Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some Essay Lovers' Essay Recommendations for Your Valentine

Patrick Madden

On April 13, 2015, Eduardo Galeano died. I would like everyone, but especially essayists, to know his work, which is fragmentary and lyrical and worldly and passionate. I recommend beginning with his 1989 masterpiece The Book of Embraces, which cobbles together strange and wondrous images alongside his terse recountings of hundreds of others' stories and dreams. The stories, with their ironic titles, often unmask injustice and hypocrisy in the world, but underlying them all is Galeano's desire to call attention to beauty and compensate for life's "lack of embraces." To begin with a sample from the book, see this selection from Grand Street:

I also read and loved and recommend two newer books, both beautiful in their explorations: Valeria Luiselli's Sidewalks and Joni Tevis's The World Is on Fire. The former takes readers from Venice to Mexico City to consider graveyards, bicycles, and plazas, and the latter gathers essays on a number of concerns, from nuclear apocalypse to childbirth, in myriad ways and connections.

Amy Wright

Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming, Milkweed Editions (2014)

After Montaigne by Patrick Madden and David Lazar, University of Georgia Press (2015)

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy by Dinty W. Moore, Ten Speed Press (2015)

The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by Janisse Ray, Chelsea Green (2015)

The World is on Fire by Joni Tevis,  Milkweed Editions (2015)

And, an older one that seems particularly relevant during the Paris climate talks: Heart of the Land: Essays on Last Great Places Edited by Joseph Barbato and Lisa Weinerman, Pantheon Books (1994)

Shaelyn Smith

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, Mary Karr's Art of the Memoir and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates are a few that stick out in my mind. Alexis Coe's Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis was published at the end of 2014, but started getting a lot of press earlier this year. Jessica Abel's Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio may not explicitly take the form of an essay, since it's graphic, but it taught me more about nonfiction craft than anything else I've ever read.

And, an oldie, but Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth is always worth a read or a reread. 


Kati Standefer

"The earth is a seed planting itself over and over. We are not the gardeners. We are no benevolent being leaving the house every morning with a watering can and a trowel to dig up weeds, wiping our brows midday to marvel at our handiwork. Instead, we are within the seed itself. We are part of its cells and the hardness of its coat, our place not to marvel at the futility and smallness of ourselves but to keep life moving. What we do now, from the inside, determines the vigor of that seed, how long it might live and plant itself again." 

This winter, I couldn't stop talking about Craig Childs' Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everchanging Earth (2012). It's an important book; in each chapter, Childs explores one way the world could "end" as a result of climate change ("Deserts Consume," "Species Vanish," "Seas Boil," to name a few). By the end, he paints a picture of a planet that is already undergoing these catastrophes, or that has in someway always been undergoing such catastrophes, and I was left with the fragile, gorgeous sense of how lucky humans are to be here at all.

It was on the craft level that I most adored the book, however, for Childs is a master of the exploration narrative. He flings himself into the far corners of the earth, then seamlessly weaves research and interviews into gorgeous sequences of description, without the tension ever seeping out. I assigned the book to some of my students, asking them to make lists of all the people he had to talk to, all the places he had to go, to complete one of these chapters. For beginning writers unsure how to begin thickening and balancing their inquiries, Childs is a playground, his prose full of hidden moves to discover, his chapters stacking perfectly into revelation. And as someone who had recently gone on my own big research trip, I could marvel at the scope of what he'd done with a new understanding of the invisibility of so much of it. 


"Some people say sex is not important. My mother used to tell me that sex was something a woman put up with, and that if you counted backward from one hundred or sang to yourself that song about bottles of beer on the wall, you might at least make the trip seem shorter. I am not in agreement on this point. And it was after the night of the failed comet that I started to really tussle, up front and out loud, with the meaning of this specific thing Prozac had taken from me. To stay on the drug would mean, and continues to mean, that I accept myself as a less sexual being. I am not pleased by this. Even in anorexia I was honoring the centrality of sexuality, insisting with the blade of my body that flesh be noticed, that we grieve its diminishment, that we celebrate the proximity of its crimson innards."

