Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shorts for Summer - Essay Edition

Last summer I wrote a post about reading short stories in the summer time. The idea being that summer is a great time to grab a book and feel like you can dip into it and jump back out again, without taking on the commitment of a whole novel. The same can be said of nonfiction, which more and more of us read for pleasure these days. If you don't feel like tackling a whole book cover to cover this summer, why not check out one of these essay collections?

Cabin Fever: the best new Canadian non-fiction. "In honour of the 20th anniversary of the Literary Journalism Program at the Banff Centre ... a selection of the finest creative non-fiction written by participants from the past six years". A range of pieces on topics as diverse as bilingualism, absinthe and the atomic bomb from Canadian writers you already know and some you'll be glad you found out about.

Best American NonRequired Reading. I'm a fan of many of the "Best American" series, but this is my favourite. Dave Eggers is the series editor, and each year he, and a group of students select the best writing that appeared in magazines in the previous year. It's not just essays—it includes fiction, poetry and graphic story telling as well. The jacket blurb from that 2004 edition sums it up well saying the collection includes "the best and least-expected ... from publications large, small and online". The 2009 edition features cover art by street artist Banksy, and an introductory essay by Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi.

Burn This Book: PEN authors speak out on the power of the word. A selection of essays by some of the biggest names in contemporary writing, all looking at the "the meaning of censorship, and the power of literature to inform the way we see the world, and ourselves". Edited by Toni Morrison, and featuring pieces by John Updike, Orhan Pamuk and Nadine Gordimer, this may not be the lightest book you read this summer, but it will leave you with a lot to ponder.

Essay collections by a single author are also a treat—they let you get a peek into the mind of the author and see one person's opinion on a variety of topics. A few recent ones of note:

The Education of a British Protected Child by Chinua Achebe: the author of the much acclaimed Things Fall Apart, presents a series of essays examining his childhood in colonial Nigeria

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman: a finalist for the 2010 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender writing, this collection explores issues of gender identity in a way that the publisher tells us is "alternately unsettling and affirming, devastating and delicious" that is "irrevocably honest and endlessly illuminating" but also tells its tales "with humour and grace".

Changing My Mind: occasional essays by Zadie Smith. I love Zadie Smith, her fiction is entertaining yet thoughtful, she weaves stories of modern life whose characters and scenes are vivid and realistic. Hers are the type of book that you can spend hours in the pages of and when you finally look up, find yourself surprised to not be in that world. Her collection of essays was published late last year to surprisingly little fanfare and shares her thoughts on a range of topics in four categories "Reading," "Being," "Seeing," and "Feeling".

I Was Told There'd be Cake by Sloane Crosley. If you'd like something a little lighter in your summer reading, Crosley may just be your thing. Lots of laughs as Crosley recounts tales of her life, her obsessions and the types of weird incidents that seem to befall 20-something North Americans in this day and age. There is much here for fans of David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell or David Sedaris. Sloane has a new collection called "How Did you Get this Number" that was released in June.

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