Sunday, December 25, 2016

12/25: As The Year Comes To A Close, Treat Yourself To Some Essay Collections

2016 is, finally, at long last, almost (hopefully!) over.  Given the general tumult and peculiar furors of this year, we could all probably use a day to treat yo' self, so please enjoy some end-of-year essay & book recommendations from the extended Essay Daily family.


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Lawrence Lenhart

Mad Feast (Matthew Gavin Frank) 
Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse (Nicole Walker)

Hyperphagia always sets in at around Thanksgiving. This December, I found myself reading as much food as I was eating. Matthew Gavin Frank's Mad Feast is an unconventional cookbook that tours the American palate and character (state by state by state). Whereas Frank is often inventing his family—an uncle awaits him in every state it seems, a composite of strangers posed as distant relatives—Walker's actual family is tenderly there on each page, ready for her next meal. And what are they having for dinner? In one essay, it's tongue tacos. She plays with her food too—turning "tongue" from modifier to verb and "taco" from noun to euphemism—contemplating the phonemic calories of cunnilingus. 


Sens-Plastique (Malcolm de Chazal, translated by Irving Weiss)

It's a book of cosmogonic aphorisms from a Mauritian writer who also dabbled in primitivist outsider art. Written in 1947, but translated much more recently, Chazal writes about universal matter and its natural forms. 

Becoming Westerly (Jamie Brisick)

For those of you who finished reading Barbarian Days (William Finnegan's surfing autobiography that nabbed a 2016 Pulitzer) and wondered what wave to ride next, look no further than Jamie Brisick's biography of surfer Westerly Windina (formerly Peter Drouyn). Like any good biography, Becoming Westerly's (2015) subject transforms before our eyes—only in this case that transformation involves not just the meteoric rise of a surfing legend, but also her gender reassignment in Thailand. In The Endless Summer, the conventional wisdom goes: "The ultimate thing to do in surfing is to be actually covered up by the wave." In Becoming Westerly, though, the pleasure's in the uncovering.

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Amitav Ghosh)
In 2016, as populist politics took hold of our hemisphere, it felt as if we'd turned our collective backs on social ideals like climate justice and multiculturalism. Ghosh's The Great Derangement (released this October) is adapted from a series of bright-minded, sharp-tongued lectures he delivered at the University of Chicago about climate change. One of his staggering conclusions: For too long, we have drawn the line between serious fiction and science fiction; one lives in a mansion while the other is sequestered in faraway outhouses. Ghosh makes the case that, if we are to come to grips with climate change, we need to evict readers from the mansion. 

We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (Deepa Iyer)
We Too Sing America (2015) provides necessary context and resolution for an array of America's ethnophobias. Iyer examines case studies in national intolerance, from racist statecraft to public backlash, and from that hysteria constructs an ethos of empathic advocacy. 

3 More! (just 'cuz)
Coast Range (Nick Neely)
Animals Strike Curious Poses (Elena Passarello)
Proxies (Brian Blanchfield)

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Erin Lyndal Martin

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder: Broder elevates the confessional essay while putting it in the context of social media. Her essays are funny and ultimately help us find compassion for others and ourselves.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: This book examines some famous artists through the lens of their loneliness. Along the way, Laing touches on many other topics and includes a heartbreaking account of the first AIDS epidemic.

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Wren Awry 
 Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape: Nature essays are too often written by white men--dead or otherwise--and sometimes white women, and they rarely takes race, colonization, and history into consideration. Savoy's collection takes on the Grand Canyon, a historic plantation in South Carolina, the Arizona borderlands, and much, much more in a voice that is knowledgeable, powerful, and curious. As a geography geek, I especially appreciate sentences like: "Elongate lithic compasses stand high above valleys collecting their eroded debris. West to east these are southeastern Arizona's offering to the Basin and Range province."

Other essay and essay-ish collections I've been reading and rereading: The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White by Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa, and Heroines by Kate Zambreno. 

