I don't know if the intense Jeanette Winterson has written much book criticism before. But her review of Forrest Gander's As a Friend
in today's New York Times Book Review
reads like it's her first time, and I mean that as a compliment. Rarely does a critic seem so eager to drink a book in, as when she tells us that Gander:
... returns words as meaning instead of blurring them as data. So much writing is just about conveying information, using words that are readily interchangeable, underpowering language so that it never reaches the point of calibration; the right register of what we feel, or of how it feels to feel.
She seems to be reviewing not just one captivating book but literature itself. She echoes Kerouac (perhaps a bit too closely) here, describing a character in the book:
So it is with anyone real, unlike the measured platitudes and balanced phrases that hallmark the increasing army of unreal people, who never want to risk a wrong word and so speak only in cliches.
This level of excitement could be hazardous, but Winterson has the skill to make the piece work. I think many NYTBR readers will join me in checking out Gander's book as a result.
This is another skinny (24 pages) issue of the Book Review, but it manages to cram in a decent amount of literary and intellectual material. Kathryn Harrison teaches me a new word in her review of Acedia and Me
by Kathleen Norris (I've suffered occasionally from "paralysis of the soul", but I didn't know there was a six-letter term for it). Liesl Schillinger describes two newly translated German novels, Settlement
by Christop Hein and New Lives
by Ingo Schulze. I don't love the way Charles Taylor hints at the identity of the real-life model for a celebrity writer character in Bruce Jay Friedman's Three Balconies
. I assume the "wildly charismatic, self-destructive, marginally crazy" 1960s writer is meant to be Norman Mailer, but either way I don't think a reviewer should hint that a book is a roman a clef
and then leave us guessing about the identity of the target.
The "humanities" quotient today is through the roof: Scott Stossel discusses American Therapy: The Rise of Psychotherapy in the United States
by Jonathan Engel, Anthony Gottlieb walks us through Giordano Bruno: Philosopher, Heretic
by Ingrid D. Rowland, and Kenneth Woodward sniffs at Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America
by Gustav Niebuhr (Woodward, who also writes about comparative religion, seems annoyed that Niebuhr didn't write the book Woodward would have liked to write).
There's also an enthusiastic full page on poet Jeffrey Yang's abacedarian Aquarium
and a Gregory Maguire piece on Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia
With so much high-minded content spread among 24 pages, who can possibly complain? Well, that's what they pay me for. I can't stand fatuous superlatives, as in Alex Wichtel's glossy cover piece on actor Christopher Plummer's autobiography In Spite Of Myself
, which assures us that Plummer is the "finest classical actor of North America". I have nothing against Christopher Plummer, but in fact I once long ago trucked my sorry ass all the way out to Stratford, Connecticut to see him play Iago in a lavishly over-praised Othello
featuring James Earl Jones in the title role. Joe Papp's humble Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park has always been my local playing field for Shakespeare, and over the years I've been privileged to enjoy William Hurt as Oberon, Raul Julia as Macbeth, Kevin Kline as Hamlet, Diane Verona as Ophelia, Raul Julia as Prospero, Kevin Kline as Lear
and much more. Midsummer Night's Dream
with Hurt and The Tempest
with Julia (and Barry Miller as Caliban) are the two productions I remember most fondly, and I also remember leaving Stratford, Connecticut after the wildly over-praised Othello
wondering what the hell the big deal about Christopher Plummer's Iago was and why I had bothered to leave New York City just to see it. I'm sure In Spite Of Myself
is a fine book, but I wish Alex Wichtel had spared the usual hyperbole, and I also wish everybody would admit that the only reason this is a "big book" is that Plummer played the nice-guy husband in The Sound of Music
. It's not going to make the bestseller list because of his classical work.
Today's issue also contains a typically bland and predictable Henry Alford endpaper that I'd like to complain about. However, this is overall a worthwhile and well-intentioned Book Review.
I'll be on vacation by the time next weekend's NYTBR appears, but I'll be back working this beat again on the first weekend of 2009.