Oct/Nov 2003 Book Reviews

Briefly Noted

reviews by Kevin McGowin

Harold Bloom. Hamlet: Poem Unlimited.
Riverhead Books, 2003; 154 pp.

As a "postlude" to his imposing 1998 tome Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he took up much of his Hamlet chapter arguing for Shakespeare's authorship of the plays which bear his name (as opposed to other candidates, such as the Earl of Oxford, myself, etc.), Harold Bloom gets down to business in the present volume, which is actually a long essay, small and double-spaced, with something like a fourth of the book taken up by quoted passages from the text of the play.

Nevertheless, this is a book well worth a read, if only for the quite important rhetorical questions it raises and for Bloom's endearingly outlandish claims. Having said this, I will never again be able to interact with the play without considering the often staggering punches with which Bloom ends several of his twenty-five meditations (or "chapters"), each on a single character or aspect in Hamlet. While as usual I am left unconvinced but excited by much of what Bloom has to say, single sentences herein, in addition to his overall view of Hamlet's "character," are worth the price of the book alone.


Maynard Solomon. The Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination.
University of California Press, 2003; 355 pp.

Solomon, the author of a very well-received biography of Beethoven, returns with an amazing book that is, for me, among the finest writing about classical music, ever. The focus is on the preoccupations of the composer from about 1812 until his death in 1827, and reveals him to be a man of varied and arcane interests, a voracious reader and thinker—this against the grain of his popular myth.

Beethoven is also often thought of as the "bridge" between the Classic and Romantic eras in music, but in the present volume (which also includes its share of musicology) such reductive suppositions are challenged. Beethoven still emerges as a genius, but one of quite a different sort than we may previously have thought. Solomon documents Beethoven's mystical reading and quotes from the composer's journals extensively, while categorizing aspects of "Romanticism" and providing convincing, specific examples of Beethoven's "sea-change" in both world-view and internal thought during what most consider his greatest creative period.


Don DeLillo. Cosmopolis.
Scibner, 2003; 224 pp.

DeLillo's thirteenth novel is another brief one compared to the 827 pages of his magnum opus, Underworld (1997), though it lands us back in a single day in rush-bustling turn-of-the-century Manhattan, unlike the atmospheric and internal novella The Body Artist (2001). In describing a single day in the life of 28-year-old billionaire Eric Packer, who is en route from one end of the city to the other in a computer and video-equipped white stretch limousine, DeLillo succeeds in depicting both the absurdity and vacuousness of his protagonist's existance, as he did similarly with David Bell (also 28 and rich) in his first novel, 1971's Americana.

While Cosmopolis contains the usual DeLillan existential absurdity and White Noise-esque one-liners, this time, the white noise ain't so funny anymore. The result is successful: both affecting and tragic, showing a familiar DeLillo who nonetheless still has his finger on the pulse of the culture. While the author has for now passed the descriptions of middle-class middle America to authors like Jonathan Franzen, his own evocations of even sordid and commonplace things and people become soaring polyphonies of lyrical beauty. Yet the novel's closure shows that DeLillo's famous "edge" is still there. He never stops being surprising, and this novel will grow on readers just as have most all the others.


Paul Theroux. Black Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town.
Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003; 496 pp.

After a passably good novel (Hotel Honolulu) and a collection of previously-published essays and excerpts from his earlier travel books (Fresh Air Fiend), Paul Theroux returns to true form with his latest, an evocative and no-holes-barred account of his return to the continent he wrote about with more than a little fondness after his 1960s stint in southern Africa while in the Peace Corps. But if the author's mature perspective and changes within Africa itself make this "safari" a bleak one at times, they also show Theroux writing at the height of his considerable powers in the style in which he's most at home. Theroux is rightfully famous for his character sketches, and he's rarely, if ever, been better.

There is a slight aspect of farewell to Black Star Safari, as if Theroux, now 60-ish, may no longer be expected to submit to travel's inclement rigors. But as one of the finest and most consistently prolific of all American prose stylists, one can also be sure that Theroux has plenty of material to draw on yet. While uneven as a novelist in some ways, Theroux has the distinction of having written one of the finest "nonfiction novels" of the past century (My Secret History, 1989) as well as its sequel, a series of vignettes (My Other Life, 1996). But whatever the writing and publishing future may hold for him, Theroux's latest book is a unique and eye-opening triumph.


