Five Essay Collections to Read in Quarantine – Willamette Week

Posted: April 24, 2020 at 12:54 pm


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Make It Scream, Make It Burn, Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison knows how to write a good personal essay because she doesn't assume you want to read about her personally. This was true in her first collection, Empathy Exams, and it is true in her second, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, which pieces together the things that interest Jamison most. In "Sim Life," Jamison examines our e-companions, those virtual characters we find ourselves strangely invested in. In "The Quickening," she reflects on the anxieties of pregnancy, at times addressing her unborn daughter directly, drawing the reader into the most private spaces of pre-parenthood. Each essay is an exercise in thoughtful restraint, never allowing itself to be confused for the work of a diarist.

On its most superficial level, Black Is the Body is a collection about storytelling within the familyas Bernard lays out in the subtitle, these are 12 stories from her grandmother's time, her mother's time, and her own. Beneath that, Black Is the Body is an expertly crafted collection about blackness in America, as only Bernard has lived it. One essay, "Interstates," documents the time when Bernard, her parents, and her white fianc pulled over to change a flat tire, exposing the family to every prejudice that may pass them on the highway. Other stories examine the relationship between white and black life in the American South, two experiences "ensnared in the same historical drama."

There are some writers who leave the worlds of devout religionworlds that are at once large, and impossibly smalland spare no second thoughts, rejecting both the baby and the bathwater. Meghan O'Gieblyn's debut collection leaves no thoughts behind, turning to her upbringing of conservative evangelicalism for a series of essays offering razor-sharp cultural criticism on the state of American life. "Ghost in the Cloud," a particular strong point, sews together the parallel theologies of transhumanism (technology that works to avoid death) and Christian millennialism (salvation that works to avoid death). O'Gieblyn is unapologetic in her takes, producing wholly original commentary slated for these times.

Mary-Kay Wilmers, one of the founders of the London Review of Books and its sole editor since 1979, has a lot to say about writing, and women, and the ways women write for themselves and for men. Human Relations and Other Difficulties is the product of a veteran career in book reviewing, and it showsthe essays are clever, frank and delightfully readable. Some provide the literary commentary that Wilmer is known foron Joan Didion, Alice James and Jean Rhyswhile others turn inward, looking to Wilmer's own life as a child and a parent. "There's nothing magical about a mother's relationship with her baby," Wilmer writes of early motherhood. "Like most others, it takes two to get it going."

If there were ever a time to renew your love for the natural world, as the late poet Mary Oliver did throughout her career, it's now. Upstream, a collection of essays published three years before Oliver's death, is the author in her purest formreflecting on the beauty of codfish, grass, and seagulls on the beach. Life, as she writes about it, is precious in all things, without ever dipping into sentimentality. Oliver's meditation on her literary counterparts, including Walt Whitman, a childhood "friend," gives rare insight into the making of the poet, while other essays invite the reader to observe the outdoors with new eyes.

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Five Essay Collections to Read in Quarantine - Willamette Week

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April 24th, 2020 at 12:54 pm

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