So many books .... so little time. Last year I read over a hundred books, yet I still feel I barely scratched the surface. There’s always the sense of...moreSo many books .... so little time. Last year I read over a hundred books, yet I still feel I barely scratched the surface. There’s always the sense of falling further behind. One can certainly understand the appeal of Pierre Bayard’s “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”, if only as an aid to help keep your head above water, to help navigate the tsunami of new material which bombards us monthly.
But that’s not what this review is about. Jane Smiley’s “Thirteen ways of Looking at the Novel” won’t help you to deal with the problem of sheer volume of new books that are published nowadays. In fact, weighing in at close to 600 pages, it may actually slow progress towards whatever numerical goal you may have set for 2008. Nonetheless, I urge you, I implore you, to get this book and to take the time to read it. Why? Because if you do, you will never read a novel the same way again. I have read no other book that comes close to this one in terms of enriching my overall reading experience.
The structure of the book is straightforward. The first twelve chapters, spanning 270 pages, or just under half the book, have titles like The Origins of the Novel, The Psychology of the Novel, Morality and the Novel, The Art of the Novel, The Novel and History. Each reads like a terrific tutorial by the professor of literature you wish you had had in college. Though these chapters are never less than fascinating, for my money it’s the next four chapters which make this book so brilliant. They are titled The Circle of the Novel, A Novel of Your Own (I), A Novel of Your Own (II), ‘Good Faith: A Case History . Basically, Smiley uses the 100 pages or so spanned by these chapters to given an inspired tutorial, of unsurpassed brilliance, on how to write a novel. If I had my way, it would be required reading for all of the Rick Moodys, the Heidi Julavits, the Dave Eggers, the Deborah Eisenbergs, any of those too-smart-for-their-own good writers at work today who continue to foist off their whip-smart, empty-hearted, look-at-me-how-smart-am-I, metafictional experiments on the unsuspecting reader, passing it off as ‘literary fiction’.
In the last half of the book, Smiley analyzes 101 of her favorite novels, ranging from ‘The Tale of Genji’ and ‘The Decameron’ to ‘White Teeth’ and ‘Atonement’, bringing to bear the ideas laid out in the first half of the book. This is done with such wit, intelligence, and sympathy that the effect is to make you want to re-read those books you were already familiar with, and to rush out and get the books she discusses that you haven’t already read.
In short, this is one of those rare books that is genuinely uplifting, and will rekindle your enthusiasm for reading. I can give it no higher recommendation. (less)
This charming collection of essays is a real favorite of mine. Over the years I must have given close to a dozen copies as gifts. Anyone who is an avi...moreThis charming collection of essays is a real favorite of mine. Over the years I must have given close to a dozen copies as gifts. Anyone who is an avid reader will enjoy these essays.(less)
An interesting conceit: at the invitation of the editor, the wonderful Anne Fadiman, seventeen writers revisit books they had read in their youth and...moreAn interesting conceit: at the invitation of the editor, the wonderful Anne Fadiman, seventeen writers revisit books they had read in their youth and describe the results.
Unfortunately, the results are mixed, at best. Perhaps one would need to have read all 17 books in question to derive full value from this book. But that seems a little much to expect. Overall, I think I was disappointed in how poorly some of the authors managed to convey the original passion they had felt for their particular choice. Predictably enough, the chapters that interested me most were those pertaining to books I had read, particularly those concerning books which had also spoken to me, upon first reading.
My favorite chapter - the one about Salinger's "Franny and Zooey", an alltime favorite from my college years. I was relieved that it held up under the author's re-reading, and - when moved to read it again myself - that it did for me as well.
It probably deserves more than 3 stars, but its overall spottiness prevents me from giving it 4. So let's leave it at 3.5 and take the opportunity to plug (yet again) Fadiman's far superior original collection of her own writing, "Ex Libris", in which there is not a single bad essay.(less)
In the category of "books about books", this is a solid and engaging entry. IMO, success in this category is largely dependent on whether or not one f...moreIn the category of "books about books", this is a solid and engaging entry. IMO, success in this category is largely dependent on whether or not one feels an affinity with the author, and Denby is definitely an engaging guide.(less)
An excellent, thoroughly readable, exploration of plagiarism. Mallon eschews the usual platitudes - the result is a fascinating and insightful discuss...moreAn excellent, thoroughly readable, exploration of plagiarism. Mallon eschews the usual platitudes - the result is a fascinating and insightful discussion of a topic of interest to writers and readers alike. I particularly enjoyed his musings on the possible motivation of plagiarists, their co-existing desires to conceal the fact of plagiarism with an apparent subconscious desire to be exposed. In this day and age, it seems impossible that anyone might expect to "get away with it", yet the practice continues, apparently unabated.(less)
A nasty, boring book in which someone whose talent appears to have sputtered out years previously, attempted to gain some notoriety by taking a hatche...moreA nasty, boring book in which someone whose talent appears to have sputtered out years previously, attempted to gain some notoriety by taking a hatchet to the work of others.
