Powerful and inspirational: Messud is as fine a critic as she is a novelist.



A collection of essays fired by “the heartfelt conviction that nothing matters more” than “the power of the word.”

Messud sets the tone in her impassioned introduction, proclaiming the importance of literature “in a period which can feel like the dawn of a new Dark Ages.” Literature connects us to the experiences of others both past and present, she declares, engaging writer and reader in a vital exchange. Part 1, “Reflections,” opens with a suite of beautiful memory pieces about a peripatetic childhood—Messud had lived in three different countries and attended five different schools by the time she was 12—that left her with a permanent sense of being an outsider and the conviction that the inner life was the most important. Her parents, a Canadian woman who married a “pied-noir” displaced by the Algerian war for independence, shared this conviction: Messud pays tribute to the knowledge of the female literary tradition she acquired at her “Mother’s Knee”; and “The Road to Damascus,” a painful, moving piece about her father’s death, recalls his lifelong immersion in scholarship about the Middle East, sparked by his childhood in Beirut and Istanbul. The critical pieces in the second and third parts discuss individual works by literary and visual artists as varied as Albert Camus, Jane Bowles, Saul Friedlander, Alice Neel, and Marlene Dumas; the author discerns a common thread in their ability to convey their personal experiences and connect them to larger issues in the world. Messud seldom refers to her own accomplished fiction, but her sense of kinship with fellow writers is palpable, and a short, smart piece on “Teenage Girls” reveals the personal origins of her most recent novel, The Burning Girl (2017). The title essay, riffing on a comment in Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser, affirms that “even a single successful sentence can be transformative.” We can take that as Messud’s credo.

Powerful and inspirational: Messud is as fine a critic as she is a novelist.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-324-00675-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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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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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.


Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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