These days I’m reading more essay collections than ever before. This is partly because essays can help us understand the world around us, and now more than ever is a time I want some help making sense of things. It’s also because essay collections can be read in short bursts, one essay at a time. They are perfect for picking up in small moments of down time throughout the day or when I feel unable to focus on something longer. I can read for 15 minutes or so and feel like I accomplished something. Below are five small press essay collections, all published in the last year, that I’ve read and found both meaningful and enjoyable. They cover a wide range of topics including race in the U.S., politics and culture in Mexico and Europe, and art, photography, and film. As a bonus, since all are published by small presses, it’s possible they are ones you haven’t come across before. Two of them are in translation. Take a look and maybe add some to your TBR!
How to Make a Slave by Jerald Walker
A finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, this essay collection looks at Jerald Walker’s experiences as a Black man in the United States. They are personal pieces that also delve into work, family, culture, raising children, race and academia, and much more. Walker is honest, sometimes wrenchingly so, and at the same time he is bracing and funny. These essays are unsparing. They are full of good stories and complex insights into contemporary American life.
Stranger Faces by Namwali Serpell
Stranger Faces is part of the “Undelivered Lectures” series from Transit Books, a series I intend to follow closely. This volume examines cultural meanings of the human face. Serpell describes the “ideal face” — a generalized image of the face as the site of our humanity — and then questions and challenges our reverence for it. In essays that look at books, films, and emoji, Serpell argues that the strange face and the stranger’s face can be sites of pleasure and play. It’s a fascinating, brilliant rethinking of how we interpret and respond to humans and the world around us.
The Age of Skin by Dubravka Ugresic, Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac
Dubravka Ugresic currently lives in the Netherlands, but she was born and raised in Yugoslavia. Many of the essays in The Age of Skin focus on the culture and politics of former Yugoslavian countries, particularly Croatia. Ugresic is brilliant — and frightening — in the way she charts the rise of nationalism and neo-fascism. The pieces aren’t all politics, however; they include personal travel accounts, discussions of art and popular culture, and more. Ugresic is a darkly funny writer. She’s the perfect companion in the quest to understand our world more fully.
Grieving by Cristina Rivera Garza, Translated by Sarah Booker
This collection looks at the effects of violence and mourning in contemporary Mexico. Rivera Garza tells stories of those lost in violence and those who grieve them. She analyzes the relationship of the state and drug wars and reflects on what years of violence have done to the country and its culture. The book is a mix of personal, journalistic, poetic, and philosophical writing. It’s sobering and wise and beautiful.
Index Cards by Moyra Davey
Moyra Davey is an artist, photographer, and filmmaker, as well as a writer. In these essays, she thinks about the world through art and literature. She writes about Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, Roland Barthes, Chantal Akerman, Janet Malcolm, and many others, seamlessly weaving her ideas and insights with personal experience. Her writing is meditative, suggestive, and beautiful, her writerly persona vulnerable and honest. Anyone who enjoys reading about writers, literature, books, and art will love this collection.