April, 2014

Roundup: Justin Cartwright, Siri Hustvedt, Ayelet Waldman, and George Orwell as critic; and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Apr-21-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items to NBCCCritics@gmail.com.

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Eileen Weiner reviews Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World.

Parul Kapur Hinzen profiles Southern writer Rosemary Daniell in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"Why Is Rumi America's Best Selling Poet?" NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari investigates in her latest BBC column.

PEN Ten Interview Series features Je Banach.

Julia M. Klein reviews Ayelet Waldman's Love and Treasure for the Chicago Tribune.

Fred Setterberg examines George Orwell's work as a critic.

"Which Books From Your Past Do You Read Now With Ambivalence?" Adam Kirsch and Zoe Heller discuss.

NBCC board member Tom Beer reviews Akhil Sharma's Family Life. He also reviews Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman. On the heels of the author's recent death, Beer also looks at "Gabriel García Márquez's 5 classic books."

"Jackie Kerouac? 12 women's road books," from NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg.

In the New York Journal of Books, David Cooper reviews C.K. Williams' All at Once.

"Duke lacrosse scandal revisited in The Price of Silence." NBCC board member Karen Long reviews William D. Cohan's new book.

"Bintel Brief and Hellfighters: American Stories, Powerfully Illustrated," from NPR critic Maureen Corrigan.

2013 Balakian Award winner Katherine A. Powers reviews Justin Cartwright's Lion Heart.


Roundup: Barbara Ehrenreich, Walter Kirn, David Grossman, the late Peter Matthiessen and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Apr-14-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items to NBCCCritics@gmail.com.

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In the San Francisco Chronicle, Joe Peschel reviews Gina Frangello's novel A Life in Men.

Gerald Bartell reviews Walter Kirn's Blood Will Out for the San Francisco Chronicle and Lisa Unger's In the Blood for the Washington Post. He also interviews Bruce DeSilva about his thriller Providence Rag for Kirkus.

Ryan Teitman reviews Leslie Jamison's essay collection, The Empathy Exams.

Oprah.com reviews Susan Shapiro's co-authored The Bosnia List. The Toronto Star also offers a review.

"When Peter Matthiessen was Silenced by his Publisher." Jon Wiener recalls the legal battle over Peter Matthiessen's Spirit of Crazy Horse.

NBCC member David Biespiel's latest Poetry Wire for the Rumpus.

Debra Cash reviews David Grossman's shattering Falling Out of Time on the Arts Fuse and previews the musical project based on Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book.

Ben Woodard interviews Stacey D'Erasmo regarding her new book, Wonderland.

Jay Jennings offers a tribute to Charles Portis, the recent winner of the Porter Prize Lifetime Achievement Award, which is presented every five years to an Arkansas writer.

For Kirkus, Megan Labrise speaks with Lydia Davis. She also interviews Barbara Ehrenreich.

From the NBCC Archives: Roxana Robinson on reading Davis.

NBCC board member Joanna Scutts also interviews Ehrenreich.

David Cooper reviews David Grand's Mount Terminus.

Celia McGee's column on the new Ann Brashares and others.

Alison Barker reviews Ariel Gore's new memoir, The End of Eve.

Former NBCC board member Oscar Villalon's ZYZZYVA letter from the editors from the 100th issue.

"Home Runs, Frozen Ropes, And Some Wild Cards In Best Baseball Books." Robert Birnbaum's third annual baseball book roundup.

Erika Dreifus reviews Aharon Appelfeld's Suddenly, Love (trans. Jeffrey M. Green) for Jewish Journal.

NBCC board member Mary Ann Gwinn reviews Adam Begley's new Updike bio.

NBCC board member Colette Bancroft also reviews Begley's book.

Heller McAlpin reviews Lorrie Moore's latest collection, Bark.

NBCC board member Mark Athitakis reviews Teju Cole's new novel.

NBCC finalist Aleksandar Hemon in conversation with Cole.

Former NBCC finalist Damion Searls offers a brilliant reconsideration of W.G. Sebald in Bookforum.

Steve Paul on NoViolet Bulawayo.

Grace Bello profiles "Skim" co-creators Mariko and Jillian Tamaki for Publishers Weekly.

NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg talks to Jillian Lauren.


Roundup: Peter Matthiessen, Richard Blanco, Elizabeth Kolbert, Barbara Ehrenreich, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Apr-07-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items to NBCCCritics@gmail.com.

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"Poetry is in the air." Jan Gardner delivers the New England Literary News.

Susanne Pari reviews A Sliver of Light by Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd.

Jon Wiener interviews Edmund White for the Nation.

"This Tightly Choreographed Tale Of Ambition And Ballet Will 'Astonish.'" Maureen Corrigan reviews Maggie Shipstead's second novel.

NBCC board member Colette Bancroft reviews Peter Matthiessen's latest novel.

Clea Simon reviews Laura Kasischke's Mind of Winter for the Boston Globe.

Parul Kapur Hinzen interviews inaugural poet Richard Blanco for Guernica.

"'Empathy Exams' Is A Virtuosic Manifesto Of Human Pain." Heller McAlpin on Leslie Jamison's book of essays.

At the RumpusJoelle Biele reviews Jonterri Gadson's Pepper Girl.

Bill Williams reviews The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Susan Shapiro's new book, reviewed by the New York Times.

NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg reviews Zachary Lazar's new novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant.

Steve Weinberg, former NBCC board of directors member, reviews Barbara Ehrenreich's memoir Living With a Wild God for the Houston Chronicle.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviewzs The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East, by Caroline Glick.

"Beauty and Subversion in the Secret Poems of Afghan Women." Daniel Bosch reviews I am the Beggar of the World.


March, 2014

Roundup: Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, Ayelet Waldman, Simon Schama, and more

by Eric Liebetrau | Mar-31-2014

Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items to NBCCCritics@gmail.com.

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"Comedian Ages With Humor — And Effort." Heller McAlpin reviews Annabelle Gurwitch's new book. McAlpin also reviews Lorrie Moore's Bark.

Valerie Trueblood has been name a finalist for the PEN Faulkner Award.

Eileen Weiner reviews Catherine Gammon's Sorrow.

Afaa Michael Weaver has won the Kingsley Tufts Award for poetry.

"What U.S. Learned From 'Heathen School' Wasn't Part Of The Lesson Plan." Maureen Corrigan on John Demos' book. Corrigan also reviews Teju Cole's new novel.

"Making Sausages: Images of Governance." Robert Birnbaum examines how governance has been portrayed in popular novels and films. He also talks to 2013 John Leonard Award winner Anthony Marra. In the Daily Beast, Birnbaum considers Justin Cartwright's Lion Heart.

In Library Journal, Barbara Hoffert reflects on the 2013 NBCC Awards.

Julia M. Klein reviews Simon Schama's The Story of the Jews.

Andrea Scrima on "The Inimitable Lydia Davis" in Issue 35 of the Quarterly Conversation, The Lydia Davis Symposium.

Celia McGee reviews Valerie Martin and others in her column for the Center for Fiction.

A year after legendary Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's death, NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari looks at three who followed in his footsteps: 2013 NBCC Fiction Award winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Abani, and Ben Okri. Ciabattari also examines "the great writers inpired behind bars."

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: "When I’m Writing Fiction, I Feel Free.”

Karl Wolff reviews Everyday Book Marketing, by Midge Raymond at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Wolff also reviews reviews Cries of the Lost by Chris Knopf.

Julie Hakim Azzam reviews Rabih Alameddine's novel, An Unnecessary Woman, and speaks with Rachel Renee Russell, author of the middle grade series, Dork Diaries

NBCC board member Carolyn Kellogg reviews Ayelet Waldman's Love and Treasure.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists.

David Cooper on David Grossman's latest book.

"Bark chronicles contemporary quests for happy endings." Linda Simon reviews Lorrie Moore's new book.

NBCC board member David Biespiel delivers his latest Poetry Wire.

2013 NBCC Balakian Award winner Katherine A. Powers reviews Olen Steinhauer's The Cairo Affair.

The Telegraph takes a look at Distant Reading, Franco Moretti's 2013 NBCC Criticism Award winner.


