An erudite and opinionated critic offers up a taster of tantalizing essays.
Former New Yorker editor and Knopf editor-in-chief Gottlieb (Avid Reader: A Life, 2016, etc.), now approaching 90, is still keeping his writing fingers busy in the book world. This collection of previously published essays, mostly book reviews from the New York Review of Books written over the past 10 years, is divided into six sections: Lives, Letters, Music, Dance, Movies, and Observing Dance (notices about dance performances published in the New York Observer). As a book publisher for 60 years and a Farrar, Straus and Giroux author, Gottlieb assesses Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a history of the publisher. Although the book is a “vigorous and diverting trot…frequently slapdash and overwrought,” it’s a “valuable effort” about a press that has “maintained an amazingly consistent level of quality.” Having penned biographies of George Balanchine and Sarah Bernhardt, Gottlieb is quite adept writing about music and dance. An essay on Clive Davis, the “mogul of moguls of pop music,” easily rests beside the author’s discussions of the “maestro,” Arturo Toscanini, whom Gottlieb puts in the same category with Einstein and Picasso. Conductor Leonard Bernstein, whom Gottlieb worked with as an author, is simultaneously “legendary” and “over-the-top.” The author’s “In the Mood for Love” is a sprightly assessment of romance novels: “Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And where’s the harm?” He rescues Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, about a man who never gets out of bed, and waxes euphoric over Irishman Sebastian Barry’s “luminous” novels. Gottlieb takes on an eclectic mix of subjects: Wilkie Collins, Diana Cooper, John Wilkes Booth, Mary Astor, Ethel Merman, Dorothy Parker, Esther Williams, Lorenz Hart, Maya Plisetskaya, Frank Sinatra, the “awful” film Black Swan, Setsuko Hara, an “actress like no other,” and Thomas Wolfe, who “has gone over the cultural cliff.”
Perspicacious, penetrating, and instructive.