A dynamic, unflinchingly candid examination of the impacts of race and class on culture and the author’s own life.

CONSTRUCTING A NERVOUS SYSTEM

A MEMOIR

The Pulitzer Prize–winning critic and memoirist returns with an inspired and unstinting examination of American class, culture, and personal memory.

Jefferson, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir, Negroland, moves beyond autobiography into a deeper excavation of music, literature, and personal memory, examining her role in American culture as both the influenced and the influencer. In Negroland, the author revealed the burdens of membership in a class of ambitious Black Americans, and she further details the impact on their children: “You were always calculating—not always well—how to achieve; succeed as a symbol and a self.” Jefferson escaped into music and literature, finding artists who helped her move beyond rigid family expectations. Among the musicians she praises are Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, Bobby Short, Andy Bey, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Ike Turner. Jefferson also pays fervent tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, whose incendiary talent flowered despite abuse, neglect, and immersion in a brutally competitive musical culture. Upon first meeting her, bandleader Chick Webb dismissed Fitzgerald as “too ugly.” Three years later, Fitzgerald’s rendition of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” propelled Webb’s band to the top of the charts. Jefferson brilliantly deconstructs Fitzgerald’s version of that tune and how it echoed the singer’s terrible years in an orphanage, and the author’s fire for “the redemptive tumult of the ’50s and ’60s” is palpable. A chapter about her disenchantment with Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark due to its homage to White superiority is tinged with academese, and her meditation on Josephine Baker has a more distanced, elegiac feel and is weighed down by too many quotes. Nonetheless, Jefferson’s unique perspective and relentless honesty and self-examination ensure that there’s something worthwhile on every page. Devotees of Negroland will want to continue the dialogue with this top-notch writer.

A dynamic, unflinchingly candid examination of the impacts of race and class on culture and the author’s own life.

Pub Date: April 12, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4817-3

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2022

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

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

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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