Katherine A. Powers’s Winning Balakian Reviews, Part IV: ‘American Pastimes’

by Katherine A. Powers | Mar-28-2014

This is the second of the exemplary reviews submitted by National Book Critics Circle member Katherine A. Powers, who was was awarded this year's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. More from her "A Reading Life" column in Barnes & Noble Review here. Thanks to the generosity of NBCC board member Gregg Barrios, the Balakian now includes a $1,000 award. Submission information for NBCC members here. The next nominations will be in November 2014.

July 31, 2013

American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith

Edited by DANIEL OKRENT
Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers

Some of America's greatest, most superbly idiosyncratic prose has come from the alcohol-fueled, tobacco-kippered, deadline-driven paws of sportswriters. Going about their business without regard for where their work might stand in the international world of letters -- or, indeed, whether the uninitiated know or care what they are talking about -- the nation's sportswriters write for Americans in American voices, and the great ones imbue their work with nuance and irony in a key that is completely audible only to American ears. Red Smith is unquestionably one of the great "knights of the keyboard" -- to use Ted Williams's derisive term -- and the Library of America now pays tribute to him in American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith.  

Walter Wellesley Smith was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1905, attended the University of Notre Dame, entered newspaper work, and fell into sportswriting by chance. He wrote for papers in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, finally arriving, in the mid-1940s, where he had wanted to be from the start: New York City, home to the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers; site of Madison Square Garden; and not too distant from Belmont Park and Saratoga Springs. Smith died in 1982, having, as Daniel Okrent puts it in his valuable, crisply written introduction, "traveled something like 8,000,000 words from Green Bay."

Baseball, boxing, horse racing, and, on a less spectacular level, freshwater fishing, were Smith's particular joys; basketball and hockey were not, though he wrote about them too, a few instances of which appear in this volume. Also included are columns on Olympic contests, golf, skiing, auto and bicycle racing, and even a female weightlifter. ("For a few hours yesterday New York wore, like an orchid in her hair, a flower of femininity named Miss Dorcas Lehman, who is the strongest lady in the world.")

There are tributes to the departed, among them Babe Ruth, surrounded at the end by "a horde of junior executives chuffing and scurrying like tugboats around a liner"; Max Baer, recalled "winding up that old Mary Ann which no other fighter of any time could throw with quite the same gaudy and destructive and altogether unforgettable flourish"; Georgie "The Iceman" Woolf, best known to us now as the jockey who rode Seabiscuit to victory over War Admiral; and doughty Seabiscuit himself. There are columns lamenting unfortunate affairs and developments: the college basketball point-shaving scandal of 1951; Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali's triumphal eloquence (though Smith, too, came to acknowledge his greatness); the introduction of the designated hitter in the American League; and the exit of the Dodgers and Giants from New York to California ("an unrelieved calamity").
   
There are panegyrics to victory and wry, funereal tributes to defeat: Smith's column on the Yankees' fifth straight World Series championship in 1953 ("Like Rooting for U.S. Steel") begins: "The morgue doors yawned open yesterday, snapped shut, then swung open again…. The fiftieth World Series was over and this time the Dodgers really and truly were dead.") The storied, seesaw seventh game of the 1960 World Series -- in which Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski's ninth-inning home run off Ralph Terry defeated the Yankees -- leads with a pinstriped mishap earlier in the game: "When Hal Smith hit the ball Jim Coates turned to watch its flight over left field and as it vanished beyond the ivied wall of brick the pitcher flung his glove high, as though renouncing forever the loathsome tools of his trade."  

Mazeroski's home run is, to my mind, the greatest ever struck in the history of baseball, but as New York is acknowledged to be the pivot upon which the galaxy turns, Bobby Thomson's famous -- now infamous -- home run of October 3, 1951, is generally given pride of place. For Okrent, Smith's piece on that game, in which Thomson's three-run shot gave the Giants the National League pennant over the ill-starred Dodgers, is "the platonic ideal of a column about a major sports event," its first sentences "as fine a lead as any sportswriter has ever committed to paper." Here it is: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."  

