Reviewing the Review: November 20, 2005

The pre-Thanksgiving New York Times Book Review is fairly packed with good stuff — a cornucopia of good writing on worthwhile topics. Sometimes they get it right.

Young lit-darling Curtis Sittenfeld has the thorny task of reviewing Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, and she executes the job with skill. Her review is well-organized and informative as it leads us through a series of interesting observations. Hmm, maybe I’ll check out Prep after all. Or maybe I won’t.

A few pages later, Dana Goodyear plows into the personal and poetical history of Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia at the age of 47 in 1995. Kenyon’s husband and former teacher Donald Hall has remembered her with a raw confessional about her life and death, carrying Kenyon’s memory into Joan Didion territory (or what will soon be forever known as Joan Didion territory). Goodyear’s article also reviews a new book of essays on Jane Kenyon and a new collection of her poems.

Flick your eyes to the facing page, and behold the news of a first-time ever English translation of an important Chinese novel from 1894, Han Bangqing’s The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, reviewed by Lesley Downer. The Book Review has always been strong on international lit, and the good stuff continues with Neil Gordon’s compelling introduction to Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, a quirky postmodern genre-novel send-up that sounds exactly like ten other quirky postmodern genre-novel send-ups that were already published this year. What makes this one interesting is that it was first published in Poland in 1965.

Jonathan Lethem’s endpaper on the career of Italo Calvino starts off badly. Whenever a critic wastes time gushing about how great a dead author was, a copy editor should get busy, because paragraphs like this can simply be cut. They do nothing for the reader. Lethem spends a long column and a half establishing the point that he likes Italo Calvino’s writing very, very, very, very much. However, the article bounces back in the second half, in which Lethem argues that a complex writer like Italo Calvino is not well-served by the type of referential “Complete Works of …” editions that are now representing him to readers. A “Best Of Calvino” collection needs to be created and published, Lethem states, and I believe he’s right.

Finally, if you head over to the Week In Review section of the Times, you’ll catch the best writing of the day: William Vollmann waxing Emersonian for Lewis and Clark, and for a currently embattled American ideal of freedom:

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! Our founders guaranteed me those; and being an American, I believe that the rest of my life will be what I make of it, that liberty is mine to guard, which means that I need be intimidated by no authority, and that in my own hunt for happiness, whether or not I can hold what I catch, I’m free — yes, free! — to rove a rolling land of uncounted possibilities, which is, in my mind’s eye at least, the American West.”

Tell it on the mountain, Vollmann.

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