Shrill 4/5 Stars
If you’ve seen the show, you’re already pre-disposed to like this book. If you like this book, that might well have been the reason you watched the show. Regardless, this is a very good memoir, with a clearly defined, already tempered and recognized voice. And I happened to read hear the audiobook version, and that version is good because so much of the book is carefully written in Lindy West’s voice, and she reads the audiobook. While this book touches a little on every kind of issue that the US is dealing with (through the lens of activist-adjacent mostly, but not entirely Left circles), it’s primarily a story. I mention this because it’s not exactly true that those additional issues are shoe-horned in here — they can’t be if a) they’re a part of the writer’s consciousness, b) she was writing about them, c) she was and is a professional writer mostly addressing those issues — but the book can sometimes digress in ways that take us away from the story, into thoughtful discussions on those issues.
As with other memoirs that center on weight in America, or at least use weight as one of the centering devices (Heavy by Kiese Laymon and Hunger by Roxanne Gay) this book talks a lot about bodies. In a way, these three memoirs act as a kind of trinity of experience (along with lots of other books) because they all came out about the same time (or within a similar window) and show different ways of looking at weight. I, like most Americans including perhaps you, have spent a lot of time and years thinking about our weights and the weights of others in a variety of different ways. And in a later book Lindy West tells us, that she wanted to write the book she needed to read at 14, and I think these three books might have created a combined knowledge that I would have also liked or needed to read at 14. Instead, we got the movie Heavyweights.
The Witches are Coming – 3/5 Stars
This book is less successful in part because the formatting of essays collections often means your book is only as good as the weakest entry, in part because of the shifting gears of the different topics makes for a uneven reading experience, in part because unlike a memoir, there’s not a cohesive whole to the collection and in attempting to frame a whole, it waters down the parts (I’ll come back to this), and because if you read enough internet, you’ve either already read some of these essays literally, or you’ve read versions of them when particular issues had moments online.
So the other part of why this is a less successful book is that it has a few decidedly false notes. In the introduction, in an attempt to create a sense of wholeness, after explaining the title and discussing the various things “the witches are coming for” a range of topics is discussed. Every essay collection go through the various topics the book discusses, but framed in this way of “coming for” we have the president being accused of sexual assault and rape by dozens of women in the same sentence as “Isn’t Adam Sandler actually unfunny?”. This is not simply an “essays range from” to a “things witches are coming from”. And in the Sandler essay, which perfectly demonstrates that a lot of Sandler movies fit into patterns of questionable humor and reward mediocrity, a similar thing happens. West tells us that Sandler “fails upward” — but doesn’t define failure for us. I take it to mean “not funny” — but if the question is one of access to resources and funding, he definitely does not fail, as his movies make money. So it’s a weaker point than it could be because of lack of clarity of purpose. And I think that happens a number of times throughout, not pushing forward on more rigorous points, not defining terms, and not holding one’s own writing to account for the same things criticizing others for. Whether we’re part of that audience or not, Adam Sandler reaches his audience pretty successfully, and so does West. There’s another point where a lack of rigor, to make a joke, happens when she mentions Civil War generals ordering grunts to die in battle from afar, not risking their own lives etc etc. And as a kid who grew up reading tons of Civil War history and fiction, this also rang false — 200 generals died in battle in the Civil War. They were often present on the battlefield and watching or participating in battle. It’s a minor point to make a throwaway joke, but it’s an illustration of how topical and timely the essays are, and like most essays on the internet, are expedient, but not rigorous.
All that said, what this means for the book is that I mostly (or almost entirely) agree with her opinions (though, in an analogy about Grumpy Cat she talks about exploiting and objectifying animals in a way that makes me feel like there are some real direct ways she could protect animals better), this book needs more baking. I think all internet writers need to spend more time with rigor and depth of analysis as well. A book that I almost entirely agree with, but don’t learn much from is no help, and looking at the framing introduction essay, I honestly do think I am more or less the audience for this book (with some obvious glaring stuff).
The essays on Joan Rivers and the Seattle musical tech exchange stand out for their ability to go against the grain or highlight small resistances.