See What Can Be Done
The first collected edition of over three decades of exquisite criticism – of art, television, film, and literature – by one of America’s most beloved writers.
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When in 1999 I began writing for The New York Review of Books … my stance became that of the ingenuous Martian who had just landed on a gorgeous alien planet … Montaigne’s que sais-je. A little light, a little wonder, some skepticism, some awe, some squinting, some je ne sais quoi. Pick a thing up, study it, shake it, skip it across a still surface to see how much felt and lively life got baked into it. Does it sail? Observe. See what can be done.
Lorrie Moore has been writing criticism for over thirty years, and her forensically intelligent, witty, and engaging essays are collected together here for the first time. Whether writing on Titanic, Margaret Atwood, or The Wire, her pieces always offer elegant and surprising insights into multiple forms of art. Crucially, Moore is a practitioner who writes criticism; her discussion of other people’s work is based on her understanding of what it really takes to make something out of nothing: of what it takes to make art. This lends her encounters with books, films, and paintings the uniquely intimate quality which has made them so immensely popular with readers.
In sparkling, articulate prose – studded with frequently hilarious insights – Moore’s meditations are a rare opportunity to witness a brilliant mind thinking things through and figuring things out on the page.
'Bringing together criticism and essays from one of America’s most brilliant writers, this book is delight to dip in and out with pieces covering everything from The Wire and Friday Night Lights to Margaret Atwood books and DonDeLillo.'
‘[An] incisive, wide-ranging and enjoyable collection of reviews, autobiographical pieces and cultural commentary…marvellously nuanced… Moore is a lively guest at the party, but she never tries to steal the show.’
‘[Moore] is an essayist and critic of real heft. This collection, the first of such pieces, reaches back to 1983 and a critique of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and then winds its way through a broad swathe of culture. Her speciality, remarkably enough, is literature but there’s film too and television and even OJ Simpson… Even if the subject doesn’t interest you, Moore’s writing and stringent eye will.’
‘Why do we read book reviews? Two good reasons. The first, pragmatic one is that it saves us time; how can we possibly read all the books we’ve been told to, let alone the ones we’d really like to? The second is that book reviews give us, in John Updike’s words, “literary sensation in concentrated form” - they are the chef’s reduction of literature. On which reckoning Lorrie Moore, whose book reviews constitute the bulk of See What Can Be Done, is a demon in the kitchen… [Moore’s] reviews tend to be long, yet so witty and well-mannered that you hardly notice their length… What is most impressive is her capacity to give the work under review a life of its own. She makes even those books I recall not much enjoying sound fresh and remarkable. She can make books seem even richer and more mysterious… [she] is a master of resonant one-line verdicts, but she doesn’t toss them out in a boastful or look-at-me spirit; they are rather the nimble conclusions to a patient, thought-out argument… See What Can Be Done has something wise or funny on almost every page.’
‘Reading the first page of these essays feels like stepping into my dream dinner party. Moore is reviewing Nora Ephron's Heartburn – and, as if that wasn't enough, she quotes Joan Didion. All within the first page. The entire book is filled with the sharp, off-the-wall, completely brilliant observations that Moore is famous for. In her review of Titanic, she points out that Rose, wading through the water-filled corridors in search of Jack is "much more reminiscent of walruses than of Edwardians." Her subject matter is diverse, spanning three decades of important cultural moments, including everything from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to a somewhat scathing review of Homeland. Reading the collection feels like stepping into Moore's mind for a moment, and, my God, what a beautiful place to be.’
'[A] superb collection of essays and criticism… Moore is marvellous company... a smart, sardonic, world-weary sort of companion — and with such spot-on taste... In addition to the reviews and essays on literature there are half a dozen pieces about television. Moore watches and enjoys exactly what we all watch and enjoy, except she knows better how to explain the source of her pleasure… But what’s perhaps most revealing in the book is Moore’s lifelong engagement with — and devotion to — the work of Alice Munro, the great Canadian short story writer. See What Can Be Done contains no fewer than three reviews of Munro’s work, one of which contains a snappy summing up that expresses my own admiration entirely: ‘These are the haphazard migrations of life and love.’
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