AN ESSAY AIN´T EASY
says Norman Warwick
According to Dictionary.com the word essay is a noun meaning ´a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative´. On the other hand the word essay can also describe effort to perform or accomplish something. Hmmm.
Essay collections offer a unique kind of reader experience, one that can be rewarding in a different way from novels or even other types of nonfiction. Essays often provide multiple angles of attack on a certain theme, providing a kind of literary 3-D effect. Sometimes they work as little first-person short stories. And sometimes they’re just funny.
The helpful people of Goodreads recently created a list of thirty published essay collections, currently available, each offering an assortment of bite-size writing from a particular author (or, in some cases, an invited collection of authors).
Among some quite heavy-weight and deeply researched material there is some comic relief, too, and readers might turn to Annabelle Gurwitch, the never-not-funny Thurber Prize nominee, and her new collection, You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility.
I can only offer our readers the titles and suggestions that stood out for me, but if you look up the full list on line you will, of course, have a wider selection
I was first drawn to what was described as ´a stirring meditation on Black performance in America from the New York Times bestselling author of Go Ahead in the Rain.
Hanif Abdurraqib (left) is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism have been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. His first full length poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, was released in June 2016 from Button Poetry. It was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize, and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. With Big Lucks, he released a limited edition chapbook, Vintage Sadness, in summer 2017 (you cannot get it anymore and he is very sorry.) His first collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in winter 2017 by Two Dollar Radio and was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire, NPR, Oprah Magazine, Paste, CBC, The Los Angeles Review, Pitchfork, and The Chicago Tribune, among others. ´
He released Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest (right) with University of Texas press in February 2019. The book became a New York Times Bestseller, and was met with critical acclaim. His second collection of poems, A Fortune For Your Disaster, was released in 2019 by Tin House. He is a graduate of Beechcroft High School.
At the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker (left) was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. ´I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too´, she told the crowd. Inspired by these few words, Hanif Abdurraqib has written a profound and lasting reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. Each moment in every performance he examines—whether it’s the twenty-seven seconds in Gimme Shelter in which Merry Clayton wails the words ´rape, murder,´ a schoolyard fistfight, a dance marathon, or the instant in a game of spades right after the cards are dealt—has layers of resonance in Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib’s own personal history of love, grief, and performance.
Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain, infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians he loves. With care and generosity, he explains the poignancy of performances big and small, each one feeling intensely familiar and vital, both timeless and desperately urgent. Filled with sharp insight, humour, and heart, A Little Devil in America exalts the Black performance that unfolds in specific moments in time and space—from mid-century Paris to the moon, and back down again to a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio.
Traci at The Stacks‘s review said on-line of this collection:
´These essays are so damn good. The sentences are gorgeous. The arguments are unique. Also he’s writing about music and dance and culture moments in this way thats so rich and evocative. Which I think has gotta be hard. There’s an essay about Merry Clayton & “Gimme Shelter” and how he describes this song we all know gives the whole thing new life and resonance. He sees and lifts the complexity of Blackness. He delves into grief. There’s so much good here´.
Like a song that feels written just for you, Larissa Pham’s debut, Pop Song is also a work of nonfiction captures the imagination and refuses to let go.
Endlessly inventive, intimate, and provocative, this memoir-in-essays is a celebration of the strange and exquisite state of falling in love, whether with a painting or a person, that interweaves incisive commentary on modern life, feminism, art and sex with the author’s own experiences of obsession, heartbreak, and past trauma.
A Pop Song, indeed
Larissa´s book is about love and about falling in love—with a place, or a painting, or a person—and the joy and terror inherent in the experience of that love. Plumbing the well of culture for clues and patterns about love and loss—from Agnes Martin’s abstract paintings to James Turrell’s transcendent light works, and Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweetto Frank Ocean’s Blonde—Pham writes of her youthful attempts to find meaning in travel, sex, drugs, and art, before sensing that she might need to turn her gaze upon herself.
This is also a book about distances, near and far. As she travels from Taos, New Mexico, to Shanghai, China and beyond, Pham meditates on the miles we are willing to cover to get away from ourselves, or those who hurt us, and the impossible gaps that can exist between two people sharing a bed.
Pop Song is, too, a book about all the routes by which we might escape our own needs before finally finding a way home. There is heartache in these pages, but Pham’s electric ways of seeing create a perfectly fractured portrait of modern intimacy that is triumphant in both its vulnerability and restlessness.
