James Wood, a book reviewer worthy of being reviewed

Do you have a favorite book reviewer?

Whenever I read a book review by James Wood in the New Yorker, I find myself marveling over Wood’s writing.

He can impart the feel of a work through an inspired metaphor or a vivid phrase. He manages to say in a single sentence what another reviewer might use three paragraphs on.

Instead of saying more on this topic in my own feeble words, I’ll let Wood’s speak for themselves. Here’s a selection. See what I mean?

Reviewing Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch


Like the rest of us, Donna Tartt ages; but her fiction is going the other way. Her new novel, “The Goldfinch” (Little, Brown), is a virtual baby: it clutches and releases the most fantastical toys.

“Clutches and releases” being a perfect phrase for what a baby does with things – and ingeniously used here as a metaphor for a novel. Full review.

Concerning the life’s works of W.G. Sebald


Sebald’s work can put you in mind of Diderot selling his library to Catherine the Great: he seems to be downloading everything he has ever read.

Yet Sebald also extracts from this self-conscious antiquarianism something unaccountable: a mysterious contemporary stillness, an otherworldliness of the present. His very prose functions like an old, unidentified photograph.

Prose that’s both present and remote, knowable and inscrutable, perfectly expressed by comparison with an “old, unidentified photograph.” Full review.

(I also appreciate the Catherine the Great reference. This intriguing transaction is recounted in Massie’s excellent biography.)

Reflecting on a short story collection by Joy Williams


In these pieces, Williams lightly plays with deep questions: God’s disappearance or invisibility; how to speak of a deity, or how a deity speaks to us; the problem of suffering. She likes to float a puzzle and let it drift off the page.

I’ve never seen a crisper reference to the way some books raise questions that linger than to say the author “floats a puzzle and lets it drift off the page.” Full review.

On a recent novel by Ireland’s Edna O’Brien


The story hovers between recorded history and green fancy, and ends as theatrically as it began, with a description of an amateur production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Reading this book, marbled with its different generic veins, is not always a straightforward or stable journey; some parts are more convincing or affecting than others. But it is always a vital and engrossing experience.

The imagery! Compare mere reportage (the book has magical elements, it spans different genres), with Wood’s painted words: the book dabbles in “green fancy” and is “marbled” with “different generic veins.” Full review.


Another nice thing is that Wood’s reviews introduce me to works I might not otherwise come across. I’ve read The Goldfinch and novels by Edna O’Brien, but Wood clued me into Sebald and Joy Williams. I’ve added both to my reading list.

Read it: James Wood’s contributor page, the New Yorker

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