Autumn is bringing us many collections of essays from our literary lions, a fine way to review their eminent careers in this genre. But here are also opportunities to discover voices beyond the canon‚ remember, after all, that every writer begins as an outsider‚ through the annual selection of last year’s best essays and collections by writers who may be less familiar to general readers.
The Best American Essays 2011. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2011. c.272p. ed. by Edwidge Danticat. ISBN 9780547479774. pap. $14.95. LIT
In this year’s entry in the 25-year-old series, first-time editor Danticat (Brother, I’m Dying) insists that essayists, “a bit more vulnerable these days,” must “push beyond certain boundaries, to be less formulaic and stereotypical.” She makes good on her assertion and populates the collection with pieces more lyrical than explanatory, like Hilton Als’s “Buddy Ebsen” and Lia Purpura’s “There Are Things Awry Here.” Don’t be scared off: there are plenty more conventional‚ and admittedly more engaging‚ pieces to read. Charlie LeDuff’s “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” and Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?” provide good, old-fashioned reportage and analysis. Katy Butler’s “What Broke My Father’s Heart,” Toi Derricotte’s “Beds,” Victor La Valle’s “Long Distance,” and Jerald Walker’s “Unprepared” are stellar examples of personal narrative. Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay” pokes fun at the whole enterprise. An enjoyable read with a few hiccups, this title offers a solid survey of the state of the essay genre today.‚ Molly McArdle, Library Journal
Hitchens, Christopher. Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve: Hachette. 2011. c.384p. index. ISBN 9781455502776. $30. LIT
The more than 100 previously published commentaries and book reviews‚ 1999 to the present‚ by this notable columnist, critic, and best-selling author (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) are serious, humorous, and, above all, thought-provoking. Topics range from the political situation in Afghanistan, Iran, and Tunisia to literary criticism of the works of John Updike, J.K. Rowling, and Stieg Larsson. The essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny” contemplates why some women, who have the whole world of men at their feet, put childbirth higher and wit and intelligence lower on their scale of womanhood’s enduring qualities. This leads to an essay on diaper-changing stations in men’s restrooms. Recommended for shrewd readers and writers who enjoy keeping up with today’s lively intellectual arguments, to which Hitchens has contributed so much. [See Prepub Alert, 3/14/11.]‚ Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL
Lethem, Jonathan. The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. Doubleday. Nov. 2011. c.480p. ISBN 9780385534956. $27.95. LIT
Quirky is the best word to describe Lethem’s (Motherless Brooklyn) thoughts about contemporary culture, from science fiction conventions to the music of James Brown, Otis Redding, Rick James, and Bob Dylan. This collection of essays he’s published since 1996 shows how Lethem wrestles with his belief that a writer has a role as a contemporary intellectual. Many of the essays explain how Lethem’s love of books and writing grew from the reading lists of his “city hippie parents” and his own work in used-book stores. This collection will have a wide appeal to all fans of contemporary reading, writing, and song. Writers will appreciate Lethem’s mastery of various forms of the personal essay, all showing his skills as an observer and writer. [See Prepub Alert, 5/2/11.]‚ J.S.
Markoe, Merrill. Cool, Calm & Contentious. Villard: Random. Nov. 2011. c.288p. ISBN 9780345518910. $24. HUMOR
Comedian Markoe, the original head writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, offers funny and frank pieces here on her mother, her dogs, and her love life. After her mother’s death, Markoe found a collection of her mother’s journals written during a time, 1959‚ 89, when her mother did much world traveling. Through her mother’s responses to tourist attractions (Venice’s St. Mark’s Square is “terribly over-decorated”) and reading notes (Oliver Twist was not one of Dickens’s “better works”), Markoe became aware of her mother’s charm. Markoe discusses the 15 dogs she has owned since childhood, seeing them now as “exceedingly cooperative exchange students from another planet.” On a serious note, she writes not only about losing her virginity during her “Berkeley years” but about being raped around that time as well. An exceptional collection of personal essays. [See Prepub Alert, 5/2/11.]‚ J.S.