It is a matter of taste, of course, but I could not disagree with Okrent more on this point. With its portentous, thumping tread, the specimen in question is the sort of writing that, to quote a relation of mine, "maketh the ass tired." There is very little of it in these pages, I am happy to report, and I don't consider it typical at all of Smith's style. The aspects of Smith's writing that appeal to me are its concreteness, the deft conjuring of character, the inspired imagery, and, not least, the man's particular style of nonsense. "No mountain brook," he writes in April 1954, "is lovelier than St. Louis' Stan Musial in his knee-sprung crouch at the plate glowering around the corner at the pitcher." In September 1950, he finds Yankee Stadium's seats filled "half an hour before the people giving an automobile to Lefty McDermott threw out the first polysyllable." That game, between the Yankees and Red Sox, saw Yogi Berra's "comely features" and Dom DiMaggio opening "the first inning for Boston by cowtailing a fraternal triple over the head of J. DiMaggio in center field." While fishing in Connecticut, he observes, "Once through the narrow waist of the bridge, the stream relaxes with a soft sigh, like a lady who has removed her girdle."  

These little bubbles of whimsy and insouciance continually and merrily pop out of the simmering ebullience of his prose, seemingly effortless words that never reveal how hard they were to set down. Smith is, after all, the man who said (though, according to Okrent's research, never in print), "Writing is easy; you just open a vein and bleed." The oft-quoted line,  coming from Smith, has an engaging, self-deprecatory bounce in contrast to the martyred solemnity it assumes when attributed, as it often is, to Ernest Hemingway.

Red Smith conveys with his light irony a great truth about sports. We can care about the outcome of a given athletic contest as if all of our happiness, perhaps the fate of the world, rests on it, but we also realize, or some of us do (some of the time), how absurd this is. And that, too, is a matter for joy, the joy of relishing the beautiful folly of feeling this way about games.

Reprinted with permission of Barnes & Noble Review.


Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Katherine A. Powers’s Winning Balakian Reviews, Part III: Michael Dahlie’s ‘The Best of Youth’

by Katherine A. Powers | Mar-27-2014

This is the third of the exemplary reviews submitted by National Book Critics Circle member Katherine A. Powers, who was was awarded this year's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. More from her "A Reading Life" column in Barnes & Noble Review here. Thanks to the generosity of NBCC board member Gregg Barrios, the Balakian now includes a $1,000 award. Submission information for NBCC members here. The next nominations will be in November 2014.

January 29, 2013

The Best of Youth

By MICHAEL DAHLIE
Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers

The Best of Youth is Michael Dahlie's second novel and follows his PEN/Hemingway Award–winning A Gentleman's Guide to Graceful Living, which, I will say here, was one of the best novels I read in 2008. Like its predecessor, the present book has a hapless, emotionally baffled rich guy at it center, in this case a young man called Henry. He has been expelled from the Eden of a happy childhood and youth by the death of his loving parents in a boating accident off Martha's Vineyard, a tragedy that, however, has left him with $15 million. He now lives in the wised-up, self-smitten world of Brooklyn's Williamsburg, a hipster nation unforgiving of innocence and sincerity, qualities that Henry, who is absent even an atom of prophylactic cynicism, has in abundance.

Henry wants to be a writer and does, we understand, have a gift: a singular, though not especially auspicious one, in that his stories invariably dwell on the tribulations of old people, on their loneliness, disability, and generally melancholy lot, among them "a 90-year-old man who struggles with the pain of committing his 106-year-old mother to a nursing home"). Eager to be part of literary Williamsburg, Henry has contributed $30,000 toward the launch of a magazine called Suckerhead, whose mission, he is told, is to "challenge all this shit that gets published these days." In return, the editor and associates treat him with smug disregard. Meanwhile, Henry is in love, unavailingly, with Abby, his fourth cousin, who, like so many of the women he fancies, insists on being "just friends." The sexual relationships he has had have ended dismally, the last culminating in grotesque humiliation.

So this is Henry and this is his life. Now what?

