Essay Collections in the North Carolina Digital Library

In my previous entry, the subject was short stories.  For nonfiction readers who still like to read shorter works, it seems that essays might just be the answer.  And essays don’t have to be boring – in the hands of good writers, they’re devourable slices of life from the mundane to fascinating.  In this suggested group of collections, you’ll read from humorists, neurologists, scientists, fiction writers who wax poetic in nonfiction prose, and more.  Read on…

Calypso by David Sedaris – from This American Life to now, Sedaris still retains his eclectic wit.  Here, topics range from his family to recent politics to a beach house called the Sea Section.

Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil DeGrasse Tyson – A question and answer series of sessions, focusing on letters that Tyson has received from fans all over, asking about the big questions of life and universe.

The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani –  A former New Yorks Times critic makes an observation of truth and its gradual erosion from society, as subjectivity and fake news take center stage, a process she determines began decades ago.

The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks – the many-faceted Sacks wrote prolifically about the anomalies of human thought.  Here, in some of the last writings before his death in 2015, Sacks examines a wide range of human (and biological) experience.

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman – Gaiman has written some wonderful, and sometimes disturbing, fantasy fiction.  Here, he’s equally at home in the essay format.  Gaiman extols reading and the institutions that foster it (Hear!  Hear!  libraries and bookstores!) early on in this collection.  Included is “Make Good Art”, his commencement address from 2012.

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead – the author of The Underground Railroad turns his attention to the world of high stakes poker.  Knowing little about the game, Whitehead immersed himself into training for the biggest game of all in Las Vegas.  His essays detail life and its extremities at the poker table.

Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer – A conservative writer who has his own conventions on practically any subject, Krauthammer takes on more than just politics in this collection of essays spanning the past thirty years.

Steal the Menu by Raymond Sokolov – Another “life in food” memoir in essays.  Sokolov, who has written for both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, praises and roasts in equal measure the restaurants and food encounters that have shaped his perceptions of cuisine.

When I Was a Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson – essays from the author of Gilead that look at the role of faith in society and the myths of individualism.

The Fran Lebowitz Reader – This combines two of Lebowitz’s earlier bestsellers (Metropolitan Life and Social Studies), providing a window to New York City in the 1970s with biting wit.

All of these are in the North Carolina Digital Library collection, brought to you by the Greensboro Public Library.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Last Wilderness by Neil Ansell

The Last WildernessI generally like nature writing, but it depends on the density of the prose.  There are writers and their books that I want to like and feel that I should, but their writing requires some immersion and patience.

For example, I remember years ago trying to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.  Beautifully written, from what I recall, but I put it down after a few pages.

I had better success with Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, as its subject was Great Britain, with particular interest in Scotland.  I never finished the book (although I intend to) as his writing is fantastic; he is just another writer that you really have to sit still as you read.

There are other books that had me at the early pages.  This book was one of them.

I noticed The Last Wilderness when I was sending it out to another library.  The premise seemed interesting – the author, no stranger to long jaunts into the wild,  focuses his series of walks to a remote peninsula of the western Highlands of Scotland – remote in that there are few roads, and the country there is rugged and hard to traverse.

To the author, the country and seasides of this area are teeming with wildlife.  An average observer might notice the seagulls or an occasional crow.  As an avid birder, Ansell sees much more, and is happy to immerse the reader in rapturous descriptions of the fowl that pass through.

Birds are just part of his interest – the author also calls our attention to the elusive otter, rarely seen whales offshore, numerous red deer, and a never-seen but sensed wildcat, who almost becomes Ansell’s totem animal.

As he tromps through this rough country of mountains and loch, sea and cliffs, Ansell ruminates on personal past and present – his childhood, where he first took interest in wildlife; a younger adulthood, where he spent five years alone in a hermit-like cottage in Wales; and his current situation, where an increasing deafness disrupts his experiences of hearing some of the very birds he cherishes.

His prose style, while initially taking a bit of patience, is ultimately very accessible.  Ansell paints this remote corner of Scotland as a very lively place, and for readers that crave solitude, this book is it.