This fall, my must-read became Lauren Slater's Prozac Diary (1998)which elegantly explores the disorientation of resolving a lifelong mental illness with medication. Slater's descriptions of the strange, thrumming world Prozac unlocks for her are startling and gorgeous. It's a bright world in which stability and happiness are possible, and this challenges her very identity, as a young person who has already been hospitalized five times for obsessive-compulsive disorder, suicide attempts, anorexia, and borderline personality disorder. Yet she feels herself transition into happiness and health, becoming perhaps a different self--one that grieves when the drug becomes less effective over time and destabilizing OCD begins to crack through again.

Prozac Diary is the illness memoir I've been waiting for for a long time, grappling with the way sickness and health become crystallized into our identities. Slater smartly wrestles with the moral stain of what it means to be someone who is only okay because of a drug, and the question of whether or not taking certain medications constitutes unfair advantage. On a craft level, Slater alternates more traditional essays with more whimsical sections, including journal entries and "letters to [her] doctor," which sometimes use bits of an intake questionnaire as a hermit crab shell, and which sometimes are simply italicized--somewhat fractured memories--but which all serve to disrupt the linear, more-rational narrative, in a way that mimics the experience of mental illness. Slater seems to be reminding us that health does not mean orphaning the parts of us that came before, or not entirely, and that health, too, can require loss. In an era when so many health memoirs are comprised of platitudes and arduous treatment play-by-plays, I'm extra appreciative for this smart, complex book. 


John Proctor

I love an intoxicating essay collection or book-length essay, i.e., one that makes me feel drunk while reading it. This year Riley Hanick's Three Kinds of Motion fit the bill for me, much like Matthew Gavin Frank's Preparing the Ghost last year, and Elena Passarello's Let Me Clear My Throat and Amy Leach's Things That Are in the couple of years before that. I would recommend any (or all!) of them as gifts, since the Christmas season is, after all, best spent at least mildly inebriated.


Jill Talbot

Essays from the year I’ve read or re-read and recommend:
Marcia Aldrich, Girl Rearing: A Memoir (a memoir in flash essays)
David Lazar, Occasional Desire: Essays
Lucas Mann,  Lord Fear: A Memoir (I consider a book-length essay)
Steven Church, Ultrasonic: Essays
Peggy Shinner, You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body

Always, always, always:
Bernard Cooper, Maps to Anywhere or Truth Serum: Memoirs
Jessica Hendry Nelson, If Only You People Could Follow Directions  (a memoir-in-
Sarah Manguso, The Guardians: An Elegy
Mark Slouka, Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations
Ryan Van Meter, If You Knew Then What I Know Now


Tommy Mira y Lopez

Here are some individual essays I read online that I really liked:

-Micah Dean Hicks' Arkansas Chicken Apocalypse (Brevity, Issue 50)
-Lawrence Lenhart's Sons of Sound: A Lyric Concatenation for an Off-Brand GPS (Boaat Press, September/October Issue 2015)
-Lidia Yuknavitch's Woven (Guernica, August 2015)

And in print:

Though the whole book is pretty stellar (and though technically I first read the essay last year), I'd like to point out Joni Tevis's 'What Looks Like Mad Disorder: The Sarah Winchester House' from The World Is on Fire. Also a year late, but Jen Percy's Demon Camp is a trip and very finely written and fulfills the 'this isn't being marketed as a book-length essay, but really it is' quota. And I finally read Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land--twice, in fact, in equal admiration each time. 


Angela Palm

Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal, a marvelous essay collection on social, gender, and race issues in America by Wendy S. Walters

The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, an anthology of essays that explore the boundaries of creative nonfiction edited by Sean Prentiss and Joe Wilkins (includes essays by Ander Monson, Brenda Miller, Dinty W. Moore, Joy Castro, Lia Purpura, and others!)

Dept. of Speculation, a short novel by Jenny Offill that feels like a braided essay. I can't help myself. 


Silas Hansen

The best essay collections I’ve read in 2015 have been:
· Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
· Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang
· Letter to a Future Lover by Ander Monson

I also recently re-discovered two old favorites, Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris and Waist-High in the World by Nancy Mairs.  I read them both again after talking about one essay from each collection with my students—Fadiman's “Never Do That To a Book” and Mairs’ “On Being a Cripple”—and both collections are still just as good as I remember.


