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Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 17, 2012

4.6 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The pleasures in Gass’ (A Temple of Texts, 2006) new powerhouse essay collection are heady, varied, and many. Now in his late eighties, the philosopher-writer is more frolicsome than ever in his fathoms-deep erudition and purring, stalking, and fencing prose. Gass writes so cogently, robustly, and puckishly about literary, metaphysical, and moral matters because he knows his subjects down to their subatomic particles. He happily reports that he “relished” the diagramming of sentences as a grade-school student, hence his dynamic lectures-become-essays on sentence structure, the anatomy and history of the metaphor, and Platonic forms. Having profoundly internalized Kafka’s work and life, Gass imagines Kafka writing a memoir-from-beyond, in which he corrects biographical misperceptions. Further musings on the pitfalls of literary biography engender a vivid portrait of Katherine Anne Porter and an exultantly expert solution to all the speculation about Henry James’ sexuality. Gass is mischievously insurgent in “Lust,” reordering our definitions of vice and virtue. A set of piquant personal essays includes reflections on the Fourth of July, tyranny and freedom of expression, and “Slices of Life in a Library,” a charmingly comic homage to the joys and misdemeanors of passionate reading. The brainy, ethical, artistic, and ebullient fun Gass has in this brimming volume will exalt every ardent reader. --Donna Seaman

Review

“Gass [is] a first-rate essayist and something of a classicist . . . a major talent [and] an intrepid critic . . . Life Sentences is a roaming collection . . . incisive . . . elegant.”

—Larry McMurtry, Harper’s Magazine
 
Life Sentences is much more than occasion to regrind old axes…It’s a moving testimony that, for all his abstract theorizing, Gass, now 87, still knows his way to the heart of a story.”
 
—Larry Hardesty, The Boston Globe
                                                           
 “Let’s just get it out of the way: William H. Gass can write. I know: That’s not breaking news. Over the course of a half-century, Gass’ beautifully constructed prose has drawn raves, earning him an American Book award, a PEN / Nabokov Lifetime Achievement award and three National Book Critics Circle awards for criticism . . . Gass’ skills haven’t waned with age, either. His new collection of essays written over the past decade, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts is so agile and well-written it seems to demand a round of appreciative applause every few pages, as if he were a leotard-clad acrobat swinging high overhead.”
 
—Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“Other than praising the book and urging people to read it—and quoting as many elegantly constructed passages as one can get away with—there isn’t much for a book reviewer to do. I can’t even resign myself to giving advice on where to start and what to skip, because Life Sentences is that rare book of essays that has no low points and can be read straight through.”
—Troy Jollimore, The Barnes & Noble Review
 
“Mr. Gass is an ironist of the highest caliber, a metafictional novelist of the Coover, Barth, Pynchon and Gaddis school. At 87, he is an improbable éminence grise of American letters, festooned with accolades; if there is any justice in the world he will one day get his Nobel prize. When he is not deathly serious with his sly, avuncular delivery of 3-in-the-morning-crisis existential epiphanies, he is hilariously subversive . . . Though he is also a masterful novelist—Omensetter’s Luck (1966) is widely considered a classic—his reputation rests on his criticism and essays . . . As an essayist, his prose is gorgeously musical, ticking along smoothly as if measured out by metronome. He composes miniature fugues and conducts cadenzas while meandering around his subjects . . . [Life Sentences] is a literary miracle.”
 
—Vladislav Davidzon, The New York Observer
 
“The pleasures in Gass’ new powerhouse essay collection are heady, varied, and many . . . the philosopher-writer is more frolicsome than ever in his fathoms-deep erudition and purring, stalking, and fencing prose. Gass writes so cogently, robustly, and puckishly about literary, metaphysical, and moral matters because he knows his subjects down to their subatomic particles . . . The brainy, ethical, artistic, and ebullient fun Gass has in this brimming volume will exalt every ardent reader.”
 
—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (January 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307595846
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307595843
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.3 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #242,545 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In "Life Sentences", a collection of essays covering topics biographical, autobiographical, syntactical, critical, and classical, along the way William Gass includes an odd quote from another author, John Gardner: "I have nothing to say, except that I think words are beautiful. I'm a stylist; for me, everything is rhythm and rhyme. There are a handful of other stylists, like Gass, Elkin, Barthelme, Barth, and Ralph Ellison, who have nothing to say either. We just write."

I say "odd quote" because Gass seems to take good-humored umbrage at Gardner's assessment, though I can't believe his intent was malicious, nor can I understand how William Gass can disagree: he is a master stylist, and he can just plain write. About the "nothing to say" part; well, that can't be helped - that's just Gass living up to his surname, to an extent.

William Gass is not every(wo)man's writer, and while there is certainly something in this collection for everyone, only those resolved to read the sentences to their finish will be rewarded. In the age of Twitter, even the pithiest Gassian metaphor will tax the 140-symbol limit. His lexical perambulations will test your patience. His insistence that the Classics matter and that a modern liberal education that excludes them is a waste of time will be passed off as the grumblings of a curmudgeon. He will irritate, flabbergast, pontificate. But one thing William Gass will never do: confuse. He is perspicuity personified (and he would hate the alliteration). You know where he stands because he is tenacious in his quest to allow every thought to resolve itself syntactically, grammatically, and logically. Even if it pushes the paragraph to the near-breaking point. This may seem like a negative criticism, but it is not.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
William Gass is arguably America's most incisive, versatile, and brilliant literary critic. Whatever subject he analyzes--the Nazis's brutally efficient killing machine, Kafka, Nietzsche, the art of retrospection--he illuminates. His prose is scintillating, witty, experimental in form, and endlessly inventive with metaphors. He is incapable of writing a banal sentence. He wears his vast knowledge with deft assurance. At 88, he is writing with consummate ease and power. LIFE SENTENCES offers readers an unforgettable feast cooked by a master chef. Literary criticism is rarely so pleasurable.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Fifty years ago I was a grad teaching assistant for Gass at Purdue Unviversity. I learned some approaches to teaching philosophy which I have never forgotten. Gass also taught me to pay attention to language in ways I had never considered. Every one of his books since has been a source of inspiration for me.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Gass can make an essay about paint drying beautiful and captivating. Thankfully, his content is far more interesting in itself, and his prose style unearths this content in a way only Gass could do. Ranging from essays on Gertrude Stein to Plato's Forms--even his life-long obsession with books and literature--Gass delivers a series of essays that are a guaranteed delight.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
How did I not know about William Gass??
He is a great writer, witty, profound, a page turner
read. This is the first book of his I have purchased
but I will be adding more to my library.
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