Book List

Best Essay Collections of 2019

Essential for environmentalists, back-to-the-landers, and students and practitioners of the essay form.

WHAT I STAND ON

THE COLLECTED ESSAYS OF WENDELL BERRY 1969-2017

A splendid gathering of 50 years’ worth of essays “cultural and agricultural” by the eminent Kentucky farmer, poet, novelist, and social critic.

In 1969, Berry (b. 1934), who had previously written a couple of novels that received little attention, published The Long-Legged House, his first book of nonfiction. The timing for the book of essays on the Ohio River backcountry was just right, anticipating the wave of interest in things ecological and place-oriented, and Berry’s neo-transcendentalism (“it is another world, which means that one’s senses and reflexes must begin to live another kind of life”) found an audience that would grow significantly in the coming years. This comprehensive anthology, whose first volume reproduces his entire 1977 manifesto, The Unsettling of America, is made up of selections made by Berry and his longtime editor, Shoemaker, who, for nearly 40 years, has made it an unceasing project to continue to expand Berry’s audience and influence. The Gift of Good Land (1981), an early collaboration between writer and editor, gives attention to such country comforts as horse-drawn farming as contrasted to industrial agriculture, which “considers only the machine.” The second volume of this sweeping collection, comprising 1,650 pages altogether, offers further arguments in favor of an agriculture and rural culture that are anything but simple—and, according to the author, in constant need of defense against those who would attack them “morally as well as economically.” Conservative in the deepest sense, and often resembling T.S. Eliot as much as Edward Abbey, Berry goes on to insist that “the distinction between the physical and the spiritual is, I believe, false,” urging instead that the truly relevant contrast is “between the organic and the mechanical.” Over a consistently developed line of argument through the decades, it’s abundantly clear what side Berry falls on and what he stands for—which is, as he has long said, what he stands on.

Essential for environmentalists, back-to-the-landers, and students and practitioners of the essay form.

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-59853-610-2

Page Count: 1650

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

Told with brutal clarity, this is a haunting testimony about death that is filled with life.

THE UNDYING

PAIN, VULNERABILITY, MORTALITY, MEDICINE, ART, TIME, DREAMS, DATA, EXHAUSTION, CANCER, AND CARE

A passionate and eloquent memoir about one woman’s battle with breast cancer.

Award-winning poet and essayist Boyer (Creative Writing/Kansas City Art Institute; A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, 2018, etc.), a single mother living on a tight budget, was diagnosed with highly aggressive breast cancer when she was 41. Her doctor (who she later replaced) said her tumor was “necrotic, which meant that it was growing so quickly it failed to build infrastructure for itself.” He recommended chemotherapy right away. Her treatment with Neulasta cost $7,000 per shot. As the author writes, “someone once said that choosing chemotherapy is like choosing to jump off a building when someone is holding a gun to your head.” Boyer looked for guidance and inspiration from other women artists who suffered from the disease, including Susan Sontag, Alice James, Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Fanny Burney, Kathy Acker, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Boyer kept a journal, a “minor form of reparative magic,” which she abandoned hundreds of times. John Donne’s “sickbed masterpiece,” Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, written when he thought he was dying, casts an influential shadow over her book. Both have complex structures and are highly meditative, but Boyer’s “exercise in lamentation” is secular where Donne’s was religious. She takes us on a deeply personal journey into “my body in pain,” “eviscerating sadness,” and profound loss—eyelashes, eyebrows, toenails, nerves, brain cells, her hair. “I like wigs,” she writes. “I wear wigs. People I like wear wigs. Dolly Parton wears wigs….Medusa wore a wig made of snakes.” Eventually, Boyer had a double mastectomy. “In the capitalist medical universe in which all bodies must orbit around profit at all times,” she writes, “even a double mastectomy is considered an outpatient procedure.” She learned that everyone lies, from pharmaceutical companies to doctors and researchers and the internet. “Now that I am undying,” she writes, “the world is full of possibility.”

Told with brutal clarity, this is a haunting testimony about death that is filled with life.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-27934-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: June 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

An eloquent and engrossing selection of nonfiction writing that will enhance Cusk’s stature in contemporary literature.

COVENTRY

ESSAYS

A striking collection of essays from the acclaimed British novelist.

