A look at the National Book Critics Circle nominees - Criticism

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."

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.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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

One would be hard pressed to find a book of any genre with a more sweeping range than this collection of sharply insightful essays by an acknowledged master of prose. Gass literally seems to know everything. He jumps from Gilbert and Sullivan to Foucault and Carlyle; from nursery rhymes and Nick Hornby to Dante and Kafka. In the course of an essay, he'll switch fluidly between witty repartee and literary analysis, between linguistics and history. This is one volume where you might actually wish there were footnotes. Gass's wide-ranging subjects include the literary canon, censorship, and a horrific Depression-era crime involving an old woman who cooked and ate children. His essay on Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" - "prose elevated to poetry without the least sign of strain" - provides fresh insights into how poetry, history, and imagination intersect to shape our view of the world. Where too many critics rely on jargon and tired phrases, Gass's writing is unwaveringly alive. His frequent digressions can get old, and he can be a bit of an elitist, but for the most part these essays are fresh showcases of verbal vigor and mental alacrity. "Minds, it turns out, are as peculiar as toenails," Gass writes in "The Test of Time." His own is testament to that. (319 pp.) By Amanda Paulson

REVIEWERY, by Christopher Ricks, Handsel Books, $30

Reviewing Seamus Heaney's masterful first book of poetry, "Death of a Naturalist," in 1966, Christopher Ricks noted: "What he praises is to be praised in his own work." Of Ricks we might say the same, a quality amply illustrated by the 50 brief pieces that comprise "Reviewery," a collection drawn from criticism he's written for publications ranging from the Times Literary Supplement to the New Republic over the past four decades. A wonderful literary stylist, Ricks compliments the wonderful literary style of Henry James with a comely phrase of his own: "Even when his prose is plump, it has a genial warmth." If such enthusiasms can be contagious, his condemnation of the ever-popular Bloomsbury group - "They created a corporate limited-liability self-importance" - is as apt as it is courageous. Alas, Ricks shows considerably less talent for reviewing books by the likes of social psychologist Stanley Milgram or literary theorist Stanley Fish, nitpicking at trivialities as nimbly as he dissects lines of Heaney's poetry, yet shunning ideas of breadth greater than his own clever epigrams. What he praises ought certainly to be praised in his criticism, yet, conversely, what interests him least is, in this book of reviewery, least of interest. (386 pp.) By Jonathon Keats

PIANO NOTES: THE WORLD OF THE PIANIST, by Charles Rosen, The Free Press, $25

To truly appreciate classical music, one must listen carefully - and that's not always as easy as it sounds. So says world-renowned pianist Charles Rosen, whose latest work, "Piano Notes," itself demands much from his audience. To read the book from cover to cover is to sit through Beethoven's daunting Hammerklavier without pause: One feels it's worthy of ovation but, exhausted, one can barely rise to the challenge. Throw in an intimidating repertoire of technical terms - glissando, due corde hammering, dodecaphonic passages - and the musically illiterate reader may break into a cold sweat. Yet, despite the acute attention his writing requires, Rosen has managed to create a volume of fascinating breadth in which he explains how the piano works, how it has changed over the centuries, what to look for when listening to various composers, and why the profession is increasingly demanding for performers. Too bad his best writing appears parenthetically or in the footnotes (Rosen is a storyteller, not an essayist). But just as a piano well cared for improves with age, so might "Piano Notes." One certainly turns the last page with a gratifying sense of accomplishment. (235 pp.) By Elizabeth Armstrong

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