Sour grapes much, Dale? At least Jonathan Franzen has some talent to back up his obnoxious public persona. With this author there's all the obnoxiousness and very little talent.(less)
A disappointment. I would have expected a writer as provocative as Camille to have afforded more insight into the poems chosen here. No argument with...moreA disappointment. I would have expected a writer as provocative as Camille to have afforded more insight into the poems chosen here. No argument with her selection, but her analyses didn't add a whole lot IMO.
added December 3rd, 2008 -
I was somewhat surprised at the Camille-love that seems to permeate other people's reviews of this book. I just don't see those penetrating insights. What I do see are relatively obvious points, articulated with supreme confidence and her signature dash of provocation or outrageousness. Which is hardly the same thing as genuinely smart insight.
Writing in "The Guardian" about an article in which Paglia explains why certain 20th century writers didn't make the cut, John Dugdale comments:
Familiar names from Donne to Yeats, Marvell to Plath made the squad, but Paglia's 20th-century choices were surprising, and in a recent essay in Arion (http://www.bu.edu/arion/Paglia16-2.html) she reverts entertainingly to snarling type in explaining why she left several giants out.
Among those who, like her feminist enemies, fail to meet her standards are Pound ("Showy, arcane"), Auden ("dated ... vague blather"), Moore ("nothing deep, reflex jokiness"), Bishop ("sentimental, weary"), Rich ("clumsy ... bathos"), Ashbery ("florid and strained") and Heaney ("second-hand Yeats"). Jorie Graham is rubbished as "fey and precious", John Berryman and Robert Creeley are so feeble their banishment needs no explanation, and even the critic Helen Vendler ("terminally prim") receives a sideswipe. Perhaps she and VS Naipaul, who finds equally little that pleases him in 20th-century fiction, should join forces.
My favorite part is where Camille nixes Marianne Moore because she fails to match the "high-impact, around-the-clock sports talk on radio and TV". Or maybe it's where she disses Seamus Heaney as "second- or third-hand Yeats".
I'm gonna go out on a limb and predict that Auden, Pound, Moore, Bishop and Heaney will continue to be read and remembered long after the strident, self-promoting bitch that is Camille Paglia has kicked the bucket.
Francis Heaney is a comic genius. This slim volume mainly contains poems written according to the conceit: "What if poets wrote poems whose names were...moreFrancis Heaney is a comic genius. This slim volume mainly contains poems written according to the conceit: "What if poets wrote poems whose names were anagrams of the poet's own name?". Accordingly it contains such gems as "Toilets", by T.S. Eliot, "Skinny Domicile" by Emily Dickinson, "Likable Wilma" by William Blake, and - my personal favorite - "Hen Gonads" by Ogden Nash.
If you don't want to buy the book, pretty much the entire content is also available online, e.g. at
Well, it's a level above Dale Peck's "Hatchet Jobs", I'll grant him that. Beyond that? Well, I'm not a fan of the method of criticism which dredges th...moreWell, it's a level above Dale Peck's "Hatchet Jobs", I'll grant him that. Beyond that? Well, I'm not a fan of the method of criticism which dredges through an author's entire oeuvre , selectively presents the worst sentences as being typical, then invites our mockery and rejection of that author's whole body of work. Since this pretty much sums up Myers's approach throughout this expanded essay, it's not an effort that I greet with unbridled enthusiasm.
Sure, maybe it's useful to be reminded that it's OK to have one's own taste diverge from that of the major mainstream critics, though this is something that is evident to me every time I read one of Michiko Kakutani's reviews.
Ultimately, though the book is something of an improvement over the essay, in that it presents more examples of prose that Myers admires, his selective approach to the work of the authors he takes down, and his evident glee in doing so, combine to undermine one's trust in his capacity to act as a neutral reviewer. In particular, I think a summary dismissal of the entire work of Paul Auster and Annie Proulx is unwarranted; by extension, though I am no great fan of Rick Moody or of Cormac McCarthy, my impulse after reading the attack on their work by Myers is to give the remainder of their work the benefit of the doubt.
