Peggy Shinner is, in no particular order, a Chicagoan, a Jew, a black belt in karate, a sloucher, a lesbian, a baby boomer, a careful consumer of knives and bras, a one-time shoplifter (of a jar of nutmeg from her neighborhood Jewel), a possessor of two flat feet and one surgically-enhanced snub nose, longtime lover of Ann, daughter of Harriet (née Alter) and Nathan (né Shinitzky).
She is also the author of a wonderful new book, You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body.
A personal essay, for better or worse, is a trip inside the writer’s brain, a grand tour of her obsessions and interests and recurring memories. Shinner’s brain happens to be a particularly fascinating place. Her obsessions—family, identity, the various imperfections of her body—are familiar, but she discusses them with disarming frankness. (“I want to be taken for who I am,” she writes at one point.) Her interests are wide-ranging, fueled by a deep curiosity and a talent for research. The connections she draws between them are frequently surprising and delightful, and sometimes devastating.
The subjects of most of these essays are Shinner’s parents. They’re both dead and buried in Westlawn Cemetery in Norridge, and Shinner doesn’t visit their graves often, but they figure prominently in her attempts to understand who she is and how she got here.
Her father, who thought she could do no wrong, was responsible (inadvertently) for her flat feet; her mother, her sharpest critic, was responsible (deliberately) for the nose job Shinner got for her 16th birthday. She tries to recreate her relationships with them with her accountant and with a bossy bra saleswoman, and to understand their inner lives by taking care of an ancient great aunt and by combing the archives of the murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. (Uncharacteristically—at least as far as Shinner understood her character—Harriet had written Leopold a letter while he was in prison; he wrote back once he got out.)
The essay at the center of the collection, “Berenice’s Hair,” is both the shortest and the most powerful. At first glance, it’s a wide-ranging catalog of superstitions and taboos surrounding women’s hair. (The catalog is one of Shinner’s favorite devices.) “The Tantrics said the forces of creation and destruction lay in the binding and unbinding of a woman’s hair. The Syrians said a woman who combed her hair on the Eve of Holy Sunday consorted with werewolves. The Slavs said the vili, or female spirits, hid in the water and made rain by combing their hair.” And so on for the next four pages.
It’s interesting enough that even though you’re not sure where Shinner’s going with this, you’re willing to follow along. And then, in the very last line, it all becomes suddenly, perfectly clear.
Throughout the book Peggy Shinner tells you all sorts of things about herself, some factual, some embarrassing, but in just a few words, she shows you the most important thing of all: what a tremendous writer she is.