Tag Archives: essays

The Common Reader’s ‘James Baldwin & American Democracy’: Another Country, Another Time

Nobody knows his name. The literary and political legacy of James Baldwin is going through a revival through works like Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and director Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk. Add to this, the newest issue of The Common Reader: A Journal of the Essay, published by Washington University in St. Louis, and its eleven essays that further explore the lasting work and meaning of the author. High points of the issue, titled James Baldwin & American Democracy, include Cecil Brown’s piece, “With James Baldwin at the Welcome Table,’’ in …Continue reading

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‘The Painted Forest’ by Krista Eastman: Thoroughly Acquainted with the World

Krista Eastman had been living away from her native Wisconsin for many years when she began writing her essay collection, The Painted Forest (144 pages; West Virginia University Press), and it was during this time that she began to consider the meaning of home. Once she left the small, working-class town in which she was raised, she told Poets & Writers, she found she often “had to explain myself and my home to others, putting a complicated place onto maps where previously there’d been nothing at all.” That’s when she “became interested in the role of telling about a place, …Continue reading

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‘Blackfishing the IUD’ by Caren Beilin: Inflaming Technologies

Just over halfway through Caren Beilin’s newest book, Blackfishing the IUD (165 pages; Wolfman Books), she states the simple truth that we have already learned, have already felt and suffered with, over the course of our engagement with this work: “Reading is ruining my life.” Recounting her own experience with medical gaslighting, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the copper intrauterine device (IUD), and what it means to have metal—a toxic thing, an inflaming thing—placed in the uterus, Beilin’s text is part critique, part personal essay, and part platform for the stories, worries, angers, and generous advice of other affected women. Her voice …Continue reading

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‘People I’ve Met From the Internet’ by Stephen van Dyck: Delight in the Details

Stephen van Dyck’s People I’ve Met From the Internet (151 pages; Ricochet Editions) is the ultimate memoir for the Information Age: a series of extraordinarily personal vignettes derived from a data spreadsheet. The book spans 11 years and takes place in multiple states, mostly roaming the arid space between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. It reads like a grand road trip in the age of dial-up Internet. The book’s earliest pages take the form of a table divided into columns like “REAL NAME,” “SCREEN NAME AT THE TIME WE MET,” and “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT.” When starting …Continue reading

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Q&A with Ross Gay: ‘The Book of Delights’ and an Essay a Day for a Year

Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights (288 pages; Algonquin Books) is a collection of over 100 short essays. The project began as a type of writing exercise: Gay would write one essay about something delightful every day for a year. While the collection doesn’t contain an essay for every single day of that year, and some of the essays might be called more thought-provoking than purely delightful, the book couldn’t be more aptly named. The pieces read at times like prose poetry or journal entries, and they cover a variety of topics, such as a single flower growing out of …Continue reading

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‘What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About,’ edited by Michele Filgate: A Complex Bond

In What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About (288 pages; Simon & Schuster; edited by Michele Filgate), fifteen writers grapple with the unexpected developments and shortcomings of their relationships with their mothers. In her introduction, Filgate explains that while each individual essay is an achievement in itself, together they work to address the ways we tend to idealize our mothers, as well as reflect honestly on the imperfect relationships we forge (and sometimes end) with them over the course of our lives: Acknowledging what we couldn’t say for so long, for whatever reason, is one way to heal our …Continue reading

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A Balance Between Cultures: ‘How to Write an Autobiographical Novel’ by Alexander Chee

In his first nonfiction collection, award-winning novelist, poet, and journalist Alexander Chee offers a reflective look at his life in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (288 pages; Mariner Books). From his time in Mexico learning high school-level Spanish to his undergrad days at Wesleyan, and later the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, as well as his AIDs activism in San Francisco, the book is a well-orchestrated chronicle of a life well-lived. Growing up as a Korean American, Chee often struggled with his identity and felt awkward in public, as when his long hair caused him to be mistaken as a girl, …Continue reading

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Endless Fascination: Q&A with ‘L.A. Man’ Author Joe Donnelly

You can’t accuse Joe Donnelly of taking it easy. In a decades-spanning career, the Los Angeles writer has profiled the “who’s who” of Hollywood—from America’s sweetheart Drew Barrymore to iconoclast filmmaker Werner Herzog—in the pages of publications like L.A. Weekly, where he served as deputy editor for a number of years. During that time, his short stories have earned him an O. Henry Prize (“Bonus Baby,” from ZYZZYVA No. 103) and have been adapted into short films. Donnelly also co-founded and co-edited Slake, a short-lived but highly acclaimed journal that gathered journalism, fiction, poetry, and art, all with a distinctly …Continue reading

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Writing History: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates will be the first to tell you that his road to becoming a celebrated essayist, author, and staff writer at The Atlantic began with failure. Failure to keep a job. Failure to graduate college. Failure to write exactly what he felt needed to be said. So begins his recent essay collection, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (Random House, 367), which, contrary to Coates’ inauspicious start, cements his reputation as a gifted, iconoclastic writer and serves as required reading for anyone concerned about how, and when, black lives have (not) mattered in American history. The …Continue reading

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Deep, Deep into a Self: ‘Too Much and Not the Mood’ by Durga Chew-Bose

Too Much and Not the Mood is Durga Chew-Bose’s first essay collection, though Chew-Bose’s writing has been getting published for many years now. Known for her BuzzFeed Reader essay “How I Learned to Stop Erasing Myself,” Chew-Bose’s name has appeared in the same circles as other feminist hipster writers based in New York like Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson, and Jazmine Hughes. She is also one of the founders of Writers of Color, a collective of feel-good-yet-aestheticized-sadness progressive writers out on the East Coast. Melancholy, nostalgia, wistfulness, wishful thinking, or the lethargy of a warm summer afternoon are constants in Too …Continue reading

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‘Pain and Loneliness in Equal Measure’: Q&A with Peter Orner

Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (316 pages, Catapult)—which concerns Orner’s favorite stories, the lives of their authors as well as Orner’s own—has a modest subtitle. It suggests the essays in the collection, which was recently named a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, are rough, unfinished. (One of the essays in the collection, “Since the Beginning of Time,” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 107.) Because Orner maintains this Midwestern-like self-deprecating tone throughout the book, his intellectual rigor might catch you off guard. He takes stories—telling them, reading them—very seriously. …Continue reading

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Thwarted Pilgrimage: ‘White Sands’ by Geoff Dyer

There are a few different types of ignorance at work in Geoff Dyer’s new book, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, a collection of essays that combine travel writing and art criticism. One kind is artificial ignorance as an interpretative tool. Often, when he is ignoring information, sloughing off context on which another critic might lean all his weight, Dyer (or the genre-bending author’s narrator whom I will call Dyer) is at his sharpest. In “Space in Time,” the author travels to Quemado, New Mexico, to see Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, but he holds off telling us …Continue reading

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