2 August 2019

10 of Our Favourite Essays



Essays are some of our favourite items to read. They provide the high of a good piece of nonfiction, but immediately, for those of you who lean towards incredibly impatient like we do. You don't waste your time on stuff you don't like when you read essays. There might be a bit of author repetition in this month's list but that's because we are big fans of some pretty prolific essayists. Here is a look at some of our favourite, short non-fiction!



It's no secret that I worship Joan Didion and both her fiction and non-fiction. Didion is certainly more famous for her essays and one of my all-time favourites is the last essay in The White Album titled "Quiet Days in Malibu." This essay splits its focus between two lifeguards at Zuma beach and an orchid grower (all in Malibu). I love this essay because I feel it truly represents the style of writing Didion is so famous for. The descriptions are reportorial in nature but then are cut with dreadful personal accounts (e.g. when describing Zuma beach she also mentions that her daughters friend recently drowned there).

There's a constant sense of unease while reading this essay. A lot of Didion's writing style has a "heel s dug in sand" approach - you know where you're going but you don't want to get there. This is perfectly embodied in the final descriptions of the fires that ravaged the beachfront proprieties in Malibu, and what destroyed nearly all the orchids in the grower's green house: 

Horses caught fire and were shot on the beach, birds exploded in the air. Houses did not explode but imploded, as in a nuclear strike." 

Anyways, who knew a few years later I would become obsessed with The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, another account of growers' passions and obsessions with the beautiful flower. Orlean's book is where I learned there is an orchid named after Didion's daughter Quintana.



I've talked about this entire book before a number of times on this blog, but it's really this final essay that makes the whole thing special in my opinion. The book itself is a play on a radio show Strayed co-hosted for a number of years called "Dear Sugar" where people called in for advice. In the book she takes questions from people seeking guidance, and writes her responses in what I would consider to be essay format.

In the last question, a reader asks Strayed the cliche question of what she'd tell her twenty-something self if she could deliver that girl a message. I'd typically hate this question. It's cringy and demonstrates a lack of critical thought, but Strayed uses it as an opportunity to give the reader permission for all the fucking up she's about to do in her twenties, and I've never loved an essay more. I've read the essay so many times I can recite certain passages by heart.

Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you'll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you'll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room. 

Strayed talks about how even though she's going to do drugs, have sex with people she doesn't love, and be a complete bitch to her mother, she is still a good person and deserving of a good life. She talks about how all of the monotony, and the mindlessness, and the time we feel we've wasted is actually our 'becoming', and it's the stuff we need to do to get to the places we need to be. It's incredibly short, and I feel like there are parts of the last 10 years of my life I couldn't have got through without its messaging.



I love when authors talk about the writing process, especially when they do so with some humour. Jonathan Franzen structures this essay around the four questions authors hate, but get the most: 1. What are your influences? 2. What time of day do you write and what on? 3. Is is true the character eventually "takes over?" and finally, the main focus of the essay, 4. Is your fiction autobiographical?

Something I have always loved about reading the entirety of an author is you can see where they draw from in their own lives. For instance, Franzen's father dies from Alzheimer's and this is described in his essay "My Father's Brain." The father in The Corrections, Franzen's most famous book, also suffers from Alzheimer's. I love reading about when Strong Motion was published and Franzen's then-wife said: "She once claimed, memorably, that I had stolen from her soul to write it. She also asked me, fairly enough, why my main female characters kept getting killed or severely wounded by gunfire." 

This is something EVERYONE wonders about when they read an author's book. So it was interesting/fun to read Franzen's take on the question he hears so, so often.

This is objectively not Klosterman's best essay, or even his best book, but early in our friendship Meghan recommended I read this as an introduction to his work, and it opened up a completely new genre of nonfiction to me. This essay was the first (well, second, because it's the second essay in the book) thing I ever read from Klosterman, and I hadn't ever read anything like it. It's the psychoanalytical ramblings that I'd always wanted to talk about but didn't have the language for. It's the stuff you stay up all night chatting about when you're stoned.

"Billy Sim" takes a look at The Sims, arguably the best computer game ever made. I spent hours of my childhood building little houses for my Sims, buying expansion packs so they could have sex and pets, all using a cheat code of course because I didn't have the money for the mansion I wanted just from my Sims' wages. Klosterman looks at how the human psyche is represented in this computer game, and how the game fucked us all up, turning us into freaks who need affection and stereos to be happy.

It's a good essay, mostly all of his are, but the reason I love it so much is because of the context in which I read it. Suddenly I had entered this world of culture-based nonfiction that I didn't know about. It's the world of Klosterman, Michael Lewis, the Ephron sisters, etc. and it's Meghan's world as well and I was just happy to have joined her in it.

After having just watched Ava DuVernay's heartbreaking miniseries When They See Us about the central park five, I decided to revisit one of my favourite essays in Joan Didion's 1992 collection After Henry titled "Sentimental Journeys." It was in this essay that I first heard of Donald Trump taking out a full-page ad saying he would personally fund bringing back the death penalty for these boys - all of who were 16 or younger when they were convicted of a crime they did not commit.

This is one of Didion's longest essays, and in it she explores a lot of what happened and didn't happen in the media. She talks a lot about how the media described the white female jogger central to the case... how every single article mentioned the word "attractive" in the first two graphs. Didion also detailed two heinous rapes that happened weeks later and how they were basically unreported on because the victims were black.

