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"Intelligence," guest editor Sontag notes in her introduction, "is a literary virtue, not just an energy or aptitude given literary clothing." And she goes on to insist that "it is hard to imagine an important essay that is not, first of all, a display of intelligence. And sheer intelligence of the highest order can in and of itself make a great essay." The choices here leave that assertion open to doubt, though. If smarts were all, then John Guillory's essay on the fallacy of canon formation and Philip Fisher's essay about Shakespeare's radical reinterpretation of the contingency of the passions in Hamlet would be classics. They're not, each written badly in its own way and each without the edge of argumentative flexibility that all great essays, even screeds and fragmenta, manage to lead with. Other things here, in contrast, are all voice, no content—essays by William Gass, Stanley Elkin, Patricia Storace, Elizabeth Hardwick, Leonard Michaels, Anne Carson—esoterica by virtue of their contrarian textures rather than their indwelling mental processes. The exceptions, then, stand out as all the more sterling. Best of all, in its exoteric generosity and clarity, is Joan Didion's devastating essay about New York and its "sentimental narratives"—politically muzzy but coming close to the last word about the city's self-destructive wane. Adam Gopnik's "Audubon's Passions" is a revelation, an invitation to see what we thought we'd seen and known. Sontag is a masterful enough essayist herself to know the real thing—which is why she reprints not one but two John Updike pieces, one on domestic objects in childhood, one on Mickey Mouse: Essays that in their adventurousness both of voice and interim conclusion fit the essentially plastic paradoxicalness of the essay form better than anything else here.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 1992

ISBN: 0-395-59935-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1992

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This is not the Nutcracker sweet, as passed on by Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. No, this is the original Hoffmann tale of 1816, in which the froth of Christmas revelry occasionally parts to let the dark underside of childhood fantasies and fears peek through. The boundaries between dream and reality fade, just as Godfather Drosselmeier, the Nutcracker's creator, is seen as alternately sinister and jolly. And Italian artist Roberto Innocenti gives an errily realistic air to Marie's dreams, in richly detailed illustrations touched by a mysterious light. A beautiful version of this classic tale, which will captivate adults and children alike. (Nutcracker; $35.00; Oct. 28, 1996; 136 pp.; 0-15-100227-4)

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 1996

ISBN: 0-15-100227-4

Page Count: 136

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1996

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An extravaganza in Bemelmans' inimitable vein, but written almost dead pan, with sly, amusing, sometimes biting undertones, breaking through. For Bemelmans was "the man who came to cocktails". And his hostess was Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), arbiter of American decorating taste over a generation. Lady Mendl was an incredible person,- self-made in proper American tradition on the one hand, for she had been haunted by the poverty of her childhood, and the years of struggle up from its ugliness,- until she became synonymous with the exotic, exquisite, worshipper at beauty's whrine. Bemelmans draws a portrait in extremes, through apt descriptions, through hilarious anecdote, through surprisingly sympathetic and understanding bits of appreciation. The scene shifts from Hollywood to the home she loved the best in Versailles. One meets in passing a vast roster of famous figures of the international and artistic set. And always one feels Bemelmans, slightly offstage, observing, recording, commenting, illustrated.

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 1955

ISBN: 0670717797

Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 25, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1955

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