[Diski's] reputation as an original, witty and cant-free thinker on the way we live now should be given a significant boost. Her prose is elegant and amused, as if to counter her native melancholia and includes frequent dips into memorable images ... Like the ideal artist Henry James conjured up, on whom nothing is lost, Diski notices everything that comes her way ... She is discerning about serious topics (madness and death) as well as less fraught material, such as fashion ... in truth Diski’s first-person voice is like no other, selectively intimate but not overbearingly egotistic, like, say, Norman Mailer’s. It bears some resemblance to Joan Didion’s, if Didion were less skittish and insistently stylish and generated more warmth. What they have in common is their innate skepticism and the way they ask questions that wouldn’t occur to anyone else ... Suffice it to say that our culture, enmeshed as it is in carefully arranged snapshots of real life, needs Jenny Diski, who, by her own admission, 'never owned a camera, never taken one on holiday.'” It is all but impossible not to warm up to a writer who observes herself so keenly ... I, in turn, wish there were more people around who thought like Diski. The world would be a more generous, less shallow and infinitely more intriguing place.
Jenny Diski...writes a lot about death, and a reader is grateful for her humor. Whereas Galgut’s clarity of vision can seem sometimes almost unworldly, Diski is nothing if not parti pris. Everything in her delicious essays is filtered, unabashedly, through her particularly sharp, uncompromising consciousness ... Diski takes an almost triumphantly dissatisfied, even irascible, approach ... As the anthology shows, though, Diski could make almost anything seem interesting.
... while devoid of encouragement or advice or a style that anyone could imitate, its thirty-three pieces...still impart a strange sense of possibility. They tantalize, in a bleak way, with the suggestion that invention might arise from inertia and depression as much as, or more than, from creativity (whatever that is) or hope ... This volume, which is so impressive for its odd turns and bright torpor, reminds me that walking is actually just falling forward ... Diski dispenses with conventional structures for her reviews, favoring digression above almost all else. A book could be no more than a starting point for her text ... Diski’s prose is quick-witted but not fast-paced. She was less about the bon mot than a cumulative, unfolding, ironic wit—a self-aware, sage pessimism detailed in cool, very long paragraphs. Blocks of unbroken text span pages, each for its own reason, but all contributing to an appealing air of tenacity and excess ... The protoplasmic, chattering, melancholic 'I' of these essays is, of course, the collection’s constant, its true subject. I can commiserate with her on every page even if emulation is out of reach.
The volume is introduced by the LRB’s editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, who gave her the freedom to roam and suggested many of the subjects, and ends with an afterword by Diski’s daughter Chloe, who observes (as Wilmers does) that all her writing was essentially personal ... This is not to say that they are lazy, self-indulgent or attention-seeking. They are hard worked and scrupulous and illuminating ... In her autobiographical writings Diski displays a gift for ruthless self-examination as well as a need to confront the unacceptable and explore the unknowable ... The book reviews also tell us a good deal about Diski, and one of the things they tell us is that she was attracted to the 'dangerous edge of things' ... the real substance of the volume lies in the well-researched essays on complex but minor figures such as Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, George Orwell’s second wife Sonia, and Sigmund Freud’s wife Martha ... What it is to be Jewish is one of the undercurrents in much of Diski’s writing, and inspired two of her more eccentric LRB essays, both very entertaining, studded with bits of interesting and eclectic information ... This wide-ranging collection is a tribute to her, and to her friend and editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, who brought out the best in her. Many writers envied the space that Wilmers gave her, but few could have made such good use of it.
[Diski's] autobiographical essays are superb: A Feeling for Ice, about whiteness, psychiatric hospital and an estranged mother; Fashion As Art, about her relationship with clothes; and Staying Awake, in which she describes sleep beautifully. And I love her perkily comfortless piece about old age, However I Smell, in which she lets it be known that her hairdresser keeps saying to her: 'Ah bless.' She writes: 'There are other signs that I am no longer young, but the ah-bless is the most open and public.' Blessing Diski was an impertinence – little did these innocents know upon whom their blessings were landing. Her writing will forever remain young, funny and rebellious. And her essays – dare I say it – earn a blessing even when what they consider is cursed.
