Erudite and appreciative essays on what and why to read.



Forgotten books earn their readers’ attention.

Plotz, a professor of humanities at Brandeis and host of the podcast Recall This Book, gathers 40 essays about “rare, forgotten, and unsung works”—novels, short stories, poetry, a ballad opera, diaries and journals, and a work of scholarship—that, the contributors contend, deserve to be rescued from obscurity. Most contributors are academics, with a smattering of fiction and poetry writers. Their choices are eclectic, their essays enlightening. Plotz organizes the selections into seven sections: Childhood, Other Worlds, Comedy, Battle and Strife, Home Fires, Mysteries and Trials, and Journeys of the Spirit. Some essays focus on little-known works by well-known authors. For example, Steven McCauley praises Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, a novel that “contains much of Isherwood’s understated elegance, his insight into behavior, and all of his powerful charm. As an added bonus, it’s a literary novel about that decidedly unliterary global obsession: moviemaking.” Sharon Marcus cites Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, admiring the “mundane chaos” that Jackson portrays in her domestic comedies. Merve Emre finds Natalia Ginzburg’s novella The Dry Heart exemplary of “a genre that compresses, with terrible and dazzling force, the violent human entanglements that the novel unravels over a longer span of time.” Carlo Rotella writes about Gringos, a novel by Charles Portis, the author of the bestseller True Grit. Many essays examine authors and works that may be unfamiliar to nonacademic readers: Patience Agbabi’s poetry collection Transformatrix; Philip Fisher’s scholarly study The Vehement Passions; The Diaries of Lady Anne Clifford, which, Rami Targoff writes, offers “a rich and complex portrait of a Renaissance woman for whom writing was not simply a habit but an essential part of her survival”; and Satomi Myōdō’s Journey in Search of the Way, which Theo Davis admires “for the unselfconscious cheer with which Myōdō recounts her misery.”

Erudite and appreciative essays on what and why to read.

Pub Date: June 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-231-20057-8

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021

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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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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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