Category Archives: Essays

Recent Reading, 4/14/2018

Recently I finished two books that I loved: Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. About the Smith essay collection, I read every word, and liked every piece, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read the whole thing if you’re not inspired to. It’s a pretty hefty book and some of the subjects she writes about might not interest every reader. But there are so many pieces that any reader will like. She’s such a fun writer: her sentences are so smart and so elegant that it’s a joy to watch her mind work. She moves among very different subjects within the same essay with ease and it’s a pleasure to let yourself be surprised by where she takes you.

Eloquent Rage has a lot of memoiristic material, but it’s really more of a personal exploration of feminism, and Black feminism in particular. She writes about her experiences as a Black girl and woman and at the same time looks at the experiences of Black girls and women more broadly: experiences in schools, in the church, in love, in friendship, in the working world, in pop culture. Her tone is informal and funny:

Eloquent Rage opening

She brings the meaning of “intersectionality” to life: she writes about the struggles of women generally, and about those of Black men, and about those of Black women (as well as those of other groups) and shows how they are all different, all inflected by sexism and racism in different ways. She has some challenging words for men generally, and for Black men, and for white women, and also for Black women. It strikes me that any reader might find this book uncomfortable at some point, as I did, because she really spares no one. But this book, at heart, is a love letter to Black women. Her definition of Black feminism is about keeping a love for Black women front and center. She wants justice for everyone, and works with people of all types to make that happen, but her guiding principle is making the lives of Black women freer, safer, and better.

The book is an easy read in a lot of ways: it’s accessible and engaging, consistently surprising and fresh, informed by philosophy and theory, but always in an approachable, clear way. It’s a difficult book in other ways, though: Cooper has some harsh truths to share about the sexism and racism particular to the U.S. and how those two “isms” combine to make the lives of Black women much more difficult than they should be. I think this is a book every American would benefit from reading.

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Recent Reading, 4/1/2018

Oh, it’s been over a year since I wrote here? Haha, I guess it has! Ah, well.

So, what am I reading? I just finished a novel in translation called In the Distance with You by Carla Guelfenbein, to be published by Other Press this June (translated by John Cullen). Guelfenbein is a Chilean author and the book takes place in Chile and various places in Europe. It’s inspired by Clarice Lispector and is about a Lispector-like author who spends the novel in a hospital room, while three other characters who knew her in various ways tell their stories. It’s about writing and writerly relationships, about literary lineages, about the way the past bears down on the present, about the pressures the world places on the body. It’s labeled a literary thriller, although the pace is slower than that leads one to expect. But there are plot revelations along the way that kept me reading happily, and the ideas about the writing life and the creative process were engaging.

I’m also reading Feel Free, an essay collection by Zadie Smith, and it’s so good! Smith is such a master of the essay. I like her novels, but her essays are better: she’s so entertaining, and so smart. She brings together things you would not expect to be brought together, in classic essay style. I’m about halfway through. The essays have been about politics, libraries, art, film, aesthetics, and more. Many of them I had read before in various publications — The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books — but I’m happy to read them again. One of my favorites, “Some Notes on Attunement” starts with Joni Mitchell and moves to Wordsworth, Seneca, Kierkegaard, and a drive through Wales, all while never losing site of where it started. But the essay is really about artistic taste and how we change our minds about what we like. It’s really so good. Here’s a passage from another essay I loved, “Dance Lessons for Writers”:

Zadie Smith Feel Free passage

What’s next? I’m thinking of picking Brittney C. Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, but we’ll see what I’m in the mood for later.

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Stalking the Essay

Here’s a reason I’m a fan of Twitter: without it I wouldn’t have found out about a one-day conference at Columbia called “Stalking the Essay.” (Many thanks to Michele Filgate for mentioning it.) It was too tempting to pass up, so although I couldn’t get away for an entire day, I made it to the two afternoon sessions. They were fabulous. The entire day was organized by Phillip Lopate, one of my heroes as editor of the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, so it was a delight to get to see him. And then I got to see three other writers I’m fond of: Vivian Gornick, whose The Situation and the Story I’ve read; Colm Toibin, author of The Master, which I loved, and of Brooklyn which I hope to read soon; and David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger I’ve enjoyed criticizing and arguing with but from which I’ve gotten a ton of wonderful book recommendations. I also was introduced to some writers I haven’t read yet but hope to at some point: Patricia Hampl, Margo Jefferson, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Geoffrey O’Brien.

