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What to read this month

A reference book of extraordinary literary merit, this eccentric, audacious, sparkling work returns—revised, updated, and bulging with 300 new entries (including Rin Tin Tin and Graham Greene), which helps to account for its nearly 1,000 closely printed double-column pages. Probably the greatest living film critic and historian, Thomson, an Englishman who lives in San Francisco, writes the most fun and enthralling prose about the movies since Pauline Kael. His judgments in these pungent mini- and not-so-mini-essays can be exasperatingly wrong: He characterizes Mike Nichols's vacuous and pretentious wife Diane Sawyer as "lovely and smart"; how can he express any reservations about Children of Paradise? And although he's hardly an auteurist, his book focuses on directors at the expense of writers and producers.

But regarding the important issues Thomson is almost always dead-on: He champions the supreme genius of Howard Hawks, who captured better than any other filmmaker both "masculine romanticism" (in Red River) and "the dazzling battles of word, innuendo, glance, and gesture" between men and women (in Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, and, of course, His Girl Friday). He astutely observes that Agnes Moorehead figures in "the two most indelibly humane moments in the work of Orson Welles"—the scene in Citizen Kane in which Kane's mother opens the window "to call in her son from the snow so that he may advance on his destiny" and the scene in The Magnificent Ambersons in which "Aunt Fanny watches Georgie devouring her strawberry shortcake, pleased to be useful ... but knowing that he does not need her, deeply aware that her vibrant romantic hopes are growing shrill with neglect." He appreciates the often neglected Jean Arthur, prizing her "rare, querulous charm" and the "earnest, furious thought" she brought to comedy and romance. He knows that Cary Grant "was the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema"—and he even has the perspicacity to recognize as Grantlike the "wit, narrative speed, and good-natured ease" of the great TV show The Rockford Files. The book is a marvel.

Literary Studies

by George Orwell, edited by John Carey
Everyman, 1408 pages, $35.00
Buy this book. Unless, that is, you already have the four-volume The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters—available now only in paperback—or the twenty-volume Complete Works. (I own both, but I'm keeping this one for my desk.) Orwell's are the most important essays of the twentieth century, and reading them—along with his nonfiction books The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia—will make you a clearer thinker, a cleaner writer, and a more thoughtful human being. This handsome, 1,372-page hardcover volume contains his complete essays (even his unfinished piece on Evelyn Waugh, which is missing from the four-volume edition) and selected reviews and journalism. It also includes an incisive introduction by the brilliant John Carey, but lacks an index—a grievous fault, but its only one.

The Victorians: The Oxford English Literary History, Vol. 8, 1830-1880
by Philip Davis
Oxford University Press, 560 pages, $45.00
Though its title suggests a dry and earnest tome full of summary lists ("Kingsley's other novels include Hypatia, Westward Ho! ..."), this is an imaginative, penetrating, often idiosyncratic history, written with brio. Davis takes an expansive view of literature (in addition to examining the poetry, fiction, and drama of the period, he writes about books and essays on theology, science, biography, travel, criticism, history, and psychology); he addresses the relationship between literature and broad political and cultural trends; and he pays particular attention to what he calls the "conditions of literary production," such as the growth of the reading public and changes in the book trade. But by probing his abundant subject in what amount to selective and detailed critical essays (for instance, devoting the bulk of one of his three chapters on fiction to comparing the high realism of Trollope and George Eliot—who emerges from this account as the greatest literary genius of the age—to support his contention that "the novel offered the most subtle, diversified and complicated network of shifting interrelationships available to human thinking"), Davis has written a book of breathtaking depth as well as breadth.

Published and Perished
edited by Steven Gilbar and Dean Stewart
David R. Godine, 220 pages, $26.95
This wittily selected and atrociously titled anthology of remembrances of American writers by American writers reveals as much about the eulogists as about their subjects. In his treacherous commemorative pen portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, John O'Hara couldn't transcend his propensity for envy and schadenfreude. Then again, Fitzgerald's memorial to the enormously kind but cynical Ring Lardner managed to be at once generous (Fitzgerald noted that as a writer Lardner "heard and recorded the voice of a continent," and that as a man "he always did every single thing he said he would do") and superciliously dismissive, if not wholly inaccurate, in its appraisal of Lardner's artistic merit. Of course, writers are a notoriously insecure and backbiting breed, so it's a delight to come across Willa Cather's sweet and sad recollection of the doomed young Stephen Crane; Booth Tarkington's brave encomium to the already out-of-fashion William Dean Howells; Saul Bellow's trenchant appreciation of the enormous differences between him and John Cheever, which endeared them to each other; and H. L. Mencken's rollicking and loving account of his first meeting with James Gibbons Huneker—a pilsner-marinated lunch at which Huneker delivered a five-hour monologue on subjects ranging from "the defects in the structure of Sister Carrie" to "what George Moore said about German bathrooms" to the causes of Tchaikovsky's suicide (the talk "was chaos made to gleam and coruscate with every device of the seven arts").

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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