Reviewing the Review: December 21 2008

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.

6 Responses

  1. Well, Plummer did recreate
    Well, Plummer did recreate Nabokov’s Cornell University lecture on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” when he portrayed Nabokov in the documentary “Nabokov On Kafka.”

  2. I didn’t know about that one,
    I didn’t know about that one, Bill. Okay, Plummer gets points for Kafka.

  3. “Do you mean to tell me that
    “Do you mean to tell me that my children have been roaming about Salzburg dressed up in nothing but some old drapes?”

  4. Gottlieb didn’t walk anyone
    Gottlieb didn’t walk anyone through Giordano Bruno: Philosopher, Heretic; instead, he listed a bunch of facts about Bruno’s life that someone could get from Wikipedia, only mentioning Rowland’s actual work a couple of times. It’s an awful review that I panned on my website.

    As for Christopher Plummer, Bill’s right that it’ll sell more copies b/c of his movie star status than his theater work, but the theater focus will likely entice an audience that otherwise couldn’t care less about celeb bios.

  5. Jon, you have piqued my
    Jon, you have piqued my interest in Giordano Bruno. Where is a good place to begin reading about him? I’m especially interested in discussions about why some people consider him the “father of the multiple universe theory.”

  6. I already wrote the book.
    I already wrote the book. It’s called The Book of Miracles, and is mentioned in my ID at the bottom of the review, and is, you may presume, why I was asked to review Neibuhr’s.

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