The first session was on “Criticism and the Essay,” and it dealt with boundaries among genres, for example, the book review versus the review essay, i.e., moving beyond the book itself to the broader context in which a book sits, or criticism, which implies an expert pronouncing judgment on a subject, versus the essay, which leaves room for not knowing, for lacking expertise. They talked about the challenge of writing what one wants to write while at the same time meeting the needs of a particular publication and a particular audience. They also talked about moving from writing polemically, i.e. letting a particular political point of view dominate one’s writing, toward writing essayistically, i.e. letting the subject rather than the point of view lead the piece.

The second session was on “The Personal and Impersonal Essay,” and the speakers in this part each gave a talk that was partly autobiographical, partly about how they negotiate the personal in their essay writing. Colm Toibin talked about how uncomfortable he is writing personally, but that he finds a way to write about himself indirectly, through the subjects that he chooses, which often end up (often unexpectedly) relating in some fashion to his personal experiences. Patricia Hampl spoke about what it is like to write autobiographically when, as she put it, nothing has ever happened to her. That turned out not to be true, of course. David Shields did a lot of what he does best: recommending great books and arguing for their greatness.

Perhaps the best part of the day came at the end when I got Shields and Lopate to sign books for me. There wasn’t a formal book signing, but all the speakers were milling around at the front of the lecture hall and looked approachable, so I got over my reluctance to talk to intimidating and famous (to me) strangers, and got their signatures. I did it without, I think, saying anything stupid.

So yay to Columbia for organizing an awesome event, and yay to Twitter for making it easier to publicize awesome events. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to this one, but the next event (discovered on Twitter) that I’ve got my eye on is at Housing Works bookstore: “A Discussion of Women and Criticism” with Laura Miller and others.

I’ll go to this event if I can manage to tear myself away from this charming little guy:

Cormac 9 weeks

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Pulphead

I’m currently reading Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and oh my god, what a good book it is! I’ve read six of the 14 essays so far, and while they aren’t all at the same level of fabulousness, they are all pretty close. I just finished an essay on Michael Jackson, which sent me off to watch this video and appreciate him in a way I never have before. The first essay is on a Christian Rock festival, which he captures perfectly in all its weirdness, and there are also essays on Hurricane Katrina (with a haunting ending), his brother’s near-death experience, and the TV show The Real World. This last essay is written in a funny, hyped-up, super-informal tone befitting the subject:

I’d suspected there were puppeteers involved in The Real World, invisibly instigating “drama,” but to think that the network had gone for it like that and hired a shrink? One who, as the kids went on to assure me, was involved not only in manipulating the cast during shooting but also in the casting process itself? And she’s worked on other shows? This explained so much, about The Real World, about all of it. When I wrote that business earlier about how the casting people have made the shows crazier and crazier, I didn’t know I was right about any of that! This person is an unacknowledged legislator of the real world. Turns out Dr. Laura is a psychologist, not a psychiatrist, which is better, when you think about it, because psychologists don’t have to take the Hippocratic oath, and she’s definitely, definitely done some harm. No chance I was going to call her.

Or there’s this somewhat more serious passage from the same essay (don’t miss the last line):

People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It’s all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, and great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching. Using weird phrases that nobody uses, except everybody uses them now. Constantly talking about “goals.” Throwing carbonic acid on our castmates because they used our special cup and then calling our mom to say, in a baby voice, “People don’t get me here.” Walking around half-naked, with a butcher knife behind our backs. Telling it like it is y’all (what-what). And never passive-aggressive, no. Saying it straight to your face. But crying … My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them — too many shows and too many people on the shows — for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.

Those are good passages, but not even the best I’ve found, just the ones I read recently. Sullivan’s voice is amazing. I love discovering a new great essayist.

