Wednesday, December 11, 2013

ADVENT 12/11: Essays to Gift to Those You Love or Like Enough to Get a Gift of Essay

Dear Readers,

in the spirit of helping you identify awesome book-length essays & essay collections to buy for the essay lovers in your life or the potential essay lovers in your life or the cranky skeptics who are probably essayists anyhow, being that essayists excel in crankiness and skepticism, we asked some of our favorite essayists to suggest some books for your shopping list that you might have overlooked. They follow below, sometimes with annotations, sometimes without! & Happy holidays as we continue our advent countdown. We will be reading.


Essay Daily Recommends These Essays


Robert Atwan:

Two recent nonfiction books by essayists I recommend:

Garret Keizer, Privacy (Picador/2012)--Keizer is always brilliant. This book provides a lesson in how to write about a serious social and political topic and still maintain a distinctive literary style and perspective.

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality (Twelve/2012). How he did this is beyond me and a lasting tribute to literary guts, determination, and stamina.

And from the past: I recently re-read one of my all-time favorite essays, John Stuart Mill's "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion," the second chapter of his classic On Liberty (1859), one of the most bracing intellectual essays I know. Not for everyone, though, only those who are willing to embrace a self-imposed ethical principle that demands they consistently and continuously test and challenge their most deeply-held beliefs and convictions, especially those they consider incontestable.


Jenny Boully:

Essay collections this year that I've read or reread:

Amy Leach / Things That Are

Charles D'Ambrosio / Orphans

Joan Didion / Slouching Toward Bethlehem

David Foster Wallace / A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Kristin Prevallet / I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time

Carole Maso / Break Every Rule


Nathaniel Brodie:

Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle. They're lectures, not essays, and that comes across at times. But whatever: they're essays. And damn good ones.


Joy Castro:

The essay I'm in the thick of (and I do mean thick--it's 766 pages long) is the 2010 edition of Simone de Beuvoir's The Second Sex, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. Theirs is the first translation to preserve Beauvoir's text complete and unabridged--the 1953 version chopped out chunks to make it easier to read. This new version preserves Beauvoir's voice and thoughts intact.

The Second Sex is one of those books I'd sort of (cheatingly) thought of myself as having read, because I've read bits of it over the years and know the gist. But reading the whole thing--especially knowing that it's the version Beauvoir intended--is a fantastic immersion experience: it's so much richer, fuller, and more surprising than I'd imagined. Better late to the party than not at all...


Chris Cokinos: 

Sarah de Leeuw's prose poem/lyric prose collection Geographies of a Lover.


Meehan Crist:

Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss
Syzygy, Beauty: An Essay, by T Fleischmann
The Guardians: An Elegy, by Sarah Manguso
Pretty much everything by NBF Interactive (National Film Board of Canada), which supports hybrid film/essays/interactive media projects. My favorite is still Welcome to Pine Point.


Brian Doyle: 

Actually this last year I went on a total essay bender and poked into a slew of collections, not just my usual annual swim in E.B. White's One Man's Meat and R. L. Stevenson's The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays, both of which I would make required texts for essayists and the students thereof far more than the usual canonical mooing at Hazlitt and Montaigne. This is a running argument I have with my friend the fine essayist Patrick Madden, whose Quotidiana I read again, marveling this time at the sheer cheerful odd stunning range of his wanderings and stitchings. I also read Sam Pickering’s A Little Fling, which made me shuffle right quick to the library to rent a pile of his books; and the great Oregon writer Robin Cody’s tart and lovely Another Way the River Has; which sent me back to the Oregonian Barry Lopez’s masterpiece Crossing Open Ground, and the Washingtonian Robert Michael Pyle’s The Tangled Bank, a collection of his essays from Orion magazine; and then I read the last essay about brave cool nuns from Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and then I went back to reading vast seas of maritime fiction for reasons that elude me and worry my lovely bride, who is afraid we are about to rent a schooner and sail to Samoa, which doesn’t sound so bad. But it was a hell of a good year for essay collections. Me personally I think the essay is in a golden era, what with Annie Dillard and Edward Hoagland and Cynthia Ozick all still in masterful form, and the tremendous boom in what we foolishly call ‘nature writing’ when really it’s mostly essays of sharp attentiveness to What Is, and even poets writing great essays (Mary Oliver and Pattiann Rogers, for example), which is either a sign of a golden era or the apocalypse.