[A] superb, and sadly posthumous, collection ... Diski is an explorer who never forgets that she is skating on very thin ice ... It is also almost always political. Invariably, it is lit up by delightful shafts of comedy. I laughed aloud several times while reading one of the last pieces, an incredibly moving account of the hospital appointment at which Diski is told she has inoperable cancer. If you like guides to self help, mindfulness and how to be positive, this is not the book for you ... Diski is an immensely elegant prose stylist. These essays were among the 200 or so she published in the eccentrically brilliant London Review of Books (LRB), between the early 1990s and her death in 2016. She found asylum in the LRB.
... exceedingly dark ... Fortunately, Jenny Diski is an absorbing, savagely witty, insatiably curious, and gifted writer. She is direct, unafraid, and full of surprises. Her intelligent essays on wide-ranging topics (from childhood memories to Stanley Milgram’s famous study of obedience) will leave readers wondering why they have not been aware of her ... a splendid introduction to her nonfiction (she wrote 10 novels) and may well lead smitten readers to the author’s works of travel and memoir ... Often couched as book reviews, her pieces all seem to stem from a singular, solitary place where she is asking fundamental questions about life and living ... Here and elsewhere in this collection, her intelligence and winning fierce honesty are bound to snare many readers.
Amid the book reviews in the LRB by critics determined to sound sober and certain, as if they were museum docents, her reviews and essays admitted doubt. They were marvelously shrewd but approachable and witty. Diski’s articles made the sound of someone chewing her fingernails very intelligently. She made stuffy waiting rooms a little brighter ... Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? includes essays, couched as book reviews, on such creeps, malcontents and strivers as Jeffrey Dahmer, Howard Hughes, Dennis Hopper, Keith Richards, Piers Morgan and Richard Branson ... Diski has some interesting if limited sympathy for Dahmer who, in his own mind, was creating rather than destroying ... This book lacks, alas, an index. And some of Diski’s best stuff, written for other publications, is not here. For example, she used to write supermarket criticism for The Sunday Times of London, in a column called 'Off Your Trolley' ... Some of the essays in Diski’s book are better than the others. The earlier ones, in fact, are a bit finer than the later — more intimate and free-floating. It’s as if she was beginning, after two decades of writing for the LRB, to sense the well running dry ... 'So much thought about everything appears in the form of literary criticism,' Iris Murdoch wrote in a 1974 letter. In an ideal world, this would be so more often. Diski was a model.
Many of the essays here take flight from books, rarely reviews as such (though she does of course pass judgment) but think-pieces, which interrogate both book and author ... There’s a wonderful essay on the office, within which is a beguiling secondary essay on the enticements of the stationery cupboard: gentle and nostalgic ... America, the America opposed to Trump that is, cherishes and reveres essayists. The Brits, both left and right, tend to have a shorter attention span. We need more essays and Diski was a loss. Diski combines high erudition with high entertainment.
Her work might be labelled criticism, memoir, and even bibliography-critique, but is better unified by subject than genre. She examines blankness and vacancy, celebrity and suffering, persons and their pasts ... Diski observes herself with the same objectivity as shown toward other characters. Her authorly narcissism is dissected with just the same precision as Howard Hughes’ indulgent madness ... Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? proves that Jenny Diski knew how to name things.
The essays prove it’s possible for a writerly voice to be both utterly sui generis and yet recognizably Jewish. Secular Jewish, that is. By turns ironic, sarcastic, unsentimental, argumentative, solipsistic, ingenious, fearless and narcissistic, Diski could also, when engaged with the tradition, become appropriately somber. Her shorter Jewish-themed pieces connect with her novels to reveal a writer irreverent toward Jewish theology, yet respectful of Jewish suffering ... coruscating, inimitable essays, with the book reviews tucked somewhere inside. They soar on many unexpected topics: Howard Hughes, Sonia Orwell, spiders, Nietzsche and his sister ... her sardonic tone, the blunt voice of the Jewish non-believer, held fast even as she grappled with her own death.
There is a little something for everyone here ... The common thread throughout these pieces...is the connection between her subject, her own lived experience, and the larger human condition. Diski is simply brilliant at drawing out the commonalities, as well as the particular oddities, of our lives ... a fairly lengthy collection, a potential barrier which may be resolved by breaking up the book, reading an essay or two each day. Some of the more obscure British pop-culture references throughout are also likely to land better with readers who hail from the UK, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, Diski’s work is phenomenal, a master class in not just writing essays with substance and style, but in the human matters of vulnerability and self-exploration. Perceptive and humorous, often darkly so, Diski’s writing begs to be read, thoughtfully chewed upon, and revisited as we each work our way through the beautiful and bewildering chaos we call life.
