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A look at the National Book Critics Circle nominees - Criticism

February 13, 2003



A college adviser friend of mine was once meeting with the parents of a particularly sweet but unengaged student. Pressed to define how exactly their daughter could do better in school, my friend suggested that Susie try to demonstrate more rigorous critical thinking. "Oh no!" her mother cried. "Susie would never have a critical thought."

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For entirely different reasons, that's the reception most books of criticism receive. General readers recall their English teachers insisting that Huck and Jim were lovers on the river raft, or demanding why so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow. "Oh no!" indeed. Even survivors of graduate school literature programs shudder at returning to the squirrely arguments of post-structuralism, trapped in Derrida's intellectual cage: "Il n'y a pas dehors du texte."

The National Book Critics Circle nominations for the best book of criticism may allay such fears. From a stirring biography of the artist Goya to a fascinating study of the piano, these are books to draw you into a wider appreciation for the world. Only a witty collection of book reviews by Christopher Ricks sounds like traditional criticism, and he handles the task so nimbly that you'll find yourself driven back to old favorites with new insight.

Our look at the nominations for biography ran on Jan. 23; fiction on Jan. 30; nonfiction on Feb 6. We'll cover the final category - poetry - next Thursday. On Feb. 25, all the nominated authors have been invited to read from their work at a public reception at the New School in New York. The winners will be announced the next day.

- Ron Charles

BRIGHT EARTH, by Philip Ball, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30

There is, today, an unfortunate dissociation between painters and scientists. In this enlightening and authoritative book, Philip Ball argues that this was not always the case by tracing the history of pigments and their relation to art. Artists at one time were virtually chemists - or at least alchemists. They knew their materials. Still, for ages they longed for better blues or greens (and yellows and reds - all colors, in fact), but had to make do with the few at their disposal. "Today," Ball writes, "virtually all dyes are synthetic ... their carbon skeletons custom-built by industrial chemists. While barely a dozen natural dyestuffs proved stable enough to be useful in the ancient and medieval world, more than four thousand synthetic dyes now bring color to our industrialized societies." Though these synthetics have meant new hues in modern painting, they have not been an unmixed blessing. Some works by certain 19th- and 20th-century artists - Van Gogh, for example, and Rothko - have altered or degenerated radically from their original color intentions because of an ill-informed or careless choice of pigments. As Ball's fascinating story develops, we hear about specific chemists and their discoveries, as well as specific artists and their uses of these discoveries. (382 pp.) (Full review March 14, 2002) By Christopher Andreae

OLD MAN GOYA, by Julia Blackburn, Pantheon, $23

In this short but stirring book, Julia Blackburn provides a wonderful portrait of Francisco de Goya, considered the father of modern art. Blackburn, whose two previous novels have been shortlisted for Britain's Orange Prize, deals almost entirely with Goya's last 35 years, after an illness in 1792 left him completely deaf at the age of 47. There is little question of how Blackburn feels about the artist. She speaks of Goya as intimately, as of an old friend, revealing much of herself along with the details of his life. Interspersed throughout the volume are 23 of Goya's etchings that often illustrate components of the story as they unfold. Blackburn begins in Fuendetodos, Spain, the village where Goya was born, and continues to walk in his footsteps throughout the book; following him through Spain and France as she intermingles historical data with her meditation. She can "see him riding on the back of a mule, his feet in walnut stirrups." The imagery is profoundly simple, yet evocative: Blood splatters like "drops of rain" and being deaf "locks you in a cage." Blackburn even goes so far as to plug her own ears to get closer to Goya. Throughout the book, we get the sense that Blackburn is always three steps behind the painter - as if we could reach out and touch him if only we could catch up. (239 pp.) By Sasha Brown

TESTS OF TIME, by William Gass, Knopf, $25
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