Reviewing the Review: June 26 2005

It’s time for book critics to stop beating up on Michael Cunningham, famed author of “The Hours” whose new “Specimen Days” is apparently just not working for anybody.

First, this eagerly awaited novel got trashed in the regular Times book section for trying to recreate the success of “The Hours” with Walt Whitman in the Virginia Woolf slot. The book has since been the subject of much industry buzz about how a big author can screw up.

Now the New York Times Sunday Book Review is jumping on the limp body for a few punches. Off, people! Nothing to see here.

I don’t have strong opinions about Michael Cunningham — I didn’t read “The Hours” but I liked the movie well enough, mainly for the scenes where Nicole Kidman channeled Virginia Woolf. The rest of the soap opera didn’t do too much for me, even though it got great reviews. I don’t know why so many critics are getting on his case now, though. Michael Cunningham, they’re just not that into you.

My favorite article in today’s New York Times Book Review is the superb cover story about a fiery book of letters by mid-Modernist poet Robert Lowell. Lowell is a poet’s poet (in fact 99 out of 100 Americans aren’t likely to know that there were actually two well known American poets named Lowell: this one and his ancestor James Russell Lowell, a member of the 19th century Boston intellegentsia who showed up as a featured character in The Dante Club).

I applaud critic Walter Kirn for writing this review with skill and enthusiasm, and for managing to find interesting things to say about this enigmatic intellectual from a poetic era known for an overriding sterility and prissiness. I never knew that Robert Lowell died a romantic, Hank Williams-like death in the back seat of a taxicab in 1977. I also didn’t know that Lowell attended naked parties with the likes of Elizabeth Bishop and other major poetry figures (I thought the Beats started that trend, but apparently I was wrong). Based on this review, I will probably check out this book.

I also enjoyed David Orr’s essay on the utility of poetry, an appealing description of Nick Tosches’s new book about gambler Arnold Rothstein, “King of the Jews”, and a few capsule book reviews (“Wasted Beauty” by Eric Bogosian sounds good, and I like the title of “Let It Rain Coffee”, a book by Angie Cruz about a Caribbean family in New York).

The Book Review also gives a pleasant review to “The Washingtonienne” by Jessica Cutler, who started the book as a blog about her dating experiences as a U. S. Senate intern. The book is apparently about a fictional U. S. Senate intern who keeps a blog.

7 Responses

  1. Romantic deathSorry, Levi,
    Romantic death

    Sorry, Levi, but I have to take exception to your reference to a “romantic Hank Williams-type death”. If you consider it romantic to die in the back seat of a limo from overdosing on a combination of alcohol, painkillers and drugs, then I guess we just disagree. By the way, I don’t know the cause of Robert Lowell’s death in a taxi, but I hope it was something more romantic.

  2. I guess that’s a good point.
    I guess that’s a good point. Also, the Book Review says the cab was taking him from Kennedy Airport, whereas I’m pretty sure Hank was on some lonesome highway (I forget the words to the song). Well, at least it’s more evocative than, say, dying in a hospital, you’ve got to give me that much.

  3. So, you mean “romantic” in
    So, you mean “romantic” in the classical Greek sense moreso than the modern valentine card, Sleepless In Seattle sense…

  4. Well I’d Rather Die in a
    Well I’d Rather Die in a Cab

    (and a few times I think I’ve come close …) than think about any of these people at a naked party. Seriously. Is this article the same Robert Lowell piece that appeared recently in the New York Review of Books a week or so ago? I don’t recall them mentioning nudity. Of course I didn’t really read the article. Also, to point out an omission — you neglected to mention another famous Lowell poet — Amy Lowell.

  5. Hahaha . . . ohhh, FC, you
    Hahaha . . . ohhh, FC, you cracked me up. That first sentence. How true, how true. And let’s not forget Lowell George, lyricist. He also died by some bogus means.

  6. Hank was on a highway in West
    Hank was on a highway in West Virgina — and he was just 30 years old, give or take a year. Pretty much a sad waste of a potentially monumental life, wouldn’t you say?

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