Non-Fiction

  • Too Much and Not the Mood

    Durga Chew-Bose

    The title of this book comes from an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary, where she wrote about being tired of the “cramming in and cutting out” to please readers. I wanted to really love this book, expected it even, from the context of the title and the blurb that references Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Lydia Davis’s short stories, and Vivian Gornick’s “exploration of interior life.” So I built up its possible impact too much, and then the first essay “Heart Museum,” which takes up almost half of the small volume, was a slog that I struggled to get through, even though I was on vacation and had no distractions to keep me from getting enmeshed. While I generally am all for...more

  • Freedom is a Constant Struggle

    Angela Y. Davis

    This slim collection of interviews and speeches covers some similar ideas in different contexts, and while I had a little wish that these had been reworked into one super essay, it’s also no big deal to revisit comparable concepts a few times when they are so significant. Plus it’s fascinating to get a sense of how Angela Davis structures a talk. A preeminent scholar, activist, and general bad-ass person, the connections she makes between the protests in Ferguson in 2014 (and on) with the ongoing fight of the Palestinian people are crucial. It’s not just that the systems of oppression are alike, but that the militarism of the police forces in the US overall is directly tied to the...more

  • 300 Arguments

    Sarah Manguso

    The premise of this slim offering is contained in one of the 300 snippets: “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” While I definitely found some quotable moments in the quotable passages (which is kind of funny!), it didn’t really work for me as a book; it just didn’t feel crafted. Some of the “arguments” are funny or sardonic, some feel rather profound, while others strike me as throwaways. The trouble is the ones that do sound like a long book’s quotable passages just beg for the rest of the book, and the rest are fragments for the sake of the premise.

    This one suggests it...more

  • Hope in the Dark

    Rebecca Solnit

    Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, a alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what is may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

    ...more
  • The Selfishness of Others

    Kristin Dombek

    My friend Athena wrote a review of this essay on “the fear of narcissism” that suggested the writing fell a bit flat to her at the end. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I wound up feeling almost exactly the same way. A brief history of clinical and cultural understandings of narcissism, with sections focused around concepts like The Bad Boyfriend, The Millennial, The Murderer; the turning point is The Artist, where the focus shifts to Dombek’s self-reflection. As Athena said, it was perhaps intended as “some kind of experimental practice of writing as a selfish/other-centric dialectic,” but I was disappointed that everything built up to be so personal, self-centered. But it’s appropriate within the essay’s lens of...more

  • Witches of America

    Alex Mar

    Alex Mar first met the witch Morpheus while making her documentary American Mystic, about three people on the fringes of organized religion. After finishing the film, she felt a personal curiosity about witchcraft and paganism and continued speaking with Morpheus; through her she connected with other witches to dig further into the occult world, and Witches in America is mostly the document of that process.

    While it may sound broad and encompassing by its title, the scope is narrowed by her firsthand experiences and the specific paths her interests outlined. She covers a fair amount of historical background of how modern paganism was revived beginning in the 1970s, but the book uncomfortably straddles anthropology and memoir realms. It...more

  • The Half-Known World

    Robert Boswell

    While mainly written for writers of fiction, The Half-Known World is almost like a literature class in a book, as each chapter references certain novels or stories, indicated at the beginning, though reading them is also not necessary to understand the concepts presented in the essays. I hadn’t read most of the referenced pieces, or hadn’t read them recently, but can see how that may have elevated the experience.

    The first few essays are really great, but the themes feel less profound as the book progresses. Boswell’s theory of “the half-known world” in the opening essay is that writers can try to know too much about their characters and scenes at the outset, to the point where the writer has...more

  • The Fire Next Time

    James Baldwin

    Still powerfully resonant today, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was one of the most influential books about race in America in the 1960s. It is tough to read this now and note how little has changed and easy to understand why this book inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and The Fire This Time, a recent book of essays edited by Jesmyn Ward. The book is comprised of two essays: first, “My Dungeon Shook,” the well-known letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation; and second, “Down at the Cross,” another longer letter addressed generally that focuses largely on race and religion, including Baldwin’s experience as a Christian preacher and later...more

  • Reading My Father

    Alexandra Styron

    Alexandra Styron is the daughter of William Styron, the novelist best known for Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. Her book Reading My Father is part memoir and part biography, focusing at times on her experience growing up with a well-known writer as a father, and at other times providing a straightforward narrative of his life. Every so often it gets meta and zooms in on Styron’s research of her father while writing this book, finishing with a few chapters that detail his long decline in health related to two episodes of severe depression and his long-time alcoholism. All these different parts are interesting individually, but they don’t entirely cohere.

    Though the general conceit of...more

  • When Skateboards Will Be Free

    Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

    “A memoir of a political childhood,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh writes of growing up as a child of an Iranian father and a Jewish mother who are members of the Socialist Worker’s Party. His parents separated when he was very young, so for most of his early years, his father was absent fighting for the revolution, while he stayed with his mother attending party meetings and selling The Militant on street corners. It’s an intriguing look at how political ideology can be confusing to a child, as when Sayrafiezadeh doesn’t understand why he can’t eat grapes during the 1965 boycott in support of striking workers. Eventually his mother relents, to a degree, by encouraging her son to eat them in the produce...more

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