I'm loving all these gift lists we're posting here at Essay Daily this advent. Partly it's fun to see them aggregated and see who has been reading and loving what this year, and which books show up on nearly everyone's list, and then partly it makes for some easy acquisition lists for my own reading. I'm reminded of the pleasure I take in trolling the college bookstore in the first week of school, just browsing the books required for classes. Unfortunately my university closed these stacks a couple years ago, so you have to go to the desk and ask for the books for class X and they bring them to you, ruining this pleasure. Maybe this is in response to my habit of cherrypicking the books from others' classes and buying them, instead of letting the students buy them up? I don't know. At least here I can buy books from everyone's brains without impoverishing anyone.
So, like many of you, I quite enjoyed Sarah Gorham's Study in Perfect, this year's AWP Nonfiction Prizewinner. And Alison Deming's Zoologies is one of my favorite books this year. I'll post up a conversation she and I have been having about animals and formal constraints and the difficulties of the short essay in the new year.
Steve Davenport reminded me of McSweeney's Voices of Witness series, which is great, even if it skews more documentary than straight up essay. I'd second the recommendation for Audrey Petty's edited High Rise Stories there and add one for Peter Orner's Underground America, which came out in 2008, Amazon tells me. It doesn't seem so long ago now. All the books in the series are important documentary projects, but I'm partial to Petty and Orner. We hope to feature this series here on Essay Daily in the new year.
Then a week or so ago, Joshua Wheeler sent me a couple copies of the new Seneca Review special issue We Might As Well Call It The Lyric Essay. You can find and download pdfs of John D'Agata's riffs on the lyric essay these years on here. I'm in the collection, which is a kind of best-of-SR selected by the Iowa Nonfiction MFA program, but that's not why I'd recommend it. For many of us the idea of the lyric essay is old hat by this point, isn't it? But then in the wider culture it's barely found a toehold (witness the National Book Award nomination of Claudia Rankine's Citizen as poetry, as surely you've noticed: it's one of the most essayistic books I've read this year (and is to this reader in no way poetry), but of course the NBA nonfiction category skews toward more commercial nonfiction (biographies etc.), so there's no way she'd ever be nominated as an essayist). So, as John points out in his slightly weary essays in the issue, well we might as well keep calling it the lyric essay. Even if I get tired of the moniker (maybe even clunkier than creative nonfiction) and how it can be a kind of cover for shooting a mediocre essay with the poetry cannon, when I read a great lyric essay (and there are several very fine ones in the issue), I can't complain or duck away. So this special issue serves as a useful reminder of what a good space Seneca Review is for practitioners of weirder nonfiction (and for poets--primarily--interested in segueing to nonfiction).
Too, though maybe not a typical essay collection, while apologizing for not getting us a gift list of her own, Aurelie Sheehan reminded me of The Force of What's Possible, 100 writers riffing on approaches to (or retreats from) the avant garde, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Lily Hoang, out just now or just very soon coming out (I just got my copy but I'm not sure how available the others yet are) from Nightboat Books. Check the deets via Wilkinson's website. Check back here in January for more words on this anthology by Lily and Josh in some configuration.
And I should say that I'm embarrassed to note that I've read very little Judith Kitchen. I know her for the space she made in contemporary nonfiction, which was important and lively, but not so much for her own contributions to the field, which are, it appears (many of you have told me so!), substantial and rewarding. I plan to remedy that in the new year. I also plan on getting intimate with several exciting nonfiction collections about to drop: Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, Sarah Manguso's Ongoingness: the End of a Diary, and Margaret Lazarus Dean's Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, which I've read in galleys and liked a great deal. Jesus, Graywolf, you're starting to corner the market on what Jeff Shotts calls "the new nonfiction." Between you and Sarabande (and Sarah Gorham) there's enough great reading in store for the remainder of Advent if not the next couple years. Keep it up.