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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Stuff, October 30, 2012
This review is from: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays (Hardcover)
This is yet a third collection of Wood's essays and reviews, gathered from The New Yorker, The London Review of Books and The New Republic. While most are book reviews, the first title essay is an homage to the Who's drummer, Keith Moon and the last to his father-in-law. The pieces in this collection are far more accessible than those gathered in his first two, perhaps because of a gradual change in personal style but more likely due to the change in audience, The New Yorker having a wider readership than The New Republic, where he was originally writing many of his pieces. Nonetheless, the acute intelligent analysis remains the same even if the language has become less metaphoric.

An early piece on Sebald's novel Austerlitz represents Wood at his finest. Besides analyzing the themes of the novel, he discusses Sebald's use of photography to illustrate his novel and the blurring of reality with fiction:

"In Sebald's work, then, ... we experience a vertiginous relationship to a select number of photographs of humans - these pictures are explicitly part of the story we are reading, which is about saving the dead; and they are also part of a larger story that is not found in the book, which is also about saving the dead. These people stare at us, as if imploring us to rescue them from the banal amnesia of existence".

There is enough variety of subject matter to (hopefully) silence some of his critics who accuse him of being irrepressibly highbrow (clearly a bad thing in their estimation) and of not liking anything more current than, say, Saul Bellow, but in these pages he champions writers as diverse as David Foster Wallace (who he justly describes as being able to write ideal sentences of prose), Geoff Dyer, Lydia Davis, and Marilynne Robinson. He has more mixed things to say about Paul Auster, Ian McEwan and Alan Hollinghurst.

When referring to Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, he marvels at "the way it rubs its science fiction narrative from the rib of the real, making it breathe with horrid plausibility, and then the way it converts that science fiction back into the human, managing to be at once sinister and ordinarily affecting". He appreciates Norman Rush's ability to write a sentence which "reproduces the crawling movement of identification by which thought moves".

All this may enrage his critics who accuse him of microanalysis and ignoring the big picture as here he repeatedly demonstrates how style and language work to support content and how attention to such details allows the critic to better explain why a novel works or doesn't. And apparently one person's accusation of "jargon" is another person's ability to recognize the use of the precise word at the right time.

Every reader will have literary critics that he or she will find useful mentors in unlocking the riches that good literature has to offer and teaching one how to read better. James Wood is clearly one of mine.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "literary journalism" at its best, February 10, 2013
This review is from: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays (Hardcover)
James Wood is a literary journalist with one foot in academic life -- he teaches at Harvard for part of the year. Reading his work, one finds it easy to believe that he could, if he so wished, have a very successful academic career. He has read everything, as they say, and he writes with exemplary clarity and a welcome freedom from jargon. It's tempting to think that that freedom from jargon represents for him one of the benefits of not being fully committed to an academic career. He writes mostly about books and writers, and there is really only one test that a writer like him must pass for a reader -- does he make one want to read the books and writers he is writing about (or reread and reconsider them if one once has done so)? The answer in his case is a definite "yes."

I think that a writer like Woods must have a faith that I find very engaging -- a faith that books can be enjoyed by reasonably well-educated readers and that literary journalists like himself are in the business of nurturing that enjoyment. In my own case, I've always believed that I enjoy and indeed admire Orwell, and especially his essays -- but I haven't read him in ages. Reading Wood's essay on Orwell in this volume makes me want to return to them. It's a fairly long essay, touching a number of issues, and not seeking to be the last word, but it's interesting and inviting, and it takes its starting point from an acute perception about Orwell: that while avowedly a socialist, she seems more interested in lambasting the privileged than in specifically addressing remedies for the poor and working folks. And his idea that Orwell is for revolution but isn't "a revolutionary" is worth pondering. It's the kind of judgment that makes you want to go back and test it. A similar essay, in that it has no single focus, is on Robert Alter and the King James Bible. It starts by discussing Alter's translation of the Pentateuch and moves on to questions of theodicy that have nothing really to do with Alter, but it's interesting anyway. The essay on Edmund Wilson is similarly multifaceted -- in that one, I was sort of expecting an analysis of Wilson's sympathy for modernism, but that is referenced rather than discussed, and Wood moves on to talk about Wilson's historical writing and personal writing. He has interesting things to say on it all, and it makes me want to plunge into "To the Finland Station." The essays on Tolstoy and Marilynne Robinson deftly balance criticism and appreciation, and this is one of the things that is so appealing about Wood's writing -- he seems to want to find reasons to be positive. This must come from an awareness that writing is hard to do well and that even things that don't work have taken time and thought and therefore deserve respect. In Robinson's case, he pretty much admits that the narrator of "Gilead" is boring -- but then by deciding to read the novel as a series of Emersonian essays, he finds reason to like it, and even be moved by it, after all. The most focused piece I've read (I haven't yet read every essay) is the one on Ian McEwan -- it traces a pattern of "manipulation" through much of McEwan's fiction, especially in the handling of what might be called the ordering of information. How this essay moves from criticism (Wood doesn't like the manipulation) to understanding of both McEwan and his audience is masterful.

