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Reviews this week: On Bob Dylan, scandalous women and epistolary bliss

December 11, 2009 |  1:34 pm

Bobdylan_freewheelin

This week in our pages, Kris Lindgren reviewed the new graphic novel interpretation of Bob Dylan's songs in "Bob Dylan Revisited." She's impressed with some of the art -- but might be just as happy listening to an old album.

Indeed, nearly all the graphic interpretations are visually striking, some even breathtaking in their powerful imagery. Only a few, however, rise to the level of Dylan's thought-dreams, let alone go beyond them. ... If you're a Dylan fanatic, "Bob Dylan Revisited" is a grudging must-have. If you're an aficionado of these graphic artists, thumb through it and see. In the end, though, Dylan's songs are cinematic enough to stand on their own.

One woman who stood on her own was the prickly, imperfect novelist Patricia Highsmith. Joan Schenkar's new biography, "The Talented Miss Highsmith," has been earning raves; Daniel Mallory called it "splendid, sinewy ... dazzling and definitive" in our pages.

Dispensing with the familiar acorn-to-oak approach, Schenkar instead declares that "[o]bsession ... will be the organizing principle of this work," and exhumes Highsmith via a taxonomy of neuroses. ... Schenkar has raided Highsmith's voluminous archives, including more than three dozen "cahiers" -- notebooks in which the author documented story ideas -- and an assortment of diaries: "eight thousand pages of work ... she set down her states of mind, the color of her current lover's hair, the quality of a past relationship, the cost of a Paris hotel breakfast, the number of rejections she received from publishers, the fees, the fears, the falsehoods."

Falsehoods are at the center of another biography, Sally Denton's "The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas." The former actress and friend-of-FDR was the first woman elected to Congress from California, becoming famous for how she was labeled by a political opponent. Tim Rutten writes:

In 1950, against all serious advice, Douglas decided to run for the U.S. Senate against a rising young GOP congressman with a ferocious taste for red-baiting. [Richard] Nixon and his political mentor, Murray Chotiner, turned the campaign into a virtual compendium of dirty tricks, stirring up not only unfounded apprehensions about Douglas' loyalties but also anti-Semitism because her husband was Jewish.

What ultimately redeems "The Pink Lady" as biography is Denton's compellingly propulsive narrative and that the author's obvious affection for her protagonist nonetheless permits a series of unsentimental miniatures.

Also in our pages this week, Heller McAlpin reviews a new compendium of letters, "Yours Ever," assembled by Thomas Mallon; she calls it a "mother lode for fellow peeping Toms who like to press their nose against the glass of other people's lives." Letters -- by the likes of Mark Twain, Hannah Arendt, Noel Coward and Mary McCarthy -- appear in chapters titled Absence, Friendship, Advice, Complaint, Love, Spirit, Confession, War and Prison.

You'd think the best would be the love letters, but as Mallon points out, "[l]ike literary criticism, love letters are a form of writing that can never quite compete with the real thing." Point taken, but Mallon is such a sharp literary critic that his sparkling turns of phrase actually do compete with the real thing, often overshadowing the letters he's discussing.

Writing about Samuel Clemens' letters, for example, Mallon notes that his "narratives are always descriptive and his descriptions are always narratives." Edward VIII's treacly love letters to Wallis Simpson earn the abdicated monarch the sobriquet "His Royal Ickiness."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: The 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." Credit: Columbia.

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