Pair this book with Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines : A Conversation with the Natural World or Erling Kagge’s Walking:  One Step at a Time, and you can’t go wrong, in my opinion.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers : A Gallery of Memorable Southerners by Hal Crowther

Although Hal Crowther is not a Southerner by birth, he is one of the more eloquentfreedom fighters essayists to write about the region.  And while it is obvious that he has an affection for the South, he is not hesitant to criticize it.

In Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers, the author muses on the legacies of a variety of past Southerners – some virtuous, others not so much.  All have been influential on politics, art, journalism, or social thought.

In several of these, Crowther writes admirably of his subjects, and brings to the forefront figures that probably should be in the average consciousness.  Cases in point – Molly Ivins and her firebrand version of commentary that riled right many of her cohorts in Texas.  Or John Hope Franklin, the renowned African-American historian who made the telling of American history more inclusive for the voices that had too long been silent.

As for his pieces on Jesse Helms or George Wallace, Crowther’s observations are posthumous roasts.  He readily acknowledges the political influence that both have had in the South, but Crowther’s views are not favorable to either.  I think that for him, these two are far too old guard and vehement to fit in with a progressive South, and it’s telling that Crowther’s best subjects are those who have encouraged fresh thought in our area of the country.

Crowther’s essays are measured, reasonable, occasionally cranky, but always worth reading in that he gets you to think.  I don’t agree with him on everything, but I’d recommend Hal Crowther to anybody who likes the essay form, or just likes good writing.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Kayak Morning : Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats by Roger Rosenblatt

Tkayakhe author muses on existence while navigating a kayak through the inlet waters of Long Island.

Loss and grief are the main themes here.  Rosenblatt’s grown-up daughter died a few years ago; his aquatic meanderings are his way of coping with feelings that refuse to disappear.

The setting for his adventures is Penniman Creek in Quogue, Long Island.  On his travels, Rosenblatt meditates on water and what it symbolizes.  He also observes the kayak itself, and how the construction of it makes it unique for navigation.

Rosenblatt’s companions during his solitude are blue herons and egrets, fish of all types, the occasional crab.  A reminder of death is a picked-over fish skeleton.

Kayak Morning is a book that is quickly read, but best savored slowly, a mashup of meditation, literature references, and open water.  It’s pretty much a book-length essay, but one that is broken up into easily digestible portions.  There’s a dreamlike poetic feel to much of it.

For outdoor enthusiasts and the bereaved, and anyone else who enjoys floating through good prose.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman

This is my first foray into an Alan Lightman book.  I’ve seen others come down the pikeSearching for Stars (Screening Room comes to mind fairly recently) but haven’t made the commitment, until this one, which appeared interesting and was reasonably short.

Lightman asks the big questions in this collection of essays that ponder the universe from its far reaches to sub-atomic territory, the minutiae of nature, and how spirituality and science contradict and complement each other.

We start out with a sliver of an essay about the Font-de-Gaume cave in France and Lightman’s impressions of the people from 17,000 B.C. who created the paintings there.  From there Lightman shares his thoughts on the vastness of the universe during an epiphany while on his back in a boat.

These are the mere beginnings.  As you read along, your excursion will take you into Buddhism, early Christian writers, quantum physics, and the possibilities of multiverses.  Lightman, who doesn’t necessarily profess a belief, still feels a need for spirituality within the scientific world, and is glad to include both Saint Augustine and Albert Einstein as persons worthy of discussion.

Not all of the essays are easy reads.  Some are short and quick; the first one about the Font-de-Gaume cave is over in a few minutes, a small gulp of prose.  Other more lengthy entries require a definite focus, and certain concepts that the author brings up were beyond my knowledge.  The pluses?  Lightman writes accessably and the book gets you thinking about things beyond the mundane.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Sightlines : A Conversation with the Natural World by Kathleen Jamie

As a nature writer, Kathleen Jamie sparkles.

In her native Scotland, she is knownsightlines primarily as a poet.  As an essayist, it would be great if she does more.  In Sightlines, Jamie takes an intense interest in all that she observes, and her places of interest range from the microscopic renderings of the human body to the fjords of Greenland.

