Book Review

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

May 2, 2016

By Robert Lunday

on After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays edited by David Lazar and Patrick Madden 

The theme most dear to me in Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, indeed my obsessive pursuit when I read them, is what I call “measure.” In the Essays themselves it is more common to find it named otherwise: Constancy, Prognostication, Moderation, even Consolation. All these mark the idea as I conceive it. Erich Auerbach describes measure as “this peculiar equilibrium of his [that] prevents the tragic.” It is seeking the gyroscopic truth in things; struggling to get things right in one’s life or in the world, valuing, loving, and doing neither too much nor too little. Measure, or “balance,” if that seems more apt, may be his main theme and, to illustrate it, his trusted rhetorical pattern.

In the construction of authorial presence, of his frank and intimate self—the element for which he is most renowned—Montaigne reveals this aspect of measure:

But in all seriousness, just as when the arm is raised to strike, it hurts us if the blow does not land and is wasted on the air; also as the sight, to make a pleasant view, must not be lost and led away in the vague reaches of the air, but must have some bound to sustain it at a reasonable distance;

As wind loses its strength, diffused in empty space,
Unless some strong dense wood resists its forward pace;
Lucan

so it seems that the soul, once stirred and set in motion, is lost in itself unless we give it something to grasp; and we must always give it an object to aim at and act on.

(“How the Soul Discharges Its Passions on False Objects When the True Are Wanting” Donald M. Frame translation)

Perhaps we suffer most due to our tendency to go out of balance: as men and women, as nations, as a species, we are too often beyond measure. Montaigne rights us. This is the meaning I seek and find in Montaigne more than any other, and the meaning I settle on when I put down the book and look at the world itself.

In his brief 1942 biography of the essayist, Stefan Zweig observes of Montaigne: “In order to recognize his true worth, you should not be too young, too deprived of experience and life’s deceptions, and it is precisely a generation like ours, cast by fate into the cataract of the world’s turmoil, to whom the freedom and consistency of his thought conveys the most precious aid.” The sentence speaks of, and also enacts, balance.

Other readers of Montaigne express and deploy similar terms of measure. In “On the Periodical Essayists,” which notes Montaigne’s influence on English writers of the eighteenth century, William Hazlitt says, “He was neither a pedant nor a bigot. He neither supposed that he was bound to know all things, nor that all things were bound to conform to what he had fancied or would have them to be.”

In this I see again (looking for it everywhere), the form and content of measure. Even browsing my notes on one of the cyberneticists Anthony Wilden (systems theory being an area of study in my pursuit of the mechanics of measure), I find the author speaking of Montaigne’s “central contradiction between desire (for certainty and solidity) and experience (of doubt and fluidity)” from which, asserts Wilden, the Essays were generated. More recently, philosopher Ann Hartle, author of two books on Montaigne, says: “The movement of Montaigne’s thought is first to open us to the possibility of the strange and foreign, then to lead us back to the familiar and let us see the extraordinary in the ordinary, in the familiar and the common.”

I find similar emphases on the vectoring, balancing, decentering, dialogism, detour, and circumscription that proliferate in and around the Essays in such recent scholars as:

Lawrence Krtizman’s The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne’s Essays, Terence Cave’s How to Read Montaigne, Saul Frampton’s When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?: Montaigne and Being in Touch with Life, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts At An Answer, Jean Starobinski’s Montaigne in Motion, and Hartle’s second Montaigne study, Montaigne and the Origins of Modern Philosophy. Add to this a new English-language edition of Stefan Zweig’s Montaigne, and a Stephen Greenblatt-edited version of John Florio’s Renaissance translations of Montaigne, published as a New York Review Books Classic.

So, reading the Introduction to David Lazar’s and Patrick Madden’s After Montaigne that Montaigne’s influence on writers has suffered in recent years, I find such an assessment to be the one thing about this wonderful anthology that I can’t accept. After Montaigne is an important addition to a solid and growing collection of new works devoted to the French essayist, his writings, his influence, and his importance now and in times past.

The main organizing principle of the collection is borrowed from popular music: the “cover,” or the practice of one musician redoing a song by another. The hope is, the editors write, that “these essays . . . envision Montaigne’s topics through a contemporary sensibility.” Furthermore, in Lazar and Madden’s general outlook, and frequently in the essays themselves, one finds that emphasis is given to Montaigne’s work because it is relevant to our society as saturated as it is with popular culture—the Self, one might say, in the extremities of imbalance.

2.

The essayists in After Montaigne react to a particular one of the Essays, provide an epigraph from the original, and attach a coda wherein they write about creative processes, their assessment of the result, and their thoughts on Montaigne and his influence. Some authors deliberately attempt a close borrowing of Montaigne in one or more of his points of style, structure, or form. Others, passing over the essay they have chosen, address the theme bywriting an essay that owes little to Montaigne’s original.

David Lazar’s own contribution takes on the Address to the Reader with which Montaigne opens Book 1 of the Essays. Lazar opens in a manner more intimate, though perhaps meant to tweak the idea of intimate address. Considerably longer than Montaigne’s original, it opens with a self-conscious familiarity, seductiveness, and playfulness that’s meant to slap a postmodern, pop-culture brand on the effort, as if the sixties were our “now” in his song citations. “My own jumpy, interruptive style,” as Lazar describes it, spiraling and fading, doing and undoing the “I” of the essay.

So that we might take his overly-intimate address, an almost creepy, fern-bar pick-up presence of Lazar’s persona, he deliberately overbalances and, thus, marks for us the more temperate, and yet much more authentic, direct-but-still-formal address in the original. Lazar gradually leaves it behind, and the intimacy he establishes with his reader is the closeness of books—dropping lines that echo such well-known volumes as Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him”). The echo, the parody, creates the space we share and, more importantly, suggests the towering library of Montaigne’s inventions and comforts, which other contributors also note.

Of the twenty-eight authors, I find the following dozen worthy of particular analysis.

3.

E.J. Levy, author of the recent short story collection Love, In Theory, selects “Of Liars.” She takes on Montaigne’s self-deprecatory and recurrent confession that he possesses a very poor memory. Of course, this irony recallshis dedication to speaking only the truth: liars must possess a strong memory if they are to maintain their performance. “There is no man who has less business talking about memory. For I recognize almost no trace of it in me, and I do not think there is another one in the world so monstrously deficient.” At the start “Of Liars,” Montaigne frames the indeterminacy of the topic with his inadequacy in addressing it. Levy cleverly reduces Montaigne’s version of this to a simple “I forget” as her first sentence.

She balances well an imitation of the Master and striking out on her own. As in other entries in the collection, she makes a point of drawing our eye to the present moment by such gestures as name dropping Bernie Madoff and taking out her iPhone (ubiquitous emblem of our moment, but also, increasingly, the tablet of memory). The voice in her essay, however, is moderate and focused on identifying the aphoristic truths that remind us of Montaigne’s style: “‘Forgive and forget’ gets the matter wrong, backwards,” she tells us. And: “I want the lie that binds,” a tidy pun not terribly Montaignesque by itself, but one that scores within its figuration the topos of measure. In her coda, Levy calls her essay a “gentle corrective” of the original, which she finds disappointing (a few of the essayists make a point of distancing themselves from Montaigne in this way: he is confusing or too dry, in addition to being too disappointing, for some). Her own version, she says, is written not in praise of lying, but “in complication of its contemplation”—or, I would say, its indeterminacy, its attempt at measure.

