Lonely Essays and a Literary Fever Dream

Editor Natalie Eve Garrett’s Eat Joy was an essay collection I adored: well-known writers from a spectrum of backgrounds and genres writing about their favorite comfort foods, or what that concept meant to them.

Her latest curated collection The Lonely Stories: 22 Celebrated Writers on the Joys & Struggles of Being Alone follows a similar format. 22 writers (many new to me, others more widely known) tackle the intertwined topics of solitude and loneliness from their own experiences and perspectives. It’s a timely topic of course, as we all were confronted with what exactly it meant to have an abundance of alone time, or alone together time, as the case might’ve been, over two plus years of pandemic and quarantines.

Rather than being melancholy or downers, these emphasize the incredible insights that the writers gained from solitude. Unusually for essay collections (for me) I thought nearly every piece here was at least really good, with something especially thoughtful or stirring to impart, but several were exceptional. Claire Dederer’s “Javelinas,” a confrontation of alcoholism while on a solitary writer’s residency in Texas was perhaps my favorite: unexpectedly humorous but raw.

Other standouts were Imani Perry’s on the experience of chronic illness while hospitalized is a must-read, especially because we tend to like stories with the resolution of an illness, not the day-to-day reality of it. Yiyun Li’s “To Speak Is To Blunder but I Venture” looks at the strange and isolating experience of losing one’s native language after immigrating, a topic I find endlessly fascinating — the way language shapes us and the blending of cultures changes language so powerfully, despite it seeming like something that should be unshakeable at our very core.

Jean Kwok also writes from the perspective of being a Chinese immigrant to the US, and then later immigrating to the Netherlands. Jesmyn Ward’s piece on the sudden loss of her partner as Covid began was devastating but masterful. Perhaps most surprisingly, since I’ve never been a fan of hers, I really liked Lena Dunham’s essay about readjusting to being alone after ending a long-term relationship.

A surprisingly uplifting and self-affirming collection of writing from a group of incredibly talented contemporary authors. published April 19 by Catapult
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The Unwritten Book: An Investigation by novelist Samantha Hunt (her first nonfiction) is a really unconventional undertaking: a genre-bending memoir, of sorts, crossed with the unpublished manuscript of the author’s dead father’s novel and peppered with literary history and criticism, various iterations of how we deal with ghosts, including the haunting specter of her father’s alcoholism, motherhood, how our lives go on or stall after death and loss, the oddities of memory, a smattering of current events and any number of other topics. It’s a fever dream-esque jumble, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way.

I really admire Hunt’s writing ability, because usually the kind of topic-leaping this one does would come across as scattered. But this works somehow, experimentally, even if I wasn’t always sure where it was going or what I was getting out of it. I would realize even during a sentence or a paragraph how she wound ideas together, on top of each other and snaking into the next and it was quietly masterful. The topics didn’t always hold my focus as much, but for technique and the unique technical aspect, this was intriguing.

Her father’s unwritten book of the title is what I didn’t love. It’s annotated with Hunt’s references to where the ideas may have come from, including what was sourced from his or their own lives. But although I’m no longer a fiction reader so I struggle with the format in general, it’s also just not all that interesting to read, which Hunt even admits at one point.

It’s interspersed with line drawings of this and that, which were amusing and brought some lightness to the occasionally heavy topics in the text. A favorite line: “I use the past and alcohol in similar ways. They are comforts, reminders of our cohesion. I must moderate my consumption of both, so as not to grow senseless to the present.

published April 5 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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I received copies of both books from their respective publishers for unbiased review.


9 thoughts on “Lonely Essays and a Literary Fever Dream

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  1. I like the sound of The Lonely Stories! I don’t think I’m quite ready to read any books that are mostly about covid yet (especially about lockdown), but I will definitely bear it in mind for another year or two down the line.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not at all about covid, actually. I think only one essay is entirely from that time, and another references it (the one I mentioned in the review). Otherwise they’re completely different takes on the topic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Both sound fascinating. I Loved Eat Joy – I think on your recommendation – so I will add The Lonely Stories to my list. I loved Hunt’s novel Mr. Splitfoot and fever dream would be a good way to describe that one too. I might add the Unwritten Book as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think we talked about Eat Joy before! It’s so good, and this editor did something similar with The Lonely Stories.

      The Unwritten Book seems like it’s for a really specific type of reader, it wasn’t as much my thing – but I would think if you already loved her writing style you should definitely give it a try!

      Liked by 1 person

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