Coventry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) proves my long-held suspicion that the essay is the ideal vehicle for the glittering, merciless omniscience of Rachel Cusk. You never know where Cusk will lead you in her novels, and her essays are no different; thank god it’s possible to hold your breath for the couple of minutes it takes to read one. In her revolutionary Outline trilogy Cusk immersed the reader in the dialogue and stories of the characters that Faye, the protagonist, interacted with in her journeys. But in the tight coil of Cusk’s essays there is no escape into other characters, and as a reader, I was ecstatic to stay in her company for once. The strongest pieces excavate her personal life, and her tone, though never sentimental, is ferociously protective of what she considers valuable. Her essay on raising teenagers, “Lions on Leashes,” is one of her best, Cusk at her most Cuskian; vulnerable, dry, unrelenting and singular.
The enduring brilliance of the late Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, shines forth from the pages of The Source of Self-Regard (Knopf, $28.95)—a compilation of selected essays, speeches, and meditations spanning decades of the writer’s life. In her famous Nobel Lecture, included here, Morrison proclaimed: “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.” The Source of Self-Regard displays Toni Morrison’s powerful and prophetic use of language to discern the cultural issues that shape human experience. Her compassionate yet unflinching insights into themes of race, identity, and power in everyday life burn with prescience and ultimately lean towards hope. “Dream the world as it ought to be,” Morrison said in her 1988 Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address. This dreaming, as Morrison put it, should not be “the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one.” Reading through this poignant collection of Morrison’s reflections is like waking up to the subtext of your own life. The words gathered in this book will continue to be Morrison’s lasting gift to us all.
Over the course of her career, Leslie Jamison has proven her voice to be a vital one in our contemporary landscape, and her new collection of essays, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, (Little, Brown, $28) is no exception. Admirers of Jamison’s past work in The Empathy Exams will be delighted to see her turn her critical eye to a new host of topics. In this collection, Jamison’s subjects range from the online game Second Life, to airport layovers, to a very, very lonely whale—but no matter the subject, she always circles back to the human condition. Jamison handles each of her subjects with care and understanding in Make It Scream, Make it Burn; this is an essay collection that never seeks to place judgments on the strange and surreal, but rather to examine them as necessary parts of our culture.