Edward Docx. The Calligrapher.
Houghton Mifflin, 2003; 360 pp.

The Calligrapher is a First Novel that doesn't read like one, perhaps because Edward Docx, while not yet 30 during its composition (it's already been released to wide acclaim in England) has served as a literary editor for the London Express and as a columnist for the London Times. He uses his wide reading and research experience to good effect in this book, which is about a 29-year-old womanizer who makes a living fulfilling lucrative commissions artfully transcribing single editions of love poetry for wealthy American clients. During the period of the novel's action, he's at work on his largest project yet: an edition of thirty poems from John Donne's Songs and Sonnets. Each of the thirty chapters, then, is given the title of a Donne poem and an epigraph from it; and of course the protagonist's intimate involvement with the greatest sex poet who ever wrote in English becomes cleverly interwoven with the books plot and events. The author actually leads his character to unique and revealing readings of the poems and their Speakers themselves, which I also studied during my Womanizing Youth; and while I was never a calligrapher, my mother was (and a damn good one), and my classy and brilliant maternal grandmother had an influence on my early years as a reader similar to the grandmother of Jasper, the Calligrapher.

And so it was that I found myself reflected a bit in this book, and kept reading when I might otherwise have grown bored: womanizers are quite boring, possessed of a self-centered narcissism that renders such a character quite tedious and frequently silly in print, as in Life. That's why we need John Donne—a man as contradictory and complex as his poetry, almost, and the times in which he lived. And like Donne found Ann More and his youth was unequivocally over in short order, Jasper, improbably, meets someone too... ah, but this is a NOVEL we're talking about, Improbable is fine if well-executed, right?

In fact, it seems to be one of many plot devices in which what Docx contrives marks him as too clever for his own literary good. The author himself has suggested in an interview with his publicist that there is both more and less to this book than meets the eye—incidentally, this is also something often said of the work of writers Docx says he admires most, such as Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Milan Kundera. The writing itself is contradictory—built on a lusciously visual premise that might lead one to think of Greenaway's film The Pillow Book, or deliciously sensual in a realism reminding me of Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume, Docx overplays the mundane until it becomes seedy, and uses the work "fuck" (and variations thereof) more frequently than in any other book I've ever read (including my own), almost to apologize for actually being a good writer!

And he is. The book is a page-turner, seamlessly weaving in details about the arts of calligraphy and Donne with an effortless and cinematic flair for descriptions and dialogue. While the novel is, finally, rather showy and shallow, this is paradoxically how it succeeds in characterizing its protagonist and elucidating what he learns from Donne.

So okay, hold on. Perhaps it's all RIGHT for it to be showy and shallow! I've mentioned my subjective identification with the themes of this novel because I feel that ALL book reviews are in some way necessarily subjective, and to gloss over this is somehow disingenuous. But while I've been articulate in my perceptions of The Calligrapher's flaws and shortcomings, I kept reading, didn't I? Hey, for the most part, I liked it. Docx has enormous talent, and this is one of the best First Novels I've ever read. But most of all, it's FUN. And often funny. How's THAT for a "mixed" notice? Well, critics and former Professors miss out a lot on some of the joys of reading, I'm sure.

And I find myself wondering what Kimberly K. Martin, now of Brooklyn, would think of this novel. I bring this up to further document the subjectivity of my response to a work that for some can do no wrong, to read some early reviews of it from London, kindly mailed to me by the publisher, just in case I might want to read those and not the book because I'm so busy ;). Well, Kim has one of the greatest eyes for fiction God or Whomever ever created. She's an absolute genius. So look for her response on the Scrawl Wall. In the meantime, I'll be looking for yours.

Editor's Note: There was indeed a response, but since it was too long for the scrawl wall, click here to see it.


Peter Ackroyd. Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion.
Hydra Publishing, 2003. Illustrated; 216 pp.

