A collection of essays and articles that startle, charm, challenge, amuse, and elucidate. Novelist Merkin (Enchantment, l986) writes nonfiction for such diverse publications as Esquire, Mirabella, Partisan Review, and the New Yorker. Her topics range from celebrity interviews with Richard Burton and Martin Scorsese to reflections on self-improvement, such as tanning and breast reduction. Among weightier matters are the guilt that Hedda Nussbaum must bear from the death of her daughter, Lisa, and the self-hatred that Merkin acquired about her Jewishness. What makes Merkin's reflections special is not the subject—how much has been written about Burton, Scorsese, and Growing Up Jewish in America?—but the quirky even-handedness of her approach. Nothing is too trivial to be taken seriously (e.g., sun-tanning) or too tragic to find its place in the scheme of daily life. Merkin's approach to both the solemn and the silly is at once good-humored and erudite, nonjudgmental and literate, emotionally adventurous. Merkin calls it ``risk-taking at one remove.'' Nevertheless, her expression of the ``truths that get whispered between women in private'' is on the edge, as in the chapters ``On Not Becoming a Lesbian'' and ``Spanking: A Romance.'' In the former, her preference for women as friends and companions does not translate into sexual preference, but a predilection for spanking as foreplay is confessed in the latter. A section exploring being a Jew includes the title essay, about both the Holocaust and self-hatred. It is at once extremely personal (they are, after all, her dreams) and universal (who hasn't had a fantasy of saving the world?). The author looks at the dark side of the human spirit without guilt or shame. Pungent observations tempered by graceful interpretation—and some very sharp wit.
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