Essays by 30 contemporary women writers whose work has helped remake the nonfiction literary landscape.
In this collection, Aldrich (English/Michigan State Univ.; Companion to an Untold Story, 2012, etc.) shows how women writers have transformed the essay into a “shape-shifting thing…[that] can do many turns, take on any subject and assume any structure demanded by the writer’s aims and the requirements of the materials she wields.” Toward that end, the editor has selected pieces from bestselling nonfiction writers like Cheryl Strayed and Leslie Jamison as well as work by lesser-known, but no less talented, individuals such as cultural anthropologist/women’s rights advocate Adriana Paramo and San Francisco chef Dana Tommasino. The essays are mostly personal in content. What distinguishes each is the manner in which the writer manipulates form to tell her story. In the opening essay, “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Strayed writes a brief second-person account—in the guise of Rumpus advice columnist Sugar—to her 20-something self about the small things (like concerns about her weight) that she should have ignored and the small things (an imperfect gift from a soon-to-be-dead mother) that she should have honored. In “This is How I Spell My Body,” Paramo considers her various body parts—from ass to zygomatic bone—in light of her relationship to men. Tommasino merges the language of fact and poetry into a fluid, lyric whole in “birdbreath, twin, synonym,” her chronologically fragmented meditation on the twin ex-convict brother from whom she has grown apart. “In Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Jamison considers the topic of female pain by examining the various forms of self- and other-inflicted wounds that both famous and ordinary people have experienced. Aldrich’s collection not only rides the “new wave” in nonfiction essay writing with bravura, intelligence, and sensitivity. It also reveals the depth and vastness of the contemporary female literary ocean that produced it. Other contributors include Meghan Daum, Roxane Gay, Eula Biss, and Margo Jefferson.
Eclectic and always engaging.