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Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints: Essays Paperback – February 12, 2008
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Starred Review. Acocella is the New Yorker's dance critic, but dancers and choreographers comprise a minority of the artists featured in this elegant collection of writings mostly from the New Yorker. The dance pieces are literally the center of the book, sandwiched between Acocella's lucid assessments of writers (and one sculptor, Louise Bourgeois). She has a taste for early 20th-century European, often Jewish novelists who, she says, helped create the modern consciousness in literature: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Italo Svevo, among others. In featuring these long-forgotten writers, she fulfills what, in a fascinating profile of Susan Sontag, she calls "an essential function of criticism: that of introducing readers to... strange work, things they wouldn't ordinarily encounter." A particularly affecting look at Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1998 portrays a man long in search of an artistic home who had to find that home, finally, within himself. The essays that follow the dance pieces focus largely on American and British writers (Bellow, Philip Roth, Sybille Bedford). Acocella can flatten a book she dislikes with cool derision ("The less she knows, the more she tells us," Acocella says of Carol Shloss's biography of Lucia Joyce), but her passionate and penetrating endorsements of other works make you want to discover their pleasures firsthand—the best service a critic can render. (Feb. 6)
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*Starred Review* Critic Acocella's deep knowledge of and organic feel for dance infuses her fleet-footed and witty prose. Like a dancer, she makes her art look easy, which it certainly is not, and what poise and range she evinces. Acocella has written expertly and vividly about dance for the New Yorker and other venues and is a keen literary critic as well. She has now collected 30 of her stellar artist profiles, electrifying portraits that seamlessly pair biography and criticism and draw authoritatively on psychology and history. Add to that Acocella's versatility and knack for choosing just the right individuals. Accompanied by superb photographs of the artists, Acocella's portraits bring into focus such complex figures as Lucia Joyce, James' mad dancing daughter; Mikhail Baryshnikov; Martha Graham; Bob Fosse; Marguerite Yourcenar; Dorothy Parker; Philip Roth; M. F. K. Fisher; and Susan Sontag; as well as the iconic Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc. How agile these firmly rooted yet whirling essays are, and how very enlightening. Acocella's portraits are so much fun to read, they feel like indulgences rather than writings that do no less than enrich and sustain culture. Donna Seaman
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I have not read all this collection but from what I have and know of the work of this writer I would recommend it strongly.
Acocella demonstrates all the lucidity and relevance that writers for the New Yorker bring to their work.
Artists (and yes, two saints) come alive in this book. People meet them and comment on living and conversing with them. And this is no exercise in reduction. These conversations and meetings point directly to an artist's life. This is not the life of commerce and conversation, but lives finding the treacherous boundaries on which they tread to be their necessary, if uninviting, path. The accompanying sufferings seem like so many thorns picked up in transit, but the journey goes on. These are portraits of spirits too alive to be tamed by careers, and too generative to let any wound be mortal. Like Martha Graham, who worked until drawing her very last breath well into her eighth decade, or even those who die young, seem to press on even as "talents" wane. Or like Yourcenar, their brilliance shines in their solitude and provides comfort-- not conceit -- and energy for the next project.
The exception: dance. Clearly, Acocella has a deep love for this form. In her descriptions of Suzanne Farrell and Barynishnikov in particular she hits her stride of evoking the life of bringing forth the artwork. She steers clear of pale and vapid "aesthetics" and instead mines for the utterances that speak out of these artist's drive to make art, and sets them on the page starkly, for our viewing and hearing.
One criticism, I wish there were fewer of these portraits. There are maybe five too many. Which five is probably a matter of taste. And so maybe it was better to refrain from making such a choice, after all.
I now pay closer attention to all her by-lines.
Her introduction itself is another excellent article as well. I defy anyone to read just one essay per sitting. For all that's been written about MFK Fisher, I've not seen better than Acocella's essay here. She knows her subjects,and you'll know then far better too after reading her work.
The dance writing is spectacular. She makes you see it
You'll learn of artists you never heard of
and know far better the one's you have
A sidenote to Amazon: Please find a way to publish John Richardson's Sacred Monster, Sacred Masters in Kindle form. Like Acocella's essays, Richardson focuses on remarkable footnote people in the visual arts. That way I can stop checking out the hard copy from the local library as well.