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taking the last few bars, leaving like a gent cat burglar’s calling card these signature soaps. … This essay would be transfixing enough if it skidded to a stop there, but Elkin isn’t just trying for quirky. Instead, the final paragraphs shift into elegy when Elkin tells us that he’s surrendered to time and finally begun to use the soaps in his collection; to lather up with the more expensive ones and enjoy, as he puts it, “a few minutes of four- and five-star stink.” It’s an off-beat and affecting vision of mortality in a bar of soap. There are so many other singular essays here, chief among them, a wince-inducing story Elkin tells against himself involving a can of coke and Hubert Humphrey in the piece called “At The Academy Awards.” In “Where I Read What I Read,” Elkin recalls a long ago-job he had at a dry-cleaning plant. One holiday weekend, he worked a three-day shift as a watchman and he spent it stretched out atop a wooden table, reading all of Joyce’s Ulysses. The young Elkin finally leaves the plant on Tuesday morning, transformed. I’ll let him take it from here: It wasn’t until … after I left the store, that I smelled the smells, tasted them, the napthas and benzines … coating my mouth like sore throat, swabbing my throat like pus, stinging my eyes like chemical warfare.

For the original version including any supplementary images or video, visit https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/11/11/npr-books-pieces-of-soap

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