I could equate reading Lydia Davis’s work to several things: being shaken awake after a long nap, taking a cold shower, drinking a strong cup of coffee. She holds her space in the literary canon for being electric, and of course, this newest collection of lectures and meditations, Essays One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30), surpasses expectations. What makes the collection so rich and special is that there is at least one essay—if not many—for everyone. Fans of literature will adore her sharp, and sometimes tender, commentaries on some of our most beloved authors, from Berlin to Blanchot to Pynchon. Lovers of fine art will appreciate her ponderings (her essay on Joan Mitchell still holds as one of my favorites in this collection). And, of course, writers will cherish her words on craft. No matter the topic at hand, every element of her language is purposeful. Nothing is misplaced or hurried; the book is a masterclass on how to do so much with little. With this newest assemblage of musings, Davis solidifies herself as one of our greatest literary treasures.
Jia Tolentino writes from an explicitly millennial perspective, but the “generation-defi ning” forces she so ably explores in Trick Mirror (Random House, $27)—the internet, feminism, the 2016 election--have touched everyone, no matter when they were born. Blending the intimate, honest approach of a personal essayist with an experienced cultural critic’s skepticism and range, Tolentino clarifies and complicates every subject she touches, from athleisurewear and reality shows (her story of appearing in one is priceless) to “difficult women” and drug use. Calling the name of today’s game “scamming,” she draws on her own experiences with blogs, books, and a megachurch—christened by its youthful members “the Repentagon”—to dissect some of the artifi ces at work today. These are mostly webbased, but even with familiar suspects like Amazon and Facebook Tolentino adds a lot to our understanding of how these forces affect us and how they stay so powerful; her discussion of the internet as a theater without a backstage is apt and memorable, as are her expositions of how feminism still knuckles under to the “tyranny of the ideal woman” and of how intensive marketing, dating only from the nuptials of Queen Victoria, has created “traditional” weddings where, for just tens of thousands of dollars, every woman can get the royal treatment for a day.
David Treuer’s revelatory history, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee (Riverhead, $17) tells much more than the story of “Native America from 1890 to the present.” To understand 1890—the date of the massacre of 150 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, which seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of America’s indigenous peoples—we have to know the innumerable ways the U.S. had already tried to deal with its “Indian problem,” how Europeans had treated the Natives from first contact, and what life was like on the continent during the centuries before it was “discovered” by whites. Treuer covers this complicated history in detail; if the number of treaties, acts, and battles is dizzying, what comes through clearly is that there is no single “Indian” story. Each tribe—and often each clan within the tribe—occupies distinct cultural and geographical landscapes, and each has been impacted differently by the various means whites have used to try to control them. These stories are fascinating and long overdue—without them, the story of America, and especially of the West, has been both partial and seriously impoverished. Treuer’s central thesis, however, is that despite whites’ relentless battle to exterminate Natives, they failed. Wounded Knee was not the end of the story, just one chapter in an ongoing saga.