Mull It Over This Summer with Essays & Criticism

Kelsey Hoff
4 min readJun 27, 2018


Like many readers, I’ve always associated summer with the novel: juicy storytelling that meanders and keeps me spellbound for hours at a time. Every year, the quest is for “the perfect beach read” — but this summer I don’t want to get away. It’s been a whole year since I finished my MFA and I’m still tweaking my manuscript. I’m blogging. I’m thinking. I’m also reading about five books at once. One of them is Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, the thick Gothic novel I’ve been getting lost in nightly before bed, I’ll allow myself that.

But I’ve found that cultural criticism and creative nonfiction allow my thoughts to wander without straying too far into the imaginary. Reading the first couple of books on my summer list, I’ve made some very valuable connections and looked at my own experiences with literature and culture in completely new ways. Most of it isn’t super-dense academic prose blocks (except maybe Camille Paglia), but who says thoughtful writing has to be hard work? Most of these reads can be enjoyed with a mojito or a cold one just as easily as any work of fiction.

As a fair warning, this list is a bit biased towards my favorite subjects of pop music, witchcraft, and writing; some are old, some are new, and some I haven’t even read yet. Just keep a pen and a notebook close at hand, because I promise you will need it. (Titles link to Amazon)

Betwixt and Between: Essays on the Writing Life by Jenny Boully

In the introduction, Boully explains that the essays that make up this book accumulated over a period of time because they didn’t seem to “fit” into neat categories. She writes about love as a kind of writing and her prose moves in poetic ways, touching on photography, Einstein on the Beach, and The Voyager space probe. The perfect combination of deeply thoughtful, but freeform and meandering for a summer read.

Sex, Art, and American Culture by Camille Paglia

I picked this one up at a book sale because of the back cover description, which calls Paglia “the intellectual pin-up of the ‘90s.” It contains pages of incendiary remarks leveled at ’90s feminism and academia, along with the French theorists and conference jet-setters they worshiped. I was thoroughly entertained to read bad reviews for once, and vicious ones at that. On the other hand, her essays that deal with art directly, such as the music videos of Madonna or the films of Elizabeth Taylor, pinpoint the cultural value and talent evident in such visionary works.

Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive by Kristen J. Sollee

This book traces Western cultural perceptions of witches from the first midwives and healers to be demonized for their skill back through the earliest recognizable witch figures in European art, then forward into the famous Salem witch trials and the current resurgence of witchcraft. From herbal remedies to love potions, superstition to pop culture, and everything in-between, Sollee addresses the practices women have developed throughout Western history to embrace their own power and how they have been twisted into all of the trappings that have come to signify the archetypal witch.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib wrote brilliantly about music in his poetry collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, and this essay collection followed up with the longer stories and ponderings that fed into his poems, in prose form. A great read for anyone who loves to blast music and sing in the car or can be transported to a different time and place when that certain song comes on.

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

Compiled from her blog and other publications, these essays are Hurley’s observations, frustrations, and reflections as a woman sci-fi writer and as a writer in general. I really appreciated the connections she drew from her work in copywriting and the full portrait of a working writer manifested in this collection.

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

This book delves deep, and not only into the human experiences of the five senses — it also picks out fascinating evolutions in the animal and plant kingdom. I highly recommend this for writers, especially poets and people who want to train their poetic ear to experience more deeply through sensory detail.

TBR: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs

Lester Bangs has been on my list for a while now — I dig music criticism that highlights the real ways we experience music: what we’re doing while we listen to it, how we perceive the musicians, the memories and larger social movements connected with certain songs. Lester Bangs was known for rejecting authority and elitism.

TBR: Karmic Traces by Eliot Weinberger

I think I came across this in a bookstore and saved it to my Goodreads because it looked so fascinating. Weinberger takes the reader along on a trip around the globe, one he has taken himself interwoven with the imagined stories of others.

TBR: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

This sounds like the ultimate summer fever dream to just wander off into. Personal essays are tied to art, history, and culture “ to explore issues of uncertainty, trust, loss, memory, desire, and place,” from the summary on Amazon.



Kelsey Hoff

Poet, freelance writer and word witch in Chicago. Sharing my experiences with complex trauma along with some reflections on the stories we tell ourselves.