Lia Purpura’s cover, “Of Prayers,” is less so than most of the other essays in After Montaigne. Through a series of fragmented scenes delivered in her lyric style, Purpura—a poet who has authored beautifully poetic prose works such as Increase, On Looking, and Rough Likeness—reimagines a horrible crime in her essay: a father’s murder of his family, of which one member had been Purpura’s student. Hers is a tangential writing-away from Montaigne.No pastiche, it veers from the titular subject, prayer and its occasions. In her coda, Purpura calls the original of Montaigne’s a “tonic” to her own, more chaotic method of writing. But both she and Montaigne seem less focused on defining or locating prayer as an act, and more on limning its otherwise ineffable presence: prayer as a tentative and hard-to-calibrate location device in a mutilated world.

Mary Cappello’s brief but enjoyable “Of Thumbs” is a bit longer than its model, but works deftly within a form we readily associate with Montaigne: the gathering of facts and anecdotes on the topic, updated to our Internet era (with another iPhone reference), loosely arranged, but not so randomly as we might at first think. The thumb in Cappello’s cover is re-gendered toward the female in her assemblage of thumb-thimble details. The assorted facts add up, as in Montaigne’s original, toward a symbolic resonance and depth, faithful to the literal thumb, but also reflective of the author’s perceptive eye through which we arrive at a small self-portrait. In Cappello’s cover, the attempt at measuring out and refitting the original effort leads to a delightful treasury, a “thumbery” system that allegorizes thumb-elements according to the Seven Deadly Sins.

Among the essays here, brief as it is, Cappello’s effort succeeds better than most at balancing pastiche of, or homage to, Renaissance/Humanist sensibilities and our postmodern times. Her occasional anachronisms (“when I asked my physic”) are not overdone, but rather perforate the essay slightly to make it seem a delicate pentimento of the earlier essay. (In her coda, Cappello calls it a “channeling” of Montaigne). Though most English readers no doubt access Montaigne through his translators—Frame, Screech, Cotton, or Florio—and since all these versions measure out so well the rhythms and rhetorical arcs of the original, it must be difficult to resist carrying over these effects in one’s imitations. Virginia Woolf’s “Montaigne” in The Common Reader: First Series is a stylistic echo of its subject as well as a succinct introduction to Montaigne himself.

4.

Wayne Koestenbaum (suitably, see his wonderfully pungent Humiliation or Cleavage as examples) takes on Montaigne’s “Of Smells.” The body and its traces frequently frame the subject matter in Koestenbaum’s writings; and here, as in several of his other essays, he constructs his observations and confessions within “blips”—brief, discrete paragraphs that add up mainly through the consistently frank and sometimes mordant perceptions they convey. Smell is a frame for confession and sensuality, but also for the ineffable nature of memory; the measure in this piece abides in rendering so well the balance between body and soul, literal and figurative. Like most other contributors, Koestenbaum brings Montaigne into the modern age via deft phrases. Referring to Montaigne’s musings on his own mustache, Koestenbaum imagines that it “was Velcro to visiting aromas.” High art and pop culture contribute equally to the texture. It’s gossip—but the effect is to create a volubility, a flow, and it enacts transience or, to more properly name it, death.

Danielle Cadena Deulen, like Koestenbaum and Purpura, a poet and essayist, covers “How the Soul Discharges Its Emotions Against False Objects When Lacking Real Ones,” which, in her hands, becomes one of the more stylistically successful experiments in After Montaigne. It is a short exercise—one longish paragraph—that mutates through expansive phrases, swallowing much, but achieves a strategic stream-of-consciousness nonetheless. The paragraph holds together and careers forward without faltering; its method of measure balances Deulen’s observations of inside or mental phenomena with those of the outside world. As she tells us in the coda, Deulen sought to recreate “the architecture” of Montaigne’s thought, “allowing in the deviations and even the possible dead ends.” Deulen’s verbal arc is “from hallucination to vision”; it is not a cover of Montagne’s sentences, but her employing one of his “rhetorical trajectories.”

Nicole Walker’s “Of Constancy” blends historical study of the railroad and its eclipse with the author’s own personal history of travel. Through the balance of figure and symbol, we see something like the allegory of the rails (and the automobile after) as it refracts our own mortality. Emerson, in his study of Montaigne, refers to the Essays as “an entertaining soliloquy,” but other critics consider them to be more conversational. However different the style of a contemporary essayist like Walker is, it is worth noting the way certain topics, and certain angles into a topic, are more inherently conversational than we might expect. We, fellow motorists and train buffs, know well the landscapes drawn in this essay, which she partially maps. Following her mind as Montaigne follows his, Walker muses upon the rut/route/routine of her subject, allowing it to lift itself into metaphor:

The war with the self is the most brutal war. Is there anything more heavy than the re-collection of track by the industry that laid them down? Railroad ties resold at the local nursery as landscaping tools. Spikes melted down into wheelbarrows. Tracks themselves pressed into service as dumpsters and graffiti canvas. A railroad industry cannibalized by a transportation industry. Pulling up tracks is sentimental. Can you turn old business into a new garden?

We end our journey thus: “The rut is less of a route. You’re going so slow you might actually get somewhere.” In Montaigne’s original, war is the subject through which constancy is pursued; in Walker’s version, it’s the hardware of trains and tracks, balancing “the desire for sameness, the desire for change.”

Steven Church’s “Of Idleness” dwells upon the meaning of “loitering” that updates the original theme by exploring its recent political dimensions. Starting with a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr., forcefully placed under arrest in a courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama, Church provides a history of how merely being idle results in a criminal charge. From here, the essay meditates on the ways space, particularly in modern America, has been claimed by the powerful, and Montaigne’s role in situating the “placement” of the authentic self in that space. Thus, King’s defiance of the law merely by waiting in a courthouse or disenfranchised adolescents breaking anti-loitering codes. “Loitering, then, as an idea is as undefined, abstract, and subjective as happiness or suffering,” Church observes. It is also a fine realignment of Montaigne’s somewhat more allegorical study of idleness as a behavior (or non-behavior) in the context of sinfulness as well as a good example of how Montaigne’s influence is not merely a matter of style or structure but is rooted in the patterns of thought we expect from good essays.

Robert Atwan, best known as the founding editor of the Best American Essays series, devotes much of his essay studying Montaigne’s original: the lengthy “On Some Verses of Virgil,” called “Of Sex, Embarrassment, and Miseries” in Atwan’s cover. Along the way, Atwan folds in much of the voice, attitude, and purpose one finds in the Montaigne original as if it were entirely his own. An older man confesses frankly of his attractions, his sexuality through a show-and-tell of his own hobby-like scribblings of metrical verse. Showing us these verses, and the ways sexual attraction has continued into his later years, Atwan conjures effortlessly Montaigne’s frank, personal, meditations on his own body and its faults. Atwan draws on his knowledge of the essays overall for not only the model he’s covering but also his reading the same Latin authors whose lines populate the Essays so densely.

Moreover, he pulls Montaigne into our time, as many of the contributors do, by focusing on the gendering impulse in Montaigne’s chosen figures. Drawing upon James Grantham Turner’s observations, Atwan argues that Montaigne intends the essay as “a flow of female chatter . . . opposed to the ‘virile’ forceful style of the Latin poets.”

5.

One of the more enjoyable entries in After Montaigne, “Of Solitude,” is by Chris Arthur, the Irishman known for his fine prose on environmental themes. In much of his nonfiction, Arthur blends erudition with observation and personal narrative. Here, working that same method, he discovers a complex balance between inner and outer, figurative and literal. Arthur recalls the common experience of boys riding bikes, crafting his emblem as he describes replacing the usual speedometer that other children attached to their bikes with a cyclometer (or an odometer, as we Americans call it). Arthur moves back and forth across his triangulating points: discussing scholars’ observations on Montaigne and his work; narrating a childhood experience; and presenting his reflections on mortality and time. The cyclometer, along the way, is established as a charged emblem of measure: “We all start with the corporeal equivalent of the cyclometer’s virgin zeros.”

Elena Passarello’s essay, “The Ceremony of the Interview of Princes,” is the most playful and among the more experimental in the collection. Though it could easily have seemed flip, she converts the titular prince into the artist formerly (and once again) known as Prince. Her effort is through assiduous research—hundreds of pages of interviews with the rock star, she says—from which she weaves a virtuoso exploration of styles, voices, and effects. It is true to Montaigne in its perceptiveness and mutation of theme with the larger focus, but also true to Prince himself as the mercurial, captivating, complicated object of Passarello’s temporary obsession. Her goal, Passarello says in her coda, was “to score one man’s persona to the other man’s ‘music.’” Both the rock star and the sixteenth-century essayist are men of contradictions, multiple in their personae: “Prince R. Nelson, like Michel E. de Montaigne, is not a cat interested in staying on one message.”

Maggie Nelson’s cover is somewhat in the mode of her study, The Art of Cruelty, which develops its theme as well through a Montaignesque blend, balancing theory, history, and observation. In her cover essay of “We Can Savour Nothing Pure,” Nelson, in a manner similar to Church comparing idleness as a sin to loitering as criminality, updates impurity by looking at breastfeeding and toxicity: “nourishing must be done by people who are impure.” Her experience as a nonsmoker waiting tables in a smoky Brooklyn bar is apropos. Meditating on the theme of toxicity Nelson quotes contemporary writers whose recent thinking draws on Montaigne’s perceptions. She cites philosopher Judith Butler, who observes of some people that it is better “to be enthralled with what is impoverished or abusive than not to be enthralled at all and so to lose the condition of one’s being and becoming.”

6.

The final entry is, appropriately, by Phillip Lopate. He is the godfather of the contemporary American essay whose efforts as editor (see his indispensable The Art of the Personal Essay) and essayist put to bed the idea that Montaigne’s influence has waned in our time. Lopate, who has made his own frank self-assessment in so many essays, covers the final piece in Montaigne’s three-volume Essays, “Of Experience.” Lopate’s work is mainly about the idea of experience but also about Montaigne’s essay, Lopate’s life, and his reading. This living through books reveals itself on several levels: “Montaigne, like Goethe, had the knack—some would say the bad taste—of benefiting from his experience at every stage of life and achieving a calm, benign perspective with age. Which I can’t entirely seem to do.” It is not a pretended self-deprecation, if one has read Lopate’s essays through the years and gotten to know him through the writing.

A bit further on, he announces: “I look back at all that has happened to me and it seems as though it were practically nothing.” How many writers of any age could author such words without our hearing them as a grown man whining? But we do not, I think, because in the context of the essay, and in the context of the writer’s body of work, it is heard more as a perception about lost time as the central phenomenon of our lives. That so much has passed, that it seems almost nothing to have lived to this point, is a stunning fact. This is the valedictory piece—for the collection, not the essayist, though he attempts to take measure of his oeuvre in the midst of writing: “I wonder if this will be my last essay.” It is meta-writing of a different sort: Lopate talking to us about the essay he is writing, as he writes it, and, within the layers of textuality, Montaigne himself: “I do not portray being: I portray passing.” That famous line from “Of Repentance” defines the central attitude of Lopate’s cover.

Years—no, decades ago—when I was a graduate student in Houston, I housesat for Phillip Lopate while he was in New York, where he decided (I think during that same visit home) to return for good. He asked me to pack his household items, of which the main effort and most glorious pleasure was taking out and boxing the thousands of volumes in his library. My own library at that stage of my life was small enough to fit in some duffel bags and maybe a few boxes to ship ahead of me. Lopate’s was a vast collection, but also smart and telling, in the most intimate way, of a man’s life and mind. It took me a long time to pack up because most of the works—the novels, in particular—were representative of foreign literatures, aesthetic schools, and writers I was unaware of. Seeing books in people’s apartments in New York, where I had gone to college a few years earlier, had been an amazement—walls of books, where people lived!—but Lopate’s books taught to the hand, from their spines, and, like movies (a significant category in his collection), taught to the intellect, as I flipped through them, slowly packing them one by one like live cargo.

Experience! Lopate pulls down several of those books in his essay. He does so in the casual, occasioned manner of those who live by words. But also, he opens up the book of himself with the same apparent casualness: “It seems I won’t have sex with a man in this lifetime. Experience has taught me to honor my indifference and cowardice both.” The movement in such a pair of sentences is indicative of the leaps he takes without really altering the tone or the control of voice in the essay. Is it somber? Brooding? Silly? Nostalgic? Those, and many more nodes on the emotional spectrum. We move with his mind, trusting its perceptions and memories, and the argument is both the breadth and depth or a life—or, at least feels so, within the pages.

But, in closing, Lopate reminds us that we hardly know him; that the loose series of segmented passages don’t add up to the man who gets up to pee between six and six-thirty every morning; that he might hate to lie, but he is still a mystery. As are we.

 

After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays 

by David Lazar and Patrick Madden
The University of Georgia Press
$32.95 hardcover | Buy Now!

 


Robert Lunday is the author of Mad Flights (Ashland Poetry Press, 2002) and the forthcoming prose-poem sequence Gnome (Black Sun Lit). He is at work on a hybrid memoir called “Fayettenam,” a series of meditations on the presence of missing persons. He teaches at Houston Community College and lives on a small horse farm with his wife, Yukiko.

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That epigraph, referring to “locked rooms” and to matters of the heart, unsettled and quickened my interest in Kandel’s memoir.

Sonnet 29: Word for Word

By Cyndie Zikmund
The Fact of Memory is an unusual prose experiment. Using Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29,” which begins with the famous line, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” the author Aaron Angello takes each word of the sonnet, 114 in total, and uses each word as a springboard for a short ruminative essay. He writes a single page of prose, 114 in total, which become the book’s chapters, the single words the chapter titles.

As a daily regimen, Angello savored, absorbed, and meditated on the impact the word had on him, then wrote his thoughts out in a sort of altered state of consciousness. The result is a meditation on life and memory that is sometimes directly related to the word being studied, the sonnet itself, or, at other times, the process the project inspired.

The Writer-on-Writer Memoir

By Thomas Larson
Emerging in the midlife of the ongoing memoir explosion is what is variously called the bibliomemoir, the memoir/biography, or the writer-on-writer memoir. I like all three but the third type comes, I think, closest to a book that engages with a writer of central importance in one’s personal life and who deserves a paean of sorts to say and show how and why. It’s a book that ostensibly is about the other author, often borne out via the title— My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, referring, of course, to George Eliot’s masterpiece: note the my—but it really should cover one’s shared experience via the (usually) dead author’s work and a profound self-discovery that experience has hailed. “I could not have known myself fully without having read X.” I’m intrigued by these books, one, in particular, from 2020, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland.

