A pleasing selection of essays from the lifelong farmer and award-winning writer.
It’s a wonder that Berry (The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings, 2017, etc.) gets any work done on his Kentucky farm given his prodigious literary output. He has written hundreds of essays, and English author Kingsnorth has carefully selected 31 of them, published from 1968 to 2011, to represent the “essential” Berry. Key words in the essay titles signal Berry’s ongoing concerns: nature, work, rugged individualism, citizenship, and agriculture. Throughout, he promotes caretaking, faith-keeping, kindness, and peace. In the introduction, Kingsnorth notes, “soil is the recurring image in these essays.” In 1989, Berry wrote, “we persist in land-use methods that reduce the potentially infinite power of soil fertility to a finite quantity, which we then proceed to waste as if it were an infinite quantity.” The author champions the “renewal of rural communities,” which must be accomplished “from the inside by the ancient rule of neighborliness, by the love of precious things, and by the wish to be at home.” In a fine piece on regional literature, Berry laments Twain’s conclusion to Huckleberry Finn, which “fails in failing to imagine a responsible, adult community life.” Instead, he pines for the “beloved community” of Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs. Berry also argues fiercely that “illiteracy is both a personal and a public danger.” Literacy, he writes, “is not an ornament, but a necessity.” Though the author is generally fairly somber, his 1987 essay explaining why he won’t buy a computer reveals a sly sense of humor: “If the use of a computer is a new idea, then a newer idea is not to use one.”
A great place to start for those who are not familiar with Berry’s work; for those who are, it will be a nostalgic stroll down a rural, wooded Memory Lane. In this day and age, his writings are must-reads.
Reflections both practical and philosophical on the craft and purview of tale telling, from the creator of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
Rather than dish out amusing quotes from fan letters or standard-issue author talk, Pullman (La Belle Sauvage, 2017, etc.) offers meaty but always lucidly argued ruminations on the nature of story. He explores folktales and why they endure and matter, parallels and differences between literary and visual arts, and, a central theme in HDM(which is not, he insists, fantasy but “a work of stark realism,” daemons and armored bears notwithstanding), the profound conflicts between the reductive, authoritarian Christian “Kingdom” and the freer, more ideologically spacious “Republic of Heaven.” Amid animated tributes to Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Milton, Blake, the “vast original energy” of Dickens, and others, Pullman draws from the language of subatomic physics to discourse on the “Fundamental Particles of Narrative,” each carrying a “metaphorical charge,” and how, for writers, each event in a new story creates a “phase space” within which all subsequent ones lurk. This is all saved from earnest or recondite lit-crit not only by the author’s evident intelligence and respect for his readers, but also a gift for dandy one-liners: “If you want to write something perfect, go for a haiku”; “No man is a hero to his novelist”; “What you think ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is about when you’re six is not what you think it’s about when you’re forty”; “I strongly approve of original sin.” Published or presented between 1997 and 2014 and arranged in loose thematic order, these articles, talks, and introductory essays consistently demonstrate that Pullman—for all that his gaze is avowedly white and male—is as fine a thinker as he is a storyteller. It’s almost not fair.
A collection of pieces infused with abundant wisdom, provocative notions, and illuminating insights.
A Yale professor and her playwriting student forge an extraordinary friendship.