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Erica Trabold 

The Abundance by Annie Dillard [note: the Malcontent may disagree —ed]

What a joy to reencounter Dillard's "greatest hits." Whether you're a new friend who wants to read Dillard's best stuff or an old friend who wants to read Dillard's best stuff, this book is a sure way to fall in love with her lyricism and passion for nature and its details.

Creative Nonfiction's new series of single-issue, long essays called True Story is an altogether lovely, pocket-sized reading experience. I read the first two issues, Steven Kurutz's Fruitland and Steven Church's Trip to the Zoo, on my commute and lost track of where I was going.

The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs
Everything We Don't Know
by Aaron Gilbreath

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Sarah Viren

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich (translation Bela Shayevich)
-In many ways, Svetlana Alexievich's books are the opposite of essays. Rather than witnessing one mind on the page, we are confronted with hundreds of disembodied voices. But there is also something quite essayistic about the way she constructs her oral histories (or "novels in voices" as she calls them). This book, for instance, revolves around a central question (i.e. What did the fall of the Soviet Union mean to those living within it?) that those voices are trying to figure out. I began reading Secondhand Time after the election and kept finding myself wishing that the U.S. had someone like Alexievich to document our multitude of voices. Because if we did, maybe we wouldn't have been so surprised to find out that nearly half of us were planning to vote in a fascist. 

Some Versions of the Ice by Adam Tipps Weinstein
These are essays written in the key of Borges, which is to say they deal in a brand of fictionalized fact that makes the reader consider (once again!) the distinctions we draw between the stuff of knowledge and the material of imagination. They're also quite funny and beautifully written. 

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen
Like Weinstein's book, this book of essays is about interrogating facts, but in this case the narrator sounds much less like a weary academic and more like a sleep-deprived new mom (who happens to be as smart as a weary academic). Galchen's essaying comes in the form of vignettes, some that consider babies or our reactions to babies, some that consider women writers who did or did not have babies, some that consider how Frankenstein or Godzilla were really like a baby. Which is to say, this feels very much a book-length essay about what it means to have baby brain (i.e. that mode of thinking that exists in the weeks or months after you've given birth and you rarely see anyone else except your baby and you are TRYING to think rationally and be a normal human being, but it's hard: Megan Stielstra also captures this state quite well in her collection Once I Was Cool: If you couldn't tell already, I am currently trapped in this state: help!).   

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Nick Greer

Brian Blanchfield's Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat) is a collection released in 2016 that did it all for me. Its intelligence is furtive, to use a word Brian does, and all the more powerful for it. I'm not one to laugh out loud or tear up or emote at all when I read, but I found myself running the gamut when reading this book, sometimes within the course of a single essay.

William Gass' On Being Blue (NYRB Classics) is older and didn't shake me like Brian's book did--in fact, when Gass waxes personal, which usually translates to the psychosexual, I found myself cringing--but it's an ecstatic, indulgent book/essay that has helped me be more ecstatic and indulgent in my own thinking and writing. Its subtitle is "A Philosophical Inquiry," but the parts that most resemble philosophy are its least inquisitive. It's his more "poetic" sections that I find most surprising, the prose blocks where he lists, permutes, and associates without worry for through-line or causation, but of course this is exactly what gives his essay a sense of forward movement. Sometimes accumulation is arrangement.

Another 2016 release, one that is both sly like Blanchfield and rhythmic like Gass, is Jennifer S. Cheng's House A (Omnidawn). I especially love the first third of the book, a series of lyric essays called "Letters to Mao." Her writing here moves like Stanislaw Lem's descriptions of the sentient world-ocean (ecumenoceanus?) in Solaris: a "polished surface" that "swirls and crumples," each essay a "pool of grey light...rising and falling to the rhythm of invisible waves." 


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Brian Blanchfield

The right books found me at the right time this year.

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, by Kiese Laymon, 2013. I love this short book of agile, unflinching, formally inventive essays—half cultural studies, half autobiography—about misogyny in hiphop, about the cipher in a Mississippi public school boys’ room, about avenues of reverse migration back to the South, about survivor’s guilt, about matriarchy in his family and in civil rights, about the specter of the worst of white folk, and about the revolutionary act of black men telling other black men I love you. This book is real.