More trouble: first, by means  of a million-dollar herd of rare "heirloom" goats, the property of a hedge fund manager's wife who is a dilettante farmer; and second, the job of ghostwriting a young-adult novel for a well-known actor called Jonathan Kipling, who, according to the agent making the pitch, is "leveraging himself into new things and thinks this might be a good line for him." The deal comes with a formidably punitive nondisclosure clause; Kipling clarifies the situation, telling Henry, "I'd write this myself...but I've got so much going on right now." To be sure, the actor does know what he wants the book to look like and, more concretely, as you might say, is free with advice on the elements of good writing, sending Henry a number of "rules of thumb," real knuckle-rappers along the lines of: "If you use parentheses and semicolons, it's because you haven't thought through your work properly. Please make sure none are in the final product."

Kipling lights up the page with awfulness with his every appearance and his crass, overbearing pronouncements: "[W]e need this to be good," he tells Henry, "and good writing comes through careful work. It's not easy. It's hard. Really fucking hard. If you understand that, how hard it is being a real artist, then we can get there." And when Kipling is angry, which is very much his métier, he is "angry in the kind of fastidious, high-achieving way that might be expected (if not forgiven) from an accomplished actor." He is awful in other, more substantive ways, too, notably in preying on Abby, and with that the novel enters another phase, one of exquisite revenge. Henry, now on the cusp of a fulfilling relationship with another woman, takes off the gloves -- to the relief, I might add, of this reader, who could hardly wait for what she knew would be coming.

Throughout the novel, events are described as Henry sees them, but there is an overall disposition behind that, one that presents the young man's point of view with a kindly, avuncular appreciation of predicament: of Henry's having naively entered this arena of phoniness and self-regard seeking friendship and love. Dahlie's quiet dexterity in conveying all this emerges slowly out of the page, and to show it requires a lengthy quotation -- if not the entire novel itself. Here is Henry attending one of Suckerhead's organizational meetings:

Henry sat quietly in a corner listening to reports on things like advertising, typefaces, the possibilities of color art, and whether or not they should solicit work from poets with whom the poetry editor had studied. The main topic, though, was where they should have their printing done. One of the associate editors, a woman named Karen, whom Henry had always found very attractive, had been researching the possibility of sending the work to a printer in a developing country.…. Karen had concluded, though, that the best place to have Suckerhead produced was at a company in Ontario, Canada, "because they are totally green, they pay their employees well, and frankly, there's not going to be any hassle. These guys are pros."

There was quite a bit of debate following this, including the obvious point, raised by several people, that Canada was not, technically speaking, a developing country. But Karen made fairly complex arguments about uncertain labor practices, questionable workmanship, and environmental issues in the other locations she looked into. Henry, at least, was impressed, although he made an effort to evaluate the matter carefully, from all perspectives and divorced from the fact that he really did find Karen attractive.

The Best of Youth, though perhaps not quite the triumph of its predecessor, is an audaciously simple, understated novel, operating on a spectrum of benevolence and cruelty, of decency and unscrupulousness. It moves along with an orderly dispatch that suggests that telling a story is a matter of making things shipshape. There is something of the fairy tale here (that's money for you) and, despite its acerbic characterization of posers and frauds, it is a sunny book, irresistibly so, and a joy from start to finish.

Reprinted with permission from Barnes & Noble Review.


Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Katherine A. Powers’s Winning Balakian Reviews, Part II: P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

by Katherine A. Powers | Mar-26-2014

This is the second of the exemplary reviews submitted by National Book Critics Circle member Katherine A. Powers, who was was awarded this year's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. More from her "A Reading Life" column in Barnes & Noble Review here. Thanks to the generosity of NBCC board member Gregg Barrios, the Balakian now includes a $1,000 award. Submission information for NBCC members here. The next nominations will be in November 2014.

February 8, 2013

P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

Edited by SOPHIE RATCLIFFE
Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers

I was over a hundred pages into P. G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters before I could square the author of these letters with the person who was England's greatest comic writer, the man with the golden ear and onlie begetter of Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Psmith, Ukridge, Uncle Fred, Lord Emsworth, the Duchess of Blandings, and a monstrous regiment of aunts. The continuous "feast of reason and flow of the soul" I had expected from the founder of the Drones Club is on show only now and again in this three-quarters-of-a-century epistolary journey. But what is revealingly and disconcertingly present, and what becomes increasingly engrossing, is the down-to-earth, strangely unfrisky human being in which that genius dwelled.