The House That Rape Built

By Emily Waples
CW: Rancher is an essay with rape. This is not to say that Selah Saterstrom’s Rancher is an essay in which rape happens, or that rape is a peripheral event. I use the phrase “with rape” rather than “about rape” to acknowledge Saterstrom’s own assertion of purpose: “This essay isn’t working towards anything,” she writes. “It is a being-with. It is trying to be with something.”

This enduring presence is no small feat, especially when—as Saterstrom intimates by way of, or rather in lieu of, closure—the dominant cultural narrative is that which comes after: the meaning-of, the healing-from, the accounting-for, the reckoning-with. An essay itself, Saterstrom notes, is conceptualized as motion: it turns, we say. But being-with substitutes suspension for motion: it abides, resides. And Saterstrom is preoccupied with one residence in particular, as she announces in the essay’s first line: “My rapist bought a house with a swimming pool in El Paso.”

Attention Maximally Paid

By Sebastian Matthews
I must admit, before reading Supremely Tiny Acts, I hadn’t read Sonya Huber’s work. When the book arrived on my doorstep recently, I wasn’t sure about its context. Did I order it? Had someone sent it to me as a gift? Was it an advanced reader’s copy? I read the first few pages with mild curiosity; and, enjoying what I read, I put the slim, key-lime green book on my things-to-read pile and promptly forgot about it.

Celebration and Lamentation in Place and Time

By Robert Root
The back cover of Robert Miltner’s Ohio Apertures asserts that the book’s “brief pieces of creative nonfiction” include “flash memoir, lyric essays, narrative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, travel writing, and historical excavations of place.” In the text no selections are identified with those labels, leaving readers free to apply some themselves as they read. Having skipped that back cover, I read the book first and enjoyed the range of writing it displayed but had to decide for myself about its organization.

Robert Miltner is best known as a prose poet and most of the pieces here reflect in their brevity the concentrated lyricism of his poetry even as their perspectives are expanded and enhanced.

Meditative, Lyric, Useful: Two New Books on Writing

By Marcia Meier
From Michigan and Milkweed come two new books about writing, personal explorations on self, identity, and nonfiction form. Brenda Miller’s A Braided Heart features lovely meditations on her life and the craft of writing. Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory is a stirring series of letters to her forbears, her children, and her mentors on writing, in tandem with meditations on silence and grief. Chang’s writings accompany collages made from diverse graphic elements: photos, marriage certificates, and other artifacts from her parents and grandparents’ lives in China and in the United States, the textured layout also revealing her reflections as a visual artist.

The Weight of Grief Goes Round and Round

By Penny Guisinger
Tarn Wilson’s memoir in essays, In Praise of Inadequate Gifts, has things to teach us about unusual topics. For example, the first essay teaches us about teeth. Some people’s teeth arrive on schedule and behave the way they’re supposed to, but some don’t. Teeth fall out and get lost. Teeth require nurturing and care. Teeth can disappoint. And speaking of unusual topics, the second essay teaches us about assembling circuit boards. Circuits are “Pretty striped glass beads with wires on the ends, stamped with little numbers” and “black rectangles with curved legs like centipedes.” Arranging and soldering them in place on green, plastic boards is careful work, and even when you follow the instructions you can get burned if you’re not careful. Like teeth, circuits are sleek jewels that are supposed to conform.

Noticing as Rebellion, as Resistance

By Emily Dillon
Dara McAnulty, an environmental activist from Northern Ireland, may not yet be an American household name like his peer Greta Thunberg, but he certainly stands among the most accomplished champions of the environmental movement today. In his new book, Diary of a Young Naturalist, McAnulty, who is seventeen and lives with autism, writes autobiographically about environmental conservation and activism. The diary entries, written during his thirteenth year, ultimately build an impressive collection that reads as reminiscent of McAnulty’s age and far beyond his years. He maintains a childlike wonder in his descriptions of nature while offering mature perceptions of other people that challenge even the most ardent stereotypes of autism.

We Don’t Know Their Names. But We Know Their Character.

By Katy Major
David Lazar’s latest collection, The Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, is an artfully attuned set of essays that analyzes the delightful nuances of cinema’s Golden Age and the author’s love of its movies. The book’s slim black rectangle is screen-like, and it sits, dark and strangely velvety in one’s hands—a diminutive, dense piece on an expansive topic, rich with possibility, like the moment before an artist’s vision is revealed. A microcosm and a world. From the cover, too, a gleam: Celeste Holm’s level gaze meeting ours, her lit eyes enigmatic and beckoning as Eckleburg’s eyes from the cover of The Great Gatsby.

Big Ideas in Bite-Sized Essays

By Rebekah Hoffer
Jason Schwartzman’s first book, No One You Know, contains sixty-two essays—many of them just a few paragraphs long—in a concise 155 pages. Each tiny essay in this fragmented collection illustrates a brief, memorable interaction with a stranger, creating the effect of a photo collage. Settings and characters pass by rapidly. We are invited to eavesdrop on Schwartzman’s meandering examinations of the world, gleaning small epiphanies as he interacts with strangers. Three consecutive essays, for instance, feature a struggling actress on a long bus ride, a scientist giving a presentation about whales, and a pickup basketball game with nameless men. Most of the people in this book, in fact, are nameless. The author refers to them instead by how he knows them: “the boogeyman of our building,” “someone I bumped into on the street,” or “a Chinese man on the phone.”

We Might As Well Die Laughing

by David MacWilliams
To look backward and to look around now are equally valid; his main goal is to bear witness to the environmental evils we’ve inflicted on ourselves, and on a much smaller scale, to record some of the kindnesses we’re still capable of.

Essays All: However We Decide To Collect Them

by Beth Alvarado
I love essays in all their permutations however we decide to collect them and whatever we come to call them: memoir in essays, essay cycle, essay collection, book-length-essay. When writers use these terms descriptively, they are useful in figuring out how the parts relate to one another and to the whole book.

Exorcising, Freeing, and Healing Trauma

by Krystal Sierra
Tromblay’s account shifts in time between his childhood at Fond du Lac Reservation to his early days in boot camp as a private in the Armed Forces. Time shifts from one chapter to the next, seemingly haphazard as memory does while theme builds on theme and increases in intensity chapter by chapter.

Next Stop, Middle-Aged Fatherhood

by Cyndie Zikmund
By the fourth essay in the book, I realized, this was not simply a meditation on uncomfortable truths and mythic delusions. It was also, at times, an insightful demonstration of the craft of writing personal essays, experimenting with form, tone, and structure, and providing guideposts for other writers when crafting their work artistically.

The People We Once Were

by Mark Neely
Though her former doctors may have questioned her trustworthiness, Sawchyn’s readers should have no such concerns. She is a highly likeable, piercingly honest narrator of her own story, unafraid to shine light on her worst moments, or to celebrate her best.

Meditative Naturalist, Intimate Essayist, Visionary Author

by Robert Root
Elements of memoir run through most essays—reflections on Sanders’ upbringing, his youth, his intimate surroundings. His reflections on the nature of beauty, in “Useless Beauty,” originate from the shell of a chambered nautilus, purchased at a flea market thirty years earlier by his mother.

Reckoning with Not-Knowing

by Joanna Eleftheriou
Together, these two exceptional works of nonfiction help us deepen our grasp on one of the hardest human truths to learn: we must absorb as much knowledge as we can, but no matter how hard we seek, we know very little for sure.

