Erudite, occasionally curmudgeonly collection of reviews and ruminations by award-winning memoirist Mendelsohn (The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, 2006, etc.).
Most of these recent pieces first appeared in the New York Review of Books, whose generous space allotments give the author sufficient latitude to explore texts and performances in expansive, illuminating ways. Reviewing a staging of Euripides’s The Children of Herakles, Mendelsohn (Humanities/Bard Coll.) is able to elucidate the play’s historical context and the author’s biography as well as to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the design, direction and acting. He can thus display—and his readers benefit from—his potent critical tools: his vast knowledge, particularly of classical antiquity; his comprehensive reading; his remarkable capacity to see the tangled connections invisible to the less learned. Each review gives a mini-seminar on history, literature, biography and the arts. His interests range widely. He intelligently covers films about 9/11, Alexander the Great, the Trojan War and Virginia Woolf, cattily calling Nicole Kidman in The Hours “pretty without being beautiful.” He critiques productions of plays by Harold Pinter, Noël Coward, Oscar Wilde (who pops up continually) and Tennessee Williams (who gave Mendelsohn his title). He assesses Thucydides’ Histories of the Peloponnesian War and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Few critics can be more illuminating—and few more dismissive. Read consecutively, Mendelsohn’s essays begin to grate. He frequently implies that he alone gets what others manifestly failed to get. Sliced by his critical knife are some of his best-known colleagues, from Frank Rich and David Denby to unnamed others who gush and coo, avers the author, over trash, sentimentality and mistakes.
Like fine banquet fare: Some items to be wolfed down, some savored slowly, some best stored in the fridge for a later day.