Sharp, insightful writing that firmly positions Nussbaum as one of the leading TV critics of our time.




In her book debut, Pulitzer Prize–winning New Yorker critic Nussbaum offers an expansive collection of writing that captures the artistically evolving spirit of current TV.

The author’s profiles on TV giants such as Joan Rivers, Jenji Kohan, and Ryan Murphy provide penetrating glimpses into how their personal histories have helped to shape their careers. In one of the book’s longest—and best—pieces, “Confessions of the Human Shield,” Nussbaum wrestles with the work of renowned artistic talents recently caught up in the #MeToo movement, including Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Louis C.K, and Roman Polanski. “What should we do with the art of terrible men?” asks the author. The revelations about the widespread sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, she writes, “made the job of criticizing art seem like an indulgence—the monocle-peering that intellectuals resort to when we should be talking about justice.” Nussbaum incisively discusses the difficulties in separating their creative output from their offensive actions. “When you look at [Polanski’s] Rosemary’s Baby sideways,” she writes, “it becomes a darkly funny cautionary tale that could have been written by Andrea Dworkin….The movie was a feminist masterpiece created by a sex criminal.” Assembled together, the author’s essays and reviews reveal her vast interests and unpretentious tastes as well as her keen insights into what’s phony. She seems equally appreciative of gold-standard dramatic series like The Sopranos and the pleasurable indulgences of “unscripted” reality shows such as Vanderpump Rules. We are currently living in what many consider the golden age of TV, with countless quality series from networks and streaming services introduced daily, and Nussbaum has proven to be a shrewd, highly reliable source for evaluating this rapidly progressing medium. “There was something alive about the medium to me, organic in a way that other art is not,” she writes, reflecting on her career. “You enter into it; you get changed with it; it changes with you….[TV] was where I wanted to live.”

Sharp, insightful writing that firmly positions Nussbaum as one of the leading TV critics of our time.

Pub Date: June 25, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50896-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 18, 2019

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An overreaching microanalysis that will try the patience of even the most diehard art lover.



Musings on the famous “diner” painting and its place in American culture. Stick with the painting.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Edward Hopper began his most famous work, Nighthawks. The painting depicts three customers, a couple and a lone man, seated in a nondescript New York diner being waited on by a single attendant. It’s unquestionably an icon of American art, but debut author Theisen’s attempt to define the painting’s cultural significance proves to be a case of overkill. His rambling commentary is filled with hazy logic and questionable conclusions—at one point, he suggests that the customers may be preparing to rob the diner. Offering background on virtually any topic that has even marginal relevance to Hopper’s work, the author provides, among other things, the history of cigars, of diners, of cigarettes, even of coffee. He also slips in plot outlines of films and novels that he considers relevant, from Taxi Driver and The Asphalt Jungle to Moby-Dick and The Executioner’s Song. Most of these comparisons veer between the obvious and the ludicrous, and almost all convey the unmistakable whiff of pedantry. The exercise would be more bearable if Theisen were a skillful writer. But his choppy, awkward and occasionally ungrammatical prose makes for difficult and tedious reading. To wit: “Travis buys a bunch of guns on the black market and tries to save a twelve-year-old prostitute named Iris whom he’s befriended by going on a rampage, murdering her pimp and two other men.” Here and there, the author does offer an intriguing tidbit: There were 312 bicycle manufacturers in the U.S. in 1890; Henry Ford wouldn’t hire smokers. Theisen also makes some worthwhile points when discussing Hopper and film noir, a genre the artist apparently admired.

An overreaching microanalysis that will try the patience of even the most diehard art lover.

Pub Date: July 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-312-33342-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2006

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Lively, intelligent and interesting—a look inside not just a single family, but also an entire artistic tradition now...



From Benfey (English/Mount Holyoke Coll.; A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, 2008, etc.), a lyrical but unsentimental family memoir, taking in art, memory and time.

The circumstances of the author’s youth are not entirely rare: On one side, the bloodline extends far back into the American colonial past, on the other to just a few decades in the lives of refugees and exiles. Thus our narrator, as a boy, found himself at a basketball awards dinner where trophies were followed by a father-and-son game, his German-accented father dressed in coat and tie, awkward. “He could no more play basketball than fly to Mars,” writes Benfey. However, his American grandfather was a more practical sort, a bricklayer who once traveled from North Carolina to the Benfey home in Indiana just to lay in a mantelpiece, showing his grandson how to apply mortar, “spread with a pointed trowel like icing on a cake.” Disappointments gave way to understandings as the years passed. Forging links to a deeper past, the author looks at great naturalist William Bartram and explores the hidden past of his parents—he discovered, for instance, that his mother had been engaged to be married before meeting his father, a fact that would rattle any sensitive kid. Benfey’s account, as he puts it, is more geological than chronological, bound together by the clay worked by his artful ancestors and, in one extended section, by the against-the-grain teaching that took place at Black Mountain College in North Carolina courtesy of a small troupe of brilliant European exiles. “Black Mountain had seemed almost a mythical place during our upbringing, a tether linking our flat Midwestern childhood to the vivid summers of artistic innovation and adventure,” he writes—how many other childhood homes had a painting by Josef Albers in the dining room?

Lively, intelligent and interesting—a look inside not just a single family, but also an entire artistic tradition now largely forgotten.

Pub Date: March 19, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59420-326-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

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