What It Means to Bless

by Debbie Hagan
Throughout The Blessing, Orr guides readers with a steady, searching, contemplative voice. He combs the past for meaning—not just how it pertains to the deaths of his brothers and mother, but small moments in life, such as a flicker of grief on his father’s face.

The Cadence of an Individual Heartbeat

by Tarn Wilson
Her themes, likewise, are not merely intellectual, but vulnerable, human—our essential loneliness and longing for connection. Naturally, McClanahan, new to the city, is lonely, but we soon learn that she has touched loneliness before.

Bathing (Again) at 9600 Feet

by Jill Christman
There are moments in these essays that aren’t for the squeamish or those who prefer to look away. Winograd holds us by the scruffs of our necks and turns our faces to look, and not just once, at the dead and the dying, over and over—trees, birds, calves, fathers—until we have some chance of seeing with her.

Relighting the Candle

by Renée E. D'Aoust
In Sonja Livingston’s The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the author is drawn to explore her youth in the Catholic Church. She longs to return to the intertwined experience of childhood and faith when the two were inseparable.

How to Save Yourself in Nine Steps

by Deborah Hall
I was so immersed in Judith Sara Gelt’s memoir Reckless Steps Toward Sanity about her life growing up in a Denver neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s that I kept entering a time warp. It’s not fair to Gelt’s story that my own memories of living during the same era kept flashing through.

Haunted by Sandy Hook

by Joy Gaines-Friedler
Carol Ann Davis’s collection of nine essays is a memoir, a treatise on aesthetic expression, and a philosophical journey through the aftermath of what was, in 2012, the deadliest school shooting in American history. Her son Willem, seven at the time, was at Hawley Elementary, one mile away from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Scholar’s Sensibility, Poet’s Eye

by Robert Root
We know what she sees, what she feels, what she comprehends, what she discovers; we come away from the reading with a fuller, richer sense of who she is and what she gains from being in the world; and we value being in her company.

A Tragic History. Its Legacy Still Troubled.

by Richard Goodman
For me, this is the ultimate strength of Siberian Exile: the dramatization of an Oedipus-like weight many of us feel about what our parents and grandparents have imbued us with, through deeds, blood, or both. We are what they were, to some extent, no matter what we do.

Their Home Is Not Here

by Lindsay Hickman
This book is about the people who try and find a way around the gates, the rules, the barriers of language, culture, dialect, and borders to create a life for themselves and their families.

Make Present the Experience of the Other: Three Memoirs of Political Witness

by Glen Retief
At its apex, the memoir of political witness, like its poetic sibling, transcends simple confessionalism or historic documentation to provide a window into what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself” and what Forché names as a “wound” in consciousness, where “language breaks, becomes tentative, interrogational, kaleidoscopic.”

Michael Steinberg: A Remembrance and a Review

by Thomas Larson
The surprise of thinking about his evolution as a writer requires some speculative closure. I don’t believe any of us who knew Mike’s avidity with creative nonfiction really understood how he wrenched himself out of baseball and into a literary art. I understand only now that he’s gone how vexed he was by this transition.

tree outline on grainy wood

Feral Youth, Fast Cars, and Fraught Love

By Brandel France de Bravo
While billed as a memoir, Knock Wood, winner of the 2018 Dzanc Nonfiction Prize, is more akin to a theme-and-variations composition: Think love-child of early Bruce Springsteen and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. An acclaimed poet, Militello tells her story in twenty-nine discrete essays that mostly eschew chronology.

yellow and orange circle

The Biology of Flesh and Bone

By Detrick Hughes
In To Float in the Space Between , Terrance Hayes writes, “One’s poetics should be liquid.” Before grabbing hold of that line, I had already dipped into this book’s structure, a dialogue between Hayes, Etheridge Knight’s life and his poetry, and interviews and stories by writers acquainted with Knight’s work.

Cartoon anatomical heart

Many Lives, Many Bodies

By Katy Major
Be with Me Always is Randon Billings Noble’s first book, although she has been a celebrated essayist for at least a decade now. In 2008 Noble published “War Weary from a Dangerous Liaison” in The New York Times’s Modern Love column, retitled here as “Ambush.” The piece recounts Noble’s reaction to a jolting Valentine’s Day email from a contentious past lover and how the potential of a path not chosen can haunt us irresistibly.

flame

One Word Says It All

By Jenna McGuiggan
Where—or what—is your hearth of hearths? Where is the place you feel most alive or connected? What is the thing that reminds you who you are and to what (or whom) you belong? In all the world, what do you call home? These are some of the questions that Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor pondered as they edited  Hearth: A Global Conversation on Identity, Community, and Place .

swimmer underwater

Shapes Shifted, Senses Altered, Values Freely Wheeled

By Thomas Larson
There may be no more startling way to bait readers into an essay than this: “Is there a word for the unsettling sensation of sitting down on an unexpectedly warm toilet seat, because someone used it just before you and sat there for a good long while? Maybe something in German?”

Grounded and Discomfited: Women in the West

By Ana Maria Spagna
Visit Whitman Mission National Historic Site outside of Walla Walla, Washington, on a fall day, and you see golden rolling hills against rich blue sky. Bright clouds float toward flat-topped ridges lined with windmills. The scenery stretches spacious and bucolic and belies the bloody past. Here, on November 29, 1847, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, a doctor and his missionary wife, and eleven others were famously massacred.

Keeping Connected to the Natural World

By Robert Root
Most days my wife and I read a book aloud at dinnertime and we each read a book silently at bedtime. Sometimes one book reverberates with the other, cumulatively expanding our consciousness. That happened when we read Hope Jahren’s  Lab Girl  together and I read Elizabeth Rush’s  Rising  over the same period. 

Every Time I Read Him, I Feel Smarter

By Judith Sara Gelt
Since the 2016 election, most of us have made up our minds about President Donald J. Trump. He’s either shrewd or incompetent. And, as a human being, either noble or immoral. Thus, according to polls (and my family’s political rifts), these dichotomies have left us with our nation’s “great divide.”

Resisting the Bright Shining Epiphany

By Tarn Wilson
Karen Babine’s All the Wild Hungers  captures the disorientation we feel when faced with this most ordinary, yet extraordinary, of shocks: the mortality of those dearest to us. Intellectually, we know we all must die, but when the reality of death hovers over our own families, our foundation trembles. When Babine’s mother is diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, Babine feels untethered.

The Limits of Ownership, The Vagaries of Possession

By Jessie van Eerden
Sarah Viren's debut collection explores the concept of ownership. It begins with an essay on the ownership of material goods—the narrator’s landlord lends her the furniture that belongs to a man on trial for murder. The essays that follow ask what it means to own one’s body, one’s family members, one’s language, even one’s story that is inextricably intertwined with the stories of others.

Blamed No More

By Ann Piper
Heartland, by journalist Sarah Smarsh, already a nonfiction finalist for the 2018 National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, is a multigenerational account of a hardworking family caught in the systemic forces that perpetuate the unknown and disdained Americans who are sometimes called "white trash."

It’s Not Marriage. It’s the Husbands

By Eric Farwell
In her debut memoir,  For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, Laura Esther Wolfson, an American essayist and Russian translator for the PEN World Voices Festival, has written a complex book about three interacting subjects: her Jewish heritage, marriage to a Russian man, and her difficulties as a translator of Russian literature.

