Critical Essays Archive

Lizzie Borden in Angela Carter and Sarah Schmidt

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In 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. The prime suspect was Andrew’s daughter Lizzie. The murders have since been mythologized in a heady mix of rumor and conjecture; poisoned milk and madness-inducing menstrual cycles are but two of the incongruous details.

Karen Russell and the Art of Discomfort

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Without the draw of discomfort, horror wouldn’t be possible. Karen Russell uses different types of discomfort to shape her new short story, “Orange World,” in which Rae, an expectant mother with a high-risk pregnancy, makes a deal with the devil for the safety of her unborn child.

Meaghan O’Connell’s Lessons in Parenthood

I’ve always thought of stories of new parenthood as a cross between how-to manuals and cautionary tales. It wasn’t until I read Meaghan O’Connell’s memoir that I realized mothers don’t write their stories for the benefit of those without children—whether their stories scare me or encourage me is irrelevant.

The Risk and Reward of “We” in Poetry

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Poems, Eleanor Wilner has said, are vehicles meant to circumscribe the boundaries of the self, but our individual imaginations are situated within politics and history. Use of the first-person plural, then, can open up the poem’s historical vision.

Reading Herzog in 2018

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Saul Bellow’s novel is often characterized as a rich portrait of a mind in crisis. It’s also an exploration of the role of history—and memory—in personal life.

Family and the State in Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire

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Like Mohsin Hamid and Ayad Akhtar, Shamsie is concerned with the ways a post-9/11 West has disrupted the lives of Pakistani Muslim immigrants. But where Hamid and Akhtar limit their scope to the individual experiences of brown men, Shamsie maps out the ways the family reacts to and reflects

Poets Turning to Nonfiction

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How do we tell our stories? What form best fits the autobiographical? For many writers, working in one genre is not sufficient, or else a single genre does not exhaust a writer’s obsession with their subject matter.

Remembering Pain in Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”

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In “Kaddish,” Ginsberg bears witness to his mother’s pain and struggles; he intones her name over and over again as if to deify her. It is in that painful remembrance that, during that panicked time of terrorism and political instability, I drew hope.

Power and Powerlessness in Alexander Chee’s Essay “The Querent”

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Raw from the loss of his father, Chee says he got into Tarot because he “never wanted to be surprised by misfortune again.” In Tarot cards he found a tool that could enable him to take power over a life that had rendered him utterly powerless.

Cyd, Miranda, and the World: Finding Family in Literature in Princess Cyd

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Stephen Cone's film is about a queer teenage girl who, for one summer, discovers herself—what she desires, what she needs, and how she could fit in this world. It’s also, and just as importantly, a movie about words—writing and reading them.