Potato (Object Lessons)
By Rebecca Earle
Bloomsbury Academic. 144 pp. $14.95
Pill (Object Lessons)
By Robert Bennett
Bloomsbury Academic. 176 pp. $14.95
High Heel (Object Lessons)
By Summer Brennan
Bloomsbury Academic. 192 pp. $14.95
Reviewed by John Timpane
Since 2015, Bloomsbury has been spinning out the delightful Object Lessons book series, and the latest three installments show how witty, thought-provoking, and poetic these books can be. The series lets some of our best writers “explore the hidden life” of an everyday thing — Golf Ball, Remote Control, Glass, Hood, Silence. The authors go where they want to go, and we go along. As objects themselves, the book covers are exquisitely designed: black matte, with a stylish, minimalist figure of the object. People have stopped by my desk, seen a few of these darlings lying around, and asked, “Wow, what are these?” They’re an invitation to a great, enlightening read.
Pill by the energetic Robert Bennett falls into five major divisions, titled “Thorazine,” “Valium,” “Lithium,” “Prozac,” and “Adderall,” each probing the role of these drugs in modifying mental states, and in our daily lives, where they are everywhere. A coda titled “Waiting for Brad Pitt” addresses the author’s own bipolar disorder and lithium treatment, with hair-raising illustrations. Pill, Bennett writes, explores the recent psychotropic drug revolution and our “emerging age in which human identities — thoughts and emotions, moods, and personalities — are only bounded by, and increasingly determined by, the ever-expanding powers of simple pills.”
With the greatest respect for Bennett’s expertise and personal experience, may I gently question that beast of academic overreach, the verb determine? Certainly, some lives are changed forever by pills, some for the better, some not, as the opioid addiction crisis teaches us. But it’s a hard thing to determine, really determine, an identity. Central to responsible drug prescribing is the consideration that different people react differently to the same dosage of the same drug. Witness the comic list of possible side effects in any drug commercial. Difference remains difference; your mileage may differ. But I respect his question: “Was it me, myself, or just the lithium writing down all these thoughts?”
Bennett is great, however, in showing how the pill has pervaded popular culture and popular thinking. He coins the genre title of “psychopharmacological thriller,” a mouthful but apt: the film or TV show about not just drugs, but also their making, distribution, and effects. Under this last head, he unleashes a brilliant set piece on Carrie Mathison (played so well by Claire Danes in Homeland), who is “outright titrating her brain’s chemistry with an ever-growing personal apothecary.” Have we ever seen one person, over so many years, self-medicate before so many mirrors for so many minutes?
Potato by resourceful Rebecca Earle gives us history, recipes, prayers of thanks, and family stories. Humble is how we think of this vegetable commoner. Yet what a bristling metaphor for history, conquest (by the Spanish over the indigenous peoples of the Central and South American regions, the main driver of the potato’s worldwide spread), immigration, trade, agriculture (the potato’s role in feeding the world, as in the Green Revolution), and medicine (some varieties have secret powers), and colonialist idiocy and hard hearts (to satisfaction in high places, English law made the already horrific Irish Potato Famine much worse).
These little books are a page-flipper’s dream, Earle’s especially, with subheads such as “Anarchist tubers,” “The consolation of potatoes,” “Giving thanks for potatoes,” which we surely should, and “Responsibilization,” which savages the political argument that people should be considered responsible for their own good or bad eating habits. Each section educates, brings a smile, makes you hungry, and makes you think. And I did not see one misspelling of potato.
In High Heel, the wonderful Summer Brennan embraces a slippery, electric conundrum: Does the high heel stand for oppression or power? Women wear them (some believe) to look or feel good, or hip, or in control. And yet, for many, they’re hard to wear, painful: As Brennan points out, “Physical suffering is a fact of life that women are expected to assimilate in a way men are not.”
Even at its most quotidian, the high heel is both common and an extreme choice, redolent in fantasy and fetishism (in both wearer and observer), aggression (ditto: If you, a woman, wear high heels even when you don’t really want to, am I, a man, part of the reason? And are your heels weapons in a pitched battle between us?), sex sex sex, and the advances and retreats of social change. It makes you wobble on your ankles.
In 150 little essays, Brennan goes at it with poetry, literary references, myth, the psychopathology of rape, fairy tales, politics, and fashion history. All is brought off so beautifully that you can’t help reading. I’m not going to tell you Brennan solves the conundrum. She’s a high-heel wearer, at least sometimes (“I am a creature of the environment that formed me,” she shrugs), and can only write, “We are not yet out of our feminine glass labyrinth, and there’s no telling how long it will take.”