The word "essay," as just about every avid reader of creative nonfiction already knows, derives from the French verb essayer, meaning "to try" or "to attempt." Essays are, fundamentally, attempts at capturing, taming, and understanding a subject, whether it be literary esoterica or the contents of the writer's own heart. These four new essay collections do just that, covering a range of topics and experiences with clarity, insight, and wit.

Time Come: Selected Prose

Linton Kwesi Johnson. Picador, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-0350-0632-8
British-Jamaican poet Johnson (Mi Revalueshanary Fren) presents a thoughtful anthology of previously published essays, most focusing on art, Caribbean history, and the minutiae of the Black British experience. The book is divided into five sections, comprising pieces written from 1975 to 2021 that ran in outlets including the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, and Race Today. Part one is dedicated to Johnson’s music writing, most of which examines how the reggae of Bob Marley, the Wailers, and others coalesced to form “the spiritual expression of the historical experience of the Afro-Jamaican.” Part two outlines how Johnson found his literary voice with the drumming group Rasta Love, with whom he explored Jamaican Creole as a “deejay turned poet,” overdubbing phrases onto the background rhythms of various songs. Elsewhere, Johnson shares that he turned to poetry “as a visceral need to creatively articulate the experiences of the black youth of my generation, coming of age in a racist society,” after reading W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and speaks to how racial uprisings in the U.K. throughout the 1980s “unleashed a new wave of black creativity in the arts.” Throughout, Johnson remains lively, involving company, though certain sections—his writing on politics, in particular—shine brighter than others. This is a welcome addition to a sterling literary catalog. Agent: Suresh Ariaratnam, Sprung Sultan. (Dec.)

Songs on Endless Repeat: Essays and Outtakes

Anthony Veasna So. Ecco, $28.99 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-304996-3
This magnificent posthumous collection by So (Afterparties), who died in 2020, brings together the short story writer’s essays and excerpts from his unfinished novel. In “Journey to a Land Free of White People,” So discusses his ambivalence about the film Crazy Rich Asians, recounting the “tenderness I felt watching” a set of “wildly different” Asian characters represented on screen while criticizing the film’s ending as a facile reconciliation of the “cultural contradictions” between the female protagonist’s Asian American upbringing and her boyfriend’s Singaporean family. “Baby Yeah,” the compendium’s most intimate essay, is a visceral meditation on So’s struggle to cope with the suicide of a close friend from his creative writing program: “What is remembering other than revitalizing a corpse that will return to its grave?” Chapters from Straight Thru Cambotown, the novel So was working on at the time of his death, focus on a Cambodian neighborhood in Los Angeles County shaken by the sudden death of Ming Peou, a pillar of the community and organizer of its unofficial bank. So’s distinctive voice blends mordant cultural criticism with a striking combination of humor, compassion, and insight. This is a bittersweet testament to an astounding talent. (Dec.)

The Bloodied Nightgown and Other Essays

Joan Acocella. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-0-374-60809-5
Essayist Acocella (Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints) shines in this splendid anthology of literary criticism originally published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books between 2007 and 2021. Interrogating the enduring appeal of such classics as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Acocella argues in the title essay that the allure of Bram Stoker’s Dracula lies in how the novel stirs up tension by using multiple first-person narrators unaware of “all that the others have told us,” leading readers to wonder “when are these people going to figure out what is going on?” Other entries profile such figures as Pliny the Younger, Richard Pryor, and Andy Warhol; Acocella contends that the detailed character portraits sketched by Alexander Waugh, Evelyn’s grandson, in Fathers and Sons, a group biography of the male writers in the Waugh family, remind readers of “the inherited vigor of English literature—the sheer, knotty concreteness of it, sometimes rude, always robust.” The pieces brim with erudition and playfulness (“I read all sixty-six of [Agatha] Christie’s detective novels, and I have guessed exactly two of the culprits”), offering approachable insights into literary masterpieces both new and old. Smart and accessible, this is a blast. Illus. Agent: Robert Cornfield, Robert Cornfield Literary. (Feb.)

Revelation at the Food Bank

Merrill Joan Gerber. Sagging Meniscus, $21.95 trade paper (206p) ISBN 978-1-952386-70-1
Novelist Gerber (Beauty and the Breast) brings together intimate personal essays in this stirring compendium. The hilarious title essay weaves an account of how Gerber found unexpected community at a church’s food pantry (“They give me gifts, they welcome me.... I’m a Jewish girl, but I’ve never known the rewards of religion. Is it too late?”) with reflections on the small annoyances that accumulated over her 62-year marriage (“Why does he put so much cream cheese on his bagel?”). Several pieces investigate how grief ripples through families, including “My Suicides,” which discusses how Gerber’s relatives coped with the suicides of her cousin and her abusive brother-in-law, and “The Lost Airman,” which delves into her grandmother’s struggle to accept the death of another of Gerber’s cousins, who was “shot down by Japanese Zeros over New Guinea” during WWII. Gerber is a witty and astute observer with a keen eye for detail (“As I sat there facing three lanes of oncoming traffic, as I waited numbly for a Highway Patrol Officer to reach me, I gathered up some little glittering pieces of my windshield and put them in my pocket for a souvenir,” she writes of the aftermath of a highway car crash). Elevated by Gerber’s wry voice and crystalline prose, this impresses. (Dec.)