Talking about this book? Be sure to tag it using #WhattoMissWhen #NetGalley
Catalyzed by sheltering in place and by a personal challenge to give up alcohol for thirty days, Leigh Stein, the poet laureate of The Bachelor, has written a 21st century Decameron to frame modern fables of reality TV and wellness influencers, juicy thoughtcrimes and love languages, and the mixed messages of contemporary feminism.
"Think Starlight," the first poem in this collection, written before any self-quarantine orders, imagined the likelihood that the United States would follow in Italy's footsteps in terms of caseload and hospital overwhelm. By March 17, 2020, the imagined was the real; New York City had closed schools, bars, and restaurants—with the rest of the country to follow.
With nihilist humor and controlled despair, What to Miss When explores fears of death and grocery shopping, stress cleaning and drinking, influencers behaving badly, everything we took for granted, and life mediated by screens—with dissociation-via-internet, and looking for mirrors in a fourteenth-century pandemic text, a kind of survival response to living casually through catastrophe.
"Early on in Leigh Stein’s What to Miss When, the speaker says she 'must be some basic bitch to click / "Decameron and Chill?" in Town and Country,' and we know we’re in for a ride through the pandemic that has some 'mischief' in it, which appropriately is the book’s final word. It’s this mischief, Stein’s relentlessly refreshing humor about the 'new normal'—equal parts rueful self-deprecation and excoriating cultural critique—that makes this book such a worthy artifact of the American experience of the pandemic. As the speaker of these poems quits drinking, stress cleans, obsesses over social media, binge-watches television and movies, plans a wedding no one asks about anymore, and hits her goal weight 'without bringing Gloria Steinem into it,' we see a reflection of ourselves that’s as hilarious as it is painful. This 'is America,' she says, 'where we livestream our freedom / to hurt and call it content,' where 'liberty means freedom to make choices / relative to your income bracket,' where 'we’re starving for someone to blame / for our broken systems. We’d cancel a baby / if it gave us five seconds of relief.' She reveals how ironically masked we all are in this decadent culture that can’t come to a consensus about the safety of literal masks, and as scathing as she is about all the 'white people / who spent the summer studying abroad / on Black Instagram learning to speak / privilege,' she turns the sharpest lens on herself, how her 'private self submits / anecdotes for [her] public / self’s consideration,' how she regrets 'what [she] didn’t mask / behind a better joke,' how she keeps touching the 'tiny slot machine' of her phone 'to see if this time [she’s] won.' It’s Stein’s recognition of her own 'inessential hands' that makes us feel how essential this book is, the great care behind the critique." —Jason Koo, founder and director of Brooklyn Poets
“What To Miss When is hilarious and absolutely horrifying. If you think the quarantine habits you developed are unique and charming, read this book to be put in your place. But I beg of you, gift that to yourself, it'll make you feel less alone. ‘I'm a feminist, I got the memo,’ is Stein's perfect disclaimer when shouting the things so many of us are afraid to even whisper. It's a specific kind of book that helps us remember how things were, that serves as a map for our children to understand why we are the way we are. This book is one of them.” —Olivia Gatwood, author of Life of the Party