An idiosyncratic, richly detailed, often lyrical invitation to reconsider how and why to read literature.



Reading good books doesn’t just entertain us; it teaches us how to better use our brains and our emotions, as this lively treatise tells us. Fletcher, a professor of story science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative, holds doctorates in both literature and neuroscience, which meet fluently in this thought-packed survey. The long-held pedagogical view of literature, he writes, has instructed us “to see literature as a species of argument.” The author believes, however, that literature is a type of technology, “any human-made thing that helps to solve a problem.” Our problem is what to do when we think about such things as love, which, in terms of the storytelling about it, involves two elements: self-disclosure and wonder, “a feeling of awe, of specialness.” A good story about love “primes the dopamine neurons in the reward centers of our brain, sweetening our thoughts with a touch of pleasure.” So it is that Sappho’s love-drenched lyrics, a Chinese ode in the Shijing, and certain poems of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman lead us to “discover wonder intimate.” There’s plenty of deep diving into the workings of the brain in discussions framed by works of literature, some well known and some not, as well as by genres. For example, horror stories “give us a fictional scare that tricks our brain into an invigorating fight-or-flight response.” That response, Fletcher recounts, implicates various parts of the body, from the hypothalamus to the kidneys, and it can yield an entertaining rush. Other emotions and mental states that are less easy to tame, such as shame, depression, and alienation, can also respond to literary prompts, yielding paranoia and anger. The trick to calming them? Maybe try reading Winnie-the-Pooh, which “instead of giving us a reason to quake at the imagination’s wilds…treats our brain’s fear regions entirely to fun." An idiosyncratic, richly detailed, often lyrical invitation to reconsider how and why to read literature.

Pub Date: March 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982135-97-3

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2021

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Consistently illuminating, unabashedly ferocious writing.


An acclaimed nonfiction writer gathers essays embracing the pleasure, pain, and power of growing up as a girl and woman.

In her latest powerful personal and cultural examination, Febos interrogates the complexities of feminism and the "darkness" that has defined much of her life and career. In "Kettle Holes," she describes how experiences of humiliation at the hands of a boy she loved helped shape some of the pleasure she later found working as a dominatrix (an experience she vividly recounted in her 2010 book, Whip Smart). As she fearlessly plumbed the depths of her precocious sexuality in private, she watched in dismay as patriarchal society transformed her into a "passive thing.” In "Wild America," the author delves into body-shaming issues, recounting how, during adolescence, self-hatred manifested as a desire to physically erase herself and her "gigantic" hands. Only later, in the love she found with a lesbian partner, did she finally appreciate the pleasure her hands could give her and others. Febos goes on to explore the complicated nature of mother-daughter relationships in "Thesmophoria,” writing about the suffering she brought to her mother through lies and omissions about clandestine—and sometimes dangerous—sexual experiments and youthful flirtations with crystal meth and heroin. Their relationship was based on the "ritual violence" that informed the Persephone/Demeter dyad, in which the daughter alternately brought both pain and joy to her mother. "Intrusions" considers how patriarchy transforms violence against women into narratives of courtship that pervert the meaning of love. In "Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself," Febos memorably demonstrates how the simple act of platonic touching can be transformed into a psychosexual minefield for women. Profound and gloriously provocative, this book—a perfect follow-up to her equally visceral previous memoir, Abandon Me (2017)—transforms the wounds and scars of lived female experience into an occasion for self-understanding that is both honest and lyrical.

Consistently illuminating, unabashedly ferocious writing.

Pub Date: March 30, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-63557-252-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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