Making Violence Holy

By Thomas Larson
D’Aoust and Larson reflect on the structure, style, and meaning of Scott-Coe’s research-based prose meditation on the mass murderer Charles Whitman. The ex-Marine sniper killed his mother and wife as well as more than a dozen people from the University of Texas Tower in Austin on August 1, 1966. But there’s a companion story—that of an alcoholic Catholic priest whose friendship with the killer (he married Whitman and his wife) is also core to the tale.

The Thrill of Narrative Incompleteness

By Jessica Handler
At first glance, the photographic record of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, shows an average town for the time, from 1890 to 1910. The wallpaper was patterned, the furniture solid. Some citizens were old, others young, some were black, others Native American, most were white. The living sang, farmed, posed in their best clothing, played with their children, went on errands. The dead looked out from open coffins in parlors.

Chucking Hail Marys from the Throw Line: On Failing to Define the CNF Chapbook

I'm pretty sure that the day Thomas Larson asked me to write a review of creative nonfiction chapbooks was the same day I said to a room full of people at AWP, "I don't know what a chapbook is." The fact that I was on a panel about chapbooks (and am rumored to have published one) only underscores the truth that I am probably the wrong person for this job. Or, conversely, maybe exactly the right one.

A Failing Body Summons a Restless Mind: A Polio Memoir

By Katharine Coldiron
Sandra Gail Lambert is not interested in being anyone’s inspiration. If this review called her memoir in essays,  A Certain Loneliness , inspiring, the author would recoil. That much is clear from a memorable scene in a laundromat where the author in her wheelchair is doing laundry. A stranger, so intrusive that it’s impossible even to describe her as well-meaning, uses every possible cliché to speak to her. “You are so inspiring,” the stranger says and the essay begins. Just when Lambert thinks she is rid of her, the worst happens:

One Reader’s Homage to Two Dogeared Authors

By Robert Root
The next time you stop by my house, ask to see my copy of Patricia Hampl’s  The Art of the Wasted Day , her most recent book. You may not know that long ago, feeling guilty about writing in the margins of books, I began dogearing pages where the author wrote something I hoped to remember. Some people think that’s as bad as writing in the margins, but I can always turn the corners of the pages back up again.

A Mother’s Tale, An Enabled Son, The Damage Done

By David MacWilliams
Meg McGuire's memoir explores addiction, mental disorder, denial, guilt, and the destructive effects of a parent's love. McGuire narrates events over more than two decades during which her son Ryan suffered frantic rises and falls in mood as well as doomed attempts to combat his addiction to heroin and other substances. On the surface, she examines the damage that bipolar disease and the disease of addiction can wreak upon the patient, the family and those closest to the patient. Most poignantly, she examines the role she played—out of love—as his enabler.

Rooted and Reaching

By Sarah M. Wells
My yoga instructor calls it “rooted and reaching,” that connection between the earthly and the sacred. I am here, even though somewhere in the past, if you’d asked me to shift into downward dog, I would have warned of some foreign demon taking residence in this Christ-saved jar of clay. I am here, on my mat, Christ-filled yet, rooted and reaching.

Cover of The Real Life of the Parthenon by Patricia Vigderman

Art and National Identity

Future ages have indeed wondered at the monuments created in fifth-century Athens, to which Pericles (495-429 BCE) refers in his famous Funeral Oration mourning the first warriors to fall during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Rather than elegizing the fallen soldiers, Pericles, the ruler of Athens, celebrates the accomplishments of the culture for which they fought. Athens was a democracy, after all, and, unlike Sparta, a military city-state. Athens was also in the midst of a great artistic outburst of sculpture, architecture, and literature as the temple to Athena at the Parthenon testifies, an outburst that would be diminished though the course of the war. War, as Pericles anticipated, would encourage the spread of Athenian monuments everywhere.

Houses of Injury and Healing

By Sarah Cheshire
When I was a senior in college, I was lovingly roped into stepping outside my comfort zone and joining a body-positive arts’ collective, curated by my dear friend Lexie. The collective was called “Attention: People with Body Parts.” The mission of the specific initiative I was involved in, Portable Homes, was bodily reclamation: through art, writing, and movement, survivors of domestic violence found ways to reconnect with parts of their bodies that had been impacted by abuse.

The Heart He Hearts Aching Inside Him

By Elizabeth Dark
“EKG,” the prologue to Alex Lemon’s Feverland: A Memoir in Shards, is a one-paragraph list that runs two-and-a-half pages. In it, Lemon records his heart’s electrical activity through a catalogue of the things he “hearts.” The repetition prepares us for a read in which our categories of convenience quit making sense: “I heart the butcher beneath my ribs. I heart it all wrong. I heart no speed limit and flicking my headlights off. I heart swerving beneath the moonlight. I heart the kitchen with the oven baking bread. I heart the midnight inside me, nailholed with starlight.”

Of Poets, Police Dogs, and Their Handlers

By Amber Anderson
While most humans encounter daily stress, how many, given the chance, would volunteer to face their extreme fears? To be a recipient of a violent act, to pursue violent perpetrators, to report on those who confront violence—willingly, courageously—this is the fascinating world of The Dog Lover Unit: Lessons in Courage from the World’s K9 Cops.

The Country Cousin to Love

By Katy Major
When a friend of Kate Carroll de Gutes remarked about how often the positive aspects of others’ lives are mentioned on Facebook, as opposed to the negative, de Gutes, in the essayist’s quintessential way, got to thinking. What her musings sparked is The Authenticity Experiment, de Gutes’ attempt at representing the duality (what she calls “the both/and, the dark/light”) of life as it exists outside of a two-dimensional screen. She challenged herself to write a blog post, representing dark and light both, every day for thirty days. The Authenticity Experiment, a tight 167-page essay collection, is the happy result of that blog. It’s a brave interrogation of the truth and a chronicle of an unusually ambivalent year, which includes the death of both her parents and the celebrated publication of her first essay collection, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. Part of de Gutes’ authenticity is that she does not merely confront the pain she experiences; she is also honest about the fact that, in the midst of it all, she experiences joy.

Slim & Sublime

By Renée E. D'Aoust
In On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser extols the memoir form: “For me, no other nonfiction form goes so deeply to the roots of personal experience—to all the drama and pain and humor and unexpectedness of life.” Zinsser suggests, “What gives [memoirs] their power is the narrowness of their focus.” “Narrowness” means the writer focuses on particular experiences and crafts their moment-to-moment being. Beth Ann Fennelly exemplifies this skill in her newly released slim and sublime Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs.

The Dead Baby Lives

By Marilyn Bousquin
Jennifer Sinor’s birth, which is anything but ordinary, sets up the thematic trajectory of Ordinary Trauma, a coming-of-age memoir that doubles as a father-daughter story. In the opening chapter, titled “The Bucket,” we meet Jennifer’s father in the waiting room of the obstetrics ward of Kingsville County Hospital: “A man used to being in charge, only recently released from his tour of duty in Vietnam where he had served as a legal advisor, he does not wait well.” When the doctor finally “bursts into the waiting room,” it is to tell the expectant father that he must choose between his wife and his baby: Saving one will mean the death of the other. “Faced with the possibility of losing the woman that he loves, the young man chooses his wife. He lets the daughter go.” That decision lands infant Jennifer in a bucket—a literal bucket—where she’s left for dead, the cord still wrapped around her neck, until an older doctor “sees the bucket holding the discarded baby on the floor. . . . From what will forever be known as The Dead Baby Bucket, the doctor pulls the baby out. Though bloody and broken and blue from lack of heat and oxygen, it is breathing. The dead baby breathes.”