Like most people who earn their bread by the ink of their pens, P. G. Wodehouse took a great interest in money and words produced per day, week, and month, but unlike most scribblers, the figures he ran up in all cases are truly arresting. "Finished yesterday," he writes in 1933 to his friend the novelist Denis Mackail, "making three novels and 10 short stories in 18 months, which as Variety would say, is nice sugar." Elsewhere he reports, variously, an 8,000-word story in two days, 40,000 words in three weeks, 55,000 words in one month, and 100,000 words of a novel in two. The pleasure he takes in these numbers is palpable, as is his pride in reporting his earnings, his most lucrative venue being the Saturday Evening Post. Boasting of a serial he had just finished, he tells his old school chum and confidant, Bill Townend, "The good old Satevpost have done me proud…. I mailed them the last part on a Wednesday and got a cheque for $18,000 (my record) on the following Tuesday!!! That's the way to do business." This is 1922, when $18,000 was the farthest thing from peanuts, as was the next year's $20,000 for another serial -- which sums made up only a portion of each year's income.

It is hard to feel happy about one's hero going on in this way -- and there is evidence that his friends felt the same. On the other hand, Wodehouse was no "exponent of the one-way pocket," as one of his bespatted young men has put it. His sense of responsibility and generosity is very much evident throughout. Writing to a friend about his marriage to the twice-widowed Ethel, he says that "for the first time in my life I am absolutely happy. It is a curious thing about it that the anxieties seem to add to the happiness. The knowledge that it is up to me to support someone else has a stimulating effect." Beyond that, he sent untold amounts of cash to the struggling Bill Townend -- gifts kept secret from Ethel, who had, as she did in all matters, strong views on the subject. These financial infusions were not motivated by charity alone but by the obligation the immensely successful Wodehouse felt for having encouraged this friend of his youth to take up what turned out to be a depressingly uncelebrated and unremunerative career as a writer.

Wodehouse's letters may not be the heady brew that his fiction is, but in them his kindness, modesty (in matters nonmonetary), and overall decency shine through, as does his invincible ignorance of the way of the world, a world he seemed to believe had as much aversion to "unpleasantness" as he did. Here we have him writing to Townend in April 1939 (a little over a month after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia): "Do you know, a feeling is gradually stealing over me that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present. It has just dawned on the civilians of all countries that the good old days of seeing the boys off in the troop ship are over and that the elderly statesmen who used to talk about giving sons to the country will now jolly well have to give themselves. I think if Hitler really thought there was any chance of a war, he would have nervous prostration."

That last sentence sets forth the essential Wodehouse, the man whose overriding impulse was to defuse distressing matters with humor, in this case Hitler. Moreover, the passage as a whole displays the insistently irenic, not to say deluded, disposition that led him and his wife to stay on in their house in France even as German troops were crossing the French border. This, in turn, resulted in the fifty-nine-year-old Wodehouse being interned as an enemy civilian, out of which sprang the great misstep of his life: the notorious broadcasts from Berlin in the summer of 1941, aimed at America and disseminated in Britain, and where, once again, he turned to humor for deliverance.

It is abundantly clear from the letters just how oblivious Wodehouse had been to the implications of broadcasting under the auspices of an enemy power, and to how off-key his insouciance would sound to American listeners whose sympathies lay with England, to say nothing of the impression it would make on the English themselves, reeling from the Blitz. In light of what is to come, it is genuinely painful to read his telegram telling his pal actress Maureen O' Sullivan in America to "LISTEN IN TONIGHT…6.00 PM PACIFIC TIME." Though Wodehouse later admitted widely -- including in a letter to the Home Secretary -- that "it was criminally foolish of me to speak on the German radio," it is clear that he never saw the crime in making light of his captivity, believing that it was a demonstration of English doughtiness in the face of adversity.

Rumblings over the broadcasts went on for years and continue to erupt even in our own time. Wodehouse never returned to England, at first because of the threat of being tried for treason and later, it seems, out of chagrin and a reluctance to have the whole sorry business rehashed yet again. He remained wounded, and his letters begin to show a new tartness, including toward a couple of men who had determinedly stuck in the goad: Winston Churchill ("One of the few really unpleasant personalities I've come across") and A. A. Milne ("A most satisfactory review of A. A. M.'s Chloe Marr in the Daily Mail. In case you missed it, it said that is was the silliest book of the year.")

