Clive James’ review of Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost in today’s New York Times Book Review is nowhere near as annoying as Nadine Gordimer’s gratuitous elegy for Roth’s Everyman last year (“Another ecstasy,” Gordimer yawned). Even so, I think James is being too kind when he describes Exit Ghost as a “Mobius striptease in written form”. That makes the book sound actually exciting and beguiling. In his last paragraph, James refers to Exit Ghost as a book by a great writer, but stops short of calling it a great book. “Maybe it’s just another piece of a puzzle,” he says. Maybe not even, I say.
Clive James writes with much energy, in any case, and so does Will Blythe, whose consideration of George Saunders’ new book of essays The Braindead Megaphone teases Saunders for Overuse of Capital Letters and tries to match Saunders’ clever style. The prose is too thick, and Blythe fails to address the question of the book’s essential relevance (or lack thereof) to potential readers. James Campbell turns in a much more useful piece about The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates 1973-1982:
In the case of a tortured soul like Cheever, a glimpse of happiness appears like a flash of gold in the gutter. Oates, by contrast, has elation to share in abundance.
Campbell ultimately finds Oates’ positive attitude more mock-worthy than inspiring, and based on this review I agree. Also: 509 pages for journal excerpts spanning only 9 years of this author’s long life? My god.
Another diary is on the cover of this weekend’s Book Review: 894 pages of JFK-era speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger’s Journals: 1952-2000, routinely summarized by Maureen Dowd. This is a more suitable ratio of years to pages, I think, but I don’t see why the world needs yet another volume of Kennedy/Camelot/Onassis mythologizing when there are so many other interesting subjects we could read about. Like, for instance, the fall of the Ming dynasty to the Manchurians in 17th Century China as depicted in Jonathan Spence’s Return to Dragon Mountain, which is reviewed with suitable clarity and simplicity by Christopher Benfey, or Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall by Eva LaPlante, which tells us about the Salem judge who actually reconsidered and repented his role in condemning 20 suspected devil-worshipers to death. Reviewer David Waldstreicher seems to wish that more prominent public figures would repent their mistakes, and I can only agree.
Rachel Donadio contributes a useful essay on some recent libel suits that have resulted in book cancellations. Finally, poetry gets a good workout in today’s issue. Stephen Burt approves of Robert Hass’s new Time and Materials, and Ken Tucker lays out the arguments contained within Poetry Magazine editor Christian Wiman’s aggressive new set of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Poetry certainly has been a rambunctious institution in recent years! Despite Tucker’s convincing (and well-expressed) complaints with the book, Wiman’s book sounds like a must-read.