My favourite aspect of this essay is how Didion deconstructs what rape means and how we treat in in reporting and in court. It is particularly interesting when she dissects whether rape victims should be named or not in reporting. If you check out the Netflix miniseries you should certainly look to read this essay afterwards!



I read this book recently (and reviewed it here) and this essay has been on my mind a lot since. In it, Ephron writes about her mother's struggle with alcoholism, and how the addiction affected their entire families. I've been consuming a lot of media recently where well-off, educated families struggle with addictions, and it's really got me thinking about how there are really no socioeconomic 'tells' to help you figure out if people are struggling.

Ephron emphasizes this by discussing how much of a presentation their family put on to the public. Both her parents were writers, their family was well-known in the entertainment industry, and all the daughters ended up being successful in their own rights as well. But each night, Ephron notes, their mother would "unravel" as she drank. Ephron emphasizes the dichotomy by discussing the 'day' version and the 'night' version of her mother throughout the essay.

There were factors Delia was unaware of completely. Her father wasn't faithful, there wasn't a lot of support for alcoholics at the time, etc, but she writes from such a vulnerable, childlike place, about how she would dilute liquor bottles with her sisters and secretly hope her parents would get a divorce so she could go live with her dad. I really felt for her while reading the essay. I can't imagine how tiring it must be to despise your mother and love her so much at the same time. She also writes so poetically about the alcoholic episodes that, without having ever known an alcoholic I feel like I sort of did.

She ends the essay with, "...which is why I can't write about my mother. I have no idea who she was." I've been sad about this since reading it.


I talk a bit about this essay in my author spotlight on Chuck Klosterman and I maintain that it was one of the first essays I read about sports that made me think more deeply about them. Klosterman's essay is about Barry Bonds surpassing Babe Ruth's record in baseball, and what that means for historians and fans alike:

These moments are supposed to embody ideas that transcend the notion of grown men playing children's games; these moments are supposed to be a positive amalgamation of awe, evolution, inspiration, admiration and the macrobiotic potential of man."

This essay has a lot of the humour and weird rationalizations Klosterman is known for. I have been reading his work ever since I was in high school and remain connected to it because of how it helped shape my interest in athletes, especially ones who use performance enhancements. Klosterman goes on to detail how obvious it was to everyone that baseball was being loaded up with steroids, etc., but how we also just tried to ignore it. One of my favourite lines summarizes the essay: 

His statistical destruction of Ruth is metaphorical, but not in a good way."



I've already talked more about this book on this blog than I would have liked because Oxford annoys the hell out of me, but the main reason I loved this book was for this particular essay. I felt like it touched on all the fears and insecurities I have about future parenting, and how hard it must be as a mother to chug along on the train while your kids need-love-hate-need-love-hate you. 

This essay mostly focuses on how she got a dog to make up for the fact that her kids didn't need her anymore, but it's not sad. I found it funny, inspiring, and realistic. She emphasizes the difference between how fathers and mothers process their children getting older, and how you don't understand the pain this transition must have caused your own mother until you experience it yourself. 

And now, I'm learning, sadly learning, what comes along with this transition of the kids no longer needing me for all the things I'd changed in my life to learn."

I never expected in a million years it would be Kelly Oxford to quell my nerves on parenting. I worry often that because I have such a tendency to be such a miserable bitch that I'm not suited to raise kids, but I like to envision Oxford as a miserable bitch too, and she's doing just fine, her kids are fine. If she can pull it off I feel like there's hope for me too. 


This is actually the first thing I ever read by Jonathan Franzen. This is the first essay in his 2002 collection How to be Alone, and in it he describes his father's battle with Alzheimer's. I don't envy anyone who has to watch a parent or loved one suffer from dementia, and there are some particularly heartbreaking memories Franzen details in this essay.

One that etched itself into my own memory was of his father being taken out of the nursing home for a holiday/long-weekend and what happened when he was returned. He essentially tells his family he never wants to leave again if it means he has to return. A lot of the moments I felt were so painful to read about was when his father has a moment of clarity, and seems to break out of his dementia.

It was really interesting to read this essay first before going through The Corrections where the father-character also has Alzheimer's. It's even more interesting after reading the essay I mentioned above where Franzen talks about borrowing from life in your fiction.

For a brief period of time studying literature in University, I got really into Kurt Vonnegut. I would say now, on a day to day basis, the stuff he writes is too heavy for me, but every now and then I find myself thinking about some of his essays. Essays are great in that sense, they're informative, but you don't need to spend weeks immersed in them for the content reward.

"As a Kid I was the Youngest" is probably one of his more approachable essays, in that you don't need to be actively thinking about sociological philosophies to make sense of it. It's also one I think about a lot because it's about people using humour to push away fear. He introduces the topic by saying that as the youngest member of his family, he had to be funny to get anyone to pay attention to him. No adults genuinely like listening to children talk about their childish shit (I believe this to be 100% true), but everyone loves a truly funny kid. 

Vonnegut goes on to analyze the way people use jokes to combat fear, and how even in situations so hopeless, jokes make you feel alive. He talks specifically about being a prisoner of war during the Dresden bombings and how a soldier asked "I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight?". Even though nobody laughed, Vonnegut recounts, it made them remember they were still living. 

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