T Clutch Fleischmann:

Two essays I liked:

(1) White Girls, Hilton Als: Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts got a lot of deserved praise for being the seminal “criticism can be art!” example, but I’m more a fan of Als, whose magnificent sentences hazard and pierce and embody themselves fully.

(2) Bough Down, Karen Green: This essay made me feel appropriately adrift and in pain. It charts a fresh path through mourning and there are very small collages throughout it.

And, some poems with “essay” in their title: The First Flag, Sarah Fox


BJ Hollars: 

Andrew Hudgins' The Joker" A book on jokes, jokesters, and the various roles of humor in our lives. No subject is too taboo for Hudgins, who makes us laugh and then makes us think twice about laughing.

David Sheinin's RG3: The Promise: I didn't know I cared about Hesiman award-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III until David Sheinin made me care. A rip-roaring read of a biography that's less about football than an unconventional football star trapped in the glitz and flashbulbs of our celebrity-worshipping world.


Marya Hornbacher: 

David Shields' Reality Hunger and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets


Pam Houston:

Animal Mineral Radical, by BK Loren. I suppose The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit is not technically an essay collection, but whatever it is called, she certainly has an essayist's mind.


Kim Dana Kupperman: 

I'd be a terrible publisher if I didn't mention Welcome Table Press's 2013 release of You. An Anthology Devoted to Essays in the Second Person, edited by myself with Heather G. Simons and James M. Chesbro (Welcome Table Press, 2013). A first-of-its-kind anthology, featuring work by thirty-three contemporary writers. And if that's too shamelessly press-promotional, how about including John Berger's Hold Everything Dear. Dispatches on Survival and Resistance (Vintage, 2008), whose shores I arrived at this year? He writes about despair and death and crisis with that keen and artful eye of his. Don't be put off by the subtitle.


Eric LeMay:

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton (Bloomsbury USA, 2013)

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh (Touchstone, 2013)

Two titles for the moment when reading Schopenhauer has you wanting to kill yourself. Both blend words and illustrations with a light, comic touch. Lost Cat for mid-life laughs, Hyperbole and a Half for twenty-something hilarity.


Paul Lisicky: 

There are so many ways to be in awe of Hilton Als' irresistible White Girls: as an adventure in syntax, an inquiry into twinship, as a book so bold and brash as to make everything else you're reading feel oh so neat.


Patrick Madden:

Century-old Essay Collections

In the foreword to Best American Essays 2004, Robert Atwan mentioned that each year he was reading a one-hundred-year-old essay collection. That seemed like a tremendous idea, and I wanted to join his book club, but, in my typical fashion, I got busy with other things and was shy and unaware of how to approach him to discover the titles he was reading, so I never got around to it. Until this year, when I found a trio of 1913 collections by Arthur Christopher Benson, which have been keeping me entertained, and since you’ve likely not heard of him or them (if you have, cool!), I’ll make a quick pitch here. All of them, Along the Road, The Silent Isle, and Joyous Gard, are in the public domain and available online.

These books, likely written just after Benson became president of Magdalene College, Cambridge, are generally light and miscellaneous, uneven in their quality but just right for sporadic sampling. I admit that I’ve not read them all cover to cover, but I hold that this is not only OK, it’s fully in the spirit of the essay collection as an ideal.

Joyous Gard contains 37 essays on topics like “Memory,” “Emotion,” "Humour,” and “Thought,” all derived from the “quiet current of intimate thought, which flows on, gently and resistlessly, in the background of our lives” and which “makes up the greater part of our life, and is much more our real and true life than the life which we lead in public.” It is an attempt to connect with “friends, known and unknown” by giving public voice to those thoughts. As Benson’s new friend, I was tickled to read that he wrote the book “in spaces of hard-driven work, when the day never seemed long enough for all I had to do, between interruptions and interviews and teaching and meetings,” because that sounds quite a bit like my hassled life, and maybe yours, too. I can’t say that I felt like I could write three books in a year (1913 was not anomalous for Benson), but I did feel like I could set aside more time within my hectic schedule for writing.