In a tender, intimate memoir, award-winning playwright Ruhl (100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, 2014, etc.) honors the life and remarkable mind of Max Ritvo (Four Reincarnations: Poems, 2016, etc.), a poet of exceptional grace and insight who died in 2016 at the age of 25. When Ritvo walked into Ruhl’s classroom in 2012, he seemed markedly more mature than her other students: “Some rarefied combination of a young Mike Nichols and an old John Keats, he seemed eighty years old and not of this century.” In remission from a rare cancer that had been diagnosed when he was in high school, Ritvo soon wrote to Ruhl that the cancer had returned. In the next four years, he underwent multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, experimental treatments, and radiation, all the while graduating from Yale, completing an MFA program at Columbia, marrying, giving exuberant poetry readings, and publishing his work to great acclaim. Wracked by suffering, facing death, and immersed in writing, Ritvo deepened his friendship with Ruhl, reflected in the letters, emails, and poems that they shared and which Ruhl has selected for this deeply moving, often heartbreaking volume. It is testimony both to the evolution of their friendship and to a wise and passionate young man. “Max,” writes the author, “had a wild gift of eloquence; he married this gift with his singular gift for listening.” A year into their relationship, the two decided to write letters “in a more self-conscious way,” hoping to collect them into a book. Thoughts about spirit, God, identity, the meaning of an afterlife, and, especially, grief, recur as Max moved closer to death. “I do believe consciousness persists,” Ruhl wrote to Max; something of the soul “travels and arrives somewhere.” Suffering from “overwhelming bodily discomfort,” Max admits, he could use a God who would “maybe start to care enough to intervene.” Maybe, he adds later, “my grief and your inspired calm are part of a greater consciousness.”
Six years of hope and joy end with a spiraling descent to suicide.
Journals, soul-baring poems, autobiographical fiction, and several biographies and critical studies have made the trajectory and struggles of Sylvia Plath’s (1932-1963) life familiar. Nevertheless, the second volume of her correspondence, edited, annotated, and introduced by Plath scholars Steinberg and Kukil, offers new revelations: unabridged letters to her mother and letters to the psychiatrist who treated Plath in the U.S. until 1959 and by letter after Plath settled in England. In an exceptionally sensitive foreword, Plath’s daughter writes of her stunned reaction when these intimate letters came to light in 2016, her trepidation about reading them, and the insights they gave her about her parents’ intense, almost claustrophobic love and the dramatic end of their marriage. It was her generous and well-considered decision to allow them into this volume. In hundreds of letters to her mother, Plath ebulliently and insistently conveys her happiness about writing, motherhood, and—until she discovers Hughes’ affair—her marriage. She portrays Hughes as nothing less than an Adonis: “a kind, handsome, wonderful person”; virile and attractive; a genius who, without a doubt, will achieve greatness as a poet. He tenderly nurses her through colds, flu, and a miscarriage and happily plays with his daughter in the mornings so that Plath can write. Even when struggling financially, even when they both try to write in a cramped two-room apartment, Plath betrays no chink in the gleaming surface of their marriage. In 1959, though, when both are in residence at Yaddo, she admits, “I am so happy we can work apart, for that is what we’ve really needed.” Correspondents include Plath’s brother; Hughes’ parents (to whom she writes ingratiating encomiums about their son) and his overbearing sister; friends, fellow poets, and assorted relatives; and many editors who publish her work. Although worries and anxiety occasionally creep in, not until the end does she become overwhelmed with frustration, anger, and a desperate fear of madness.
An exemplary edition offering a textured portrait of an iconic poet.
The scholar and culture warrior comes out swinging with an overstuffed omnibus that hits and misses in equal measure.
Ever since the publication of her extraordinary 1990 critical study Sexual Personae, Paglia (Humanities and Media Studies/Univ. of the Arts, Philadelphia; Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, 2017, etc.) has been somewhat of a split personality, and some readers may wish her two sides could be separated. Keep the artist/critic, the excavator of cultural mysteries, the scold of higher education, and the daunting interpreter of art and poetry whose book Break, Blow, Burn (2005) is a masterpiece; banish the self-promoter who often gets triggered by liberalism and feminism. The present volume, which collects the author’s work from Washington Post Book World, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, ARTnews, the Hollywood Reporter, and many other diverse publications, is both brilliant and occasionally obnoxious. Paglia covers a vast swath of society and culture at large, including sections on popular culture, literature, education, art, politics, and more. She is still at her fiery intellectual best as a teacher, whether she’s throwing out odd but intriguing comparisons—Captain Ahab and Ziggy Stardust are both “scarred by lightning,” each “a voyager who has defied ordinary human limits and paid the price”—or deciphering poetry, happily butchering sacred cows along the way. (Wallace Stevens “ended his career with a laborious, plodding, skeletal style, employed in self-questioning poems of numbing length.”) Paglia loves classic rebels, including Dylan, Dalí, Picasso, Warhol, and the gay artist Tom of Finland, but she’s equally inclined to power. She writes fondly of Ayn Rand, a “bold female thinker who should immediately have been a centerpiece of women’s studies programs”; New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (“I am frankly enjoying his assault on the arts establishment”); and Sarah Palin (“like Annie Oakley, a brash ambassador from America’s pioneer past”).