Folio: Columns, 2003-2014, by Luca Turin, 2014. A hundred or more very brief essays by a perfume aficionado ostensibly about aspects of olfactory experience and the contemporary scent industry. They begin squarely in that arena but quite often extend to pithy provocative considerations of gender, memory, globalism, and more. Excellent, idiosyncratic, incomparably incisive writing. I’ll never forget the search for “a happy masculine.”



The Making of the Pré, by Francis Ponge, 1971, tr. Lee Fahnestock, 1979. This is a notebook, toward a poem. Not a very good poem. An extraordinary notebook. An exhilarating paratext of speculative attentive essaying and layperson resourcefulness, ranging art and philology and literature, starting and restarting an investigation into the word that translates loosely to “meadow.”



Calamities, by Renee Gladman, 2016. This book of essays occupies the three-way intersection of daily dream capture, conceptual art score (documenting a repeatable experiment), and deeply interior (frequently metaphysical) autobiography. Fleeting and deepening at once. Sensational.

Apalache, by Paul Metcalf, 1976. I think I found this book in San Francisco, at the poetry mecca that is Books & Bookshelves, 99 Castro Street, earlier this year. A revelation. It’s a long work, an epic, of unremarked documentary collage, splicing early U. S. colonial historical accounts with Charlotte Observer reports of a contemporary arson crime in Monroe, North Carolina, and the prosecution and trial of a black civil rights activist there. Expertly turned, and turning still.

When the Sick Rule the World, by Dodie Bellamy, 2015. The first book I read this year, and the one I needed most. I bought it in the last hour at the book fair at the godforsaken MLA conference in Austin. I cracked it open at the airport waiting for my return flight, my suitbag meaningfully crumpled in the plastic chair beside me at the Sbarro or whatever. Almost immediately I relaxed, and found, as I always do in the best of the New Narrative writers, a home in the abjection and go-for-broke candor and bodied intelligence. The opening essay on whistling as a gendered activity is effortless, brilliant.

This was also the year I finished the final books of two trilogies that together expanded for me what had seemed possible in prose and essaying. The first is Roland Barthes’s posthumous lecture notes for three courses, each rooted in a fantasy. In the books repeatedly he is “merely opening a dossier” wherein a more exhaustive exploration might be made. I love the books’ annotative form, and the editors of the series are ingenious, preserving the incompleteness crucial to the endeavor of open inquiry. Best of the the three is How to Live Together. At the end, Barthes was learning (and teaching) a new intimacy in intellection, which did not compromise his brand of cultural close reading.

The thousand-plus pages of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of walking from Rotterdam to Constantinople in 1933 and 1934 when he was eighteen and nineteen have a flavor of Montaigne, except the excursis is actual. In his sixties, seventies, and eighties he returned to and in some cases—where the originals have gone missing—reconstituted his travel journals, which were in retrospect a remarkable elegy for any number of discrete communities of Eastern Europe, all of which would be corroded if not entirely obliterated by the Nazis. Preserved are the precarious innocence and absorptive educability of youth, the privations of traveling on foot, and the ancient nature of hospitality. But mostly, it’s the best example I know of a writer reinventing language, to say precisely what needs saying. The descriptive sentences have a way of springing with the newness of each discovery the traveler makes. Read them all, in order, but the middle one, Between the Woods and the Water, is the one where he has sex in a barn. 

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Renee D'Aoust

William Bradley's "Fractals" -- Bradley’s micro-essays add up to a gestalt—the formation, disintegration, and reformation of a life. Pieces that deal with his formation primarily cover events from his childhood while pieces that deal with his cancer bespeak of disintegration. Reformation happens throughout in the sense of wanting to do and be better.

