From Publishers Weekly
The Oxford University Press/New York Public Library Seven Deadly Sins series, of which Envy is the first volume, comes hot on the heels of Penguin's successful Lives, which provocatively pairs celebrated subjects with well-known writers in compact and accessible biographies. Unfortunately, Envy is insubstantial and unambitious even for its modest size. While it might have a seemed a good idea to get Epstein, author of the uneven but amusing Snobbery: The American Version, to address the related sin of envy, he does not seem to have anything very provocative to say about it. Derived from a public lecture, Epstein's opening chapters give a decent if unenlightening overview, larded with enough quotations from such greats as Schopenhauer and Lord Chesterfield to maintain interest. Over the course of 14 chapters, some of a few hundred words each, cliche turns up often (Shakespeare is "that most universal of writers," and Othello is about Iago, it turns out), yet the book's airy charm and lightly worn learning might work as diverting, high-toned amusement if not for the one-dimensionality of some of the ideas that emerge. For Epstein's notion of envy is ultimately that of the moneyed and powerful, who characterize any challenge to their power as being based on envy. Marxism? Envy. Feminism? Envy. The academy? Envy and "hopelessly radical political views." This kind of rhetoric might go over in a country club or cigar lounge, but in the world of ideas to which it is presumably addressed, it reads more like an example of the eighth deadly sin: smugness.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Seven writers have been invited to consider the seven deadly sins, and the results are being published in a promising series of small, cleverly illustrated, and, so far, scintillating volumes.
Epstein's recent book on snobbery has met with great acclaim, making him uniquely suited to the task of analyzing envy, since snobbery is based on its cultivation, and, indeed, Epstein is a witty and thoughtful elucidator of this covert and poisonous state of mind. Of the seven sins, Epstein observes, envy is the most common and insidious and the least enjoyable. He discusses various types of envy, the differences between women's and men's envy, Freud's preoccupation with it, and worlds in which envy rages (the arts and academia may be the worst). Epstein confesses to his own struggles with envy over the course of his musings, which grow in gravitas as he moves beyond individuals to consider how envy between nations leads to war and how anti-Semitism can be interpreted as a particularly malignant manifestation of this deadly sin.
Novelist and critic Prose brings her keen interest in our conflicted relationship with our bodies to her creatively, even voraciously researched and elegantly argued inquiry into the paradoxes of gluttony, a sin writ large on the body and, therefore, impossible to conceal. Prose notes that the term is rarely used now that overeating is viewed as a psychological and health problem rather than a "crime against God." Equally conversant in religious and secular perspectives, Prose turns to theology and art to illuminate the curious history of a sin rooted in a behavior essential to survival. She traces the line between gourmandism and binging and ponders the increase in obesity in our consumer culture and the stigma of being overweight in a society that loves excess in everything but body size. Gluttons now sin against "prevailing standards of beauty and health," and the punishment is living hell. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved