Peggy Shinner’s new collection, “You Feel So Mortal,” is about the intersection of the body and identity, both crafted by ourselves and forced upon us. In an essay titled “Elective,” Shinner takes on the issue of Jewish identity through stereotype with the nose job she had at sixteen to make it “prettier, more proportional, more marriageable…more, but not too, Gentile.” She reflects that the procedure keeps a coworker from immediately recognizing her ancestry, but similar surgeries weren’t enough to save some Jews from the Holocaust. She writes, “the stakes are high when it comes to the body.”
Shinner jumps deftly between the personal and the academic. Multiple essays begin with personal experiences to introduce a researched topic. In “Leopold and Shinner,” she uses her discovery of a letter from a post-prison Nathan Leopold addressed to her mother as an opportunity to discuss the larger cultural phenomena of ordinary people writing to him in prison. She quotes from archived letters to him, cites the pseudoscientific reports that newspapers published to demonize him and Loeb, and even explicates the implications of the word “degenerate.” It risks coming off as miscellanea, but Shinner always returns to the personal.
“You Feel So Mortal” doesn’t get much more personal than with Shinner’s fixation on her parents’ death. There’s an essay about a specter of her dead father that materializes once a year when she visits his old accountant, and even an essay on that final choice of identity: burial. The collection culminates with “Postmortem,” an essay about her decision to have her father autopsied—an action banned by Jewish law. It left Shinner with a guilt she has kept alive “gladly and energetically, with dedication.”
My main complaint with “You Feel So Mortal” feels on the verge of nitpicking, but it’s worth mentioning. I see why Shinner abbreviates the names of friends and acquaintances, but it’s not a choice I particularly like. Because these people exist only as letters, they cannot become characters in their own right. It isn’t a terribly consistent choice, either: in “Tax Time” she refers to the woman her widowed father dated as Rose, but in “Postmortem” mentions her as R. Confusingly, there is a second separate character she refers to as “R.”
But the collection’s beautiful prose more than outweighs my quibbles. In her examinations of the body, she frequently makes the mundane poetic, and in her exploration of grief, she finds beauty. On a personal note, reading the collection was very helpful in helping me get through a death in my family. “You Feel So Mortal” is a somber collection, but its contemplations are rewarding. (Brendan Tynan Buck)
“You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body”
By Peggy Shinner
University of Chicago Press, 224 pages, $22
Peggy Shinner will read April 2 at Reading Under the Influence, Sheffield’s Beer & Wine Garden, 3258 North Sheffield. 7:30pm. 21+ $3 cover.