Alexander Chee recommends essays by Mary Gaitskill and Yiyun Li

Alexander Chee
(M. Sharkey / Houghton Mifflin Harcpurt )
Critic at Large

I’ve loved and admired Mary Gaitskill’s essays over the years as they’ve appeared in between her novels and short story collections, and here, collected at last in “Somebody with A Little Hammer,” with a cover she designed herself, I felt like I had not just a collection of her essays but an essential aspect of her intellect. Personal essays are here alongside major reviews, and whether reflecting on her lost cat, Updike, or her religious upbringing, Gaitskill brings her tremendous critical capacities to bear and the results are surprising, delightful and sublime.

Yiyun Li is one of our great living social realist fiction writers, and in “Dear Friend, from My Life, I Write to You in Your Life,” she gives us a memoir in interconnected essays, drawing the connections she has made over the years between the writing she loves and the life she has endeavored to live. As she reflects on leaving Beijing for America, leaving a career as a doctor to become a writer, she takes us through the writers that have kept her alive — William Trevor, Marianne Moore, Ivan Turgenev and Katherine Mansfield, whose work supplies the title — and the result is an unforgettable portrait of the life lived behind her own great works.

“Somebody with A Little Hammer,” by Mary Gaitskill and “Dear Friend, from My Life, I Write to You in Your Life,” by Yiyun Li
(Pantheon/Random House )