So while this polemic is interesting, it is ultimately unconvincing. In fact, the overall effect may be to increase one's sympathy for the writers chosen for profiling, surely the reverse of the author's intention.(less)
A mixed bag: some of these work better than others. Then, of course, some targets are easier than others. I confess to a certain wicked enjoyment at t...moreA mixed bag: some of these work better than others. Then, of course, some targets are easier than others. I confess to a certain wicked enjoyment at the skewering of:
Dave Eggers ('A Backbreaking work of incredible thinness')
E. Annie Proulx ('Vocabulary Crimes')
Cormac McCarthy ('All the pretty Sentences')
For whatever reason, Miller seems to do better at parodying more recent writers. His parodies of Hemingway, Kerouac, Tolkien and Beckett were among the least successful in the collection.
I wouldn't recommend buying this book, but if you come across it in your library, it may be worth checking out.(less)
This book was a delight. I had read two of Mallon's books - "Stolen Words" (on plagiarism) and "A Book of One's Own" (people and their diaries) - quit...moreThis book was a delight. I had read two of Mallon's books - "Stolen Words" (on plagiarism) and "A Book of One's Own" (people and their diaries) - quite some time ago, and found them both charming and fascinating. So maybe the charm of these essays shouldn't have been a surprise. But I was bowled over, both by the breadth and depth of Mallon's coverage. Not to engage in hagiography, but he comes close to my notion of a perfect reviewer. In many instances his evaluations are a more eloquent expression of my own thoughts about a particular book or author. And in those cases where our evaluations were different, his views are expressed with a persuasive clarity that stimulates me to go back to the work in question and see what I might have missed. He's smart, erudite, witty, someone who has obviously read widely, with catholic tastes and a broad-ranging curiosity. But, refreshingly, his criticism comes squarely from the point of view of someone who obviously wants to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Which is not to say that he pulls his punches, but there is none of the besetting sin that afflicts most critics - the cruel putdown whose primary aim is to remind you of the critic's own smartness. Nor does he ever give the sense of targeting someone solely because of their success.
A good illustration of what I mean is his essay "Snow Falling on Readers", which examines the work of David Guterson. It is characteristic of Mallon's approach that, to understand the success of Guterson's biggest hit, he takes it on himself to read and discuss the author's entire work. Having done so, he ultimately finds it wanting. Characteristically, his summation is gentle, but damning nonetheless:
"I must confess that the real mystery to me is not what happened to Carl Heine aboard his fishing boat but just what on earth the PEN/Faulkner jurors were thinking - and beyond that, what all the local book-group readers who have made this No.1 can be seeing. A majority of these group readers - a discerning constituency who do much to keep literary fiction alive in America - are women, and it's the female characters in Guterson's books who are flimsy to the point of mere functionality, projections of male desire and indecision."
Compared with the mean-spirited hatchet job on Guterson that appears in "A Reader's Manifesto", which cannot escape giving the impression of being motivated by resentment at another's success, Mallon's evaluation reads like genuine literary criticism.
Which is not to say that all is high-minded and serious. Elsewhere in the same essay he makes the following throwaway, but devastatingly on-point, remark:
"I have been against homeschooling ever since that family-taught girl won the national spelling bee a few years back. This child who became such a point of pride to homeschooling parents couldn't stop shouting and jumping around and crowing about her moment of onstage accomplishment. I didn't care if she could spell 'arrhythmia' backwards; this unsocialized kid needed Miss Crabtree to put her in the corner."
Essays I particularly enjoyed were those on the David Leavitt-Stephen Spender lawsuit, on Howard Norman (whose 'The Bird Artist' I have always considered the antidote to the appalling 'Shipping News'), on Will Self, on Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full". The essays on letters from his readers, on obituaries, on the ups and downs of the 'author book tour', and on the challenges of writing historical fiction are equally fascinating.
But what clinched things, and what earned this book its fifth star is the essay "Enough about Me", which expresses his civilized but eloquent antipathy to the "emergence of memoir as a hot new publishing commodity". Someone who mirrors my own thoughts on the matter, and can express them far more eloquently than I could. What's not to love?(less)
For me, it's a toss-up between two contenders for the title.
Many would give the crown to Scotland's famous "disaster poet", William Topaz McGonagall....moreFor me, it's a toss-up between two contenders for the title.
Many would give the crown to Scotland's famous "disaster poet", William Topaz McGonagall. While he is possibly best known for his chronicling of 'The Tay Bridge Disaster', and other catastrophes, I think that focusing solely on his disaster verse does him an injustice. There are his heartfelt odes to the towns and cities of his native Scotland (every town merits at least one, and trust me, not a statue or landmark goes unmentioned). Here is a fair sample:
Beautiful town of Montrose, I will now commence my lay, And I will write in praise of thee without dismay, And in spite of all your foes, I will venture to call thee Bonnie Montrose.