Jamie’s essays cover the otherworldly, too.  In “Moon”, I think she’s put together a most excellent narrative about a lunar eclipse; she sees an event of high drama in the earth’s encroaching shadow.  During her visit to Greenland, Jamie takes on the Northern Lights, about as otherworldly a thing as anything we’ll ever see.

Her essays take in great swaths of the natural world, with a focus on the maritime climes of the northern Atlantic.  The sea and its effect on remote island settlements play a major part in several pieces here.  Whales are also a particular fascination – one essay is about her visit to the Hvalsalen, a museum in Norway with an extensive collection of whale skeletons.  There she is able to work with a restoration crew on a cleanup of the most significant specimens of the museum.

I found Jamie’s writing and scope of interest comparable to Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, Landmarks), another British author who writes some amazing nature essays.  As with him, her writing begs the reader to slow down and to stretch one’s attention span.  If you’re willing, you’ll be glad you did.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Opposite of Fate; A Book of Musings by Amy Tan

opposite of fateMany readers know Amy Tan as the author of novels exploring life in China and the lives of Chinese immigrants to the United States.  These are based in part on her own family history.  In The Opposite of Fate, she has collected her autobiographical writings and her essays about her writing.  Much of what people have written about her life is incorrect, and she gives us the real story.

Tan’s life has had tragic elements: the death of her father, the murder of a close friend, and her struggle with Lyme’s Disease.  Her relationship with her mother, an immigrant from China, has sometimes been difficult.  However, her life is not, by any means, entirely sad.  In addition to her great success as an author, she’s enjoyed playing in a rock band made up of authors, including Dave Barry and Stephen King, and had a very happy experience when she played a major part in script-writing and decision-making during the filming of her first blockbuster novel, The Joy Luck Club.  I read many portions of this book out loud to my husband, and he remarked many times, “Amy Tan is funny!”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Dimestore by Lee Smith

Although the award-winning writer Lee Smith grew up in the mountains of Virginia, shedimestore has lived in North Carolina, most recently in Hillsborough, for many years.  These essays about her life and writing are good reading, especially for fans of her fiction.  If you grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s, you’ll especially enjoy sharing her memories of these years.  If you’re familiar with Chapel Hill, you’ll want to see it through Lee Smith’s eyes.

Smith grew up in a rather dysfunctional but loving family and often spent time in the small-town dime store that her father owned.  There she observed the lives of many people and listened to their conversations, gaining insights that would later provide material for fiction.  She began writing as a child, getting into trouble with a neighborhood newspaper with editorials such as “George McGuire Is Too Grumpy” and “Mrs. Ruth Boyd Is a Mean Music Teacher.”  In her college writing classes, she wrote about alternative universes, stewardesses in Hawaii, and other topics far from her own life, ignoring her teachers’ advice to “write what you know” until the fateful day when she attended a reading by Eudora Welty and realized that good stories could come from a relatively uneventful life.  Smith’s first novel was somewhat autobiographical, and her mother, thinking that local folks might believe that every detail about the fictional characters was true of their family, made sure that no one in the small town where the family lived would find that book in a local store or library!  Smith has broadened her choice of topics, having long ago “used up” her childhood and adolescent experiences, but her own experiences still inspire her fiction.

Smith writes about the deaths of loved ones and the mental illnesses of family members, but her memories also include humorous events and times of great joy.

I could select a delightful quotation from almost any page, but I’ll choose just one, which describes her parents’ support for anything she wanted to do with her life: “I believe if I had told my mother that I wanted to be, say, an ax murderer, she would have said, without blinking an eye, ‘Well, that’s nice, dear, what do you think you might want to major in?’  My daddy would have gone out to buy me the ax.  Though my parents might feel – as Mama certainly said later – that they wished I would just stop all that writing stuff and marry a lawyer or a doctor, which is what a daughter really ought to do, of course, the fact is that they were so loving that they gave me the confidence, and the permission, early on, to do just about anything I wanted to do.”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)