Renée D’Aoust

I have a strong recommendation for Karen Babine's essay collection, which I wrote about in LARB. Here's the info:

Karen Babine's "Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life" (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Here is my review, if helpful:

An Ethical Relationship with Place - The Los Angeles Review of Books

An Ethical Relationship with Place - The Los Angeles Rev...
IN 1923, PROFESSOR J. Harlen Bretz of the University of Chicago revealed that the geological anomalies of eastern Washington and northern Idaho had been formed ...
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Thomas Larson

I recommend the short, essay-length book, The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life by Philip Appleman, a provocative journey through the maze of religious belief and its delusions. As one of many ringing bells in the book, he asserts that the secular precedes the religious in the evolution of social consciousness because pre-Christian and pre-Judaic societies based their morality on social approval, not on divine agency.

“The gravest social offenses required sterner measures, so societies everywhere had to prohibit them by custom, taboo, and law, with penalties for violators. The social policing of community ethics thus would have begun as a secular necessity, not as a religious function.”

That religion came along, with the invention of God, to reposition community ethics in the divine is, perhaps, the first great example of right-wing media, stoking a fear of terrorism (God’s wrath and punishment) in the masses so as to guide them politically. The modern descendent, of course, is Fox News.


Brian Doyle

Most interesting ones I read were Nick Neely’s CHITON & OTHER CREATURES, lean and odd and perceptive and illuminating and taut and echoing in my brain long after I read it; and the terrific AFTER MONTAIGNE, edited by Patrick Madden and David Lazar, in which lots of essayists, me among them, play with Montaigne’s essay titles and flavor and character and style and intent and themes and such. You would tbink a bunch of essayists taking on Mount Montaigne would be dull and orderly but it’s a madhouse. The essay by Elena Passarello alone is hilarious and worth the price.

And, duh, I have two new collections of essays this year, SO VERY MUCH THE BEST OF US, from ACTA Publications in Chicago, and READING IN BED, from Corby Books in Indiana. I thought they were, as books, slightly better than a stick in the eye.


Ryan Van Meter

Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits


Julie Marie Wade

This set me to looking back over the past year of reading, which has been dedicated to brand-new poetry collections and, for the most part, older essay collections and memoirs that I've mined for the classes I'm teaching.  But the collection I was reading around this time last year—Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine—looms as one of the most exceptional volumes of anything I have read in a long time.  It is my holiday essay recommendation in perpetuity.


Lawrence Lenhart

The Deep Zoo, Rikki Ducornet (Coffee House, 2015)

This book of essays invites its reader into the wilds of "[artistic] alchemy." Ducornet is the resident ecologist of the deep zoo, a distant thicket she populates with the likes of Aloys Zötl, Gaston Bachelard, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, William H. Gass, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Marquis de Sade, and (in more concentrated micro essays) Margie McDonald, Linda Okazaki, and Anne Hirondelle. Ducornet lures us into these wilds--showing us again and again how to arrive at deeply original artistic horizons--with her engrossing diction, switchback syntax, and rigorous ethic. Of all the essays I was in pursuit of this year—the trials and trails I drifted along—Ducornet's featured the most nutritious and oracular of all breadcrumbs.


Maya Kapoor

Since my MFA thesis is due in a few hours (or, I guess, any minute now) I will save my words for that instead of lengthy annotations. Here are my recommendations:
Alison Hawthorne Deming's Zoologies, which has been a guiding light as I essay on the organismic, and Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk, which is not an essay collection, but is deftly, gorgeously essayistic for the entire length of the book.

Okay, back to revising and reassembling. Happy reading!


Simmons Buntin

Alison Deming, Zoologies
Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire
Nicole Walker, Quench My Thirst with Salt


Andrew Bomback

Favorite 2015 book-length essay: SAVAGE PARK by Amy Fusselman. This book has changed the way I watch my kids (and their friends) play.
Favorite 2015 essay collection: CHANGING THE SUBJECT by Sven Birkerts. I have not stopped thinking/feeling guilty about my relationship with the internet since reading this collection.
Favorite 2015 stand-alone essay: “Phone Home” from Dodie Bellamy’s WHEN THE SICK RULE THE WORLD. Like Meghan Daum’s powerful “Matricide” essay from 2014, this Bellamy essay reflects upon her mother’s death but does so in the context of analyzing the importance of the film, E.T., in her life.
Favorite 2015 special category: THE FOLDED CLOCK by Heidi Julavits. It’s her diary, presented non-chronologically, and it highlights how an essayistic approach to everyday events can lead to brilliant writing (at least for someone as gifted as Julavits).


