Michael Dirda reviews Jayne Anne Phillips Lark and Termite in the current New York Review of Books (April 30, 2009). His exceptional analysis of this dreamy, multi-narrated novel unravels the complexity that IMO makes the story less accessible to all readers.
Anyone who’s already read the novel or who plans to read it will find Dirda’s review providing helpful revelations about Phillips’ recurrent themes, the novel’s structure and what Dirda describes as Phillips’ “meaningful meandering.”
It’s impressive when Dirda connects a remark by the character Leavitt – saying he used to perform the song “My Funny Valentine” – to Phillips’ mention later in the book that Chet Baker is playing on the jukebox. Dirda points out that Baker’s signature song was “My Funny Valentine.”
I heard Dirda read from his book Classics for Pleasure, and his mind is a steel trap for literary detail. His references to characters, scenes, plots, authors and more are astonishing for books read years in the past. Oh the envy.
BTW, Classics for Pleasure offers a great reading list written by “Dirda as passionate reader” rather than “Dirda as passionate critic.” His insights and summaries drove me to make a list that include Georgette Heyer’s Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy; W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland and his Selected Poems edited by Edward Mendelson; and Akhmatova’s early love poems. Even, as an adult, to reread The Secret Garden.
Dirda grew up in Lorain, Ohio. He is a writer and former senior editor for The Washington Post Book World. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism in 1993. His memoir about growing up in Lorain is An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland.
Here’s a fun glimpse inside An Open Book:
“Though my father had encouraged early reading by taking me to the library, he never wanted a bookworm in the family. Instead he envisioned a Super Son, adept with every known hand tool and eager to transform 1031 West 29th Street into an edifice that even Frank Lloyd Wright might envy or, alternately, a son so financially savvy that he would be hired at age eleven to manage J. Paul Getty’s investments. Having read a news story about Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in Borneo, he commanded me to write to the Rockefeller family and offer myself as a replacement son. He wasn’t kidding. Not a bit.”
Post updated 10.16.10 with improved book photos.