Personal Essays

Current Events, 2020

The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 by James Baldwin

Non-Fiction20th CenturyPersonal EssaysClassics

The Price of the Ticket contains almost every piece of nonfiction the great and prophetic Baldwin wrote, from his earliest published works to those in the final years of his life. Ranging from his longest and most famous essays like The Fire Next Time to shorter works of literary criticism, Baldwin’s brilliant and exquisitely articulated observations are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. Steadfast and melodic, the ghost-like echo of Baldwin’s singular voice rings out from every sentence, every word. The Price of the Ticket is an essential American classic. 

The Art of the Personal Essay, An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present Selected by Phillip Lopate

Non-FictionAnthologyPersonal EssaysClassics

A comprehensive compendium of the form, The Art of the Personal Essay begins with the work of “forerunners” like Seneca, Plutarch, and Hsiu. In the four sections that follow, Lopate winds his way from Montaigne, Hazlitt, and Edgeworth to Woolf, Baldwin, and Rodriguez, and almost every major essayist in between. Roland Barthes’ views on cinema, G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on wearing hats on windy days, and Joan Didion’s reflections on her crushing migraines, are just a few of the many topics covered in this hefty volume.

Intimations by Zadie Smith

Non-Fiction-21st CenturyPersonal Essays

In six essays, the inimitable Zadie Smith offers her crystalline observations of life during the early days of the lockdown. Setting her keen eye on the individuals she encounters on a daily basis, Smith brings their lives into focus against the backdrop of a world grappling with both COVID and the unrelenting virus of hate. In a time of social isolation, Intimations reminds us that we are still here and if we put down our phones long enough to take a look around, we may notice each other, not simply as masked strangers, but as fellow participants in this “global humbling.”

Narratives in Verse

Baltic Sea From Helsingør, pastel on paper

Omeros by Dereck Walcott

Poets and PoetryEpic20th Century

Nobel Prize winner Dereck Walcott’s epic masterpiece, Omeros, is Homeric in scope but entirely Walcott in both its message and poetic technique. The poet tackles the tragedy of colonialism, the subjugation of land and people, specifically, his native island of St. Lucia (“the Helen of the West Indies”) with luminous, natural imagery and a loose yet impactful terza rima scheme. 

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

Poets and Poetry20th Century

Written as an exercise to detach from the tedious demands of an economics doctoral program, The Golden Gate explores the complexities of monogamy, marriage, and friendship in 1980s San Francisco. What makes this work so singularly impressive is that Seth is able to utilize the sonnet as a vehicle for conveying an expansive yet nuanced narrative of modern love and loss.  

Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson

Poets and Poetry21st CenturyBiography

Poet and essayist Maggie Nelson tells the story of her aunt Jane’s short life and murder through a series of poetic, dreamscapes that draw from her aunt’s journal, family memories, and her own exquisite imagination.  The result is a haunting biography in verse that both celebrates and eulogizes a young woman whose promising life was mercilessly cut short.

Writers on Writing

Solitary Turbine, oil on canvas, 2017

The Reader Over Your Shoulder by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge

Style guide20th Century

Concieved on the cusp of WWII, Graves and Hodge’s guide to writing prose in the English language was developed in an effort to preserve some semblance of certainty at a time when life, as they knew it, was about to become a memory. The Reader Over Your Shoulder is not only a guide for creating clear and impactful prose; it is also an exploration of the history of writing in English, peculiarities of the language itself, and the many styles of writing that can be crafted from it. Above all else, Graves and Hodge shepherd us through the essential techniques needed to set down our thoughts with clarity and grace. 

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Memoir20th Century

Perhaps Bird by Bird is so widely beloved because it honestly acknowledges the terror and self-loathing that can be felt by so many of us who endeavor to write. With humor, warmth, and practicality, novelist and essayest, Anne Lamott offers her wisdom on dealing with “shitty” first drafts (“the child’s draft”), perfectionism (“the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”), how to quiet negative voices (“say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we are going to do right now is write a description of the river at sunrise…”) and how to get started on a short assignment (write down as much as you can see “through a one-inch picture frame”). Over and over within this little gem of a book, Lamott gives us the gift of light in the void of self-doubt.

