I took a summer course on the essay during my graduate school work, studying Montagaine, Rousseau, Emerson, and the classic essayists, but it was not until the past ten years that I have come to appreciate contemporary essays. I have reviewed here before essay collections by Anne Lamott, Anna Quindlen, and Pat Conroy.

Last night I finished a lovely collection of essays,

Precious Days by Ann Patchett was a wonderful collection of timely essays.

I have read both Commonwealth and The Dutch House, two of Patchett’s NY Times bestsellers, so I had been exposed to her expertise as a novelist. Imagine my great pleasure to discover she is equally adept as an essayist. This large print edition’s cover, published in 2009 caught my eye at the local library. I took it home, and put it on my bedside shelf. The painting of the dog, with its post-impressionistic connotations, made me curious about the artist, whom was written about in the title essay, ” These Precious Days.” Had it been a short story, I would argue it was a novelette, judging from its length. However, it is non-fiction, reflecting a true experience of the author; so instead, it is a very long essay.

“Precious Days” chronicles the author’s friendship with a publicist/assistant of Tom Hanks named Sookie, who came to live with Patchett and her husband as she took on exhausting cancer treatments at a hospital in their town. The friendship that grew between the two women, actually, the three adults, was nothing short of amazing. And anyone would have liked to become a friend of the creative, courageous, paragon of a positive attitude as was Sookie. I was so relieved that Sookie was alive at the end of the essay (although her death date is given in the Epilogue) that I wanted to shout, “Way to go, girl!”

My second two favorites were “Eudora Welty, an Introduction” written for The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, published in 1980, when Welty was 71. Interestingly enough, Patchett had met Welty as a young girl at a reading, at which Welty signed one of her books for her precocious reader, Patchett.

I also enjoyed “There Are No Children Here,” which recounts how Patchett appeared on the same platform as a fellow, unnamed author who contended that until one had children, they’d never experienced love. Because I wanted to be a teacher more than I wanted to be a mother, and felt I couldn’t do both and do them well, I chose not to have children, so, of course, I cheered Patchett on when she disagreed and said, ” …I have to tell you, people without children have known love , and we are [real] writers.” I couldn’t agree more.

This particular book of essays was nice for “picking up and putting down,” sporadic reading. I found myself reading an essay or two, then devouring a whole novel, or watching episodes of Netflix series in between essays. The structure of this collection was conducive to this, and it made for a variety of reading sessions for the four weeks I kept it from circulating at the library. It is a fine collection of literary essays by a fine writer, one of my new favorites–Ann Patchett.

A BOOK ABOUT BOOKS

I have enjoyed several books by Pat Conroy, best known for The Great Santini. His 2010 publication, My Reading Life introduced me to him as an essayist, and a good one at that.

An interesting wide-spanned topic inclusive book of essays.

Actually Conroy’s book is a collection of tributes to authors and books that helped form him as an author and as a man. His brutal father, depicted in The Great Santini, and the influence of his genteel, book-loving reader of a mother are evident in many of the essays about his childhood and early-college literary leanings. As a young boy, Conroy was a voracious reader, reading far beyond his chronological age. His books were selected for him by his mother, and often they would read and then discuss the same books. This book is “an array of wonderful and often surprising anecdotes, ” covering the author’s early “love affair with the local library ” through his great success as a contemporary man of letters. The book is written for those “who believe in the power of books to shape a life” and captivates the interest and attention of anyone who loves books, libraries, authors and other things “bookish.”

From his essay, “Why I Write:”

“Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear.” I will definitely expose my Advanced Writing students to this concept in the coming semester. Conroy’s mastery of word choice and magnificent turn of phrase are transferred from his novels to his collection of essays in this small book. It is a satisfying read.

Thanks Evin for the sign offs.

HALLELUJAH ANYWAY by Anne Lamott: A Review

Anne Lamott writes honest, often humorous, always witty essays. She is one author I intend to read more of.

This 2017 publication, subtitled “Rediscovering Mercy” is one of Lamott’s bests. She defines mercy as “the promise to receive relief and forgiveness,” something we all need after the years of pandemic and shutdown. She also defines it as ” the medicine, the light that shines in dark places” and “lets us soften ever so slightly.” The purpose in this book is to help us understand each other, but in so doing, we come to understand ourselves.

Overall, it is a joyful book, and it is also (as Lamott always is) an honest one. I think it is a good tool to help us navigate scary, unsettled times that we find ourselves in currently. It “reveals through truths a path home.” And, that is where we all desire to go. Her words of wisdom are tempered in humor, and Lamott makes us want to find the joy she has found and shout, ‘Hallelujah Anyway!’ “

Borrowed image from another blogging friend who also spreads joy.

MY FRIDAY FIRST LINER

Hop over to Hoarding Books and see her first line Friday rules. In the meantime, read mine.

Today’s first lines are from Home Body written by John Thorne and illustrated by Russell Christian:

A tiny, but delightful collection of poetic essays, illustrated in a charming manner.

From the first “chapter,” “The Keyhole”:

“At the head of the corridor, a closed door led to other corridors, unfurnished rooms, stairways and attics. The chill of unknown things entered through the door’s keyhole.” (Golfredo Parise Abecedary)

” On my way from here to there, young and broke, I arrange to spend the night with a friend at his Manhattan apartment…My friend is not at home. “

This is a delightful read with exquisite sketches and original word choice, word-images, and phrasing. I find myself reading some parts again and again. I definitely will want to keep this book.