Along the Road is a similar book, but longer (62 essays, covering places and people and academic subject before settling into its more interesting material: “On Being Shocked,” “On Being Interrupted,” “Absent-Mindedness,” and “Finding One’s Level,” among so many others). Its project, says Benson, is to “interest readers in little problems of life and character, all the clash and interplay of human qualities so fresh, so unaccountable, so marvelously interesting, which spring out of our daily relations with other human beings.” On that account, it is largely successful, not only suggesting human interaction but replicating it, between reader and writer, as all good essays do. Tucked into Benson’s first wish for his book is this second—“to awaken the interest, which we can find if we only look for it, in common and ordinary things, … in the simple experiences of life”—which, as anyone who knows me can attest, is one of my life’s quests. It is unsurprisingly pleasing to find a fellow essayist a century ago promoting the same ideal.

The Silent Isle is another sort of book, really, without titles on its chapters, but like the others, it aims to convey the author’s life as he “wander[s] about … tak[ing] sketches … from a dozen different points of view, record[ing] little delicacies of detail, tiny whims and irregularities.” Those delicacies of detail include the author’s walks in the country and readings in his study, his thoughts on poetry and biography and happiness and God. I think the book is pleasant enough, but, frankly, for a scatter-brained reader like me, it was difficult to settle into because I felt unable to skip around. Benson claims to have written it as an experiment at obtaining happiness, which he ultimately failed to do, or did only in snatches and glimpses, which feels less like failure than reality.

Aside from the particulars of time and place and surroundings, A. C. Benson seems to have led a life I’d aspire to: busy but seeking (and often finding) “studied quietness and a cheerful serenity of life.” His essays retain a good measure of charm, so I recommend these three century-old books not for devouring but for nibbling.

CODA: For 2014, I will be reading two hundred-year-old books by two of my favorite essayists, The Tower of the Mirrors and Other Essays on the Spirit of Places by Vernon Lee; and Alice Meynell’s greatest hits collection, Essays. Robert Atwan recommends Henry James’s Notes of a Son and Brother, so I’ll likely read that as well.


Michael Martone:

I remember reading William Langewiesche’s individual essays first published in The Atlantic but now have discovered them again in his book Aloft: Thoughts on the Experience of Flight. “The Turn” is quite something.

Katherine Boo is an exquisite reporter of contemporary India, Behind the Beautiful Forever: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

Finally, I wish to mention two books I received on my birthday: The Man in the Bowler Hat: His History and Iconography by Fred Miller Robinson, a fusion of social and cultural history, connects to my other gift book—I asked for it—Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible. Though I am very taken with Tim Gunn’s encyclopedic fashion knowledge, I am more interested in his pedagogy practiced on Project Runway. I like to explore the differences between the workshop’s admonishment that “This doesn’t work” and Mr. Gunn’s suggestion to “Make it work.”


Ander Monson: 

I'd like to recommend Aurelie Sheehan's Jewelry Box: not sure these are essays, but they're not fully fiction either. This book is fantastic, and it acts like essays. "Histories," she calls them, adding a documentary gloss.

Lucy Corin's One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses: I'm always a sucker for Lucy Corin; few fictioners do as much essaying in their fiction as Corin does. Well, maybe Sheehan does, but not by much. There are a lot of similarities in these two books. Lucy blurbed Aurelie's book. Both are made up primarily of short-short prose pieces. Both originally worked with the constraint of a hundred little things, even if Jewelry Box eventually abandons that premise.

I've also had Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby on my mind, reading it at the same time as Phillip Lopate's Portrait Inside My Head. A longer post to come on these two, perhaps in conversation with Nicole Walker, whose collection Quench Your Thirst With Salt is certainly one of my favorites this year. Too, I recently read (again) both Elena Passarello's Let Me Clear My Throat (which is excellent) and Jay Ponteri's Wedlocked, also excellent, though the two books couldn't be much further apart. Passarello's driven outward by research into the human voice, whereas Ponteri goes inward. His self-consciousness and -disclosure is so intense at times I found it painful to read. I wouldn't want to be married to the guy, but Wedlocked is quite an experience.

I just finished Nicholson Baker's new The Way the World Works, which, while it suffers from the bunch-of-stuff-I-wrote-sorted-by-subject strategy of collection (which is not generally an appealing way to think about a book), I found deeply fascinating.