Your beautiful Chain Bridge is magnificent to be seen, Spanning the river Esk, a beautiful tidal stream, Which abounds with trout and salmon, And can be had for the catching without any gammon.
Then as for the Mid Links, it is most beautiful to be seen, And I'm sure is a very nice bowling green, Where young men can enjoy themselves and inhale the pure air, Emanating from the sea and the beautiful flowers there.
And as for the High Street, it's most beautiful to see, There's no street can surpass it in the town of Dundee, Because it is so long and wide, That the people can pass on either side Without jostling one another Or going to any bother.
Beautiful town of Montrose, near by the seaside, With your fine shops and streets so wide, 'Tis health for the people that in you reside, Because they do inhale the pure fragrant air, Emanating from the sea waves and shrubberies growing there; And the inhabitants of Montrose ought to feel gay, Because you are one of the bonniest towns in Scotland at the present day.
Who could possibly compete with that inspired drivel?
Well, it's a tough challenge, but I think a claim can be made that James McIntyre, Ontario's Chaucer of Cheese, can go eye-to-eye against the great McGonagall and not blink. Sure, he's not as prolific. But he is much, much worse.
Our muse it doth refuse to sing Of cheese made early in the spring, When cows give milk from spring fodder You cannot make a good cheddar.
The quality is often vile Of cheese that is made in April, Therefore we think for that reason You should make later in the season.
Cheese making you should delay Until about the first of May. Then cows do feed on grassy field And rich milk they abundant yield.
Ontario cannot compete With the Northwest in raising wheat, For cheaper there they it can grow So price in future may be low.
Though this a hardship it may seem, Rejoice that you have got the cream, In this land of milk and honey, Where dairy farmers do make money.
Utensils must be clean and sweet, So cheese with first class can compete, And daily polish up milk pans, Take pains with vats and with milk cans.
And it is important matter To allow no stagnant water, But water from pure well or stream The cow must drink to give pure cream.
Canadian breeds 'tis best to pair With breeds from the shire of Ayr, They thrive on our Canadian feed And are for milking splendid breed.
Though 'gainst spring cheese some do mutter, Yet spring milk also makes bad butter, Then there doth arise the query How to utilize it in the dairy.
The milk it floats in great spring flood Though it is not so rich and good, Let us be thankful for this stream Of milk and also curds and cream.
All dairymen their highest aims Should be to make the vale of Thames, Where milk doth so abundant flow, Dairyland of Ontario.
But, who knows? Maybe you will come across your own special favorite in this delightful compendium of horrors.
Somewhere else on this site, and undoubtedly at several other locations on the web, there is that infamous list. You know the one. The one that makes...moreSomewhere else on this site, and undoubtedly at several other locations on the web, there is that infamous list. You know the one. The one that makes us all feel like semi-literate philistines. 1,001 books you Should Read Before You Die. (Or was that 10,001?) Compiled by the self-anointed, self-important guardians of the shrine of high literature. People whose primary goal seems to have been to make us all feel bad about ourselves.
"Pure Pleasure", John Carey's "guide to the 20th century's most enjoyable books", is a welcome antidote to the kind of supercilious high-mindedness exuded by most critics. In his refreshingly down to earth introduction, he asks rhetorically of lists like the infamous 1,001 books to read before you die: 'Who are these daunting league-tables meant for? Not, surely, other human beings."
As a counterpoint, he has compiled his own list of fifty books written in the 20th century, with the only criterion being the amount of pleasure that reading them brought him. "Pure Pleasure", which first appeared as a series of weekly essays in the London Times, is nothing more than that list, with an essay on each book in which he tries to isolate what it was about that particular selection that made it enjoyable to read. As he explains in the introduction, he has not included "books he never managed to finish" (so no Proust), or given a place to books solely based on their critical acclaim (so Joyce is represented by the "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man", rather than "Ulysses".
Both the list, and the accompanying essays, are terrific. Carey casts new light on old favorites ("The Hound of the Baskervilles", "The Man Who Was Thursday", "The Great Gatsby"), has an excellent representation of poetry (T.S. Eliot, Edward Thomas, W.B. Yeats, A.E. Houseman, W.H. Auden, Seamus Heaney, Stevie Smith, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin), and has a way of loading each essay with unforgettable gems:
"Those who think of Evelyn Waugh as a venomous old snob should try the early novels, written when he was still vulnerable and adrift" "Brighton Rock is a novel that got out of hand." "Why one of our supreme poetic masters should have needed the help of beliefs that would disgrace a fairground fortuneteller is a question that takes us to the heart of the modern poet's predicament." (on Yeats) "His words seem to light up avenues in the brain that have never been opened before, but that we immediately recognize as the dwelling-place of our own feelings." (on T.S. Eliot)
In addition to its predictable pleasures, John Carey's list includes a few authors who you may not have come across before: Sylvia Townsend Warner, William Empson, Keith Douglas, Edward Thomas. Carey is so persuasive about the authors you already know, that you will be moved to add these unfamiliar authors to your reading list.