VESPER FLIGHTS by Helen McDonald: A review of the 2020 audiobook

To continue with my “Celebration of Color Challenge,” I looked for a book/audiobook with a black cover, and I found

The perfect subject for an audiobook, musings on nature

This wonderful book, narrated by the author, a renowned naturalist, calls us to “reconsider our relationship to the natural world and the fight to preserve it.” Reading the book becomes a “dizzying experience” not unlike the dizzying flight of the birds of the titular essay. In “Vesper Flights,” McDonald describes birds that fly in the evening hours, the time when evening prayers are offered. The poetic essays are musings similar to prayers themselves. As a critic says, the author’s writing style conveys “a breathless enthusiasm that can’t be faked,” for McDonald is writing not only about something she knows, but about something she loves.

In the introduction, the essayist states her purpose, “I choose to think that my subject is love, and most specifically love for the glittering world of non-human life around us.” From the vulgarity and excitement of feral hogs to the un-viewable last Orioles in the UK , to the graceful flights of several species of birds, McDonald takes us with her as she wonders at and glories in the magnificence of Nature.

Listening to this collection of essays was better than reading them, for I could close my eyes and meditate on the author’s words.

THE ANNE LAMOTT MINI-CHALLENGE

I have made my own, personal book challenge, to read all of Anne Lamott’s writings. Those who have been inspired, uplifted, comforted, challenged or angered by her essays will automatically understand why I would want to do this. For readers new to Lamott, your challenge/mission (“should you accept it”) is to try one book of her essays and “pick a book, any book.”

Our local library had Lamott’s 2007 edition of Grace (Eventually), subtitled, “Thoughts on Faith” in large print.  Who among you wouldn’t pick it up as a good place to start my challenge? The back of the book reads as follows:

“The world, the community, the family, the heart: these are the beautiful and complicated arenas in which our lives unfold. Wherever you look, there’s trouble and wonder, pain and beauty, restoration and darkness.  Yet if you look carefully, in nature or in the kitchen, in ordinariness or in mystery, beyond the emotional muck we all slug through, you’ll find it eventually: a path, some light to see by, in other words, grace.  Here, Anne Lamott describes how she copes with the missteps, detours, and roadblocks in her walk of faith.”

Having recently dealt with a few issues of faith, this was the book that perhaps could strengthen mine. I loved and plan to steal her description of how she taught a children’s Sunday school class using The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem as a way to write our worries out as prayer requests on a slip of paper as a way of “Letting go.” The children had many “worries” to record, and when Lamott asked the assistant teacher if she had anything to add, the assistant said, “Maybe turning things over is not the solution to everything, but…You do what you can.  Then you get out of the way  because you’re not the one who does the work.” This is just one example of something that set me to thinking in these very readable essays.

I am undertaking other challenges and interests currently, so I am not setting a due date or a time limit on when I hope to complete my reading of Lamott; besides, she just keeps writing.

FIRST LINE FRIDAYS

I checked out Ann Lamott’s Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith from our local library yesterday and read these first lines this morning:

Quote: “Where is the Life we have lost in living”?–T.S. Eliot

Prelude: “There is not much truth being told in the world. There never was. This has proven to be a major disappointment to some of us. When I was a child, I thought grown-ups and teachers knew the truth, because they told me they did. It took years for me to discover that the first step in finding out the truth is to begin unlearning almost everything adults had taught me, and start doing all the things they’d told me not to do.”

This promises to be a great set of essays from one of my favorite writers.

BOOKS FOR LIVING by Will Schwalbe: A Review (Subtitled “Some Thoughts on Reading, Reflecting, and Embracing Life”)

After reading and enjoying Schwalbe’s book, The End of Your Life Book Club, I jumped at the chance to download this 2016 publications and discovered my new favorite genre of book–books about books. These are varied musings and thoughts about books that made an impact on the author’s life. Also, Schwalbe adds relevant connections of often-read books to modern-day life . The chapters are arranged by book titles which are the jumping-off-place for the author’s essays. He deals with all kinds of books, from E.B. White’s classic children’s book, Stuart Little, to the recent bestseller, Girl on a Train; from Victorian classic, Dickens’ David Copperfield, to the the YA novel (and movie), Wonder. Each essay is thought-provoking and relevant to the reader’s own reading life.

My favorite essay was about a book I’d never heard of before, Yutang Lin’s 1937 book, The Importance of Living. Lin, a contemporary and friend of Pearl S. Buck (The Good Earth), writes his advice and philosophy of living a “good life.” Schwalbe quotes from Lin’s chapter, “Slowing Down” which “spoke to” and fascinated me. I have always considered myself a “driven” person, a person compelled to take action, to “do something” about things and life in general. Lin’s advice is to consider life in a more meditative, calmer way, taking charge by observing, contemplating, and experiencing life, not being a slave to it pressures and stress.

The book guided me into thinking things I would never have considered before and made me think more carefully about what books I have read, am reading, and want to read, and their influence on the way I live my life.

TELL ME MORE, AN ESSAY COLLECTION by Kelly Corrigan

This 2018 collection of essays called to me from the display shelf at the public library because it was in large print and the cover design was appealing. The book’s subtitle is “Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say.”  Huffington Post called the author “the poet laureate of the ordinary”, and says she deals with “the essential phrases that turn the wheel of life.”

Corrigan includes essays dealing with the loss (death) of a best friend and of her father and how both deaths affected all of their families. It is her meditation on life, love, and loss. Another reviewer said, “This book is about things we say to people we love [including ourselves] that make things better.” Much of the book flows in narrative form while the author thinks about events and happenings that occur. She “speaks” aloud to herself and to the reader. Oftentimes the essays brought me to tears. My favorite in this category was “Onward,” a letter written to Liz (the deceased best friend) letting her know how Liz’s husband and daughters are doing a year after her death.  It is moving and hopeful.

Although the book was “sad” in tone, it was also uplifting and downright inspiring. Altogether, I am glad I chose to read this book.