Lastly I was just rereading Marian Bantjes's I Wonder, a collection of her wildly-designed essays. She's a designer by trade, and the essays are mostly about design. Watch this space for a future post about her distinctive work.


Dinty W Moore: 

The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Sloan’s essays chart an entirely fresh course through the tangled territory of race and class in modern-day America.


Elena Passarello: 

Hilton Als, White Girls

Amy Leach, Things That Are

Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey

Daniel Mendehlson, Waiting for the Barbarians

Robert Walser, Selected Stories-- (Blah blah fiction blah. Can't we claim at least half of these little prose gems as essays?)

Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel --(the New Yorker running that except from Mitchell's unfinished memoir was just the kick in the pants I needed to finally pick up this collection. I was not disappointed)


Kristen Radtke:

Susan Steinberg, Spectacle: This was billed as a short story collection, but Steinberg's writing is so thought-driven that to me she's always been an essayist. Gorgeously paced with deceptively simple language, this is a book you'll want to read aloud over and over again. Steinberg is one of the gutsiest contemporary writers we've got.

Michelle Orange, This Is Running for Your Life: An obvious choice as one of the biggest essay collections this year, but all of Orange's attention is well-earned. Funny and compulsively readable, this is some of the most razor-sharp analysis of media, aging and art I've read.


Craig Reinbold:

David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life

Gretel Ehrlich, Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami

Joe Sacco, The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme


Bonnie Rough: 

Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby as well as Ann Patchett's This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I am really interested in this photo-essay collection, which I've only glanced over yet, called Momma Love: How the Mother Half Lives. I can't say anything yet about the writing but Ali Smith's photography is stunning, so honest.


Sheryl St. Germain:

Jesmyn Ward: Men We Reaped: A Memoir 

Ann Marlow: How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z

James Brown: This River: A Memoir

Pam Houston: A Little More About Me

Phillip Lopate: Portrait Inside My Head: Essays


David Shields: 

Simon Gray, The Complete Smoking Diaries (Granta UK).

Simon Critchley, Jamieson Webster Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, (Pantheon)


Margot Singer:

Nicole Walker, Quench Your Thirst With Salt

Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier


Joni Tevis: 

I want to give a shout out to Amy Leach's Things That Are. It came out in 2012. Everyone should read it! I love what she does with the form, and the chances she takes with language.


Christina Thompson:

I’m happy to make a plug for that crazy essay collection edited by John D’Agata, The Lost Origins of the Essay – as expansive an approach to the genre as you will find.


Carson Vaughn: 

Though it was published in 2011, I find myself consistently returning to John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead. I've taught many of these essays in my own undergraduate workshops. The discussion never wanes, and each time I reread these essays, I notice something new I'd missed the first time. In keeping with my original Essay Daily blog post, I should also note that Sullivan's work--especially in Pulphead--deftly rides the line between internal and external focus, often using the internal purely as a vehicle to usher the reader to the external. Great stuff.


Patricia Vigderman: 

One of the pleasures of being at the beginning of a new project is the random reading-around as you feel your way into the topic. I’ve happily stumbled this fall into a couple of books that definitely go beyond “useful” to “I’d-like-to-know-the-author.”

The first is Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West, by Erin Hogan. Hogan set out in the VW Jetta of the title on a solo tour of artworks created out of (and in relationship with) American land: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetta in the Great Salt Lake, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, dug into the side of a mesa in Utah, Walter DeMaria’s sublime Lightning Field, a grid of 400 stainless steel poles in a barely accessible location in New Mexico, are three of them. The book is about both the adventure of being alone on a trip that took her and the Jetta way off the highway, and the power and significance of these enormous, one-off artworks. It’s a fun read, with lots of nice personal detail and reflection, but it’s her serious and spontaneous engagement with the art that’s the real treasure here. It’s a demonstration of the heightened sense of perception art delivers.

