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on October 9, 2008
Readers of the New York Review of Books will be familiar with the writings of Daniel Mendelsohn, who has written dozens of reviews of literature, movies and theatre. How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken pulls together many of those reviews, covering everything from movies like "Kill Bill" and "The 300" to Broadway plays such as "The Glass Menagerie" and "The Producers" to books like "The Hours," "Middlesex" and new academic books on history.

Why would anyone want to read a book of old reviews? Well, Mendelsohn is perhaps the best example of how this form can be used as a launching pad for examining large subjects like war and its culpabilities, sex and homosexuality, and human nature. That Mendelsohn does all of this by invoking a lens of the great classicists - Euripides, Homer, Sophocles - is a feat of a great and pointed intelligence.

These are not just reviews, though they are that too. Mendelsohn is a critic, and a stringent and demanding one. Swayed by the opinions of neither the public nor other critics, he deftly, and with great care, strikes at the heart of faults of many books, plays and movies. Despite this, these reviews are not rants, nor are they petty or arrogant. Their power comes from the combination of Mendelsohn's intelligence with his great love of writing, movies and theatre. It is only with the greatest respect that he points out the failings, of both the works of art themselves, and of our culture.

You might expect essays that invoke Sophicles and Homer to be difficult. Another great talent of Mendelsohn is his ability to write of these classic subjects in a very conversational manner - to, in fact, draw in readers who are not familiar with the classics the way he is, to serve as a bridge between the great ideas of history and the popular culture of today.

As I read his essays, I found myself simultaneously intrigued, entertained, and educated - and interested in going back to read, and see, some of these books and movies again.

Armchair Interviews says: An educational and fascinating read.
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on September 14, 2009
OK, so why put this on your "must read" list? To start, Mendelsohn is a brilliant critic who writes insightfully and without condescension to author, work or audience (reader, movie-goer, etc.). Even when he utterly demolishes his subject, he never descends to snark or gratuitous sniping. Many times, I got the sense of a man exasperated with how close these artists get to creating something of real meaning/value but keep missing the target.

In his introduction, Mendelsohn explains the criteria by which he judges -

(1) Meaningful coherence of form and content;
(2) Precise employment of detail to support (1);
(3) Vigor and clarity of expression; and
(4) Seriousness of purpose (p. xv)

Quite independent of Mendelsohn, I'm happy (and perhaps a bit smug) to say my own judgments have come around to these selfsame points, even regarding the "brain candy" I may read when the "big issues" get tiresome. I find it nearly impossible to read a book anymore (or watch a movie for that matter)where the author can't write, doesn't take her job seriously, or both - even when it's "just" book #347 in Space Bimbos of the Black Sun series.

Oh, but we live in a "dark age" of culture where far too often we eschew wrestling with real tragedy for sentimentalism; melodrama; and feel-good, Lifetime movie endings. This is a common theme in many of the essays found here, from the first essay on Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones through stagings of Tennessee Williams and Euripides, reviews of Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodovar, to Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. (Regarding the latter, Mendelsohn compares Stone's film to Aeschylus' The Persians, and makes the point that, even writing of a glorious Hellenic triumph (Marathon & Salamis), the Greek playwright chose to portray the reactions of the Persians, asking his Athenian audience "to think radically, to imagine something outside of their own experience, to situate the feelings they were having just then...in a vaster frame" (p. 452), whereas Stone's "pretty much exclusive emphasis thus far on the `good'...in these entertainments is noteworthy, because it reminds you of the unwillingness to grapple with and acknowledge the larger issues...which has characterized much of the natural response to this pivotal trauma (9/11)." (p. 451))

Mendelsohn has inspired me to try opera - a genre for which I have little liking. I don't know why. I understand neither Italian nor French but it's not like I object to subtitles - I love Hong Kong martial arts flicks. And I dated a woman who adored opera and enthralled me with her enthusiastic descriptions of the medium. Whatever the case, the author's analysis of the Met's recent staging of Lucia di Lammermoor "forced" me to check out a DVD of Joan Sutherland's version from the library, and as I write this review, listen to a CD of Ion Marin's version with Cheryl Studer and Placido Domingo. Who knows where this could lead?

And, having read Mendelsohn's reviews of Troy and Alexander - the recent "epics" based on The Iliad and the life of Alexander the Great - I was again compelled. In this case to add them to my Netflix queue if only to see how badly they failed to capture their subjects. (Mendelsohn includes his review of 300 here as well but there are limits. The trailers were stomach churning enough.)