Megan Kimble

I saw The End of the Tour, that documentary about DFW, which inspired me to dig back into his writing, including Consider The Lobster. That essay in particular is some of the best food writing there is.

Ander sent me a couple of Jeffery Steingarten essays in PDF form a few months ago when I told him about the food writing class I'm teaching this spring. Steingarten was the food critic for Vogue for awhile, but I'd never read his work. Anyway, the essays were fabulous, so I bought his essay collection, The Man Who Ate Everything. It's hilarious. 

Food! Holidays! Great.


Aurvi Sharma

Essays I read and loved this year:

· Eliot Weinberger's 'An Elemental Thing'
I read this collection of essays pretty much entirely on the NYC subway and often wanted to grab the person sitting next to me and say, 'Read this!' Apparently Eliot Weinberger is not that well known the the States. Must be rectified.
· Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book
Are these essays? Poems? Journal entries? Fiction? We don't know but Sei Shonagon's late 10th century words make us question our assumptions of what makes what, and that's a good enough feature of nonfiction in my book. 
· Babur's Baburnama ('The Book of Babur)
Babur's journal, often called the first autobiography ever written. The founder of the Mughal dynasty in India, Babur was the original Proust, writing in the 14th-15th centuries. Noting his daily activities down in wonderful detail, Babur covers everything from rowdy wine parties and poetry to military strategy, statecraft and his most beloved fruits.

My favourite part is when, during teenage, Babur fell in love with a boy. "In that maelstrom of desire and passion, I used to wander, bareheaded and barefoot, through streets and lanes, orchards and vineyards." Read and watch the centuries fall away.
· Special mention: The Intoxicated Years by Mariana Enriquez.


Dustin Parsons

Leaving Orbit by Margaret Lazarus Dean: A sincere and engrossing eulogy on human space travel as we know it. A great read!

The Mad Feast by Matthew Gavin Frank: Just got it two days ago, and I’m already diving into this lyric meditation on the peculiar dish associated with each state in the union—recipes included. Awesome essays!
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Just plain incredible—the epistolary in its finest hour, used for its most powerful purpose. 

Craig Reinbold

Probably the best book I’ve read in a long time, H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Also, Here by Richard McGuire

Chelsey Clammer’s Bodyhome

Christy Wampole’s The Other Serious

Debra Monroe’s memoir from the Crux Series: My Unsentimental Education

&, not from 2015, and not essay by a long shot, but for those who are into the sciencey nonfiction stuff, The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease by Daniel Lieberman is epically good

& notably autobiography rather than memoir, Oliver Sacks’ On the Move is a great read, if you’re interested in Sacks and his work and his life at all. I wish I could have met him in his Muscle Beach days (he once squatted 600 lbs., setting a California record!). I’m sure we would’ve been friends. 


Ander Monson

I want to shout out to three books that have stuck with me particularly this year, two out already and one forthcoming but already pretty sticky in my mind: 

  • Jessa Crispin's The Dead Ladies Project (U Chicago, 2015) is an incendiary sort-of travelogue, sort-of deep dive into a very engaging critical engagement with the often fucked-up lives of writers. You might know Jessa from her website Bookslut or from her essays that have appeared widely. This is a strong collection, anchored by travel and thinking and autobiography. 

  • Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (Agate Bolden, 2013) is my first introduction to Laymon's work. He's got a novel I'm interested in too, but this book—his first of nonfiction—struck me with considerable force. He writes particularly acutely about race & violence. I know that doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but it actually kind of is.

  • Lastly I've been spending a lot of time with Brian Blanchfield's forthcoming Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat Books, 2016) that comes out in March. (He'll be posting here close to the pub date, too.) He seems to be a born essayist, though he's best known to this point as a poet. Fuck the poetry, dude, I want to say, you've found something really good in nonfiction! Well, maybe not fuck the poetry. The poetry is what got him here and what makes him such a whiz of an essayist, but his prose opens up lines of thinking that are only implicit in his poems. This isn't "poet's prose" meaning a kind of lyric, hyperpoetic sort of experience. What the essays seem to mostly take from poetry is a focus on movement. These are very lively and dynamic—and short (they're almost all real short) essays. Here's one of my favorites that ran in Bomb a while back. You'll get the idea, reading it, and I think you'll be as excited as I am. 

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