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Recent Reading

First, some numbers:

  • bike miles logged since January 1st: 1,775.
  • Hours ridden: 114.
  • Races completed (in unspectacular but acceptable fashion): 1.
  • Books read: 16.
  • Hours worked: too many.

Rather than writing reviews, I’m busy enough to be reduced to lists, but that’s better than complete silence, so here’s what I’ve been reading since I last posted:

  • I finished Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, which was absolutely fabulous. If you like essays on literature and culture, read this! Smith is brilliant and charming, and I have become a fan (I read White Teeth a while back and liked it fine, but my response to this essay collection has been much stronger).
  • I finished Essayists on the Essay, a collection edited by Carl Klaus, which is exactly what the title promises. It’s very good if you want to get a sense of the essay as a genre and also if you want essay recommendations.
  • My mystery book group read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, which I can appreciate as a very good example of a particular kind of mystery/thriller, but which I struggled with a little. I’m not a plot person, basically, and this was a lot of plot. I get tired of struggling to keep everything straight. But still, lots to appreciate here.
  • David Shields’s Reality Hunger deserves its own post, which it may not get. I give it five out of five stars for articulating a nonfiction aesthetic that I like very much and for having awesome book recommendations, and two out of five stars for being obtuse when it comes to the value of fiction. Also, I was never completely won over by the argument it implicitly makes about collage, quotation, and plagiarism.
  • Lorrie Moore, Anagrams, which was funny and inventive. It has an interesting structure, with four chapters or so that give you the same two characters but in different permutations: with different backgrounds, personalities, careers, etc. Eventually it settled down into one version of these characters and told a more coherent story. I was a little disappointed the opening structure didn’t continue through the whole book; once it settled down into one story, the whole thing got a tiny bit less interesting. But still, very good.
  • Darin Strauss, Half a Life: A Memoir. This tells Strauss’s experience of accidentally hitting and killing a high school classmate in a car crash when he was 18 and about to graduate. The accident wasn’t his fault, but of course the experience was still devastating. The story is well-told, and Strauss does a great job articulating what the experience was like. At times, I found the writing too vague and abstract for my taste; sometimes it was hard to wrap my mind around the thoughts and images. But still, it’s a brave book.

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Quarrel and Quandary

Quarrel and Quandary, a collection of essays, is the first book by Cynthia Ozick that I’ve read, and I finished it feeling impressed. Perhaps what stands out most strongly to me is her serious, firm, no-nonsense, occasionally devastating argumentation style. I would not ever want to be the subject of Ozick’s critique; she can be frighteningly effective when goes on the attack.

The essays cover a range of material. Many of them are literary in nature, including essays on Kafka, Dostoevsky, Sebald, Henry James, and others. Other essays explore broader literary phenomena such as the various adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank and the treatment of the Holocaust in fiction. These last two are good examples of what I mean by her devastating argumentation style; she is angry at theatrical adaptations of the diary that downplay the horror of Anne’s fate in order to focus on the diary’s hopeful messages. In the essay on Holocaust fiction, she critiques Sophie’s Choice and Bernard Schlink’s The Reader for covering over some of the worst aspects of Holocaust history by focusing on exceptions and rare cases in the stories they tell. That essay (which you can read here) is a nuanced discussion of the tension between the right of authors to write about whatever they want and their responsibility to be ethical human beings.

Not all the essays are literary, though; there are some personal essays on, for example, Ozick’s first office job and her childhood spent in and around her family’s drugstore in the Bronx. One of my favorite essays, though, is one of the literary ones, an essay on essays called “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.” Those of you who know my reading tastes will not be surprised that I was particularly drawn to this one (although I found the gender dynamics of the essay kind of weird — why should an essay be figured as a woman? But Ozick is impatient with talk of gender: “Essays are written by men. Essays are written by women. That is the long and short of it.” Well, yes. But perhaps there’s more to the story?) I particularly liked her description of how essays work persuasively:

The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind. Yet this is not to say that there has never been an essayist morally intent on making an argument, however obliquely — George Orwell is a case in point. At the end of the day, the essay turns out to be a force for agreement. It co-opts agreement; it courts agreement; it seduces agreement. For the brief hour we give to it, we are sure to fall into surrender and conviction. And this will occur even if we are intrinsically roused to resistance.