Unlike most people, Diski refused to look away from unsavory or unpleasant topics. But, then again, Diski was like no other writer. She was fearless, as is evident in this peerless collection. With an afterword by her daughter, Chloe Diski, this is a must for Diski admirers and all essay lovers.
If you don’t know her yet, now is the time to stage a meeting. On nearly every page, Diski asks implicitly: what are the contours and limits of our pursuit of happiness? She is often fizzy with good feelings, in spite of seeing the world clearly ... The bravura piece of the collection is 'A Feeling for Ice,' Ditski’s first stab at the material that became her memoir and best book, 'Skating to Antarctica' ... The marvel of 'A Feeling for Ice” is its arrangement. Diski shuffles the pieces of her life to scramble the causes and effects on her personal timeline. One minute she’s a 4-year-old, taken by her mother to skate at a local rink and 'floating free and frictionless.' The next she’s 14, overdosed on her mother’s Nembutol, and turned over to the state. Blink again, and she’s rescued by a friend’s mother, Doris Lessing.
[Diski] makes no pretense of being a disinterested observer — makes no pretense of anything — and her obvious comfort in weaving herself into any and every subject is an invitation to settle in and listen. She does not hold back, and she is never boring ... Diski has no use for maintaining distance or objectivity and dispenses with the usual reviewer’s impulse of politesse; that’s just one reason these reviews are fun to read. Her disdain — sometimes for the subject, sometimes for the biographer, sometimes for both — drips off the page ... One wonders whether Wilmers selected primarily negative reviews for this collection in order to showcase Diski’s savage wit, or whether there simply weren’t many positive reviews to choose from.
Dark, deeply personal, and wildly funny, the posthumous collection of essays by writer Jenny Diski...has something for everyone. This is not a book for the faint of heart; Diski tackles subjects as varied as mental health, child abuse, and cannibalism, but balances those against more lighthearted fair ... Her wit, though, makes the reading worth it ... For fans of dark and deep and thoughtful work, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? is a must-read.
a collection of 33 of her incisive and pugnacious essays for the London Review of Books , is a bromide-free zone ... Diski wrote withering social criticism and had an outsize talent for distilling discomforting truths. Readers who are new to Diski's work will be awed not just by her die-cut sentences but also by the range of her apparent authority ... She could be a pitiless takedown artist, especially when reviewing books about formidable women who were eclipsed by the men in their lives ... How she managed regularly to self-disclose without toggling over into self-absorption is a secret that she has taken to her lamentably early grave.
A lot of criticism doesn’t age well because it’s tied to ephemeral moments in our cultural life. Jenny Diski’s is likely to stand the test of time because it offers readers a bracing mix of razor-sharp analysis and wrenchingly honest autobiography ... The most gripping have to do with her own extraordinary life ... It’s as good an account as any for what she’s up to in these mordantly funny and brilliant essays.
[A] selection of 33 of the more than two hundred essays that Diski wrote for the LRB until her death in 2016, I see that in these essays we will encounter a writer who is able to see herself as a character ... This persona makes not only insight possible, but also pleasure; the pleasure of reading Diski’s essays, whatever their subject (two-thirds are book reviews) is in spending time with her persona—opinionated, funny, and endlessly curious ... Nevertheless, despite her expectation that both the fulfillment of wishes and the discovery of the truth bring one only to an impasse, Diski doesn’t stop trying to understand either herself or other people ... And of course, revealed in every essay, whether it be a personal essay or book review, is Diski herself.
This effortlessly readable posthumous essay collection from Diski (1947–2016) shows her at her best ... Diski’s works are varied and surprising, and she puts a fresh spin on the personal essay with her bracing, singular prose, never veering into self-indulgence: To miss these essays would be a shame.
A collection of essays by a master of the form ... In nearly all of the pieces, Diski’s voice is sharp, wry, and entirely her own ... She describes both a trip to Antarctica and her difficult childhood, and the connections she draws are surprising and profound.Diski also wrote about the kind of bustling chaos that seemed to have become emblematic of contemporary life. Here, too, the author’s prose has a crispness and clarity of expression that have been rarely matched. Within a single sentence she can exude both a seemingly effortless elegance and a fearless iconoclasm. For writers and readers alike, this new volume is a tremendous gift. The crystalline quality to these extraordinary essays confirms Diski as one of the most talented writers of her generation.