As fall is here and winter's fast encroaching, the season in which I read and re-read the novels of my Literary Idol (or the foremost of them), Dickens, I set out in search of a readable biography of him—there seem to be so few, the recent Fred Kaplan (1998) offering a case in point. I'm indebted to Charles for so much, so much (not my Capitalizations—I got THAT device from Sir Thomas Browne) that I truly wished to KNOW something of the man who wrote Our Mutual Friend and several other novels in marathon installments for magazines—as opposed to the fellow whose Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities have been slobberingly embraced by the American middle classes all my damn life.

And I saw that there is a new, picturesque "coffee table" book (at least the hardback version) just out in America by Peter Ackroyd, the popular writer of Literary Genius's Lives, whose work on Oscar Wilde I disliked and whose tome on William Blake, on whom I did my Doctoral Work, I positively HATED and compared to the work of that awful biographer of Tennessee Williams (and Marilyn Monroe, etc.), Donald Spoto. But this time, I love it! It's not at all the comprehensive Dickens biography I keep hoping for from somebody, but with all the wonderful illustrations, Ackroyd is in his real medium here, and his prose shines. His Dickens is well-written and entertaining, giving the reader a glimpse of Dickens the Popular Novelist, the way the Shakespeare of the Novel was seen in his own times.

He's even insightful, is Ackroyd, and quite entertaining. I'm glad as the Dickens I got this reasonably-priced book, and I wholeheartedly encourage anyone interested to go get it too.

Then, read Bleak House. Or Little Dorrit. OR, if you're new to Dickens, start with The Pickwick Papers (like the author himself did). Social Satire for Winter Nights—that Ackroyd somehow turns into sunny days. Or maybe party-cloudy with a chance of light afternoon showers, but hell, the cover photo alone's worth the price of the book.

While this charming and many-pictured coffee table overview is not to be confused with Ackroyd's 1200-plus-page full-length Dickens biography (1990) (which, while tedious at times, is arguably the gold standard for the subject), the finest literary introduction and overview of Dickens' career remains the 200-page "Penguin Lives Series" edition by Jane Smiley (Viking, 2002). While lacking pictures and Ackroyd's noted flourishes, the latter volume succinctly offers information and criticisms of each of the fifteen novels and beyond that are either not present in the 1990 tome or lost in its many digressions.


Daphne Simpkins. The Long Good Night: My Father's Journey into Alzheimer's.
Eerdman's: 192 pp., hardcover. 2003.

Many of you are finding this review through a Search Engine, perhaps being familiar with my distant cousin-by-marriage Diana Friel McGowin's extensive work on the terrible disease of Alzheimer's. Diana and I have never met, though she recently lived close to my home in Florida, but I feel sure she'd appreciate and enjoy the present book, which could also be subtitled Why You Should Be Glad Your Daughter's a Really Good Writer. In a period that has grown increasingly aware of this devastating disease and just how widespread it really is, those wishing (or needing) to read about Alzheimer's Disease have too often found themselves caught among the cold, dry "facts" of medical journals (whose authors are still baffled), misleading Internet headlines (Alzheimer's gene found! The Cure is now!), hippy-dippy New Age stuff about Ginkgo Biloba, or precious and affected writing of the "Elegy for Iris" sort—the last an example of what the present book is not, as the publishers allude to the John Bayley book in their promotional Introduction.

What Simpkins' book is, is an articulate, readable and amusing celebration of a man's life. Alzheimer's is a dark subject, and while Simpkins does nothing to sugar-coat that, she creates a sequence of lucid narrative vignettes, rich in description and color. Through this writing, then, one is able to truly sample the author's considerable emotions, while thinking of her father through the eyes of her memory, as it were, a living, vital, loveable man to the end, and not simply another victim.

Jerry Simpkins was not a famous man. Neither is Daphne Simpkins a Famous Writer. These facts serve to personalize the memoir for us, to make us who are also not Reagan or Charlton Heston or Iris Murdoch able to feel that we're included, too—for as Simpkins points out, Alzheimer's affects the lives of not only the sufferer, but everyone else around them.

I am glad to have been included.


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