Lastly, I'm rereading Euripides' Medea in light of Mendelsohn's review of Deborah Warner's "vulgar, loud, and uncomprehending" (p. 418) Broadway staging of the play.

At the risk of spoiling your ability to enjoy guilty pleasures like Stephanie Meyer, I strongly recommend this book to one and all.
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on August 23, 2008
Great book. The reviews and essays are thoughtful and learned without pretension and what's even better you don't get those gleeful, nasty quips that critics tend to like. His criticism, when it comes, is thoughtful and right on target. Well worth your time.
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VINE VOICEon August 23, 2008
Mendelsohn is a culture critic for The New York Review of Books (and author of "The Lost: a Search for Six of Six Million" and "The Elusive Embrace") and in this volume collects thirty essays on film, books, and theatre that deals mostly with gay themes. If you prefer well considered analysis over acerbic quips and bitchy bon mots, you'll revel in portraits of Wilde, Williams, Coward, Capote, Almodovar and Dale Peck, as well as opinions on "Angels in America," "The Master," "Brokeback Mountain," "The Hours," "Middlesex," "The Invention of Love," "Troy" and "Alexander." Reading these pieces is the only prrof you'll need that Mendelsohn more than deserved his George Jean nathan Prize for Drama Criticism.
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on January 1, 2013
This book contains a collection of reviews by Daniel Mendelsohn. I think he has a way of penetrating to the heart of what is being said by a story, and how the telling affects the interpretation of what is intended - so that the art is not just the underlying piece, but how it's executed.

Mendelsohn is quite adept at seeing through the obvious, and analyzing the strengths, and more often, the shortcomings of works of art on the stage, on the screen, and on the printed page. I thought his criticisms were thought provoking and insightful. They give me tools to better judge much of what I see, not ONLY in terms of what the author is saying, but also affect of the quality of production and the skill and artfulness of a director, actor, and even the substantial impact the details of set design can have on the overall interpretation of a work of art - such as a play or movie.

The book can be seen as a set of case histories that form excellent studies into how the whole is so much the sum of its parts. What I think I found most interesting was how modern culture has crept into interpretations of old stories and caused them to lose their real underlying meaning and punch. This point is best expressed in the reviews of recent Broadway revivals of plays by Tennessee Williams.

If you have an interest in art - in any form - and would like to have a some additional light thrown on the quality of the art from a skillful eye, I'd recommend this set of essays. I think you can walk away with some very useful new tools and ways of looking at not only what the author/artist had in mind, but how those on the production end either helped, or in some cases, sabotaged the underlying art work. In the end, the resulting art is much more than just what the author imagined or intended, but the combined interpretation of all involved with its being brought to life.
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on September 19, 2008
What a great book! I read it as compulsively as any whodunit while painlessly expanding my understanding of a wide range of artistic endeavors. I came away far better versed in the classics and with an expanded capacity to read, view and listen critically (in the best sense). I recommend this as a college text!
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on January 12, 2016
Writing is not hard work if you keep it to two paragraphs!

To my surprise I recently picked up a book of critical essays and started reading them. These are very smart and insightful essays by a writer who uses language like it's a vast array of surgical instruments, each with a detailed purpose he has mastered. Because I write I have become more attuned to the process and so occasionally recognize one of these surgical instruments and get all excited and smart feeling that I do. Most of the time though I'm baffled by them, or understand that I would have to read a lot of Ancient Greek Poetry to use one of these tools without causing my sentences to start bursting forth with blood.

The writer is Daniel Mendelsohn. He has written several books and writes a lot for The New York Review of Books. I wonder if they let him review his own books in The New York Review of Books? I would like to see him review one and tear it precisely to shreds. It would be fascinating. But my guess is that he would be okay with his own books, not because he is self serving, rather because he is a person who works things out carefully and thoroughly. You need pointless scraps and hanging threads to get the grip to tear things apart. Good luck with that on one of his shiny marble essays. Lately I am reading a lot of very good essays and often end up thinking "These people are working really hard." I don't want to work that hard. The fact that this is the end of my essay is my confession of that alone.
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on March 9, 2013
The essays in this book are truly insightful. Mendelsohn is able to move back and forth from ancient literature to modern productions, be they theatrical or cinematic, in a way that illuminates both past and present.
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on October 7, 2015
Among the best non-fiction works I've ever read - engaging, erudite, well-written - the friend you've never met who you can't stop talking to. Bravo!
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on June 17, 2013
Mendelsohn is the only classical scholar we have who interprets the post modern literary scene from the viewpoint of history's finest minds.
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