Prominent in the letters is Wodehouse's happy marriage, though, as the alert reader easily gathers, the wife of his bosom -- high-strung, exacting, and extravagant -- would not be every man's ideal. For Wodehouse, mention of personal sexual matters would, of course, be "out of the Q" as Bertie Wooster would put it; still most students of Wodehouse agree that sex seems to have had little place in that union or hardly anywhere else in his life. (In one letter he does mention having had "the clap" in earlier days, but one senses more swagger here than biographical detail.). Ethel's appeal would seem to have lain in her organizational powers, vigilance over his privacy, and companionship. She kept him happy, something we really do believe of this buttoned-up, routine-loving counter of blessings. Furthermore -- and, not insignificantly -- Ethel also provided Wodehouse with a readymade daughter, Leonora, with whom he formed a strong, loving relationship, as is clear from his many letters to and about her.

In his correspondence, Wodehouse is free with talk of money and work, as mentioned already, and that includes his stints as a lyricist of musical comedies for the stage and his not especially agreeable employment in Hollywood ("It is only occasionally that one feels as if one were serving a term on Devil's Island"). He fondly relates the exploits of his dogs and the satisfactions of his physical regime: the "Daily Dozen," swimming, walking, and golf. He continues to follow the fortunes on the playing fields of Dulwich College, his old school. He becomes an ardent fan of the soap opera The Edge of Night and the novels of Anthony Trollope and Evelyn Waugh. On the other hand, he doesn't like Dickens, finds Henry James's letters those of "a dull, pompous chump," and dismisses John O'Hara's work as quite simply "a wave of filth."

The Wodehouse revealed in the letters, and in editor Sophie Ratcliffe's substantial and helpful commentary, is a self-protective man who increasingly retired from the public eye, though not from the world of letters: "I find in this evening of my life that my principle pleasure is writing stinkers to people who attack me in the press…. One yip out of any of the bastards and they get a beautifully phrased page of vitriol which will haunt them for the rest of their lives."

Some of the most illuminating entries in the book concern the publication of a selection of letters Wodehouse had written to Bill Townend, a project the former agreed to in order to help out his old friend and, also, he hoped, to neutralize the acrimony caused by his actions in Berlin. With this in mind he wrote to Townend (in a passage inexplicably absent from this book, though present in Robert McCrum's superb Wodehouse: A Life): "I want the reader to say 'Dear old Wodehouse. What a charming nature he must have!  Here are all these people writing nasty things about him, and he remains urbane and humorous. Bless my soul, what a delightful fellow he must be!' "

This became Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters (the title blithely co-opting the hostile epithet thrown at him by Sean O'Casey). In addition to being an occasional and most genial guide to the practice of writing, the book is a cornucopia of comic embellishment. "The great thing, as I see it," Wodehouse wrote to Townend, "is not to feel ourselves confined to the actual letters. I mean nobody knows what was actually in the letters, so we can fake as much as we like. That is to say, if in a quickly written letter from -- say -- Hollywood, I just mention that Winston Churchill was there and I have met him, in the book I can think up some amusing anecdote, describing how his trousers split up the back at the big party or something. See what I'm driving at?" We do indeed, though, in the event, the British Bulldog's overtaxed nether garments did not make it into the book.

In a low moment -- occasions of which are far outnumbered by resilient, cheerful ones -- Wodehouse wonders where his characters will fit into the postwar world. Writing to Frances Donaldson (later his authorized biographer and editor of an earlier selection of letters) he says, "I can't see what future there is for Blandings Castle, and I doubt if Bertie Wooster will be able to afford a personal attendant with the income tax at ten shillings in the pound. It looks to me as if the only one of my characters who will be able to carry on is Ukridge. His need for making a quick touch will be all the greater in an impoverished world, though I don't see who is going to be in a position to lend him the ten bob he is always wanting." That was 1945, and the future keeps coming, but Blandings lives on as does the rest of Wodehouse's fictional universe. And for that we are, in Wodehousian parlance, dashed grateful.

Reprinted with permission from Barnes & Noble Review.


Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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