NEW WELSH READERS' POLL 2018: BEST ESSAY COLLECTION SHORTLIST

VOTES HAVE NOW CLOSED. Watch this space for the announcement of the winning essay collection in our 2018 readers' poll.

NEW WELSH READERS' POLL SHORTLIST ANNOUNCED!

We are delighted to announce the shortlist of the top three essay collections in the 2018 New Welsh Readers' Poll, as voted for by the public. They are, in no particular order:

The Dragon Has Two Tongues by Glyn Jones (University of Wales Press)

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Solnit (Canongate)

The King of Ashes by John Barnie (Gomer)

Voting for the best Essay Collection remains open until 2 February 2018, so please help us to choose the best of the top three shortlisted titles by voting today in the link to the Readers' Poll above.

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Best Essay Collection Longlist

Below are a selection of nominations for our Readers' Poll, for the best essay collection ever published in the English language (including in translation) around the world. The poll, for readers anywhere, will run until entries close for our New Welsh Writing Awards on 2 February 2018. Students from Aberystwyth University's Dept of English and Creative Writing will help us form a longlist, and the shortlist and winners will be voted by readers. Enjoy these recommendations and reviews by readers Alex Hubbard, Marceline Barnett, George Sandifer-Smith, Ellen Bell, Fo Orbell, Caroline Stockford, Lexus Ndiwe, Martha Casey, Caitlin Hall and Ashley Owen!

REVIEWS

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Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss

Review by Caitlin Hall

Notes From No Man's Land, Eula Biss' second book, is a hard-hitting, often uncomfortable, exploration of America's relationship with itself and its history. This collection of essays begins with an innocuous history of the telephone pole, before – in a sharp twist in tone – delving into the use of telephone poles and similar pillars in the lynching of black people during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This bold collision of the start of modern technology with the lynching of black men in America forces the reader to re-evaluate the more comfortable belief that such racist hatred is further removed from society than it may be in reality. Biss' ability to force the reader to be self-reflective and question society's stance on race in the twenty-first century is bolstered by her eloquence and insight, and makes for a stunning collection full of original ideas and biting social commentary. 

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The King of Ashes by John Barnie

Review by Alex Hubbard

Barnie’s collection of essays stretches from themes of Welsh identity, blues music, and the relationship between the metropolitan and the natural worlds. Barnie’s writing is clear and concise, though its attempts to maintain an academic tone mean it occasionally drifts into dense prose. The King of Ashes, though, is no ordinary collection of academic essays. The contemporary, the state of things now, is present throughout. This is particularly present in Barnie’s excellent opening chapters, where he analyses RS Thomas’ work and Welsh identity. In these essays, Barnie both celebrates Thomas’ work and decries the cheapening of Welsh nationalism. Indeed, Barnie, like Thomas, is keenly aware of the inherent duality of being Welsh. For to be Welsh, particularly for Welsh learners like Barnie and Thomas, can also bring with it an affiliation to British identity, making one complicit in the very oppression one may look to resist. However, as much as Barnie’s writing displays an anger toward the oppression of his nation by the English, it also displays frustration towards his own people. If the basis of Welsh identity is provided by the geography of the land, its natural landmarks may appear to have unconquerable power. Yet, Barnie writes,

            Outsiders have discovered the Black Mountains, have bought up the houses, turned the schools into adventure centres; the hills are patrolled by ‘wardens’; pony trekkers, motorcyclists, hikers erode the grass tracks and disturb the quietness.

 To the author, this represents a kind of colonialism. The power of and marks of Welsh identity is diluted by the intrusion of the human world. But perhaps, in Barnie’s depiction of a Wales where national identity is taken and warped, there is a call to take action and win it back. 

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The White Album by Joan Didion

Review by Marceline Barnett

 ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’, as Joan Didion says in this essay collection, and her book, The White Album, breathes life into even the darkest parts of the sixties. This is not a simple fly-by retelling of events, but an insight into Didion’s own state of mind. While several names are dropped she is the protagonist, refusing to be swallowed by the spectacle of Jim Morrison or crushed under the weight of the Manson family. It reads as what it is, a diary full of mood, angst and ennui with the backdrop of a time that many can only find excitement in. 

