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The Din in the Head Paperback – June 2, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

[Signature]Reviewed by Daphne MerkinEver since she first started offering up her fiercely (and often unfashionably) judgmental opinions over three decades ago, the din in Cynthia Ozick's head has been worth listening to—even if you don't agree with her conclusions. "This persistent internal hum," as she characterizes it in her latest essay collection, is set off most memorably by "the individual's solitary engagement with an intimate text," be it John Updike's early stories, Sylvia Plath's journals, or Robert Alter's new translation of the Pentateuch. In our cacophonous Age of Buzz, where eloquent literary reflection has gone the way of Wite-Out, Ozick prides herself on resisting the blandishments of popularity for the highbrow's more discriminating vantage point. "Readers are not the same as audiences," she reminds us sternly in "Highbrow Blues," "and the structure of a novel is not the same as the structure of a lingerie advertisement."Although Ozick is equipped with the kind of intellectual muscle that marked Susan Sontag's strongest writing—the opening essay, "On Discord and Desire," pays qualified homage to Sontag—she also has a rigorous (some might say self-righteous) moral sense and a distrust of radical chic that draws her to burnishing eclipsed reputations, which she does in moving appreciations of Lionel Trilling and Delmore Schwartz, and to upholding classical values, as espoused by Saul Bellow or the Bible. Ozick is most effective when she has more rather than less room to expatiate; the best pieces here are capaciously rendered, like an inspired reconsideration of Gershom Scholem. To be sure, at however exalted an altitude she pitches her criticism, Ozick is not above fretting about the vagaries of celebrity and, indeed, seems never to have accommodated herself to the relative obscurity that attends upon a more elitist calling. I assume it is to this end that we are treated once again to an account of her youthful obsession with writing a Jamesian novel ("James, Tolstoy, and My First Novel")—a miscalculation that clearly preys on her. Perhaps it is her wish to make up for her late start that has led her to include every piece of occasional writing she has done (including a review of Joseph Lelyveld's memoir, Omaha Blues, that I remember reading the first time around). If this collection is not the strongest of the four she has published, Ozick's is a strikingly independent and articulate voice, one that rises above the noise of the madding crowd with rare clarity and force.Daphne Merkin is the author of Enchantment, a novel, and Dreaming of Hitler, a collection of essays. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and writes a bimonthly book column, Provocateur, for Elle.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Ozick is a literary powerhouse, writing beguiling and adventurous novels, most recently Heir to the Glimmering World (2004), and electrifying literary essays. Criticism is a difficult form, and Ozick practices it with passionate curiosity, discernment, and pleasure in both rigorous thinking and the crafting of decisive and scintillating prose. Her latest collection of forthright and tonic essays includes penetrating tributes to two brilliant thinkers, Susan Sontag and Lionel Trilling. Ozick expresses her faith in imagination in a provocative reflection on Helen Keller and considers the nexus of literature and tyranny in incisive readings of Tolstoy, Babel, and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. Revisiting Updike, Bellow, and Roth inspires thoughts on the decline of a vibrant mainstream American book culture and a spirited defense of the "insights of art" in general and the novel's "infinity of plasticity and elasticity" in specific. Writing with pirouetting grace, Ozick observes that only the novel can encompass "the din in our heads, that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread." Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (June 2, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618872582
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618872589
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,729,389 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Damian Kelleher on September 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Cynthia Ozick has long held her reputation as one of the most acclaimed critics working in America. Her essays are, without fail, uncompromisingly optimistic about what literature can do, what literature has done, and the hopes of literature for the future. Unlike other academics or critics, Ozick does not bemoan the novel's current lack of favour when compared to movies or the internet - her approach is positive, reasoned, passionate and compelling. The essays contained in The Din in the Head, while not explicitly thematically linked, share a common bond in exploring either less well-known but still luminous authors of the twentieth century, or the minor works of acknowledged and remembered masters.

A Jew, Ozick directly addresses the question of what it means to be a 'Jewish writer' in her essay, Tradition and (Or Versus) the Jewish Writer. She believes that if a Jewish author is not tackling such massive problems as the Holocaust or the creation and stability of Israel, then 'All other subject matter in the so-called Jewish-American novel is, well, American, written in the American language, telling American stories.' She rejects the concept of a Jewish novel unless, as stated, it is forcibly and solely Jewish in origin and intent. Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, etc novels are not usually branded with their religion before being read, and nor should they be - it seems only the Jews and minorities such as colonial literature suffer from this problem. A novel is what it is, the aim of an author is not 'community service or communal expectation.' She finishes by saying that writers 'are responsible only to the comely shape of a sentence, and to the unfettered imagination'.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on December 18, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Cynthia Ozick is along with being a distinguished novelist one of the best literary critics in America. Her essays are probing examinations of the art and moral meaning of Literature. In this collection she writes about Bellow, Updike, Babel, the young Tolstoy, Kipling, Delmore Schwartz, Lionel Trilling and of course her great master and teacher, Henry James. In a sense in writing about them she is defending the Literary Tradition, the importance of the Novel, of the inner worlds which only words can make. Her tone can be at times a little too schoolmistressy but she is upholding an idea of Literature as the bright book of life, and as a source of true spiritual sustenance.

She has been chided for again fighting in this work a battle which many claim already won, the battle to preserve the significance of the Novel as a form. She too has been taken to task for that haughty elitist tone, which sets limits and standards, and sees a place in the Tradition as something to be struggled and aspired for.

She is a deep person in feeling and often her prose is complicated and awkward, an overwhelming rush of words upon words upon words. But her mind is a fine and powerful one and she time and again makes the right distinction and perception.

Above all readers of these essays can rest assured that they have entered a kind of small higher world, a world where writing and thought , the search for truth and beauty are given a special measure of devotion. This is very apparent in her long essay on the master scholar of Jewish Mystical Literature Gershom Scholem.

Ozick is like James a writer of great intelligence, and careful moral judgment.

It is just a very great pleasure and privilege to read her work.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a collection of literate essays about literary characters and subjects. If you think you might never get around to actually reading an entire book by such authors as Henry James, Saul Bellow, John Updike, or Leo Tolstoy - you can read this book instead and get a sense of who these authors are and what they have to say.

It's not that Ozick's book is like a cheat sheet or a Cliff's Notes summary. She focuses on some specifically revealing vignettes from the lives of each of these authors, or on some particularly telling aspect of their styles. You'll get something meaty out of these essays. They'll enable you to hold your own in intelligent conversation about these figures at cocktail parties.

But these essays might give you an itch to actually go back and read these authors. They're not presented here as dry school subjects. They are "as seen by" Ozick. And her commentaries act like a prism, separating the white beacon of fame that has been shone on these iconic literary figures into distinct personal colors.

Even if you don't go anywhere with these essays though, I think you'll enjoy reading them for sheer pleasure. Ozick has a spectacularly limber vocabulary. Her sentences are pirouettes and gran jetes. She has an admitted love affair with words and can arc them across dazzling spans, concluding with fresh twists on her subject matter.

The last essays in this book deal with a Zionist author, and then with a man who single-handedly produced a new translation and gloss of the Bible. These are subjects I wouldn't have ordinarily delved into for casual reading. But in a relatively few pages, Ozick shows some of the interesting insights to be drawn from these men's labors.

Then if you like this book, I highly recommend the essay collections of Thomas Mallon. He is also a master at illuminating literary careers with a turn of phrase.
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