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Five books that grab attention

June 10, 2012

Are we experiencing an essay renaissance? Below are five new titles that suggest the breadth and creativity that writers are bringing to the form.

1) In "Syzygy, Beauty" (Sarabande: 112 pp., $15.95 paper), T Fleischmann re-imagines the essay, creating a spare little book that reads like a collection of prose poems. Moving between anecdote and observation, fantasy and memory, it traces the story of a relationship — or does it? For Fleischmann, ambiguity is the point, and the more we read, the more the lines here blur. "By describing something," he writes, "we place it at a distance."

2) Dan Beachy-Quick's "Wonderful Investigations" (Milkweed: 212 pp., $20) juxtaposes four essays with three "meditations" and four fable-like "tales" to trace the tension between mind and body, between our inner and our outer lives. A poet, he is terrific with an image and relies on antecedents here from Plato to Thoreau to give his work a context and a depth. "I have a little wound in my eye," he writes, "and the light comes in. The page is a reminder of that wound."

3) Lia Purpura's "Rough Likeness" (Sarabande: 150 pp., $15.95 paper) is all about looking: at a landscape, at language, at a sign. The truest-looking, though, comes on the inside, as Purpura goes beneath the surface, writing not just about what she sees but what it means. "Rain coming harder," she writes in her opening to "Against 'Gunmetal.'" "Of interest … because rain alters people in unexpected ways. And the unexpected makes people so human. … Remember that."

4) In "Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate" (Coffee House: 204 pp., $16 paper), Judith Kitchen uses family photos as a hinge for her own interior investigation — into love, doubt, family and time. Weaving actual images directly into the book, she addresses what she doesn't know, what she can't know, as evocatively as what she can. "This is not art," she writes in "On Snapshots: A Sonnet." "This is the black and white of birthdays and summer vacations. Grandma's Sunday best."

5) Edited by Will Steacy, "Photographs Not Taken" (Daylight: 224 pp., $14.95 paper) collects essays by Sylvia Plachy, Alec Soth and 60 other photographers on the images they could not make. Sometimes this is due to the photographers' failings and sometimes it's external, but in nearly every instance it provokes a meditation on the balance between life and art, and what Gregory Halpern calls the "mystery and hope in that."

—David L. Ulin

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