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Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It by Geoff Dyer

Review by Chloe Hunter

This is not a book for those who want to take up yoga and don’t know where to start. Rather, it is a book of travel essays, telling stories of stops on Geoff Dyer’s journey through life. My take on the title is that the author is implying that by reading this book you will receive the same benefit from a session of yoga. I was anticipated a humorous book about yoga, but it seems to only be about a man in his 40’s taking various drugs and engaging in sexual intercourse with different women in different cities. The book was enjoyable at first, until I read on and realized that the author repeated the same pattern of a move to a city, taking some form of drug and meeting a girl, who he would speak to in a less than respectable way. He would then have sex with her before, after or during a crisis about his life and then leave to start the process again somewhere else.

In addition, I felt that much of the dialogue was unnecessary:

                  ‘Two sets of six.’

                  ‘But I don’t need that many.’

                  ‘So stick to six. I mean, buy six.’

                  ‘Two plus four.’

                  ‘Equals six.’

                  ‘Plus two left over.’

                  ‘Bingo!’

This exchange just seems drab, it has no substance and does not give us extra information about what is happening, or the person he is talking to. Considering all of this, Yoga… could still have been a good read had Dyer explained the cultures and differences of the places he visits, but he does not. This just seems to be a self-loathing man with no curiosity for the world around him. But then, maybe I just wanted to read about yoga.

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A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Review by Lexus Ndiwe

Lexus Ndiwe longs for more pages as she finishes this classic essay collection on the wild, abandonment and reclamation.

This essay collection on 'losing yourself' is personal, informative, and gripping. The enchanting quality of Solnit's writing puts it into the category of creative non-fiction, and I felt like I was being led through a narrative by a knowledgeable speaker, rather than a critical analyst. It was like peeking into the author's own stream of consciousness. The book is split into different chapters, and each allows the speaker to jump back and forth between their memories and the time of writing. Repetition is used to link earlier ideas to later ones, and expand on meanings already introduced. Through Solnit’s ability to stitch one concept to another (abandonment; ruins; the social; the wild; escapism), the reader is led to their destination while clearly retaining every aspect of their journey. Here’s an example of repetition and interrogation is Solnit's exploration of ‘blue’.

‘The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. [...] I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that colour of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The colour of that distance is the colour of an emotion, the colour of solitude and of desire, [...] the colour of where you can never go. For the blue is [...] in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains. "Longing," says the poet Robert Hass, "because desire is full of endless distances." Blue is the colour of longing for the distances you never arrive in.’

Solnit’s writing style does not distract from the analysis. Indeed, because facts and other information are presented through story-telling and experience, more critics and other secondary sources are able to be introduced. While reading I received a lot of information and ideas, but it did not feel like I was being overloaded. My favourite passage was Solnit's take on the caterpillar and metamorphosis, ‘The process of transformation consists mostly of decay and then of this crisis when emergence from what came before must be total and abrupt.’  Earlier in this section she mentions how when we think of a caterpillar's transformation into a butterfly, we only see the beauty of the end process, forgetting the 'violence' and 'decay' that is needed for the change. We think it is ‘as graceful as a flower blooming’, and forget the path leading up to it. Like the evolutionary process of a caterpillar, 'getting lost' also has stages. It could be argued that the book is a fragmented representation of them. When derailing from the path, the process of getting lost can be as painful and transformative, as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. 

Although the time shifts can sometimes feel disjointed, overall the key themes: the unknown, getting lost, reclamation, and escapism are engaged with throughout, leaving this reader with her own sense of longing when there were no more pages left to turn.

Lexus Ndiwe is a student in the department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. 

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Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood

Review by Martha Casey

‘The English, I knew, were very fond of cannibalism.’