On Writing by Stephen King

Memoir21st Century

“Sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” This is Stephen King’s way of telling us to just keep writing, even if we feel like the entire enterprise is useless. Indeed, of all the advice the prolific novelist doles out in this Memoir of the Craft, the one that resonates most is that in order to learn how to write well, one must practice writing “without fear and affectation” and dispense with the notion that there is actually “good” or “bad” writing. With his razor-sharp honesty and biting humor, King reminds us that the real monster in every writer’s closet is him or herself.

Erotic Memoirs

Librarian

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany

EroticMemoirCultural History20th Century

Samuel R. Delany, best known for his groundbreaking science fiction, chronicles his escapades on Forty-second street in this vivid and honest memoir. If you were even mildly tickled by David Simon’s attempt to recapture the glory days of Times Square smut in The Deuce, you will likely delight in Delany’s nostalgic descent into the recesses of the theaters, peep shows, and toy shops, while he describes a world in which men, both straight and gay, felt the freedom to indulge in their desires and at the same time tap into a tenuous yet potent feeling of camaraderie and community that has long since been replaced by cartoon musicals and personal handheld devices.

The Surrender by Toni Bentley

EroticMemoir21st Century

Dancer Toni Bentley is effusive and at times hyperbolic in her admiration for backdoor bliss, but despite the dramatic flair, her memoir can’t help being both sincere and charming in its way. By exalting both the physical sensation and the incredible sense of power and release she feels while engaging in the act of anal sex, Bentley makes a convincing plug for those who have yet to cross this particular Rubicon. 

A Letter From My Father: The Strange, Intimate Correspondence of W. Ward Smith to His Son Page Smith by Page Smith

EroticMemoir20th Century

Strange and intimate indeed! Upon his father’s death in 1968, Page Smith was bequeathed the epic letter that his father had intended for him to read and learn from.  In between the mundane details of his business and family life, W. Ward Smith frequently litters his missive with intensely graphic retellings of his gluttonous sexual escapades that spanned decades. Thankfully, Page Smith rejected his initial impulse to burn the over ten-thousand pages, and instead decided to publish A Letter From My Father, making it a rare and abundant social/sexual document written by a genuine and prolific libertine. 

Modern Gothics

Storm Damage, August, 2020

The Riders by Tim Winton

Scully, an Australian ex-pat has just purchased a ramshackle cottage that sits on a “bare scalp of hill” along the Slieve Bloom mountains of central Ireland. Intending to renovate the dwelling for his wife and young daughter, Scully tirelessly untangles the place from the creeping vegetation only to discover that his wife has disappeared without a trace. Left alone with his child and the gaping wound in his heart, Scully attempts to unravel the mystery that looms over the novel like the shadow of a moldering castle. Dark, damp, and mournful, The Riders reads like a haunting Irish lament.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Hundreds Hall, the sprawling Georgian house owned by the Ayers family, has been lodging ghostly secrets for centuries. Though it has seen better days, by the end of the second world war, as England’s landed estates begin to be dismantled, Hundreds’ secrets are still potent enough to send maids running scared into the night, requiring the ministrations of the local Dr. Faraday to set the house and its inhabitants to rights. Faraday soon learns that there is one member of the Ayers family who will not follow his recommendations. Waters employs the ghost-story trope brilliantly here as she examines the final demise of England’s landed gentry and the tenuous fate of an independent woman. 

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Daisy Johnson has a penchant for personifying houses in a most disturbing way. The Settle House, the salt-scrubbed and splintered setting of her latest, Sisters, serves as a character in itself, with its sinking floors and throbbing walls. Beneath its sloped roof, reside Sheela and her two daughters, named September and July. The sisters, in their mid-teens, are only ten months apart in age, making them what is known as “Irish twins.” It quickly becomes clear, however, that the sisters are less two than they are one; July seems to dwell not only in the Settle House but also in the very body of her sister as if she is some sort of living and breathing fetus in fetu. Johnson’s sharp and vivid prose makes for an unsettling and delicious portrait of two girls who suffer from warped identities and unreliable memories.