Even if we disagree with an essayist, for the time we are reading his or her essay, we are won over. I feel this when I read my favorite essays; it’s not that I give up all of my own thoughts and criticisms, but that I come to enjoy following another person’s mind so much that I’m willing to follow them anywhere. That is, I’m willing to follow them while I’m reading them. Afterward is the time for critique. She goes on to contrast essays to other prose forms such as magazine articles, polemics, and tracts, all of which are clearly looking at us, focusing on us and trying to change our minds. She writes:

The genuine essay, in contrast, never thinks of us; the genuine essay may be the most self-centered (the politer word would be subjective) arena for human thought ever devised.

Or else, though still not having you and me in mind (unless as an exemplum of common folly), it is not self-centered at all.

Instead of being self-centered, the essay is sometimes focused on the world around the essayist; it’s a way for the writer to make sense of the materials of everyday life and how they connect with one another:

The mind meanders, slipping from one impression to another, from reality to memory to dreamscape and back again.

Rather than going directly after the reader trying to make a polemical point, the genuine essay simply goes on a journey the reader will find irresistible, whether it’s a journey through the self or through the world (or both). We can’t help but follow along and end up where the writer ends, convinced, at least for a time.

I found Ozick convincing, in most cases long after the essay’s spell wore off. My favorite essay style is actually looser, more hesitant and exploring than Ozick’s, but I couldn’t help but admire her sharp mind at work.

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AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead

AfterWord: Conjuring the Literary Dead is one of the first books I requested from NetGalley because it’s a collection of essays about writers and books, and I love a good collection about writers and books. I was a little disappointed in it, though; I thought the book’s idea sounded promising, but either I was mistaken about that, or the execution didn’t live up to the possibilities. I think the problem may be that the essays were uneven and perhaps, generally speaking, a little too short. They didn’t dig into their subjects deeply enough and so left me feeling a little dissatisfied.

The premise is that in each essay, a writer imagines a meeting with his or her favorite author, or perhaps an author he or she has written about or grappled with in some fashion. The various essayists tackle this task in different ways, some pretending that they have traveled back in time, some imagining they are meeting their subject in the present day or in some nebulous in-between space. In some cases, the authors know about things that have happened after their deaths, and in others they don’t.

Which, let me digress to say, is something I think about now and then: I remember somebody saying, or perhaps I read it, that the really sad thing about having to die is not knowing how things turn out. I agree with the feeling. I think about people who lived before the time of the novel and what it would be like not to know that a novel existed. Or not to know about Jane Austen or James Joyce or David Foster Wallace, or whoever. Who are the wonderful, amazing writers we won’t know about, and what genres will we not live to experience? Okay, best not to think about that too much…

Some of the essays in this collection are really charming — Cynthia Ozick on Henry James, Jay Parini on Robert Frost, Eugene Goodheart on Jane Austen, Francis King on Oscar Wilde, Jeffrey Meyers on Samuel Johnson. Others made me contemplate how difficult it is to create a convincing scene and realistic dialogue. There were some essayists who I presume were more academic types than fiction writers whose attempts at a kind of fiction writing were awkward. In a couple cases, I simply didn’t like the tone or the attitude expressed.

Mostly, though, I kept thinking about how none of this was real, how all of it was mere speculation. That’s what it’s supposed to be, of course, but it felt a little like reading a description of someone’s dream — an interesting dream, but not much more than that. If I’m going to read about an author’s life, I think I’d prefer either something more straightforwardly critical and argumentative, whether it’s a biography or a critical essay (no matter how imaginatively done) or a fully-realized novel along the lines of Colm Toibin’s The Master.

However, there are some essays I’m glad I read. Perhaps the best approach with this book is to read selectively, finding the essays about authors you find interesting and focusing on those. And for another view entirely, read Stefanie’s post on the book. The book did make me consider who I would write about if I had been a contributor to the collection: perhaps Virginia Woolf or Mary McCarthy. Oh no — it would be Laurence Sterne, definitely. But what in the world would I say to any of these people if I could meet them, even only in my imagination?

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