Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reviewing Philip Roth

It's always with trepidation that I approach a supposedly professional review of a book that I've already read and reviewed, especially when it's one by an author as august as, say, Philip Roth. This past summer I had the pleasure of casting my humble judgment about his latest novel, Nemesis, for Library Journal (link here and scroll down to Roth).

I try to follow Barbara Hoffert's (LJ books editor) advice to trust myself as a reader and offer an honest opinion without nuance. But that opinion should be based on a lifetime of reading experience and offered with a modicum of objectivity. So I'll admit to being rather shocked at what I found to be a highly personal attack on Philip Roth in a review by Roxana Robinson in the Washington Post last week when I was up in Maryland.

It seemed to me that she failed the author by refusing to separate her feelings about him, based on personal experience or hearsay, I'm not sure which, from her thoughts about his novel. For a moment, but only one moment, I questioned my own evaluation of the book, which I thought was profound on several levels and ripe for a book discussion. Aside from Mr. Roth's ability to place his readers smack down in the middle of Newark, New Jersey, circa 1940's, it's his examination of guilt along with all of its ramifications that impressed me the most. As a recovering Catholic I'm always fascinated by the power of this useless emotion to ruin lives and take the joy from living.

So, when I opened my Sunday New York Times Book Review to Philip Roth's visage staring back at me from the cover, I couldn't wait to see how another professional reviewer handled Nemesis. Kudos to Leah Hager Cohen for her honesty and integrity. I loved her review, not simply because she agreed with me on all aspects of the novel, but because she admitted to a bias and then committed her summer to the due diligence that Roth deserves.

One doesn't have to admire all of his work, in fact I rather panned The Humbling for its gratuitous sexual content and the life-denying look at a man in his sixties, but the author of American Pastoral is a genius in my book and always will be.

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