In three thematically organized sections, Cusk, a winner of the Whitbread and Somerset Maugham Awards who is also renowned for her Outline trilogy (Kudos, 2018, etc.), brilliantly delves into expansive realms of personal memoir and social and literary criticism. In the titular essay, the author reflects on her odd, sometimes-tense relationship with her parents, who, for unaccountable reasons, will periodically stop speaking to her—a phenomenon that in England is referred to as “being sent to Coventry.” Cusk then expands her account of this experience to address further complex and sometimes strained aspects of her domestic life. Readers of the author’s first-person fiction will be pleased with the acutely observant narrative voice that characterizes these introspective meditations on family, motherhood, marriage, and community. “Part of the restlessness and anxiety I feel at home has, I realize, to do with time: I am forever waiting, as though home is a provisional situation that at some point will end,” she writes. “I am looking for that ending, that resolution, looking for it in domestic work as I look for the end of a novel by writing. At home I hardly ever sit down: the new sofa has nothing to fear from me.” In the section entitled “A Tragic Pastime,” Cusk deals with broader ideas of creative self-expression, gender politics, and the writing process. In the essay “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” the author sets Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as alternating touchstones for considering the identity and concept of women’s writing within a male-dominated culture. In the final section, Cusk offers fresh perspectives on Edith Wharton and D.H. Lawrence and argues for the importance of Françoise Sagan, Olivia Manning, and Natalia Ginzburg. She also directs her discerning eye toward Kazuo Ishiguro and his novel Never Let Me Go and an even sharper edge to her withering assessment of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

An eloquent and engrossing selection of nonfiction writing that will enhance Cusk’s stature in contemporary literature.

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-12677-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2019

Powerful, highly compelling pieces from one of our greatest writers.

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THE SOURCE OF SELF-REGARD

SELECTED ESSAYS, SPEECHES, AND MEDITATIONS

Brilliantly incisive essays, speeches, and meditations considering race, power, identity, and art.

A prominent public intellectual even before being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, novelist Morrison (Emerita, Humanities/Princeton Univ.; The Origin of Others, 2017, etc.) has lectured and written about urgent social and cultural matters for more than four decades. Her latest collection gathers more than 40 pieces (including her Nobel lecture), revealing the passion, compassion, and profound humanity that distinguish her writing. Freedom, dignity, and responsibility recur as salient issues. Speaking to the Sarah Lawrence graduating class in 1988, Morrison urges her listeners to go beyond “an intelligent encounter with problem-solving” to engage in dreaming. “Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one” that can foster empathy—a sense of intimacy that “should precede our decision-making, our cause-mongering, our action.” To graduates of Barnard in 1979 she recasts the fairy tale of "Cinderella," focusing on the women who exploit and oppress the heroine, to urge her audience to “pay as much attention to our nurturing sensibilities as to our ambition.” “In wielding the power that is deservedly yours,” she adds, “don’t permit it to enslave your stepsisters.” In an adroit—and chillingly prescient—political critique published in the Nation in 1995, she warns of the complicity between racism and fascism, perceiving a culture where fear, denial, and complacency prevail and where “our intelligence [is] sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned.” “Fascism talks ideology,” she writes, “but it is really just marketing—marketing for power.” Speaking at Princeton in 1998, she considers the linguistic and moral challenges she faced in writing Paradise, one of many pieces offering insights into her fiction. Aiming to produce “race-specific race-free prose,” she confronted the problem of writing about personal identity “in a language in which the codes of racial hierarchy and disdain are deeply embedded”—as well as the problem of writing about the intellectually complex idea of paradise “in an age of theme parks.”

Powerful, highly compelling pieces from one of our greatest writers.

Pub Date: Feb. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-52103-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 7, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

Sharp, insightful writing that firmly positions Nussbaum as one of the leading TV critics of our time.

I LIKE TO WATCH

ARGUING MY WAY THROUGH THE TV REVOLUTION

In her book debut, Pulitzer Prize–winning New Yorker critic Nussbaum offers an expansive collection of writing that captures the artistically evolving spirit of current TV.

The author’s profiles on TV giants such as Joan Rivers, Jenji Kohan, and Ryan Murphy provide penetrating glimpses into how their personal histories have helped to shape their careers. In one of the book’s longest—and best—pieces, “Confessions of the Human Shield,” Nussbaum wrestles with the work of renowned artistic talents recently caught up in the #MeToo movement, including Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Louis C.K, and Roman Polanski. “What should we do with the art of terrible men?” asks the author. The revelations about the widespread sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, she writes, “made the job of criticizing art seem like an indulgence—the monocle-peering that intellectuals resort to when we should be talking about justice.” Nussbaum incisively discusses the difficulties in separating their creative output from their offensive actions. “When you look at [Polanski’s] Rosemary’s Baby sideways,” she writes, “it becomes a darkly funny cautionary tale that could have been written by Andrea Dworkin….The movie was a feminist masterpiece created by a sex criminal.” Assembled together, the author’s essays and reviews reveal her vast interests and unpretentious tastes as well as her keen insights into what’s phony. She seems equally appreciative of gold-standard dramatic series like The Sopranos and the pleasurable indulgences of “unscripted” reality shows such as Vanderpump Rules. We are currently living in what many consider the golden age of TV, with countless quality series from networks and streaming services introduced daily, and Nussbaum has proven to be a shrewd, highly reliable source for evaluating this rapidly progressing medium. “There was something alive about the medium to me, organic in a way that other art is not,” she writes, reflecting on her career. “You enter into it; you get changed with it; it changes with you….[TV] was where I wanted to live.”

