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Toibin's collection of biographical literary essays focuses on the relationships between writers and their parents and the effects these relationships had upon their work. There's something here for everyone--which is both the book's strength and its weakness. While I read them all, this is the kind of collection from which a reader might best pick and choose. For me, the most intriguing essays were those on Jane Austen, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Roddy Doyle, writers whose work I already enjoy. (Sorry to say, however, that Yeats comes off as somewhat of an idiot tyrant; in a second essay, Toibin devotes equal time to George, Yeats's much ill-treated wife.)
With the exception of the section on Hart Crane, about whom I knew little but who led a particularly sad, brief life dominated by a snobbish, overbearing mother, I was less interested in Toibin's essays on writers whose work I either haven't read or don't particularly care for, among them Samuel Beckett, Sebastian Barry, Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, and John Cheever. The effect of Toibin's essays on Mann and Cheever confirmed that I will probably never want to read their works; both come off as nasty, cruel human beings whose families suffered their worst abuse. I learned nothing that I didn't already know from the essay on Tennessee Williams, but it would probably be interesting to someone who came to it fresh.
Toibin includes two essays on James Baldwin. The first, "James Baldwin and the 'American Confusion,'" provides an interesting discussion of the writer's place in U.S. literature, despite his ex-patriot status. In the second, Toibin compares the works of Baldwin and Barack Obama, both "Men without Fathers." I felt that he strained a bit too much to be haut courant in his effort to show Obama channeling Baldwin's prose style.
Toibin is a sensitive reader who arrives at some brilliant insights, and he has unearthed intriguing tidbits about each author's life that make the essays more enjoyable than straight literary criticism might have been. Still, like me, most readers will probably find the collection rather uneven. (I thought the essay on Borges was never going to end, and it seemed quite repetitive.) To be best appreciated at its best, go at New Ways to Kill Your Mother like a box of fine chocolates: savor them one at a time. You'll find some of those darn jellies in the bunch, but there are enough caramels and cherry cordials to make it worth your while.
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Is there anything you would change about this book?
The audience for this scholarly work of literary criticism is the academic community. The title implies something perhaps more playful. I wish I could have the title myself--and am sorry I didn't think it up first!
How would you have changed the story to make it more enjoyable?
Like everything Toibin writes, the style is masterful, the insights fresh and intelligent. It is not fiction; rather, it is a collection of essays about well-known literary works, their authors, and their characters. It is not "enjoyable" in the sense of easy-reading. This is highbrow prose for literary scholars.
Any additional comments?
Honestly, I purchased the book because I thought it would be about Toibin's personal analysis and his own mother's effect on his life & his writing. Although it wasn't what I expected, it's full of character analysis and the relationship of fictional mothers & fathers, aunts and stepmothers as well as the relationships of actual parents and their writer-children. Complex and engrossing.