Words and Their Users: Wrestling with John D’Agata’s Canonry

By Thomas Larson
I suppose it was inevitable. The age of self-disclosure—memoir writing, celebrity tweets, one-person Broadway shows, jihadist pre-bomb goodbye videos—would give way to one editor’s need to order up a new hegemony for that intractable thing we call the essay. In this case, one I want to prosecute, it’s John D’Agata’s twenty-first-century’s politicized obsession-collection, which Graywolf brought out over the last decade and one-half as a course text, an MFA genre, a private breviary on the essay’s evolution, which of these I’m unsure. Under D’Agata’s leadership (he chairs the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Program), this three-volume opus speaks to the essay’s undiscovered past and its experimental future.

The Art of Voids

By Jennifer Ochstein
Voids—holes, blank spaces, silences—are often interpreted as meaningless. But they shouldn’t be taken that way. Voids may contain even more meaning than filled spaces. It’s what isn’t seen or what isn’t said that causes the most doubt and consternation. Consider an unseen god or a beloved one who fails to say “I love you.” The meaning of such absence is that a void requires rendering, interpretation, guessing. Voids and their uncertainty can be terrifying. Heartrending. Conversely, they can also bring the most profound recognition.

What Also Matters? The Voices of Women of Color.

By
The Crunk Feminist Collection is a much-needed anthology of short essays written by black women and women of color. Its narratives center on race, gender, pop culture and current events. The collection blends writers who specialize in personal anecdote with razor-sharp critique and who employ a conversational tone as complex issues are carefully dissected and taken to task. Appearing first as blog articles at The Crunk Feminist Collective from 2010-2014, the pieces capture the brevity today’s readers expect: precise techniques that this self-proclaimed riot girl found urgent and timely.

Must Hard Stories Be So Hard?

By N. West Moss
Midway into the first semester of her MFA, Melanie Brooks finds herself struggling to begin a memoir about her father, a distinguished thoracic surgeon, who was infected with HIV while undergoing open-heart surgery in 1985. Her father chose to keep his illness a secret thinking he would die within months. The fact that he lived for ten years and kept this information from others meant that, as Brooks put it, “the secret of his disease and the specter of catastrophe” defined her life. “Unearthing the ongoing grief of losing my dad to AIDS in 1995,” she writes, “has been agonizing. And terrifying. And, more often than not, paralyzing.”

Happier Than He Has Any Right to Feel

By Karen Donley-Hayes
It may seem a foregone conclusion that Should I Still Wish, by John Evans, would make worthwhile reading. Evans is a Stanford University lecturer, memoirist, and winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize for Young Widower: A Memoir, in 2014. His writing has set him apart. What is not unique, however, is the subject of this memoir: death.

One Era Ends. Another Begins.

By Sebastian Sarti
When the past doesn’t suit you, from what do you build the future? It’s a question that lumps at the throats of many twenty-somethings who know their lives will not follow those of their parents. Though Leslie Lawrence is well past her twenties, she uses the same question to animate her book of essays, The Death of Fred Astaire, an eclectic collection that ranges over decades of its author’s unexpected life.

The Kingdom of the Sick

By Elizabeth Dark
My best childhood friend, Vanessa, suffers from debilitating chronic pain. She has seen multiple specialists, tried numerous treatments, and been diagnosed with a handful of conditions, all of which perhaps come close to naming her experience, but never fully. When the pain first began, she was thirty-four, a nurse practitioner and an avid yoga student. But as the years have dragged on, she’s had to quit working. She spends her days at home trying to manage the pain with both focus and distraction. When I visit her, we do not go out. She can rarely sit for more than twenty minutes before the pain becomes too much, so a restaurant or coffee shop is not a good idea.

A Life Story, Buried and Unburied

By Jo Scott-Coe
I seek out some nonfiction knowing I will find the author’s train of mind as compelling as his subject. This was certainly true with John Edgar Wideman’s latest book, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File.

Why We Need Literature More Than Ever

By D.L. Hall
I read Jan Shoemaker’s collection of essays while America was casting votes for the forty-fifth president. So, when I say I read this memoir during a time of despair, I mean it was like waking up in the middle of a nightmare, surrounded by folks you love who are bedazzled by flash and bravado, who have fallen for a con man’s promise to return us to the golden age of white middle-class America. It was in this state of reckoning that I entered Shoemaker’s world where the first essay opens in the middle of a white-knuckled cab ride in India, heading to the caves of Ellora, and, right away, I was clicking on my seat belt because here was where I needed to be—engaged in the world and unfearful of others. Flesh and Stone came to me at the right time, bringing a nostalgic reminder of the connections Americans share, why we need literature more than ever, and how our neighbors, our country, and, most important, our families are worth fighting for. Civilization is worth the fight.

Stitched Together

By Heather Gemmen Wilson Body Memory is comprised of five, intimately connected essays. All of the essays, together, weave a story, simultaneously sad and expectant, of a man bereft.

A Craft He Would, Thankfully, Never Learn

by Michael Steinberg
"As for my part, it’s a no-brainer; Murray’s writing, thoughts about writing, and generous mentorship will continue to inspire, guide, and instruct me for as long I write and teach."

Growing up with Doomsday

by Mimi Schwartz
"It is a coming-of-age story of his South Chicago life from age six to sixteen, as an African-American child with two blind, finance-strapped parents and five siblings who belong to the Worldwide Church of God that predicts global doom—and soon."

True Grits

by Richard Gilbert
"Crews devotes the first three chapters, Part One, of this concise twelve-chapter book to extending his risky imaginative and reflective opening. In this way, he shows overtly, implicitly, and spatially how his father’s death reverberated in his life in backwoods Georgia."

The Importance of Being Outside

by Gail Folkins
"Folkins’ essays hit on all the typical topics of the Pacific Northwest: Bigfoot, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, salmon, employment at Boeing (her dad’s boss) and Microsoft (her own)."

For You, the Universe on a String

by Art Edwards
"With the book, Firstman is ready to give the raw emotions surrounding her relationships with her parents narrative form, utilizing storytelling, science, and the quirks of a 1970s upbringing to make sense of a childhood less than ordinary."

Thought Paths

by Lanie Tankard
"Linking concrete and abstract, head and heart, Madden offers us his soul. Such a style elicits our own memories, heightens awareness of life’s minutiae, and deepens our understanding of their connectivity."

The Uncomfortable Place Between Vulnerability and Voyeurism

by Carolee Bennett
"Implicating us as voyeurs in the opening essay is a wicked trick. When Hollars writes about a “carnival atmosphere” after the Tuscaloosa tornado, we want to stake our claim to righteous indignation. But, as he watches “people clogging the streets in SUVs, the passengers half-hanging out the windows,” we see ourselves."

Faith, Fear, and Fractals

by Tarn Wilson
The dominant voice of these essays is descended from the lineage of that twenty-two-year-old: witty, smart, funny, self-deprecating, self-aware, and sometimes self-conscious. But Bradley also regularly interrupts that voice with flashes of vulnerability.

Out of Sight

by Richard Gilbert
"Dean knows that most Americans lost interest after the 1959–1972 “heroic era” of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. But she forever imprinted on spaceflight as a girl when her engineer father took her regularly to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum."