Sullivan, John Jeremiah. Pulphead: Essays. Farrar. Nov. 2011. c.384p. ISBN 9780374532901. pap. $16. LIT
In this luminous collection of pieces from roughly the last decade, Sullivan (Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son) is always writing from place, family, personal history: his trip to a Christian rock festival reminds him of his own conversion to (and later disillusionment from) evangelism; the body of Bill Sparkman, the census worker who staged his own death, was discovered not far from Sullivan’s ancestral family cabin; naturalist and “cracked Kentucky genius” Constantine Rafinesque grew fat on Sullivan’s “great-&c.”-grandmother’s cooking. Some essays, e.g., the irreverent and electric “Upon This Rock” and “Violence of the Lambs,” veer comic; he reminds one of a more affectionate David Foster Wallace. Yet his more probing, serious pieces‚ “Unnamed Caves,” “Unknown Bards,” and most especially “Mr. Lytle,” which won both a Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award this year‚ are the book’s best. A frequently stunning collection by an exceptional writer, this book will push at the mind and pull in the heart.‚ M.M.
Swados, Elizabeth. Waiting: Selected Nonfiction. Hanging Loose. 2011. 168p. illus. ISBN 9781934909218. pap. $18. LIT
Swados, a five-time Tony nominee, novelist, poet, and children’s book author, collects 18 new and previously published magazine articles and book chapters concerning her creative process as a composer for and director of an adolescent theater group. She calls her writing a process and experience in which she is loving people “on the page” and then reflecting on her observations. Sections titled “Persons of Interest” cover her interactions with Marlon Brandon, Sean Penn, and Meryl Streep. Essays on the more personal side explore her feelings about her brother who attempted suicide by jumping in front of a train. This slim collection shows how far-reaching the human experience can be. A good choice, especially for literary nonfiction collections.‚ J.S.
Trillin, Calvin. Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff. Random. 2011. c.368p. ISBN 9781400069828. $27. HUMOR
That Trillin (Alice, Let’s Eat) suggests in jest that the name Obama summons up “slap yo’ mama” is just one of the attention-getting remarks in this selection of essays and poems from the body of work that has made him a preeminent humorist. While many pieces (from 1971 to the present) focus on American politics, other essays observe aspects of American culture from the Walt Disney Company to Antiques Roadshow, high society, marriage announcements, New York City tourists, and bagels. Tales of Trillin’s childhood and his late wife, Alice Stewart Trillin, are located throughout the collection. Astute readers will appreciate this compilation of witty commentaries. Not much escapes those twinkling eyes. [See Prepub Alert, 3/7/11.]‚ J.S.
Ugresic, Dubravka. Karaoke Culture. Open Letter. 2011. 324p. tr. from Croation by David Williams. ISBN 9781934824573. pap. $15.95. LIT
Novelist, short story writer, and essayist Ugresic was forced to leave the former Yugoslavia in 1993 when she was labeled a traitor. She now lives in Amsterdam. Williams pulled together this collection of her recent (2008‚ 11) pieces during his own work exploring the concept of a literature of Eastern Europe’s ruins. Ugresic’s focus ranges from the “neuroplastic” consciousness of Internet junkies to the idea of the American refrigerator as a symbol of wealth and ease. She continues with strongly expressed opinions about hotel minibars and how karaoke turned from a harmless “bit of fun” to a culture of wannabes. This collection’s appeal may be limited to those interested, like Williams, in the intellectual voices of Eastern European culture.‚ J.S.
Updike, John. Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism. Knopf. Nov. 2011. c.528p. ed. by Christopher Carduff. illus. index. ISBN 9780307957153. $40. LIT
This gathering of Updike’s previously uncollected essays and art/exhibition reviews‚ in a section here called “Gallery Tours”‚ exemplifies his wide range of interests from 1970 onward. He was pulling these pieces together when he died in early 2009. Updike’s comments on the writing of Charles Schulz, Ann Patchett, and Toni Morrison are balanced with observations on Tiger Woods and recollections of a tour of a factory that constructed footballs. (There is probably no baseball here because the pieces have all been previously collected.) The collection enables readers to see with Updike’s wide lens as well as his sharp focus. Essential for large literary collections.‚ J.S.