Rachel Monroe’s “Fire Behavior” in Oxford American
Read enough literary journalism and it becomes easy to trace the intentions and arguments of a piece from the start; this transparency, established in tidy lede and nut graf, doesn’t necessarily mean a piece won’t contain surprises or complexity, but does tend to establish a certain predictability. Readers must keep reading, after all. So part of what’s so rewarding about Monroe’s piece is that it continually surprises: not in the dramatic-intake-of-breath sort of way, but with subtle twists of focus that realign the reader’s expectations and allegiances. The piece moves from the fire in West, Texas and the immediate response, to the emergence of a media hero and then the dethroning of that hero, to the work and personalities of first responders, to PTSD, to the way in which mainstream media seeks a particular hero narrative and ruthlessly picks apart those who don’t adhere to it.
Compassionate without stridency or soapboxing, this piece is ultimately the exploration of the rise and fall of one first responder from West. His story acts as a prism, shedding light on numerous themes: the corporate and governmental tendency in the wake of disaster to seek a clear culprit “to direct our blame at a particular person, with a particular face, [rather] than at an abstract set of laws and policies”; our limited and paradoxical definition of heroism; and the intense, complex draw of trauma, as well as its dangerous undertow. –Sarah
Ashley C. Ford’s “When The Monster Saves You” on Buzzfeed
You know what I like about Ashley Ford? Well, a lot of things, not the least of which is her Twitter feed. But I feel like Ashley’s kinda the opposite from the kind of writer I am–instead of saturating the Internet with personal essay overload, she drops these incredible gems once every couple months. I think her latest on Buzzfeed might be favorite yet (and my favorite thing I’ve read on Buzzfeed, come to think of it).
This piece is seriously kinda magical. Read it. I did a few times, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly how Ashley achieves such depth and compassion, such intensely and honestly wrought characters. I love that the piece isn’t crafted to death, isn’t full of the kind of precocious semantics that are so stylish these days. I also love that it’s not sentimental and drivelly. This is an incredibly skillful balance to strike. But I think the thing I love most about this piece, and all of Ashley’s I’ve read, is the way she sees people–as a complex mix of destructive and constructive impulses, struggling with the wounds they carry, capable of both “good” and “bad” acts. ‘Cause that’s kinda how we all are, right? — Lauren
Kelly Sundberg’s “It Will Look Like Sunset” in Guernica
There are few words to describe Kelly Sundberg’s essay “It Will Look Like Sunset,” and if you read through the essay and then read the comments you’ll notice the first commenters have the same reaction I do. A story told in parts, “It Will Look Like Sunset” is a complicated tangle that details the final event that led her to leave an abusive relationship. While this may be the focus, Sundberg also weaves through details of their marriage, their life together, and the ways her ex-husband was gentle, creating a picture of a life that was as complicated as the relationship itself.
Sundberg does not sweeten this relationship, nor does she excuse her ex-husband’s behavior—she is a survivor and the snapshots of events are difficult to read not because they are graphic but because Sundberg finds balance within them. This isn’t Sundberg’s ex-husband’s story, it is hers, and it attempts to do something very real—it attempts to show a reader this difficult, wrought, and challenging world in a way that asks us to hold two thoughts simultaneously: the idea that Caleb could beat her and the idea that Caleb could love her. Sundberg’s decision to leave was difficult and the essay—in its greatest triumph—makes that difficulty clear.
My mother took me into the backyard and said, ‘Listen to me. I have friends who have left their husbands. I have seen it on the other side. It is not better on the other side. Try hard. Try hard before you give up.’
I tried so hard.
Through this crystalline voice Sundberg comes out the other side, leaving her marriage, starting a separate life, but the scars—like that which bursts across the top of her foot—are still present. I think, when it comes down to it, this essay is about those scars, about the events that caused them, but more than anything else it is about the difficulties of choice. There is no question that Sundberg made the right choice, but the right choice is often deeply personal and more tangled than we realize. That is why Sundberg’s essay is not only beautiful, but necessary—it articulates struggle. — Andrea