How Maya Angelou became so sanctimonious.

How Maya Angelou became so sanctimonious.

How Maya Angelou became so sanctimonious.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 2 2002 4:55 PM

Signs and Blunders

How Maya Angelou became so sanctimonious, plus other theories from the week in criticism.

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Movies
Signs (Touchstone). Turn back! Avoid the reviews for this "dazzling white-knuckler" or you might get hints of the plot. (Entertainment Weekly even posted a reader warning.) Because I liked The Sixth Sense and am putting my fingers in my ears, I'm going to ignore the secular backlash to the film's "scary/sappy" center (David Edelstein, Slate) and comments about "promiscuous geysers of sentimentality and random New Age brain fog" (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon).

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Full Frontal (Miramax). Critics bristle at Steven Soderbergh's "sodden ensemble experiment" (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice), but at least it elicits the best parental warning of the week, by A.O Scott: "includes much swearing, two scenes of sexuality and the violent dismemberment of narrative continuity" (the New York Times). The few positive notices contain suspiciously backhanded compliments: "Full Frontal is so self-referential … you feel like you're watching a movie review."

Books
Globalization and Its Discontents, by Joseph Stiglitz (Norton). Cred-coming-out-of-his-ears economist Stiglitz is "loved on the streets and loathed in the suites" (Martin Wolf, the Financial Times) for his "withering critique" (Barry Eichengreen, Foreign Affairs) of the International Monetary Fund—forcing even those who question his conclusions (like Benjamin M. Friedman in the New York Review of Books) to cry out for an opponent who can articulate the other side as clearly. ( Globalization and Its Discontents.)

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A Song Flung Up to Heaven, by Maya Angelou (Random House). Hilton Als' nuanced takedown traces the populist poet's devolution from searing memoirist to latter-day Anaïs Nin. "Angelou writes from the vantage point of a woman who has compromised nearly everything, and for what? To judge those who haven't? This sanctimoniousness clouds virtually all her work, despite its readability."John McWhorter also compares Angelou to a smug self-mythologizer—in this case, '60s troubadour Odetta. But he defends Angelou's stories as dated-but-meaningful "tracts" exemplifying as "a useful and even natural form of defense against bigotry." ( A Song Flung Up to Heaven.)

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Koba the Dread, by Martin Amis (Talk Miramax). In the New York Times, Paul Berman calls this "one of the oddest books about Stalin ever written" but seems touched by Amis' use of the tragedy to work through his own grief at the loss of his sister and father. Back in June, Berman's colleague Michiko Kakutani was less sympathetic, terming it "the narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle-class litterateur who has never known the kind of real suffering Stalin's victims did." (Buy Koba the Dread.)

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The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton (Pantheon). Notices for "Alain de Botton, the young high priest of humanism" (Philip Marsden, the Observer) make him sound a bit like Nicholson Baker gone continental, with his "fetish for revelation in the prosaic" (Ted Allen, Esquire). Yet most find his book on travel less interesting than previous volumes. In the New York Observer, Jennifer Egan craves more Alain and fewer facts: " For all the intelligence of his discussion of Wordsworth's beliefs about the restorative powers of nature, I felt those powers most strongly when Mr. de Botton describes leaving a London party feeling envious and lousy; he looks up and is rescued from his funk by the sight of a cloud." ( The Art of Travel.)

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Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, by Ann Coulter (Crown). Ann Coulter's book of sputtering insults reduces liberal critics to the same. Says Jamie Malanowski in the Washington Monthly, "If I were Ann Coulter, and Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right was the best book I could produce, I would never write another word." (The online version of this review has an accidentally funny the "buy the book" button). In the Washington Post, Christopher Caldwell takes a more measured approach, calling Coulter "a fluent polemicist with a gift for Menckenesque invective" and applauding her insights into "cultured-class snootiness toward the GOP." Still, he says, she fails because she is unable to tolerate even reasoned criticisms of her own party. "Coulter could have shown us how class mimicry creates political conformity. Instead she has produced a piece of political hackwork. The deeper into her subject she gets, the more she resorts to the tools of calumny and propaganda she professes to critique." ( Slander.)

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Ash Wednesday, by Ethan Hawke (Knopf). Raffish man-boy Hawke cannily downplays his own writing skills, even under interrogation by fork-tongued reporters from the New York Observer. Reviewers have actually treated his second novel more respectfully than his first: "This time out, there's a sense that he doesn't have to prove himself any more and has attempted a more ambitious work. Yes, there are missteps—Jimmy often seems too much of a testosterone-brained 'regular guy' to have as much introspection as he displays—but for the most part, Hawke pulls it off" (David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle). In the Chicago Sun-Times, a less-impressed Paige Wiser called the main characters "earnest, long-winded slackers in love." ( Ash Wednesday.)

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The Laying on of Hands, by Alan Bennett (Picador USA). The Spectator's Hilary Mantel speaks for all critics when she calls each paragraph of Bennett's clerical revenge story "a fine little malice machine." Pleading summer silliness, the Boston Globe's Katherine A. Powers juxtaposes Alan Bennett's book of short stories with something called Different Bodies, Different Diets. "Bennett's portrayal of people's lonely self-involvement is poignant and devastating. Theirs is the sort of sad-sack mentality that suggests to me, in my newly acquired wisdom, that they are simply not in touch with their body types." (Buy The Laying on of Hands.)

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Ready, Steady, Go, by Shawn Levy (Doubleday). Even the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani has caught Austin Powers fever—including his habit of repurposing old jokes. In her review of Shawn Levy's Ready, Steady, Go, Kakutani unsteadily channels the spy's swinging persona, noting, "Is it me, baby, or are the stories about how the Beatles and the Stones took over the world just the tiniest bit familiar?" Actually, it's the persona thing itself that seems oddly familiar: Not only did she review Bridget Jones as Ally McBeal in 1998, this isn't even her first time as Austin. In 1999, Kakutani reviewed Jackie Collins'Dangerous Kiss using the exact same shtick. (For a mirrors-within-mirrors persona bonus, check out the classic "I Am Michiko Kakutani" by Colin McEnroe—featuring a strangely prescient jab at Dale Peck!) (Buy Ready, Steady, Go.)

Music
The Rising, by Bruce Springsteen. Most critics find Bruce's response to 9/11 "rousing and redemptive—and a little shallow" (Josh Tyrangiel, Time). A few, like MTV's Kurt Loder, admire it as a moving requiem. But on Epinions, even big-time Bruce fans call it "hopelessly, chemically, tragically trite." ( The Rising.)

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Anger Management Tour. If Eminem's stage show has improved, snipes Glenn Gamboa in Newsday, that's because he's "swiping steps from the boy band brigades he's so gleefully dissed in recent years." Gamboa may be on to something: In a newsgroup post, a fan loved the concert, but added "I've actually seen rowdier crowds at an NSync concert." A more enthusiastic Ken Capobiaco says all that was missing was "a Zoloft concession stand" (the Boston Globe).