Your mileage, as they say, may vary where this shrewd cultural historian—and shallow contemporary observer—is concerned. Take it or leave it: This career retrospective is both maddening and essential.
A new edition, with thorough commentary, of the memoirs of an American Caesar—and indeed, a book long reckoned to be America’s version of The Gallic Wars.
Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1855) began his military career without much promise but distinguished himself in combat in the Mexican-American War, where, as he recounts, he came into contact with many of his future opponents in the Civil War. His legendary service in the Western theater of operations, and later as commander of the entire Union Army, led to his election and re-election as president, but all that did not save him from being bilked by a business partner—and thus this memoir, which none other than Mark Twain convinced him to publish to provide for his soon-to-be-widow, since Grant was already ill with cancer. As editor Samet (English/West Point; No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post–9/11 America, 2014, etc.) notes, rumors immediately emerged that Twain had ghostwritten it. In fact, Grant labored endlessly on this massive book, which, writes Samet, “is the artifact that does justice to his achievement as the leader of an army that preserved a nation and emancipated four million people.” Grant’s writing is simple and unadorned, though those who read between the lines will see that he is nothing if not politically astute. His account of the political troubles of William Tecumseh Sherman for offering the same mercies as he had to the vanquished Confederate forces is a model of understatement—though, he adds, “the feeling against Sherman died out very rapidly, and it was not many weeks before he was restored to the fullest confidence of the American people.” If anything, Samet might be criticized, gently, for being too vigorous in annotation; an early disquisition on the French and Indian War, for instance, is orders of magnitude longer than the aside of Grant’s that prompted it, and it begs to be reined in. Nonetheless, for Civil War buffs, this is a must-read.
This is the edition that serious students of the Civil War, and Grant’s role in it, will want. Indispensable.
For those heartsick at Trumpism, essayist and Harper’s contributing editor Solnit (The Mother of All Questions, 2017, etc.) offers context and support. Optimism? You’re on your own.
As the author argues in this fiery clutch of essays, optimism isn’t a particularly helpful attitude anyway. Optimism—and its obverse, pessimism—are “false certainties” that “let us stay home and do nothing” in response to hard-line, bigoted conservatism. It is better, she argues, to cultivate hope, “an informed, astute open-mindedness.” That’s a thesis Solnit has explored often, particularly in her 2009 book on Hurricane Katrina and other tragedies, A Paradise Built in Hell, and she’s persuasive at marshaling a case for the long view while being cleareyed about the degradations of the moment. The 1916 Irish rebellion against the British, for instance, paved the way to independence two decades later, and years of steady pressure led to the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans in 2017. So don’t despair: “We don’t know what will happen next and have to live on principles, hunches, and lessons from history.” Which is why the author doesn’t mind the criticism that liberal pundits like her are preaching to the choir by reasserting principles and history lessons: The choir represents the “deeply committed” who need encouragement. Stoking that support in part demands attacking doublespeak that enables bigotry and unethical behavior from governments. She explores this most effectively in “Death by Gentrification,” an investigation of the shooting of a San Francisco man by police and the rhetorical pretzels police used to blame the victim. Telling the story wrong, with the wrong words and framing, threatens democracy, she exhorts journalism school graduates in one essay. Her own work is a model of doing it right.
Solnit is careful with her words (she always is) but never so much that she mutes the infuriated spirit that drives these essays.