Fiery Collections of Essays From Young Feminist Writers – New York Times

Before accepting this assignment, I disclosed that I knew Koul. “All Canadians do,” I explained, the hyperbole only partially comedic. Canada is a small country, if we’re being nice; hermetic, if we’re being honest. In that cramped, twisty rabbit hole, Koul and I have run parallel for most of our personal and professional lives. Her new essay collection is, fittingly, about how physical borders become psychic landscapes. Her essays take place in Calgary, where she grew up; Toronto, where she went to school and now lives; India, where her family immigrated from; and in the skies between all three, where her fear of flying has to take a back seat for her family.

Koul often cites David Sedaris as an inspiration, and his influence can be felt in the way she relates dark family dynamics as punchlines. The title of the book comes from a conversation Koul had with her cousin, Sweetu, who — exhausted from the stress of attending her own wedding — complained to Koul she felt as if it would never end. Koul corrected her with the reminder that death comes for us all: hardly a comfort, but a worthwhile distraction. Koul’s relationship with her father is likewise tense, fraught and played for laughs, both in the emails from him that appear as interludes (in one, he makes it obvious he doesn’t know her birthday; in another, he asks whether a compliment from her boss was sarcastic) and in the final essay, “Anyway,” about a long period of estrangement after he disapproves of her moving in with her long-term boyfriend.

It’s unclear whether the jokes she makes are hereditary or reactionary; she writes about sharing some of her parents’ weaknesses, fighting against others. Her humor could be a coping mechanism against, or a symptom of, that familial angst. In Koul’s writing, the emotional experience of anxiety is rendered, paradoxically, in a relaxed tone. Loss, pain and suffering are treated with the knowledge that they will happen eventually, and what’s more, something even worse could come. She captures well that leap our minds make to manufacture catharsis when faced with what appears to be a bottomless pit of despair.

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BITCH DOCTRINE
Essays for Dissenting Adults
By Laurie Penny
373 pp. Bloomsbury, $27.

To publish primarily online is to contend with the commenter, that critical form open to anybody and bound by nothing, encouraging the very best and worst reactions. In her latest collection of essays, Penny, a writer who has spent over a decade as a columnist and a journalist, compiles a recent history of works that have inspired many a comment. Here are hot takes on the 2016 American election, reviews of books about how women can have it all, assessments of films like “Star Wars,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the latest James Bond, interjections in the debate over “safe spaces,” and her views on Valentine’s Day, to name just a few.

Penny pays tribute to many women who did similar work before her. One essay, “If Men Got Pregnant,” pays explicit homage to Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate.” Another, on the work and writing of Nellie Bly, offers an implicit comparison between Bly and Penny. Loosely sorted into sections including “Gender,” “Agency,” “Violence” and “Future,” her writing seems to speak directly to the presumed audience at the original time of publication, anticipating their varied responses. There are frequent references to the people she assumes will disagree with her politics (but then why would they read this book?) as well as the people she assumes already agree with her (but then why would they need this book?). All of this left me lost inside one of the many rhetorical riddles inherent to the internet. Without knowing who will read — or comment on — her work, Penny ends up fighting everybody and persuading nobody. Reading it made me feel like Alice, with Penny as the Cheshire Cat: She seems to say, gesturing to our Twitter feeds, that we’re all mad here.


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