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Ann Patchett’s new essay collection, These Precious Days, reinforces what many longtime fans like best about her writing: its levelheaded appraisal of what is good in the world. In one essay, she describes a photo of herself as “joyful.” She had given this photo to the Academy of Arts and Letters when she was inducted, and it brightly contrasted with the somber photographs of her colleagues. The photo was appropriate, however, since reading Patchett’s work does inspire a kind of joy—tempered by an awareness of what can be lost. When Patchett does convey fear or regret, it’s because she knows that life can change in an instant and that precious things need to be guarded. For instance, after Patchett became unexpectedly ill after a bad experience with psychedelic mushrooms, she apologized to her husband “for being careless with our lives.”

She writes in the introduction that what interests her at this stage in life is exploring the things that matter most. For Patchett, that means essays about friends and family (“Three Fathers” and “These Precious Days” are especially wonderful) and about reading (specifically, the works of Eudora Welty and Kate DiCamillo). She also pulls back the curtain on the writing life, letting readers see her daily habits (early-morning walks with the dog, restorative dinners, occasionally demanding travel), her work with publishers and her intense privacy while composing. She could write a novel, she says, without showing anyone a single page.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic threw everything into upheaval, Patchett found the work of a novel too overwhelming. Essays, though, were approachable, and she found herself returning to the form again and again. Though readers will cheer when her next novel emerges, this collection is a balm for the moment, a candle that sheds warmth and light during a dark season.

Ann Patchett's tender essay collection is a balm for the moment, a candle that sheds warmth and light during a dark season.

If you’ve been feeling down, take heart. Environmental icon Jane Goodall remains hopeful, so surely we readers can, too. Her wisdom, along with four additional books, fills this season with inspiration and empowerment.

★ The Book of Hope

Jane Goodall may well be Earth’s ultimate cheerleader. In The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, she professes steadfast hope for both humanity and our planet that’s rooted in “action and engagement,” not simply wishful thinking. In straightforward, easy-to-digest prose, she writes that each one of us can make a difference, and that “the cumulative effect of thousands of ethical actions can help to save and improve our world for future generations.” 

The book is framed as a series of conversations between Goodall and Douglas Abrams, a truly engaging thinker and writer who took a similar approach in the first title in the Global Icons series, The Book of Joy, in which he facilitated conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Readers will be drawn into The Book of Hope as Abrams arrives at Goodall’s home in Tanzania for dinner, bearing a bottle of whiskey. Their subsequent chats span the globe; they talk at the Jane Goodall Institute in the Netherlands, and eventually, because of COVID-19 restrictions, they connect via Zoom as Goodall gives Abrams a virtual tour of her childhood home in Bournemouth, England. 

Their discussions are focused yet wide-ranging as Goodall explains the four main sources of her hope: “the amazing human intellect, the resilience of nature, the power of youth, and the indomitable human spirit.” She admits that she briefly lost her way after her husband Derek Bryceson died in 1980, saying, “Grief can make one feel hopeless.” Abrams and Goodall’s talks deepen after he unexpectedly loses his father to lymphoma and, later, his college roommate to suicide. “We are going through dark times,” Goodall says early in the book. For this reason and many more, The Book of Hope is a gem of a gift.

The Lightmaker’s Manifesto

If you’re yearning to become a true change-maker, then turn to Karen Walrond’s extremely helpful The Lightmaker’s Manifesto: How to Work for Change Without Losing Your Joy for a profound nudge. Walrond definitely walks the walk, having ditched her career as a lawyer to become an activism coach. As an Afro-Caribbean American immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, she says, “my work is underpinned by an ongoing desire to fight discrimination and foster interconnectedness through the sharing of stories and images of beauty.”

After a colleague tried to pressure Walrond to break the law, she found herself at a crisis point in her career and spent months trying to figure out what to do next. She proceeded in a structured, analytical way—a process that she shares in narrative form, as well as in a “Lightmaker’s Manual” section of prompts and exercises to help readers make their own decisions. She confesses early on, “In my not-so-distant past, I had come up with a pretty extensive list of reasons why an activist life wasn’t for me.” But when she realized that she loved to speak, write and take photos, she searched for a way to put all these talents to work.

She bookends her account by discussing the beginning and end of a trip to Kenya sponsored by the ONE Campaign to fight poverty and preventable disease, describing the joyful rewards of her new career. “We can do this, my friends,” she says in her encouraging and authentic way. “There’s no end to the light that we can make.”

