Orkney islands to Alaska and China, these essays emerge from the liminal place where nature and culture meet, written in prose that invites comparison to Nan Shepard and Barry Lopez, which is no small praise. (I wrote about Surfacing here.)
5. The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (Penguin, 2019)
I read an excerpt from Levy's slim, powerful collection, and immediately had to track down a copy -- which I then devoured in one long sitting. It was worth the lost sleep! Although written in the form of essays, each essay builds on the ones before it to create an incisive memoir covering the end of Levy's marriage, the death of her mother, and the raising of her teenage daughter, entwined with life as a working writer in London. So many of the other memoir-style essays I've enjoyed in the last few years have been by the younger generation of authors (Briallen Hooper, Emilie Pine, Jia Tolentino, etc.), whereas Levy is writing about the concerns of middle-age, with the insights that come only from years of hard experience. Her wit is sharp, her language exquisitely precise, and the book is unforgettable.
6. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine (Penguin, 2019)
This debut collection from a young Irish writer is incredibly assured and beautifully penned. Pine writes personal essays grounded in her own life, but wrests universal insights from her material -- whether she's discussing her deeply eccentric parents (one of whom was a celebrated Irish journalist), the female body (her essay on menstruation is a tour-de-force), the fertility industry, or emotional burnout among Irish academics. I loved this book, which deserved its place on so many Best of the Year lists last December.
7. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison (Pisces Books, 2019)
It's a bit of a grab-bag of material, this one -- but since I'd happily read Morrison's grocery lists, it is well worth seeking out nonetheless. The best of the work gathered here is smart, fierce, provocative, and inspiring, and even the minor pieces are good. What a giant of literature we have lost.
8. Erosions: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)
Williams is another writer whose work I can't get enough of, and her latest collection is no exception. Based in the Utah desert, she argues passionately for the land and its people, in prose that is achingly personal as well as political. Her work is endlessly inspiring to me, and this gorgeous new collection is one I'll return to many times. (But if you are new to Williams, don't start here; start with Refuge and work your way up.)
And here are a few other good reads:
Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (HarperCollins, 2019) and Heather Havrilesky's What if This Were Enough? (Doubleday, 2018) are debut collections from two young American journalist, mixing personal essays with cultural pieces that are smart and insightful. (I wrote about the latter book here.) Late Migrations: A History of Love & Loss by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions, 2019) is a lyrical volume of very short, bittersweet pieces on nature and family in the American south. Illustrated by the author's brother, it's a beautiful book and not quite like anything else. Forms of Enchantment: Writing on Art & Artists by British mythographer and scholar Marina Warner (Thames & Hudson, 2018) contains erudite essays on fine artists whose work has a magical bent -- and not necessarily artists you would expect, mixing the likes of Paula Rego and Kiki Smith with Louise Bourgeois, Tacita Dean, and Jumana Emil Abboud.
For feminist essays that really make you think, I loved The Mother of All Questions and Call Them by Their True Names by American cultural philosopher Rebecca Solnit (Granta, 2017 and 2018), and Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults (Bloomsbury, 2018) by the fearless young British writer Laurie Penny.
I am genuinely addicted to the Best American Essays series -- including the excellent backlist of older volumes. Each edition has a slightly different emphasis depending on the guest editor of the year. The 2009 edition, for example, was edited by Mary Oliver, and thus contains a larger-than-usual number of nature essays; the most recent was edited by Rebecca Solnit, and is weighted toward political and cultural pieces.
I also highly recommend Slightly Foxed, a quarterly magazine full of charming, informative essays about books and authors of an older vintage: favorite books, forgotten books, notorious books, and much more. The magazine is published here in England, but well worth the extra postage price if you subscribe from other parts of the world. It's simply delightful. (And very English.)
Online, I recommend Longreads, which links to essays and interesting works of journalism from a wide variety of sources, as well as commissioning original material themselves. For fantasy essays, I love The City of Lost Books, the wonderful blog produced by Rob Maslen, head of the Fantasy Literature masters programme at the University of Glasgow. And finally, for all who love fairy tales: if you aren't already following Sabrina Orah Mark's extraordinary essays on fairy tales and motherhood in Paris Review, head over to her "Happily" column and read them immediately.
Are you an essay lover yourself? If so, what else would recommend (published between 2017 and the present)? Many of the authors I've listed above are female, white, and writing in English, so recommendations of recent essay collections by male and nonwhite authors would be especially welcome.
The quote by Rebecca Solnit is from The Best American Essays, 2019, edited by Solnit and Robert Atwan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2019). All rights reserved by the author.