Here are ten remarkable essays or articles I read in 2015: not the best but ten that have stayed with me. My only rule was that I picked ten from ten different publications to spread the love around. A few of these were published before 2015, but I read them all this year, and none of them are too tied to any news cycle, so in my humble option they are all worth taking a look at.
- “Voice and Hammer: Harry Bellafonte’s Unfinished Fight” by Jeff Sharlet in Virginia Quarterly Review. A few days ago it was Frank Sinatra’s birthday and I saw a few people send around Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” the original “write-around” that solves the how to write about the very written about problem. Sharlet’s essay reads like that, if Sinatra had been a lifelong tireless radical and truly important political figure. It brilliantly does the thing some of my favorite profiles do: make you realize how little you knew about an iconic figure.
2. “The Children of Strangers,” by Larissa Macfarquhar in the New Yorker. I was recently doing some research on contemporary coverage of radical feminism in the late 60s/early 1970s and read a New Yorker article described by an activist as “demeaning” only to find that the piece was basically a transcript of activists talking about their own beliefs and evolutions. To “just let people speak for themselves,” it would seem, would invite a host of readerly projections. That doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly powerful when done well, and Macfarquhar’s piece, the multi-decade story of the Badeau family, which adopted twenty-two children, does it brilliantly. In the book it’s part of, about extreme altruism, Macfarquhar explores among other things the hostility these folks provoke in the rest of us, and to me the piece resists this beautifully. There is tragedy in the family, but it’s undeniable these children’s lives are better than they would have been without them. We want to think it’s for their own “egos,” that they are crazy and we are rational in where we draw our lines about who we care for. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
3) “Frankenstein’s Monster,” by Darcey Steinke in Granta. The kind of “personal” essay that single-handedly reminds us why the genre is important at its best, even when it’s so ubiquitous at its worse. An account of Steinke’s grief for her chronically depressed mother that uses its literary inter text as deeply as Alison Bechtel. The kind of essay it takes a good chunk of a life to produce, and makes you feel contains the whole of a life, even when you know that’s impossible.
Across time and place: the deep divers.
4) Elephant States by Jacob Shell, in n+1. A historical account of the incredible history of Burma’s elephants and the men who live their lives along side them, by way of James Scott and Google Maps. A great example of what a deeply learned academic who is also a great writer can do in the narrative form.
5) “What I Learned on a Luxury Cruise through the Global Warming Apocalypse,” by Roy Scranton, The Nation. If Ingmar Bergman was alive, he would (or should) be making a script from this story, about a bunch of nice retirees witnessing the apocalypse and dressing up as Lord Franklin. The kind of story that works like a poem: you have to put aside the other things you are reading, doing, and take it in.
6) “Hearing Harriet Smith,” by Debbie Nathan in J-Stor Daily. The one new publication on my list, and one I’m so excited about: so much archival and scholarly work is too good to be behind paywalls or hidden in academic journals. A powerful and fascinating piece about dialects, slave narratives, the WPA project, and the promise and peril of oral history.
7) First-Person Shooters: What’s missing in contemporary war fiction, by Sam Sacks, in Harper’s. Sam is an amazing writer who gave me my first chance to write reviews for a larger audience at the incomparable Open Letters Monthly. This essay is of the kind I dream of writing some day: an “overview” of a recent group of books that manages to do each justice while still making a vital and compelling argument about the lay of the land.
8) On Spinsters, by Briallen Hopper, Los Angeles Review of Books. Who doesn’t love a good takedown? Hopper’s take on Kate Bolick’s book is a great one that brings some joyous zingers but also performs the invaluable service of asserting, because it seems to need asserting, the just because you are using your personal experience and writing about feminism, you still need to know what the hell you are talking about. It’s also a lovely example of the takedown as shadow book – the outline for the book you come to wish had been written instead.
9) The Cinematic Lost Cause, by Eileen Jones, Jacobin. Jones is a master of the takedown, and just a great critic full-stop, but I picked this one of her pieces because I learned the most from it – a deep historical dive into the question of why American films have so consistently taken the Confederate side, with predictably depressing but always fascinating results.
10) Liberal Punishment, by Mike Konczal, Dissent. It’s hard to make a mixed review exciting, but this piece on Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America does that, giving a convincing take on the importance and limits of Murakawa’s argument while also giving a great overview of the arguments in this growing and important field.