There are a couple of more personal essays -- one on the WHO drummer Keith Moon and the other on his father-in-law -- that are different from the others and in their different ways engaging. Maybe we'll see Wood in future branch out even further to become a master of the "familiar essay' as well as the literary one. Highly recommended for folks who like books.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for lovers of contemporary literature., January 28, 2013
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This review is from: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays (Hardcover)
Near the end of these twenty-plus essays I flashed back to being in college in the early 1980s and discovering Garcia Marquez, Borges, John Fowles, Andre Gide, Robbe-Grillet, Italo Calvino, Philip K. Dick and on and on. Amazing, fascinating, cutting-edge, avant-garde literature endures with new writers and their works continue to fill an artistic literary void. This book is one place to fill that emptiness.
The Fun Stuff starts off a little off-beat with a homage to Keith Moon's early success filled with "noise, speed, rebellion" and his eventual decline. The rest of the essays are literary critiques of quality writers and their writing and most of the time both. Woods delves deep, breaks down, tears apart a few times, comes from all directions to decipher the meaning he derives from each subject. His literary knowledge and scholarship is mind numbing as he makes complex connections between varied works that is astounding. In addition, you may need to have a dictionary close by if you read this.

And the subjects he chooses are, for the most part, extraordinary and challenging works of art and at least a few should be on any literature lover's Goodreads read, currently-reading or want-to-read lists. Here are a few of the writers and books he devours.

W.G. Sebald's "beautiful novel" Austerliz, filled with real but fictional photographs and the "rubble of history" and memory.

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let me Go, an allegorical and tender novel that brings fantasy to an eery and hollow day to day life of clones who become aware of their reason for existing.

Norman Rush's three novels set in Botswana, particularly the masterful Mortals, and its fine intricate plotting and real sense of understanding a place and a marriage falling apart.

The theological questions in Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road.

The career of Edmund Wilson and the issues that affected the iconic journalist and critic's judgement and writing.

Joseph O'Neill's Netherlands and its colonial and colonist metaphor in New York City with the added bonus of the confused immigrant's sense of becoming American as well as the roots of a rootless man.

V.S Naipaul as the wonder and the wounded. A gritty tale of nastiness and personal demons that make you squirm.

The fascinating examples of Robert Alter's translation of the Bible that is startling because we're so used to the King James version.

Marilynne Robision and the the deep division's in a family where faith and pride and perhaps fanatical stubbornness rips a family apart.

Lydia Davis's literature of lives whose habits hide a biting loneliness that they acutely understand and question.

Ian McEwan as a manipulative novelist.

The shallowness of Paul Auster.

And, he rambled on finally getting to George Orwell's revolutionary mysticism as both contradictory and prescient. Orwell's as well as England's victory over Hitler was due to their winning combination of collectivity and individualism.

The magic realism of a mad-hatter Hungarian with a mad name: Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

Ismail Kadare, an Albanian, whose world, revolving around his battle against communism falling, evaporated when it did.

A fascinating final essay about packing up his father-in-law's library of four thousand books.

I particularly loved two essays: the Geoff Dyer piece that made me immediately purchase the novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi and the Alekzandar Hemon section and the extraordinary fact that he not only moved to the United States in 1992 and learned to read and write in English, but he became a master craftsman.

There were a few essays that I trudged through, e.g., Tolstoy, but that could be more about me. If you love Leo, you'll probably be engrossed in the rich analysis.

Woods is, to say the least, passionate about books and writers. His dazzling critiques are here for you to examine and discover and disagree, but ultimately he opens countless doors to the wonderful and bottomless worlds of fiction and nonfiction. A must read for lovers of contemporary literature.
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The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays
The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays by James Wood (Hardcover - October 30, 2012)
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