In his five star review on – line ´Geoff ´says:
´There is a lot to like in Pop Song. Pham is both intimate and scholarly, disclosing and discursive, open and hurt, angry and hopeful. A collection of personal essays tinged with scholarly discussions of art, the book turns out to describe the arc of a relationship, moving back through her life all through to the aftermath. She addresses her (former) love directly in the second person throughout the book, and while I’ve found “you” to be off-putting or precious in other places, here it works because Pham is almost always talking about how “you” made her feel or how she reacted to “you” or what she wanted and needed. There are some heavy subjects in here around bondage, racial fetishes, commercialization of art, and social media commodification of “authentic” lives among others. there are also some great descriptions of art and artists and how and why they matter both in general and to her. Really enjoyed this brave work´.
How Far You Have Come (right) is an exquisitely illustrated collection of poetry and essays from bestselling artist and writer Morgan Harper Nichols. She has plenty of items of interest on her site at
In the midst of the hurt and the mundane, the questions and the not yets, you can forget just how far you have come. Morgan weaves together personal reflections with her signature poems, encouraging you to reclaim moments of brokenness, division, and pain and re-envision them as experiences of reconciliation, unity, and hope.
As Morgan reflects on the moments that shaped her, she invites you to:
Awaken your heart and recognize how your own history has made you who you are today
Into a deeper understanding of pressing on and pressing in, of transformation and surrender, of meaning in the losses and wild anticipation for the splendour ahead
Reclaim moments of brokenness, division, and pain and re-envision them as experiences of reconciliation, unity, and hope.
Become who you are in the moment you hold right now
A Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly bestselling author, Morgan has cultivated a loyal on-line community, over a million Instagram followers, and an in-person following as she shares her unique message around the country. How Far You Have Come is an excellent gift for college and high school graduations, faith celebrations and anniversaries, life transitions, and birthdays or simply a gift for yourself.
Morgan Harper Nichols is a writer, artist, and musician who makes her work around people and their stories.
Morgan spent the first few years of her adult life as a college admission counselor, and then, as a full-time touring singer-songwriter and musician. It was on the road that she cultivated her curiosity and passion for the written word and art, and slowly began to share her art with others online.
In 2017, Morgan started a project where she invites people to submit their stories to her website. From there, she creates art inspired by what they send her, and then, sends them the art, for free. Nearly everything Morgan creates and shares today is from this project, and she always keeps the names and stories anonymous. The fruit of this project is shared daily around social media, in publications, on murals, and more
An on line review at Pancho´s Pages says it’s official. Morgan Harper Nichols is a GENIUS. This book is stunning. It is good for the soul, and every page is a work of art.
Rachel Kushner (right) has similarly established herself as a master of the essay form. In The Hard Crowd, she gathers a selection of her writing from over the course of the last twenty years that addresses the most pressing political, artistic, and cultural issues of our times—and illuminates the themes and real-life terrain that underpin her fiction.
Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of three novels: the Booker Prize- and NBCC Award–shortlisted The Mars Room; The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times top ten book of 2013; and Telex from Cuba, a finalist for the National Book Award. She has been awarded prizes and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her novels are translated into 26 languages. She lives in Los Angeles and wants you to know that if you’re reading this and curious about Rachel, whatever is unique and noteworthy in her biography that you might want to find out about is in her new book, The Hard Crowd, which will be published in April 2021
In nineteen razor-sharp essays, The Hard Crowd spans literary journalism, memoir, cultural criticism, and writing about art and literature, including pieces on Jeff Koons, Denis Johnson, and Marguerite Duras. Kushner takes us on a journey through a Palestinian refugee camp, an illegal motorcycle race down the Baja Peninsula, 1970s wildcat strikes in Fiat factories, her love of classic cars, and her young life in the music scene of her hometown, San Francisco. The closing, eponymous essay is her manifesto on nostalgia, doom, and writing.
These pieces, new and old, are electric, phosphorescently vivid, and wry, and they provide an opportunity to witness the evolution and range of one of our most dazzling and fearless writers
The primary source of this article was The Goodreads newsletter dated 15th Une 2021 and including a post on 30 essay collections from ´Cybil´.
In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit knowing that we seek to provide core original material whilst sometimes spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.
This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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