★ The Matter of Black Lives

The Matter of Black Lives: Writing From The New Yorker, co-edited by New Yorker editor David Remnick and staff writer Jelani Cobb, is a standout among recent books about race, notable for its historical perspective and breadth as well as for the excellent writing of its many renowned contributors. The first entry, for example, James Baldwin’s 1962 “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” marked a turning point for The New Yorker’s coverage of racial matters. It is a riveting, astounding essay, describing in a highly personal way Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. In a foreword, Cobb notes, “Baldwin’s essay was, for many readers, a jolt, a concussive experience. . . . As an indictment of American bigotry and hypocrisy, tackling themes of violence, sex, history, and religion, the piece continues to resonate more than a half century later.” 

The same can be said of so many of these essays. Journalist Calvin Trillin shares a fascinating 1964 account of a white man questioning Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christianity during a flight between Atlanta, Georgia, and Jackson, Mississippi. Some essays are simply pure pleasure, such as Andrea Lee’s 1983 piece “Quilts,” about her trip to see family in Ahoskie, North Carolina, and her desire to buy a handmade quilt. 

The Matter of Black Lives is a treasure chest of essays guaranteed to provoke, dismay, delight and inspire. 

Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now

Sometimes it can be equally enlightening to read the words of the not-so-famous, like congressional staffer Jasmine J. Wyatt, who had a stark realization after an oral surgeon informed her that she had fractured her jaw after years of grinding her teeth. Wyatt mused that she had “morphed into a Black wallflower, gritting my teeth to keep from saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time. A silencing of myself over and over, until I thought I had nothing valuable left to say.” Thankfully, those days of silencing have lost their power over Wyatt and many others, as evidenced by Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope, which is filled with short but commanding essays written by a variety of Black women sharing their personal experiences. 

These essays—and a few poems—are grouped into categories such as “Family & Food for the Soul” and “Identity and Roots,” and each piece begins with a quotation from a well-known figure, including Michelle Obama, Misty Copeland and Audre Lorde. Some offerings are nuggets of love, such as journalist Rebekah Sager’s tribute to her father, who raised her single-handedly, his actions lighting the way for Sager to raise her son “with dignity, vision, empathy and grace.” Other pieces feature insightful yet amusing journeys of self-discovery, like Rachel Decoste’s account of moving to Dakar, Senegal, and on her first day there, suddenly belting out a song from The Lion King. “I was mad at myself for starting my journey to the Motherland with a Disney soundtrack. . . . How colonized was my mind that this was the first tune that came to my spirit?” 

The many voices featured in I’m Speaking Now rise up like a powerful choir, offering melodies that will stay with you. 

Shedding the Shackles

British textile artist Lynne Stein admits that when she plans vacations, instead of craving beaches or cuisine, she seeks out local craft traditions, hoping to get a firsthand look at Yoruba tribal beadwork or Middle Eastern metalwork. She eventually decided to investigate the narratives surrounding the craftwork of female artists in Indigenous and marginalized communities, and the result is Shedding the Shackles: Women’s Empowerment Through Craft, an around-the-world-tour that showcases a variety of talent, traditions and history and provides an enlightening look at the transformative powers of female creativity.

The book begins with short entries focusing on individual artists and specific craft techniques, such as the increasingly popular Boro and Sashiko forms of Japanese stitching. There’s a profile of English artist Lauren O’Farrell, who coined the term “yarnstorming,” a type of knitted street art that has become wonderfully widespread. Readers also learn about arpilleristas, Chilean women who create three-dimensional appliqued textiles to document their lives as well as to shed light on human rights abuses and violence, especially during the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Vibrant photographs accompany each entry, focusing on both the artists and their exquisite craftsmanship. 

Stein includes longer discussions of female enterprises that are not only art but also a means of survival, such as Monkeybiz South Africa, founded in 2000 to empower underprivileged women as bead artists. Their funky 3D creations quickly became a worldwide hit and have been included in numerous international exhibitions. 

After perusing these pages, readers may adjust their own vacation plans to allow time for learning about and appreciating local art traditions.

Four books guide readers in building a better world, with wisdom from Jane Goodall, activist Karen Walrond and many more.

Spanning 30 years, Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing From the London Review of Books delivers a wonderful sampling of Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel’s nonfiction work, which includes essays, reviews and autobiographical writings. In these erudite yet accessible pieces, Mantel tackles a variety of topics, from Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law and other figures of Tudor history, to pop singer Madonna, to England’s current royal family. Mantel’s commanding intelligence and inimitable style are on full display throughout. Her examinations of history, female identity and popular culture make this collection an excellent book club pick.

Zadie Smith reflects on an unprecedented time in America in Intimations, a collection of six essays focusing on the year 2020. Despite its brevity, this powerful book gives book clubs plenty to talk about. In sharply observed, compassionate prose, Smith examines politics, the murder of George Floyd and its repercussions, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and life under lockdown. Themes of isolation, social justice, family and the writing process will provide points of connection for all types of readers as Smith draws on personal experience to create essays that are moving and resonant.

