Few are the writers who can turn their hand to anything, while still maintaining a consistent, vibrant voice. For over three decades, French author Emmanuel Carrère has been one of that group; this new collection of nonfiction written between 1990 and the present, 97,196 Words (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), offers longtime readers a wonderful retrospective, while new readers will find it the perfect point of entry. Blending the rich storytelling of a novelist with the insight of a nonfiction writer, Carrère here, as elsewhere in his work, blurs the lines between the genres as he ranges from reflections on shifty writers like Truman Capote and Philip K. Dick, to heightened self-analysis brought to bear on interviews with Catherine Deneuve, from relationship columns for an Italian women’s magazine to empathetic crime narratives where the culprits have invented fake lives for themselves. And his profiles of where current-day political energy rests, with an eye on Davos and Macron and Russian dissidents, are potent, considered primers. But it’s always the storytelling that’s the key: reading Carrère is pure, alive pleasure.
Coventry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) proves my long-held suspicion that the essay is the ideal vehicle for the glittering, merciless omniscience of Rachel Cusk. You never know where Cusk will lead you in her novels, and her essays are no different; thank god it’s possible to hold your breath for the couple of minutes it takes to read one. In her revolutionary Outline trilogy Cusk immersed the reader in the dialogue and stories of the characters that Faye, the protagonist, interacted with in her journeys. But in the tight coil of Cusk’s essays there is no escape into other characters, and as a reader, I was ecstatic to stay in her company for once. The strongest pieces excavate her personal life, and her tone, though never sentimental, is ferociously protective of what she considers valuable. Her essay on raising teenagers, “Lions on Leashes,” is one of her best, Cusk at her most Cuskian; vulnerable, dry, unrelenting and singular.
The enduring brilliance of the late Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, shines forth from the pages of The Source of Self-Regard (Knopf, $28.95)—a compilation of selected essays, speeches, and meditations spanning decades of the writer’s life. In her famous Nobel Lecture, included here, Morrison proclaimed: “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.” The Source of Self-Regard displays Toni Morrison’s powerful and prophetic use of language to discern the cultural issues that shape human experience. Her compassionate yet unflinching insights into themes of race, identity, and power in everyday life burn with prescience and ultimately lean towards hope. “Dream the world as it ought to be,” Morrison said in her 1988 Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address. This dreaming, as Morrison put it, should not be “the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one.” Reading through this poignant collection of Morrison’s reflections is like waking up to the subtext of your own life. The words gathered in this book will continue to be Morrison’s lasting gift to us all.