The second is Jonathan Lopez’s The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han Van Meegeren. In the 1920s and 30s, and through the Second World War, Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who abandoned his own artistic path in favor of “the imitative logic of forgery,” managed to more than double Vermeer’s opus, adding an entire “biblical” period and regularly hornswoggling respected experts, respectable collectors and dealers, museums, and finally high-ranking Nazis. The book turns the story of an enormous crime caper into an investigation of mass delusion with historical dimensions. His main point is how much what we want to believe creates the story, but Lopez has brilliantly entwined the art forgery with the forgery of Nazism itself: how both took the measure of human weaknesses at a particular moment, and exploited them. But beyond its interesting argument, the book is a model of how massive and painstaking research can be turned into sentences that lead you eagerly forward with writer.

Finally, last summer the owner of The Bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts, turned me on to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s tour de force of going the distance on foot and in language, A Time of Gifts. It’s the first volume of his account of walking from Rotterdam to Constantinople when he was nineteen, setting out in the pouring rain from London’s Tower Bridge, and making his way along Rhine and Danube, across the Great Hungarian Plain, Transylvania, eastward in the early 1930s across a Europe that was about to be forever changed. His own gifts for friendship and languages, along with his “dangerous mix of recklessness and sophistication,” in the words of the housemaster of one school that expelled him, makes his amorous, literary, naturalist, and sometimes philological investigations of that world—where a young man might freely bed down for the night in a peasant barn or even weeks in the schloss of minor aristocracy--a thrilling gift from a vanished time.


Nicole Walker:

Norton would not like me to call Nick Flynn’s Reenactments essays because everyone prefers a narrative throughline implied by memoir which this book has. But it is essay to me because of the interjections from critics, neuroscientists, philosopher-Kings. I like this: “Antonio Damasio, the clinical neurobiologist, in The Feeling of What Happens, offers this: The neurobiology of consciousness faces two problems: the problem of how the movie-in-the-brain is generated, and the problem of how the brain also generates the sense that there is an owner and observer for that movie. The two problems are so intimately related that the latter is nested within the former. In effect the second problem is that of generating the appearance of an owner and observer for the movie within the movie…(17.)

This passage was incredibly useful for my understanding of how nonfiction works best not through distance but through dissociation. How the self can only see the self if one pretends it’s not the self it’s looking at. But then too, I think of Flynn’s works as the Matroyshka nesting dolls they are. To understand Reenactments, you have to have read Another Bullshit Night. And to fully understand how Flynn makes narrative, you have to see the movie Being Flynn. To see Nick Flynn and his father played by actors means that Flynn has been playing in the movie-version of his life all along. The three texts together constitute an essay collection.

Amy Leach’s essays, Things That Are, declares that things are but it is not interested in your believing. It is interesting in your digging in, like the turtles.
Turtles do not have to be doomed before they become canny. While it is not known how much eggs understand, the tiny sea turtles nosing out of their leathery eggshells recognize instantly that this is not the turtle’s world (49).
This book of twenty-seven essays, if you include the afterword and the glossary, must be the most illegal book of nonfiction. It presumes to know what animals think. It suggests it thinks. How could you verify that, nonfiction? The book gets away with it by its slippery language, its parataxis, its folding in of sentence upon sentence, lush with language, approximating a wild kind of logic. Ecosystemic. In the chapter, “When the Trees Dream of Being Trees, the tree says,
I am a terrible tree! A thousand leaves is more than enough to prove that! I am slow and slight and my leaves are not lustrous. I have never made a flower, never made and apricot, never made an acorn. Go away birds! I am an impostor tree! I will be a post, if I can just shake off these redundant branches (68). 
There’s information. There’s science. There’s fragment and voice.  There are talking goats. There’s everything I want in a collection of essays.


& there you go—enough here for a year of essaying & essay dailying. —Editors


  1. Great list, Ander. I'm really enjoying your site. It's so nice to wake up (most mornings) with a new essay about essays. Thanks so much!

  2. I'd like to second Robert Atwan's suggestion: Christopher Hitchens, Mortality, posthumously published in 2012, but I just read it this summer. I'd actually forgotten I'd read it so recently. I've already already thought about these essays so much, and referenced them so many times in conversation, that I'd somehow convinced myself I'd been assigned to read them in some philosophy class a decade ago. Already seems like they've been around forever.

    I'd also like to second (third? fourth?) Nicole Walker's collection, Quench Your Thirst With Salt. Seeing her read the final essay in the book, "Where the Wild Things Are" this spring was a highlight, and has had me really thinking about the possibilities for performing essays, and writing essays with the idea of performing them in mind.