In The End of the End of the Earth, Jonathan Franzen explores environmental concerns and reflects on writers past and present. Franzen, who is a passionate birder, visits locales across the globe to indulge his passion, and his travels supply wonderful material for some of the book’s central pieces. There are also essays on authors Edith Wharton and William T. Vollmann, which offer new perspectives on both authors. Written with humility, humor and visionary insight, Franzen’s wide-ranging collection is certain to generate rewarding dialogue among book club members.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations brings together key nonfiction writings by Toni Morrison (1931–2019). Covering four decades, the volume collects more than 40 pieces including Morrison’s eulogy for James Baldwin, her Nobel Prize lecture on the importance of language, commencement speeches and works of political analysis and literary criticism. Morrison’s impassioned views on race, feminism and American society ensure that this book will stand the test of time. Reading groups will find no shortage of rich discussion material here.

Four beloved authors turn to the essay form in these incisive collections.

The essay collection Black Nerd Problems (8 hours) presents the opinions of William Evans and Omar Holmon, creators of the website by the same name. The two explore geek culture topics ranging from the frivolous to the serious, from the shifting definition of nerd to deep dives into Black superheroes.

The think pieces in this collection beg to be read aloud, and Evans and Holmon deliver high-energy performances with humor and verve, making this audiobook a real treat for fans of pop culture critique. It won’t surprise anyone to discover that the authors are poets as well, and the conviction behind each of their declarations makes the listener feel like they’re hearing a lively podcast or sitting around a table arguing with friends.

Whether you disagree with their opinions, find them insightful and thought-provoking or are indifferent to the subject matter, you will undoubtedly be entertained by Evans and Holmon’s performance.

The authors of this essay collection perform their audiobook with humor and verve. It’s a real treat for fans of popular culture critique.

​​You know those motivational posters that hang in your place of work? The ones with the simple messages about teamwork, friendship, success and excellence? Carry On (2.5 hours), the new audiobook from late, great civil rights icon Representative John Lewis, is like that—only better, because his aphorisms are punchy yet never cliched, and you can take his inspirational words with you and play them anytime you need a lift.

Actor Don Cheadle narrates each of Lewis’ 43 short essays with clarity and passion, knowing just where to put the right amount of emphasis. While Lewis was unable to record the audiobook himself, Cheadle more than succeeds in embodying the congressman’s message of hope.

Ruminating on topics that range from justice and conscience to hobbies and humor, Lewis has blessed us with a timeless collection of wisdom and knowledge from a lifetime of “good trouble” in his nonviolent quest for equality. “A good day,” Lewis tells us, “is waking up and being alive.”

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of the print edition of Carry On.

While John Lewis was unable to record his essays himself, Don Cheadle more than succeeds in embodying the congressman’s message of hope.

From dubbing Michael Keaton an “Eyebrow Zaddy” to writing a treatise on barrister wigs “looking like a sad-ass Halloween costume and smelling like Seabiscuit’s haystack,” Phoebe Robinson is as hilarious as ever in her third book, Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes, the first title from the comedian-podcaster-actor-host’s new Tiny Reparations Books imprint.

As in her previous memoirs-in-essay (You Can’t Touch My Hair and Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay), not only is the bestselling author’s work super funny, it’s also enlightening and thought-provoking. Whether she’s offering advice to aspiring bosses, dismantling the “patriarchal narrative [that] every woman . . . wants the same things” (especially motherhood) or explaining why the #ITakeResponsibility initiative in the summer of 2020 enrages her (“celebrities heard but did not listen to what Black people wanted and raced to put together something so shoddy and tone-deaf”), Robinson’s voice is sure and strong.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Phoebe Robinson shares what she hopes to accomplish as the publisher of Tiny Reparations Books.


Her essay “Black Girl, Will Travel” is particularly moving. She explains that, while her parents are team “#NoNewFriendsOrAcquaintancesOrWorldlyExperiences,” one of the benefits of her career is the ability to see more of the world. It can be “downright terrifying and life-threatening to travel while Black”—and the lack of movies, books, shows and ads featuring Black people abroad certainly makes it seem as if travel isn’t for Black people. But visiting unfamiliar places has changed her, and she urges readers to remember “evolving can’t always happen when we’re confined to our area code.”

In “4C Girl Living in Anything but a 4C World: The Disrespect,” Robinson describes a journey of a different kind: Her own rocky path to feeling at home in and with her hair. She examines the historical and cultural influences that have shaped Black women’s feelings about their hair and details the racism, colorism and cruelty that persists to this day. It’s a memorable, meaningful reading experience dotted with hits of poetry, anger and revelation—as is Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes as a whole. So slip into your inside cardigan (a la Mr. Rogers) and settle in for another rollicking and resonant Robinson read.

Not only are Phoebe Robinson’s essays super funny, they’re also enlightening and thought-provoking, dotted with hits of poetry, anger and revelation.

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