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How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken: Essays Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 12, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In this elegant collection of essays mostly from the New York Review of Books, NBCC award–winning author Mendelsohn reveals intellectual breadth in his ability to draw on his training as a classicist to look at contemporary culture, from movies like Kill Bill to Broadway musicals like The Producers, and the novels Middlesex and Everyman. They are springboards for Mendelsohn's agile mind to examine subjects like gender, homosexuality, war and peace. In Victims on Broadway I he eloquently peels back layer after layer of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and criticizes not only the 2005 Broadway production as stripped of the nuances of character and sensibility but also the audience for what he sees as their inability to perceive pathos. In a magisterial essay, Mendelsohn finds the same flaw in the blockbuster movie Troy that he believes marred the ancient, lost Greek epics the Cypria and the Little Iliad: unlike Homer's Iliad, they have not a single unifying action, but a single unifying notion lacking in epic grandeur. These essays richly repay the time readers spend in their company. (Aug. 12)
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“An elegant collection of essays. . . . Mendelsohn reveals intellectual breadth in his ability to draw on his training as a classicist to look at contemporary culture. . . . These essays richly repay the time readers spend in their company.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“Brilliant. . . . Masterful. . . . Wise, funny. . . . A wonderful collection.” (Time Out New York)
“Mendelsohn takes on contemporary culture with humor and incisive analysis.” (The New York Sun)
Top customer reviews
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.
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.
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.