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Book Reviews

How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader

February 15, 2017

How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader
Edited by Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold
309 pages, Coffee House Press, $20.00

It is impossible to define an essay unilaterally. Essay Daily’s first collection, though it does not aim at a definition, solves that problem rather neatly. How We Speak to One Another begins with a simple premise—writers writing about essays that are important to them—and continues like any good conversation: wandering, doubling back on itself and ending less in a firm conclusion than a silence, leaving room for the reader’s own thoughts to fill that space. A gathering of forty-seven essays allows a reader to bite off chunks at a time, dip in and wander at their own pace, eavesdropping on the way, for instance, on how Matt Dube, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, and Emily DePrang agree and disagree about Joan Didion.

As in any anthology, some essays work better than others. There are a few gems dealing with a single book or essay. Elena Passarello’s whimsical consideration of the equally whimsical, ever-changing Book of Days by Robert Chambers, for instance, is one of the most delightful in the book. On the whole, however, the best essays do more than consider how or why a certain piece works, and instead make the reader a participant in the conversation, rather than a voyeur. They struggle, as Rigoberto González and Lucas Mann do, with writing nonfiction as young people. They consider, as Megan Kimble does, the economy of writing, technology, labor, and personal relationships. They might consider something particular, as Maya Kapoor does with David Quammen’s use of trout, but they expand to something broader, such as the use of the body in research.

At times, the editors’ hands in the construction of this conversation is a little too obvious—placing Pam Houston’s consideration of a Sports Illustrated column on O. J. Simpson next to Dave Mondy’s examination of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, for instance, makes the conversation focus too heavily on sports writing when both writers struggle with much more. Yet, for the most part, How We Speak to One Another is a well-arranged collection of essays, showcasing a variety of forms, opinions on nearly every major debate about the essay and a panel of writers of various genders and races. As a result, this book becomes something like Chambers’s Book of Days—a place where the reader will find something new each time, whether it’s a reminder of the important intersections between time and place, or simply the fact that bathtubs can reveal important things about truth in the essay.
—Rukmini Girish


Rukmini Girish is working towards her MFA in Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. She is also a contributing editor at Floodmark, a website dedicated to providing inspiration for writers outside academia. Her work has appeared in East End Elements, and on BUST.com.

Book Reviews

The Miles Between Me

September 26, 2016

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The Miles Between Me

Toni Nealie
Curbside Splendor
200 pages, paper, from $9.95

Beginning with the writer’s relocation to the United States from New Zealand two weeks prior to September 11, 2001, The Miles Between Me counts among its recurrent concerns colonial legacies of racism and white supremacy, the violence of borders, and the losses inherent in distance. And while the title suggests a potential fragmentation or rupturing of the self, the book’s opening sentence—“I like to fly”—insists also on a pleasure in movement, a straightforward joy in the moments when we both have been and will be somewhere.

The Miles Between Me is Nealie’s first book, a collection of essays with scopes at time lyric, personal, and critical. They are, like many of the best works in the genre, vehicles in which the writer’s own intimate questions are allowed to travel through and be formed by the circumstances that surround her life. In “The Dark-Skinned Dispenser of Remedies,” for instance, Nealie researches the life of her grandfather, a medical herbalist and immigrant to New Zealand from India who was sentenced to hard labor in prison when a girl died after passing through his care, the manslaughter charge clearly motivated by racism rather than wrongdoing. While the history itself and Nealie’s deft narrative engage, it is the ultimate questions of family and history, of what we inherit, that truly elevate the essay. Reconciling her mother’s memory of her grandfather as a cruel man with the cruelties he also faced, Nealie pushes always for greater complexities and, in turn, greater empathies for mother and grandfather both.

Divided into three sections, “Unraveling,” “Bequeathed,” and “The Miles Between Me,” the concerns of this collection are recurrent, meandering in that way essays are particularly adept at meandering. In discussing distance, Nealie notes that “To connect seems impossible and marvelous.” In facing what she has inherited: “Now I decide what to hold on to, what to let go of, and what to pass on.” In thinking through the sadism of the border patrol: “My love affair is with my husband, not my adopted country, or the gatekeepers.” Neither wholly distinct nor entirely dependent on one another, these concerns echo. All borders are somewhat porous, and all people make their choices in the imperfect contexts of place.

To try to face any one topic as singular would be to face it incompletely. Instead, Nealie writes through the lens of the generous self, able to pay attention, beautifully, and to draw the connections only the self can draw. “Lesser, today, is the distance to home, which I recognize as the space fashioned inside of me,” she writes. Thought has a movement to it, and movement a thought. Careful, evocative, and surprising, The Miles Between Me offers us a chance to move along with it.

 —T Clutch Fleischmann

Book Reviews

Review of the Latest from Sandra Doller by Katie Jean Shinkle

December 8, 2015

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Leave Your Body Behind
By Sandra Doller
134 pp. Les Figues Press, $17.00

Gertrude Stein writes to the effect that writing is synonymous with existing and that language is as breathing. Everything has a lot to do with everything. Nothing is disconnected, even in its frailty, even its (mis) or (dis)connection, the most tenuous. Sandra Doller, in Leave Your Body Behind, cites Stein before we enter her text, “Everything has a lot to do with poetry. Everything has a lot to do with prose.” Complete sentences with full stops. Declarative.

The aphoristic text alternates between prose blocks, most lasting a page or two, and quotations and citations from other thinkers, among them Harryette Mullen, Yoko Ono, and Roland Barthes. Performatively reworking both the memory of the writer and the memory of the language, it coheres into a not-quite-memoir, not-quite-essay of constant, quick insight.

In Leave Your Body Behind, the existing and breathing has to do with leaving behind the sinewy synapses of what you think you know, your and this molten body, the lava corpse of understanding writing and how to get inside language. It’s about, as Doller says, getting inside something enormous, something ancient, something before you and after you. She writes “. . . did you sign your life over to something enormous.” Declarative. Full stop.

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