The National Book Critics Circle will present its annual awards in several categories in New York on Feb. 28. Here are the finalists for the criticism prize:
Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach (Farrar Straus Giroux, $30) is a strong addition to the voluminous literature about J. S. Bach, about whom it would seem there could be very little left to say. Elie proves otherwise in this wide-ranging survey of the way various artists of the 20th century have used technology to shape their visions of Bach’s grandeur. Elie’s biggest strength is a splendid knack for describing the experience of music, a challenge that has felled many a lesser writer. His description of the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals “slaloming toward the bottom” of the instrument’s range “with jagged shards of eighth notes” or of “woodwinds drifting across the middle like cigar smoke in a boxing arena” has an immediacy that helps even a classical-music novice get a sense of “the distinctive soul-swelling delight that characterizes the encounter with Bach’s music.”
The elegant and capacious Daniel Mendelsohn shares Elie’s love of classical music, along with a wide-ranging knowledge of literature and cinema, to name just three of the topics he turns his discriminating attention to in Waiting for the Barbarians (New York Review of Books, $24.95). The pieces collected here range from meditative assessments of such popular phenomena as “Mad Men” and Spider-Man to penetrating essays on the work in translation of difficult European novelists such as Theodor Fontane and Antonio Munoz Molina. A versatile critic, Mendelsohn has a background in the classics, and he makes an especially cogent case for the continued relevance of, say, Herodotus, whose essentially digressive nature he compares to the late David Foster Wallace, or of Horace, whose “formally structured but intellectually and emotionally varied” verse is his “legacy to Western poetry.”
A different kind of criticism is on display in Mary Ruefle’s dazzling and idiosyncratic Madness, Rack, and Honey (Wave; paperback, $25), the freshest and most startling piece of criticism I have read in a long time. The book is billed as “collected lectures,” with titles such as “Poetry and the Moon” and “On Fear,” but they have about as much in common with the standard academic lecture as spicy homemade salsa does with ketchup. Ruefle’s voice is rangy and intellectually supple, capable of conjuring with the knottiest questions of identity and narrative in one breath and then swooping to the personal or lyrical in the next. Especially tonic is the author’s impatience with stodgy, unquestioned verities or lazy thinking in general; at times, she bristles with exasperation. About Emily Dickinson, she writes, “I would no more tell you about my relationship with her poems than I would tell you about a love affair. If she is yours, I hope you feel the same way,” a critical tactic I am not sure I have ever encountered before but that I find delightful.
A more conventional critical approach is on display in Marina Warner’s formidable Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (Belknap/Harvard, $35), a sprawling examination of the centuries-long interplay between the famous Middle Eastern fairy tales and Western culture from Goethe to Disney. Warner tells the story of a cultural conversation between West and East, played out through the operations of appropriation and interpretation. When not swooning over the exotic allure of the “Other,” European versions have built upon the Arabian Nights’ “infinite potential for inverting social status in a world of mobile capital,”with one modern version even becoming “an unconscious parable of Western expansionism.” “Stranger Magic” is obviously the product of a staggering amount of research and synthesis, and if it taxes the average lay reader, that is testament to its scope and ambition.
A dialectic of the Other also percolates through Kevin Young’s dense and brilliant The Grey Album (Graywolf; paperback, $25), a freewheeling survey of the history of African American music and poetry. Like Ruefle, Young is a poet and scholar, and his book walks that fine line between improvisatory elan and academic precision with an enviable sureness. “The Grey Album” is a work of syncretic cultural criticism, a mosaic of ideas, quotations, analyses, lyrics and allusions, diffuse yet cumulatively masterful. Punning, questioning, riffing, mixing street syntax with formal exegesis, Young weaves a counter-story to the mainstream of American culture, showing once again how “American culture is black culture” and how race has “become a metaphor for the modern era.” If, in Young’s formulation, “pleasure is a revolutionary act in the face of pain,” then perhaps these books prove an imaginary corollary: that criticism is a revolutionary act in the face of cultural indifference.
Lindgren is a poet and musician who divides his time between New York City and Pennsylvania.