This is an extraordinary book, which I strongly recommend. (less)
My final review differs very little from my initial impressions, given in comment #2 below. So I am taking the lazy way out by cutting and pasting:
I s...moreMy final review differs very little from my initial impressions, given in comment #2 below. So I am taking the lazy way out by cutting and pasting:
I started with those essays flagged as "attacks" (on Mortimer Adler, Harold Bloom, and Edmund Wilson, respectively), because - let's be honest - a skillful intellectual skewering of a suitably pompous target is usually pretty entertaining. But Epstein wields a bludgeon, not a rapier, and his animosity against his targets feels way too personal. For one thing, Adler is a former boss of his, and he doesn't seem to realise that trying to settle scores with a former employer through public attack just makes him (Epstein) look petty. Particularly when part of the attack is to ridicule Adler for his physical clumsiness, and for his failure to pass Columbia's mandatory swim test.
Epstein is also way too fond of the throwaway remark that plunges the stiletto into the ribcage. For instance:
"I do not know of any genuine contribution that Mortimer Adler made to serious philosophy.."
"I don't believe Susan Sontag's celebrity finally had much to do with the power or cogency of her ideas."
"Wisdom, in a critic, is never excess baggage. Edmund Wilson, it begins to be clear, traveled light", having previously characterized Wilson as "a bald, pudgy little man with a drinking problem, a nearly perpetual erection, and a mean streak".
There are far too many of these - often completely gratuitous - asides, whose characteristic feature, aside from the nastiness, appears to be that they are invariably directed at people who have been more successful than Epstein.
And for all that he purports to take down others for the 'pompous' nature of their writing, his own tone in the essays "The Perpetual Adolescent" and "The Culture of Celebrity" pretty much defines old fogeydom. So that it wasn't particularly surprising to read, in the final essay, documenting his tenure as editor of "The American Scholar", that:
"In my twenty-three years as editor, the title 'Ms' never appeared in its pages" "I moved slowly ... on changing from 'Negro' to 'black'" "I was not big on 'gay' either.."
Unfortunately, by the time I got through these pieces, I had developed an antipathy to Epstein that made it almost impossible to be enthusiastic about the other essays I tried. (I didn't read the 'personal' pieces). Though I did quite like the pieces on Auden and Keats.
In hindsight, it might have been better to read the "personal" pieces before the attack pieces, as it would have given a greater chance of developing some sympathy with Epstein. I will not be seeking out other work by this author.(less)
I read this in parallel with two other books of pieces by literary critics: Joseph Epstein's "In a Cardboard Belt" and Maureen Corrigan's "Leave me Al...moreI read this in parallel with two other books of pieces by literary critics: Joseph Epstein's "In a Cardboard Belt" and Maureen Corrigan's "Leave me Alone I'm Reading". Of the three, Dirda's book is hands-down my favorite. Epstein is far too heavy on vitriol, with little compensating wit, and his style has a pompous, 'I'm smarter than you', aspect to it that is downright unattractive. Corrigan's book has charms of its own, but doesn't manage near as many laugh-out-loud moments as I found while reading Dirda's pieces.
There are so many terrific pieces in this collection. In no particular order, ten of the forty-six that really tickled my fancy:
Weekend with Wodehouse. (the biannual convention of the P.G. Wodehouse society) Mr Wright. (tribute to his high-school English teacher) Commencement Advice. Four Novels and a Memoir. (a devastating sendup of several bestselling genres) Bookish Fantasies. Comedy Tonight. (a list of 100 amusing comic novels) Sez Who? (Different experiences while browsing for books) Excursion. (a weekend in New Orleans) Talismans. Vacation Reading. Mememormee. (Why he's not a fan of memoirs)
There are another ten that could just as easily have made the list. What I enjoyed about Dirda's essays are his infectious enthusiasm for books and reading, which comes through in every piece, his wit and humor, as well as a certain generosity of spirit (conspicuously absent, for instance, in Epstein's book). EVen his brilliant takedown of the various bestseller genres is obviously done with affection.
This book has left me eager to seek out more of Dirda's work. Recommended for all fans of books and reading.(less)