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'The Witches Are Coming': Essays with attitude

Lindy West follows up "Shrill" with the new

Lindy West follows up "Shrill" with the new essay collection "The Witches Are Coming."  Credit: Jenny Jimenez

THE WITCHES ARE COMING by Lindy West (Hachette, 272 pp., $27)

Lindy West, a New York Times columnist and the bestselling author of "Shrill," returns with a new book of powder-keg political and activist essays "The Witches Are Coming." The collection aims to place the #MeToo movement in context while leaving plenty of room for West’s trademark acerbic asides and millennial meanderings about the Goop Marketplace and the virtues (or lack thereof) of dresses with pockets.

The cover describes the book as "Essays From the Bestselling Author of 'Shrill'," while West calls them chapters. The eighteen titled sections at times defy both descriptors, favoring something closer to “notes,” the term she used for her first book. There is less scene, more exposition; less vulnerability, more swearing; less character-building, more, well, just, more. More anger, preening, intelligence and implication.

Many of her usual targets are taken aim at here, including fat-shaming, sexism and the cruelty of faceless internet trolls. But West is often most effective when she pulls the unexpected into her laser view, such as the creators of "South Park," Adam Sandler’s movies, or Chip and Joanna Gaines of the television series "Fixer Upper."

In “How to Be a Girl," West takes on the board game turned movie "Clue": "I gave 'Clue' a lot. My time, my love, my brain space, my video store rental fees. 'Clue,' in turn, gave me something back: my first inkling of myself as a woman situated somewhere on a scary, hierarchical, baffling, shifting matrix of women.”

She continues to dissect the way she considered the four main female characters in "Clue." “I remember, as a child, looking from each of these women to the next, and trying to figure out which kind of woman I might grow up to be.” She decides that she is Mrs. Peacock. “At age 8, the closest analog I could find for myself in my favorite movie — a movie with more female characters than most — was a corrupt senator’s wife who was older than my father and dressed like a Rainforest Café.”

West is a funny feminist, an oxymoron she untangles in one of her strongest essays “Joan” about comic Joan Rivers. Along with the expected brilliant humor, West’s writing can also be beautiful and bewitching. Some favorite observations include “My husband plays the trumpet, which is sort of a loud pretzel originally invented to blow down the walls” or “To live in Seattle is to exist, perpetually, in the bargaining stage of grief."

Mostly, though, West does not give in to the beauty of the line, training her eye instead on pure impact, and while the energy here is certainly palpable, at times the episodic structure of "The Witches Are Coming" makes it feel more akin to listening to a podcast. The caustic jiujitsu is still on the page, but can feel clogged by the incessant ALL CAPS, whole paragraphs of exclamation points, text talk [“(knife emoji, skull emoji, coffin emoji)”] and single-sentence paragraph conclusion zingers.

One gets the sense that this shorthand is the result of having Important Things to Say at a time when the stakes could not be higher. “I used to think of my job as digesting the news, digesting the chatter, then saying what still needed to be said — whatever hard truths people were avoiding or invisible biases they were overlooking,” she writes. West continues to employ history, logic, and her own brand of extreme truth-telling in this new collection, a well-timed rallying cry as we enter into the next election cycle.

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