Sonja Livingston's "Ladies Night at the Dreamland" -- Livingston’s book becomes “a place of possibility, the Dreamland, where nothing is lost.” While the “Dreamland” was an actual theater, Livingston has the ability “to call out names and listen for voices [she] might recognize.” The conjuring is such that we don’t realize we recognize these voices until Livingston brings forth narration for their long-lost souls. Combined with personal essay, her use of perception and interiority brings to life women of different eras. I especially admire Livingston's artful writing in the essay form and the University of Georgia Press (the Crux Series), which published this collection, is publishing such great work.

Penny Guisinger's "Postcards from Here" -- One of Guisinger’s projects is to help women speak up in real time. Written words—essays and postcards—give agency to the voice in ways that spoken words often don’t. This is a gem of a book.

Patrick Madden's "Sublime Physick" -- Madden has written 12 associative, discursive, elegant essays in the mode of Montaigne. Like the classical essayist’s varied, but basic, topics, no subject is too mundane for Madden’s contemporary pen. The collection asks in essence what it means to be human and how we might explore the idea of wonder.

A few more suggestions --

If you haven't had the chance to check out John Griswold's ongoing series at his Oronte Churm blog over at Inside Higher Ed, do! Start with his piece on why he went to Standing Rock to support our water protectors (and be sure to read the others). Here's that link:
And I think experimental essayists should read Lance Olsen's really cool Berlin memoir/travelogue/anti-memoir/reflective, smart romp: [[ there. ]]. Olsen writes, "the first definition of the word experimental is of a witness: having actual or personal experience of anything."

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Ty Clever

New: The brief essays that comprise Renee Gladman’s Calamities explore the paradox of essaying: that the essayist is drawn by the difficult and unresolved, yet must always remain a beginner: “This was an essay in which you were allowed to pursue the unsayable, even though the pursuit perpetually returned you to the beginning, your first mark, the moment before anything could be said. . . .”


Rediscovered: Gladman’s statement could serve as a description of Paul Valéry’s astonishing essay, “The Man and the Sea Shell.” Valéry opens by pointing out that “ignorance is a treasure of infinite price,” and that his essay is an attempt to “describe and preserve” his ignorance regarding sea shells. What follows is a wide-ranging—and necessarily inconclusive—meditation on creativity, intention, and the idea of order.

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Christopher Cokinos 

I fell in love with Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. He rightly has a reputation as a philosopher with a sense of style, and his overall pessimism and sense of all things as blindly striving struck a chord--as did his approach to solace through aesthetic reverie.

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Nicole Walker

Lawrence Lenhart's The Well-stocked and Gilded Cage. My students and I loved it best of all the books we read this semester.

Lily Hoang's A Bestiary which might be the truest hybrid text I've read.

And Liao Yiwu The Corpse Walker because no matter how bad it gets, you're probably not walking corpses across the country. 

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Jen Hirt

Because you want to see how a military-trained dolphin would write a letter to Sylvia Plath, and because you want to see how Tolstoy's daughter's Russian tortoise composed her memoir, and because you want to snap your fingers to the the free verse escapades of a beatnik mussel, all essayists should read Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey (2014). Sure it's two years old, and sure, it's short stories, each from the point of view of an animal who dies in the midst of human violence. But follow Dovey's suggestion to go to her website to see the sources for this book, and you'll find over 60 of them, many nonfiction, and a lot of them straight-up history. Essayists love research, and essayists love short story writers who do their research too. These stories feel as real as essays, to be honest. Dovey's epigrah from J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello says it all: "Each creature is key to all other creatures. A dog sitting in a patch of sun licking itself, says he, is at one moment a dog and at the next a vessel of revelation." So, at one moment a story, at the next, an essay. All of it a revelation.

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Scott Broker 

Eula Biss, Note from No Man's Land

Brian Blanchfield, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing

Jenny Boully, The Body: An Essay

John D'Agata, Halls of Fame

Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable

Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

Lia Purpura, On Looking

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Erik Anderson
 
Some essayish things, recent and not so, I read (or reread) and loved in 2016: 

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage
Kerry Howley, Thrown
Toni Morrison, What Moves at the Margins
Hilary Plum, Watchfires
Suzanne Scanlon, Her 37th Year: An Index

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Elena Passarello
 
My favorite thing that read this year, hands-down, is Ed Piskor’s mind-blowing HIP HOP FAMILY TREE comics series. I picked up a collection of the first four issues on a whim at the Fantagraphics store in Seattle, read it in a day, re-read it immediately, and then rush ordered the rest of the series. It’s brilliant nonfiction—expansive, singular, well-curated. It’s also wonderfully drawn and thrilling in its attempt to pin down a nebulous piece of American Culture (the birth and growth of hip-hop). Piskor reports with the authority of a historian and the biases of a fan, along the way using visual tropes from great serial artists like Alan Moore, Hervé, Crumb, all the great superhero comics, and a bunch that I know I’m not savvy enough to catch. He’s already twelve issues into the FAMILY TREE, and he’s only covered a decade of hip-hop. I cannot wait to see what his next installment.

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Chelsea Biondolillo

I came late to the Limber boat, but I'm glad I found it eventually. Angela Pelster's debut collection is fanciful, strange, and beautiful. She roams over a wide range of topics, while staying literally rooted to her theme of trees and tree-like growth. Since I can't help but read as a teacher, this one is definitely going to get added to my lyric essay reading list for students. 

Also, the news this year has not all been good, so I'm reading Wendell Berry's What Are People For? and Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit plus all the Ta-Nehisi Coates I can get my hands on and . Because I think it is important to know what the stakes are, but also know that the wages of trying is hope. 

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T Fleischmann

Renee Gladman's Calamaties from Wave is my new favorite and is great to reread. I'm excited recently by Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and Wind Instrument by Kazim Ali (Spork), and by the work of Micha Cárdenas.

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Joseph Bradbury 

Useful books for 2016 and anytime:

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude

Denise Levertov, Tesserae

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books

David Foster Wallace, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity

Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh

John D’Agata, The Making of the American Essay

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths


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Will Slattery

 My favorites this year:

Brian Blanchfield's Proxies: Essays Near Knowing.  The frequency with which this work is included in this list speaks volumes as to its excellence.

Although not new, I read Hilton Als' White Girls for the first time this year.  I cannot recommend Als highly enough as both a prose stylist and a cultural critic.

Although technically comprised of poems rather than essays, Timothy Yu's 100 Chinese Silences is an outstanding collection that shows a sharp, penetrating, thoroughly essayistic mind at work.

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Ander Monson

One of the benefits of coming late to the Liked Best game is that I see many favorites here on the Essay Daily list. Y'all have already iterated some of the titles on my list. I dug—a lot—:

  • Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself... 
  • Blanchfield's Proxies (though I think I had that on my list last year
  • Lily Hoang's Bestiary (thanks Wayne Koestenbaum for that pick)
  • I do want to shout out Luca Turin's Folio: Columns, 2003-2014 that I recommended to Blanchfield. Really wonderful brief essays and maybe the book I was most surprised by this year. Trained as a chemist, somehow somebody signed up Turin to review high-end perfumes for a Swiss magazine in German (a language he does not speak). Each little essay is an alchemy. Bad ass.
  • Lenhart!
  • Gabriel Blackwell's Madeleine E (bought for more people this year than any other book)
  • Nicole Walker's Micrograms which New Michigan Press published
  • gotta give a shout-out to March Sadness—not a book but a collection of essays and a machine for understanding memory, time, and sadness. (See March Fadness in 2017.) That was maybe the most fun thing I participated in all year.
  • Susan Briante's The Market Wonders (some cross between essay-poems and poem-essays)
  • Ken Chen's Juvenilia (says poetry, and sure, but also essaying)
  • Albert Goldbarth's The Adventures of Form and Content (really love this book that just came out or is maybe about to just come out from Graywolf)
  • Alejandro Zambra's Multiple Choice
  • Eliot Weinberger's The Ghosts of Birds
  • Christa Wolf's One Day a Year
  • and Mary Cappello's Life Breaks In: a Mood Almanack, which is taking me a very long time to read, always a sign of something excellent working on me
Cheers to you & yours.

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