Reviewing the Review: December 10 2006

Now this is an endpaper. Cynthia Ozick’s A Youthful Intoxication starts like this:

In my late teens and early 20’s I was a mystic. It was Blake and Shelly who induced these grand intoxications, and also Keats and Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Lost in the ecstasy of idealism, she wandered uncritically until she discovered a book called Romantic Religion by a Princeton professor named Leo Baeck.

And reading on and on in a fever of introspection, I was beginning to undergo a curious transformation: not the spirit’s visionary turning, but one willed and chosen. I had become the Ancient Mariner — only in reverse. Gazing down at the water snakes writhing below, Coleridge’s mystical sailor is all at once seized by a burst of joyous sanctification: to his transfigured senses the repulsive creatures of the sea are now revealed as bless’d things of beauty. But I, pursuing passage after passage of Baeck’s reprise of the incantatory romantic — its transports and exultations, its voluptuously nurtured sorrows, its illusory beauty anchored in nothing but vapor — I came to see it all as loathsome, no different from those mindlessly coiling water snakes. What did it lead to? The self. What did it mean? Self-pride. What did it achieve? Self-delusion and delirium. That way lay Dionysus. I chose Rabbi Baeck.

I don’t always agree with Cynthia Ozick, but she sure can write.

One great article is all a New York Times Book Review really needs, and that’s all this one has. Contrast Ozick’s blazing thrusts with Rachel Donadio’s status-conscious hand-waves as she interviews poetry critic Helen Vendler. The article isn’t terrible (it’s a useful catalog of Vendler’s controversial opinions on various topics), but I’m horrified that a New York Times Book Review poetry critic cares so deeply about titles and citations. We learn from Donadio that Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter university professor at Harvard, that she was praised by Harold Bloom, that she attended the Boston Latin School for Girls and later Radcliffe, that she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship, that she attended undergraduate courses at Boston University and graduate courses at Harvard, and that she’s looking forward to delivering the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

This article has more brand name placements than the season finale of “Survivor”. I really don’t think most people who care about poetry care about this shit. Furthermore, Donadio’s opening lines are incredibly soapy:

Cambridge in autumn. The pathways of Harvard Yard are strewn with acorns. Sunlight plays on ivy-covered brick. Inside Emerson Hall, Helen Vendler takes the podium …

My god, ivy-covered brick and all. This unfortunate passage recalls the folk-parody intro to “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” on Bob Dylan’s first album:

I learned this one from Ric Von Schmidt. Ric’s a blues guitar player. I met him one day on the green pastures of, uh … Harvard University.

But Bob Dylan was being funny, whereas Donadio is just writing like Snoopy in his “dark and stormy night” mode.

I sometimes like NYTBR poetry critics. I used to have problems with Joel Brouwer and Eric McHenry’s “Poetry Chronicle” capsule page, but they’ve both improved considerably, and this week’s set is their best so far. At this point I actually look forward to reading their amusing summaries of new poetry publications.

I will also look forward to hearing from Josef Joffe again. His review of James Traub’s The Best Intentions, a book about United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is very well-written. I don’t agree with him, however, when he implies that France and Russia and Germany were playing political games when they attempted to block the Bush/Blair plan to invade Iraq in 2003. It seems to me they were just being sane. (And, to answer Joffe’s closing question: Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, Kurt Waldheim, Boutrous-Boutrous Ghali. And the other two. How’d I do?)

I don’t think Claire Messud achieves anything with her review of Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Virginia Woolf’s publisher husband, Leonard Woolf. There’s nothing distinctive or particularly original in Messud’s treatment, save a precious last paragraph about a tear stain on Leonard Woolf’s austere diary on the day Virginia kills himself. There’s also nothing distinctive about A. O. Scott’s review of Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock and Carried Away, and in fact he leans way, way too heavy on predictable, boring praise.

This week’s cover announces the Book Review’s 10 best books of the year, yet another list. A spirit of holiday season mediocrity hovers over this weekend’s issue, but Ozick’s endpaper provides all the redemption it needs.

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