Sharp, insightful writing that firmly positions Nussbaum as one of the leading TV critics of our time.

Pub Date: June 25, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50896-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2019

Exhilarating, groundbreaking essays that should establish Tolentino as a key voice of her generation.

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TRICK MIRROR

REFLECTIONS ON SELF-DELUSION

A popular young writer tackles a host of cultural movements in her debut collection of essays.

In these nine stunning pieces, New Yorker staff writer Tolentino seamlessly melds together journalistic social criticism and revealing personal essays. To varying degrees of intimate context, she places herself within each narrative, reporting on broad social currents while revealing very specific encounters. Among the many topics the author explores: the expansive influence of the internet and social media; the increasing social pressure to optimize our interests and aspirations at all times (especially for women); the alarming proliferation and increased tolerance of scamming; societal, somewhat idealized traditions such as marriage and, more specifically, weddings. Tolentino recounts her experience with reality TV and reflects on her teenage identity when she appeared as a contestant in Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico. “Reality TV had not yet created a whole new type of person,” she writes, “the camera-animated assemblage of silicone and pharmaceuticals; we hadn’t yet seen the way organic personalities could decay on unscripted television, their half-lives measured through sponsored laxative-tea Instagrams and paid appearances at third-tier regional clubs.” She also recalls favorite literary books from her past, assessing the heroines’ varying plights in guiding her current feminist leanings. While offering razor-sharp commentary on the underbelly of our culture, she can also appreciate its attraction. Furthermore, she acknowledges her particular conundrum, having established her niche as a writer by staying in tune with cultural trends: “I don’t know what to do with the fact…that my career is possible in large part because of the way the internet collapses identity, opinion, and action—and that I, as a writer whose work is mostly critical and often written in first person, have some inherent stake in justifying the dubious practice of spending all day trying to figure out what you think.” Tolentino offers a millennial perspective that is deeply grounded, intellectually transcending her relative youth. She brings fresh perspective to current movements in a manner similar to that of Joan Didion in the 1960s and ’70s.

Exhilarating, groundbreaking essays that should establish Tolentino as a key voice of her generation.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-51054-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 12, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

Satirical, raw, and unapologetically real, West delivers the bittersweet truths on contemporary living.

THE WITCHES ARE COMING

A cornucopia of shrewd cultural observations from New York Times columnist West (Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, 2016).

In 18 pointed essays, the author addresses a variety of topics, including frivolous internet sensation Grumpy Cat, South Park, Guy Fieri, and the global significance of abortion rights and gender equality. In West’s opening tirade, she denounces Donald Trump’s repetitive usage of the term “witch hunt” while scrutinizing his uncanny “ability to conjure reality out of hot air and spittle.” This essay serves as the launching pad for further pieces exposing the sorry state of contemporary American politics and popular culture. Tough, irritated, and eager to speak her truth, the author expounds on the unifying aspects of visibility and activism to cultivate change, especially when countering the denigration of women. Her sharp wit and no-nonsense sense of humor also shine through her dissection of the work of Adam Sandler, Gwyneth Paltrow’s diet plan (her avocado smoothie “could give diarrhea an existential crisis”), and how movies like Clue shaped her perspectives and appreciation for one-liners and physical comedy. West rarely minces words, especially regarding documentaries on the Ted Bundy murders and the Fyre Festival or when expressing her sheer appreciation for the legacy of Joan Rivers, and her writing is fluid and multifaceted. Though she often rages at social injustice, she also becomes solemnly poetic when discussing her fondness for the drizzly Pacific Northwest, where she was raised and still resides, a place where she can still feel her deceased father’s presence “in the ridges and grooves of my city—we are close, superimposed, separated only by time, and what’s that? This is the only religion I can relate to.” Only occasionally are the smoothly written essays hijacked by intrusive asides—e.g., her experience inside a proselytizing Uber driver’s car, a scene wedged into her reflections on climate change. Though uneven at times, the author drives home the critical issues of our time while taking time to tickle our funny bones.

Satirical, raw, and unapologetically real, West delivers the bittersweet truths on contemporary living.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-316-44988-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Hachette

Review Posted Online: Sept. 11, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2019

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