Essays

  • Hope in the Dark

    Rebecca Solnit

    Image of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

    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

    Image of The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism

    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

  • After the Tall Timber

    Renata Adler

    Image of After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction

    One of the downsides of my technique of requesting lots of popular books from the library and then reading them as I progress through long hold lists is that I sometimes get books when I’m not truly prepared to delve into them. Most likely I would have picked something lighter after just reading a long non-fiction book than another long non-fiction book. But there was no dallying when my turn came, as this clocks in at about 500 pages and plenty of library users were in line behind me; I only made it through about half the book before opting not to rack up fines to try to finish it. I’ve read mixed opinions about whether the first third...more

  • Citizen

    Claudia Rankine

    Image of Citizen: An American Lyric

    You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice. No one should adhere to the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create lives. To your mind, feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds. Those sensations form a someone. The headaches begin then. Don’t wear sunglasses in the house, the world says, though they soothe, soothe sight, soothe you.

    I’ve been having a hard time writing about Citizen and the experience of reading it, as it would be so easy to blandly describe it — the topics it covers, its blend of text and images — yet in...more

  • Men Explain Things to Me

    Rebecca Solnit

    Image of Men Explain Things to Me

    Rebecca Solnit wrote the first and titular essay in this collection in 2008, after which it was posted on TomDispatch. Since then it has taken off and been reposted several times, along the way inspiring the portmanteau “mansplaining.” It was worth rereading that one for a second or maybe third time, but the other six essays in this book aren’t just filler to make a book version of a viral sensation.

    Despite giving a feminist eye to some bleak topics — as in the one where she connects Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual assault of a hotel maid with the IMF’s treatment of developing countries — there’s a recurrent sense of hope across these essays, for me most palpably in “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing...more

  • Loitering

    Charles D’Ambrosio

    Image of Loitering: New and Collected Essays

    In some people (usually willful or grandiose or highly defended types) there’s only a very small difference between talking incessantly and saying nothing. I vaguely remember a quote from Roland Barthes, who claimed his rhetorical needs alternated between a little haiku that expressed everything and a great flood of banalities that said nothing.

    I expected that I would really like this collection of essays, reading about it first through D’Ambrosio’s interview with Leslie Jamison for The New Yorker. I was especially curious about their discussion of his work being “marked by a figure standing outside some kind of threshold.” In actuality, while I appreciate the style of his writing, the overarching themes of the book felt too bleak for...more

  • The Unspeakable

    Meghan Daum

    Image of The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

    Meghan Daum opens her second book of essays by explaining how she hoped that all together they would “add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.” This examination of the disconnect with how one is “supposed to feel” compared to our actual feelings succeeds best in the opening essay, “Matricide,” largely about her mother’s death and complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. Some of the other apparently “unspeakable” topics — like loving dogs and Joni Mitchell and not being a foodie — ring rather false in comparison. But by that point, I was also less inclined to find common ground with Daum, since these all came after the essay on her being an “Honorary...more

  • Bad Feminist

    Roxane Gay

    Image of Bad Feminist

    Roxane Gay is a brilliant writer, and I’m glad to see this book with its hot pink title on the front tables in bookstores, where perhaps people who think they don’t need feminism* might see it. Gay is razor smart and genuine; she has a witty and light-handed writing style, even when digging into complicated issues.

    She writes some simple but important bits about privilege, like: “Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”

    And she talks about feminism’s...more

  • The Empathy Exams

    Leslie Jamison

    Image of The Empathy Exams: Essays

    The essays in the book range widely in scope, from very personal to more critical to more journalistic, though a theme of understanding others’ pain loosely lassos them together. Often this manifests as her own attempt to understand, like her profile of people with Morgellons Disease, who believe that fibers are expelled from their skin and become so obsessed with the delusion they end up isolated from feeling so misunderstood. She wants to understand them, even though it’s so difficult to believe. Sometimes she even dissects her desire to feel others’ pain, as when her brother is diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and she imagines herself in his shoes so completely that it becomes more about her than him, leading her...more

  • White Girls

    Hilton Als

    Image of White Girls

    Just after I started reading this book, I had a conversation in which someone said that inaccessible art can’t possibly be good art, with a side note about how some people may appreciate art solely because they can’t immediately understand it as they assume it’s smarter than they are. The discussion partially came from me describing my struggle through The Luminaries, not entirely enjoying it, but finding the structure of it compelling from a technical standpoint. The essays in White Girls vary in their accessibility, and since I was reading primarily for entertainment, I skimmed through the ones that didn’t draw me in enough. In this opinion, it can’t be a “good” book, because it was too much work...more

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