A sparkling and perceptive critique of ancient ideas that still hold women back.

WOMEN AND OTHER MONSTERS

BUILDING A NEW MYTHOLOGY

A witty and erudite exploration of the enduring influence of the female monsters in Greek myths.

Electric Literature editor-in-chief Zimmerman blends memoir and cultural criticism in a wide-ranging feminist analysis rooted in her youthful love of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Drawing on accounts by Homer and others, she argues that female monsters like Medusa and the Harpies have inspired more than a Versace logo and a metaphor popular among right-wing critics of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. The fearsome creatures have fostered “a suspicion of women in general” and sounded a warning: “Beware their ambition, their ugliness, their insatiable hunger, their ferocious rage.” A graceful stylist who casts a wide literary and geographical net, Zimmerman can make nearly anything interesting. She begins a chapter on the Sirens by reappraising Aerosmith’s “Crazy” video and one on Scylla by describing the Josephinum medical museum in Vienna, which displays oddities such as wax bones. The author avoids academic cant and shows a disarming willingness to acknowledge her own vulnerability to damaging messages. Her musings on the Sphinx recall a college affair with a professor whose rundowns of her flaws became “a daily referendum on my specific insufficiencies” that at times caused her to retreat into a Sphinx-like self-imposed silence. Not everyone will accept her argument that the traits that made monsters dangerous “are actually their greatest strength[s]” and can be turned on their heads: “When you embrace your imperfection, your imperfection stops consuming you.” Nearly every page, however, brings fresh insights into age-old myths or tragicomic observations on 21st-century womanhood: “How do you cope with a day that might include a guy catcalling you on your commute and a murderous cop going free and a nationwide attack on reproductive rights—and an army of Twitter trolls telling you that all of this is good, actually, and anti-fascism is the real fascism?” This book is excellent armor for the battle.

A sparkling and perceptive critique of ancient ideas that still hold women back.

Pub Date: March 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-8070-5493-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

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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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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