The National Book Critics Circle and the American Library Association both had book award events this week-- one to name their shortlists, the other to name their winners. Those lists can be found elsewhere on this blog. In the meantime, there is a lot of other books media to talk about.
Charlies Isherwood reviews Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson, about Shakespeare's more famous (at the time they were alive, anyway) fellow writer and compatriot. In his review, Isherwood points out "Jonson was the more celebrated and multifariously accomplished figure during his time and in the years immediately after his death in 1637, but his plays are produced relatively rarely today — only 'Volpone' and 'The Alchemist' are widely known — and his poetry is read more rarely still. Shakespeare has emerged as the great genius of the age, the author of plays that will hold the stage as long as there are stages to hold, and a cycle of sonnets that are almost equally prized." Mark a point for posterity. Today you might only be a shy, fairly famous and prolific poet and playwright, but be assured that hundreds of years from now you may be celebrated as a genius. But if Shakespeare's the genius and Jonson earns murmurs and whispers that he was overrated during his time, why should we read about Ben Jonson today? For starters, Isherwood calls the book "deeply researched but happily readable." Two, Jonson-- who was and remains a literary giant in his own right (not overrated, just overshadowed)-- led a life that was worlds more interesting than Shakespeare's, whose "comparative invisibility during his lifetime has certainly posed intractable problems in the centuries since his death, as the eternal and tedious arguments over the authorship of his plays illustrate. Had he the foresight to make himself the colorful and combative public figure Jonson was — jailed several times, famed for insobriety, sometime friend and sometime foe of the mighty names of his age — we would not be plagued by the rankling theories of the Oxfordians that still clamor today." And finally, this behavior helped to establish the writer as a presence in English life-- Jonson was "Britain’s first literary celebrity.”
After pointing out that Ben Marcus has only written four books in his 20-year career, reviewer J. Robert Lennon describes Marcus's work as having "earned him critical praise and a small army of devoted fans," and as having, until now, "forsaken the conventional trappings of narrative." But, Lennon tells us, "The Flame Alphabet, his first new book in a decade, has the feel of an event. And though it is recognizably by the same author, it is also something of a surprise. It has a plot, and a protagonist, and at times it even threatens to become a thriller."
A book that will most certainly be subject to personal taste is That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz. Why would anybody want to read that? you might ask. Reviewer Robin Marantz Henig gives the following analysis: "Disgust, Herz writes, is one of 'the six basic human emotions' (along with happiness, sadness, anger, fear and surprise) that any healthy adult 'can experience and recognize.' She says emotional disgust is the only one, among living creatures, that’s unique to humans, and the only one that has to be learned." Rather than list all the disgusting things in this book, I will give you a link to the review, in which you may peruse the various disgusting foods, etc. yourself. For those brave (or just curious) enough to read the review, they may find these gross details generate a reaction that's deeper than they'd anticipated. As the review puts it, disgusting is in the eye of the beholder, and "disgust is not an automatic reaction, like fear; it’s 'an unfolding and cognitive emotion.'”