Legacy of Lobotomy

by Denise Wilkinson
While her research into lobotomy provided much documented information, tracing her family story was more difficult. Complicated by the fact that only one aunt, Pauline, remained alive, and the information Aunt Pauline provided “overturned everything” Sternburg had believed all her life, she questioned whether she could get to the truth.

Each and Both

by Renee E. D'Aoust
"Water Rising functions as a tribute to a shared creative life, but the chance that its creation would work as a thing of beauty was probably far from sure during its making. How do you know that works created independently will come together?"

A Wildly Funny Life Story — I, Too, Admire Your Shoes!

By Glen Retief
“I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation,” wrote Flaubert to his friend Mademoiselle Leroyer in 1864, talking of what would become his semi-autobiographical novel, Sentimental Education. “It’s a book about . . . passion such as can exist nowadays . . . inactive.” In fact, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is anything but emotionally dead or passive. It details a young Frenchman’s intensely felt financial, sexual, and romantic mishaps against the background of the 1848 anti-monarchist revolutions.

Loosen Up

By Kate Hopper
A couple of months ago, I curled up in chair in the corner of my living room to begin reading Dinty Moore’s latest book, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals. The book, as you can probably guess from the title, is a writing guide in the form of an advice column. In it Moore fields tongue-in-cheek questions from 20 contemporary essayists on topics such as grammar, the writing life, why so many writers write about writing, and how to recapture the humor of a cocktail party story without having to get drunk again. Each of Moore’s equally tongue-in-cheek responses is accompanied by an essay inspired by the exchange. In this way, it’s both a collection of personal essays as well as a (very amusing) dialogue with other essayists.

An Inner Exuberance

By Thomas Larson
One of the most poignant, absorbing autobiographical memoirs I’ve ever read is this gem from 1943, The Little Locksmith. I say autobiographical memoir for Katharine Butler Hathaway’s is old school, telling an outwardly undramatic tale about an exuberant inner life: she died at 58 just after this book, the first of several planned, was published. What gives it its memoirish intensity is her probity: she plunges into self-entanglements that would trip up most authors but gives her the freedom to invent herself in prose.

Here’s One for the Bookstores

By Allison Backous Troy
Editor Samantha Schoech writes, in her introduction, that there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about this essay collection: it is a “vote for a certain way of life. The bookish life. More specifically, the bookstore life.” The compilation appeared this spring to commemorate Independent Bookstore Day. For Schoech, the indie bookseller provides a necessary space in a world of “tweets and algorithms and pageless digital downloads.” They affirm our need for “aimless perusal,” where a day spent stalking the shelves might lead us to a “novel that expands (the) heart,” or an “art book that changes the direction of your life.”

What’s Left from the End Times

By Elizabeth Raby
To begin her new book, Joni Tevis, the author of the equally unusual, The Wet Collection, quotes the Midwestern novelist, Sherwood Anderson, in an epigraph: “Just say in big letters, ‘The World is on Fire.’ That will make ’em look up.” So she does and so do we. In well-researched and telling detail, she explores objects, places, and people in danger of being lost or falling apart—closures and collapses of factories, diners, towns, celebrities. She brings them back to life by a plethora of specific images. Of her father’s factory, she says, “Strange to think of the old shop sitting empty now, the machines gone, Barbara’s first-aid kit and I’ve Been Beat Up poster gone, the thumbtacks that held it to the wall gone. But curls of scrap must still be there, corkscrews of brass and steel pressed into the filth of the shop floor.”

Climbing the High Ridges and Stumbling

By Jeff Muse
I should be clear: I think writing well is terribly hard work, and I admire anyone who endures it. Me, I’ve yet to publish a book of any kind, and I don’t teach writing or literature at any college or university, so maybe you’d just as soon stop reading right here. After all, I’m hardly a professional book reviewer.

It’s About Time

By Janice Gary
On the first page of Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso tells us that she started keeping a diary because she didn’t want to lose anything. “I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had happened.”

Where Have All the Overmedicated Mermaids Gone?

By Samir Atassi
Elissa Washuta’s memoir is a twisting, chameleon-like work of reportage, highly poetic at times, showing how cultural forces and tragic events have left their tracks on her body and mind. The search “for an identity to sink into” in a savage, selfish world is at the heart of this book. The author examines all the moments from her past that have tried to define her, including—her rape while living on the Mid-Atlantic coast, her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, her search for an ancestral connection to the Cowlitz Indian tribe, and her strict upbringing as a Catholic. Tension is felt as Washuta battles to stay sane while being menaced by past experiences.

A Son Coming Home

By Virginia Taylor
Steven Harvey, in his marvelous memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, is on a journey to discover and understand his mother who committed suicide in April, 1961, when Harvey was eleven years old. Reflecting on her act, Harvey observes that it “had exploded in my life like the flash of a camera at close range, darkening everything around me and casting me into blindness, and when the light returned she was gone. . . . She was there and she was not, and there was no getting her back. Ever.” Missing are his memories of her, of his being with her, and this: “I could not, and this is the heartbreaker, hear her voice. All of this—what do I call it?—this mothering was gone, wiped out by her death.”

Which Way Next?

By David MacWilliams
In his brief essay, “Dead Weight,” Eric Freeze describes a walk he takes with his dog, Zeke, a walk that ends horribly. He sees a police cruiser descending a hill, his Dalmatian blundering into its path, and there’s nothing he can do but shout and witness the inevitable.

A Beautiful Savage Game

By Amber D. Stoner
First and foremost, Steve Almond wants you to know he’s a football fan: he’s one of you; he’s one of us. But after forty years of watching the game, playing fantasy football, and mourning yet another Oakland Raiders’ loss, Almond no longer indulges his love of watching football and his latest book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, explains why.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Women Authors

by Josette Kubaszyk
"Since its inception, Shebooks’ digital collection of downloadable fiction, memoir, and journalism has grown to over 70 books, each of which the publishers say can be read “in an hour or two.”"

To the Body Born

by Jan Shoemaker
"Moving across the page in her essay collection, You Feel So Mortal, with the same agility she took to the polished wood of the dojo floor, Shinner explores the flesh and blood experience—hers and ours—of having a body."

The Nothing That Is Not There and the Nothing That Is

by Doug Rutledge
"Of course, one is led to ask the inevitable question, why write and why read a book about nothing? In Praise of Nothing offers several answers, some generic, some philosophical, others emotional, but none are completely satisfying—though this lack of satisfaction is part of the book’s point."

Essaying a Spinning World

by Robert Root
"Much of what Skloot deems "off-kilter" seems the kind of emotional imbalance with which we can all identify. Each chapter is alive not only with narrative memories but also with personal associations, pertinent research, and literary references."

The Inner World of Caregiving

by Jennifer Ochstein
"Harris owns her uncertainties and qualms; she’s honest about the grueling nature of caregiving. Caregiving is not a badge of honor. It’s dirty, ass-washing work."

Do have a book review?

Queries for book reviews (both for reviewers and for authors or publishers requesting a review) may be sent to our Book Review editor. If you wish to write a review, please query with examples of critical writing. Do not send completed reviews or titles you wish to review. Reviews are published on the website only. Authors and publishers requesting a review may send a print or electronic copy to:

Thomas Larson
River Teeth Book Reviews

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tom.larson@sbcglobal.net

Have you written a book?

River Teeth‘s editors conduct a yearly national contest for a book-length manuscript of literary nonfiction in English. All manuscripts are screened by the co-editors of River Teeth. The contest winner receives $1,000 and publication by The University of New Mexico Press.