Sunday, September 21, 2008

Book Reviews as News, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and an appreciation (Books, books, books)

I managed to catch up on three weeks of Times Book Reviews and still get a good deal of my school reading done, take a walk in the park, cook buckwheat pasta with tomatoes onions mushrooms and broth, and watch an episode of Rome - a productive Saturday for feeling so completely lacking in energy as I did. And we drank cups and cups and cups of tea. To no avail. I felt as floppy as Raggedy Andy.

The Books Reviews, read in sequence, are like a little snapshot of our zeitgeist. Just say Käse. Really they are more news than the news. Take the two weeks bookending September 11 - what was the theme? The new Paul Auster, the new Philip Roth, the new Francine Prose - they all deal with death. I'm a fan of Paul Auster so I'm likely to read his new Man in the Dark despite the lukewarm reception it has gotten everywhere including in this review by Tom LeClair. What did he expect writing about an unfulfilled book critic with terrible insomnia! I love to read about Philip Roth; I love hearing interviews with him about his writing, but I have yet to make it through a single of his books. Maybe it's a generational thing. I have heard those who do admire him say that his latest, Indignation, is not the book to start on. Maybe that means I'll like it. In his gushing encomium on the front page of this week's Book Review David Gates cannot stop himself from telling the book's secret. Although, the way he described the book, I had guessed it before he gave me a chance to debark. So if you are at all interested in reading this book, don't read this review until after you have read the book. Of her twelve novels and host of other books I have only read Blue Angel by Francine Prose. I thought it wicked and well crafted but haven't yet tried another. Any recommendations from fans of her work? Leah Hager Cohen's assessment of Goldengrove, Prose's latest, is unenthusiastic at best. As a writer, how do you like up to a name like Prose? It does make me want to read Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem Spring and Fall: To a Young Child though, which figures prominently in the novel:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Again, the theme seems to be aging and death - as with Auster and Roth - but this time addressed to a child who can not yet know of her loss consciously, but feels it just the same. The poems brilliance is, I think, that this rich juxtaposition of innocence and the perspective that comes with self awareness is packed into fifteen lines cloaked in the lilt of rhyming couplets. It gives the verse an almost wry smile, while the eyes of its 'I' are filled with tears. As if that 'I' could be speaking those words to the child and because of the lovely sounds made by the lines she would feel comforted, despite their content.

Speaking of the price of self awareness, today's Times has an appreciation of recently deceased author David Foster Wallace, by A. O. Scott that is really, well, appreciative, and quite beautiful.

Finally two other books that stood out in these weeks of reviews other than the three biggies were Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey, The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. Fortey, who works for London's museum, catalogues the contents of its back rooms, pickling his description with anecdotes about its former employees and its store of ephemera. And the other book I was drawn to was The Time of Their Lives, Al Silverman's portrait of The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors. Bruce Jay Friedman writes an amusing and informative review that despite any criticisms still leaves me wanting to read 500 pages of anecdotal nostalgia about my favorite topic - books! There is a world of fresh print out there for us to covet (in the inimitable style of our trusty Dewey) so I am getting off my duff and reading some of it.


Dewey said...

So here's a secret. I subscribed to the Sunday Times but never read anything but the Book Review. Well, sometimes the Magazine. But I really noticed what you said about the Book Review being more news than the news. So now I just get the Book Review in the mail and don't miss the guilt as I recycled the rest of the paper unread every week.

Ted said...

We're birds of a feather! Although I do look at the Arts section and occasionally the magazine the book review is the only section I read faithfully and will keep them piling up for months if I haven't!

Anonymous said...

I read a review of the new Auster (and am sorry I can't remember wher) which was definitely more than lukewarm. In my quest to understand and appreciate Auster I'm looking forward to Man in the Dark.