Upon seeing the words ‘strange things’, many will assume it’s a typo of the hit television series Stranger Things, but it is in fact the title of a collection of essays written by Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is an award winning Canadian author, whose seminal work has influenced literary fields, particularly the notion of feminism in literature. Atwood’s Strange Things discusses the malevolent North in Canadian literature, and deals with the subject in an insightful and witty manner. The collection is separated into four sections which are based on the lectures Atwood gave on this subject. Atwood begins by discussing the topic of Canadian identity and the old misconception that there was no such thing as Canadian Literature, a claim Atwood adamantly refutes. The first essay is based on the literary works influenced by the true stories of Franklin, a British explorer who died when travelling through this part of the world. She avers that in this literary tradition, exploration into the Canadian wilderness will result in it consuming you and claiming you as its own. The collection then focuses on the desire among non-Natives to turn themselves into Natives and refers to this section as the Grey Owl Syndrome. The essays begin to adopt an ominous tone as we learn about the Wendigo and the literature surrounding it. The Wendigo is a creature that was once human but now haunts the Canadian wilderness, craving human flesh. Atwood’s final section discusses whether the connotations of the ‘malevolent North’ being ‘active, female and sinister’ change when it has a female rather than a male author. The conclusion seems to be that, while the rhetoric of the North as a dangerous place remains, the wilderness seems to adopt a neutral genderless persona rather than a female one. Atwood’s Strange Things will make you laugh, educate you, scare you, and inspire you to explore the literature surrounding the Canadian North, but perhaps not to explore the wilderness itself, for fear of spotting a Wendigo.

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Morning Yet on Creation Day by Chinua Achebe

Review by Lexus Ndiwe

In Chinua Achebe’s collection of essays, he tackles various issues relating to Africa, such as: colonialism, the perspective of the Western world on African writers and their literature, and ‘the place of the English language in African writing and society’, to name a few. He sometimes narrows his focus to his birth place, Nigeria, but also has other African countries as well as Western ones as talking points. Although the collection was published in 1975, Achebe’s voice for the most part sounds fresh with current relevance, and apart from when he states the date or time, I felt that he was directly addressing the particular issues of today. His writing style is a combination of the anecdotal and the academic, with a strong and personal authorial voice. It is as if Achebe has thread part of himself into these essays, so that anyone who reads them can feel his presence. Baring all, he is unapologetic when tackling sensitive topics, as ‘a writer need never offer excuses for [their] writing’, as Achebe puts it in his preface.

The first essay in the book, ‘Colonialist Criticism’ in its latter section focuses on ‘earnestness’ and ‘change’ in relation to the relationship between African writers and Western critics. The section that resonated with me the most is as follows: ‘Let every people bring their gifts to the great festival of the world’s cultural harvest and mankind will be all the richer for the variety and distinctiveness of the offerings.’ Here Achebe is calling for the widening acceptance of people’s perspectives in regards to literature through metaphorical language. His writing is rich with poetic-sounding language holding great meaning. This is not the only powerful statement that is embedded into the sentences and paragraphs that make up the collection. The book also presents some thought-provoking ideas on ‘language’ itself: ‘the value of language [is]…facilitating the affairs and transactions of society… quickly and exactly’ and ‘no man can understand another whose language he does not speak.’ Words are often taken for granted in society today, and you can often hear statements along the lines of, ‘What can I do? My words will not change anything.’ However, Achebe re-confirms the ‘power’ that language possesses not only as a bridge, but also as a platform for understanding and development.

Without language, we cannot communicate effectively, or begin to understand the culture and world of people living elsewhere. Achebe’s powerful statements made me re-evaluate how I perceive the people, words, and other forms of language of my surroundings and encounters. Ostensibly an essay collection about Africa, this book widens its perspective to include all people and their perspectives, including racial inequality throughout the world. 

VIDEO PREVIEWS

George Sandifer-Smith presents Neil Perryman's Adventures with the Wife in Space: Living with Doctor Who, his recommendation for an essay collection, offering inspiration for writers and readers in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2018 & Readers' Poll: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection. New Welsh Review's multimedia programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University.
Ellen Bell presents Jenny Diski's A View from the Bed & Other Observations, her recommendation for an essay collection, offering inspiration for writers and readers in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2018 & Readers' Poll: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection. New Welsh Review's multimedia programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University.
Ashley Owen presents Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm, her recommendation for an essay collection, offering inspiration for writers and readers in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2018 & Readers' Poll: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection. New Welsh Review's multimedia programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University.
Fo Orbell recommends Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris for the New Welsh Writing Awards & Readers' Poll 2018: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection. New Welsh Review's multimedia programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University.
Caroline Stockford recommends Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin for the New Welsh Writing Awards & Readers' Poll 2018: Aberystwyth University Prize for an Essay Collection. New Welsh Review's multimedia programme is sponsored by Aberystwyth University.