Human Relations & Other Difficulties

In the essays collected in Human Relations & Other Difficulties, Mary-Kay Wilmers uses her well-furnished mind and well-sharpened wit to address the "puerperal paranoia" that can accompany motherhood. She offers a respectful and insightful examination of Joan Didion's maternal qualities as revealed in Blue Nights and takes a horrifying look at the mother of Marianne Moore. She resurrects the truncated life of Alice James, whose parents praised her for the "nervous weakness" of her mind while paying scant attention to her "latent possibilities"; sums up Jean Rhys as "a narcissist who described herself beautifully"; and eviscerates Patty Hearst's transformation from "granddaughter of Citizen Kane" to an "ever pragmatic" member of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Wilmers elevates book reviews into wide-ranging and often provocative essays. She writes a brief and funny history of obituaries in the Times, followed by a delightful look at Pears' Shilling Cyclopedia (a collection of bizarre facts, etiquette tips and "recipes for nine kinds of scone"), which existed to promote the sales of Pears' soap. And Brussels will never be the same again after Wilmers's dismissal: "You could say that a place that worships an undistinguished statue of a little boy urinating deserves to be held in contempt."

Wilmers, co-founder and editor of the London Review of Books and author of The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story, has said, "I like sentences and I like people who use sentences well." The woman who gave Oliver Sacks his most memorable title, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, proves in her essay collection that she uses sentences as well as any writer and far better than most. --Janet Brown, author and former bookseller

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