New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Familes by Colm Toibin; Scribner, 346 pages ($26). Lest anyone think that Colm Toibin's drolly jaunty title – which came from his fine essay here on John Millington Synge – lacks gender equality, the second essay of this delightfully urbane dance around Freudian matters is about William Butler Yeats, his painter father Jack and is called "New Ways to Kill Your Father."
The secret about such essay collections as this is that they often accrete thematically around a happenstance collection of book reviews in which a theme suddenly shows up and gives the writer's habitual concerns a sparkling and well-appointed (and largely serendipitous) sense of literary purpose. That was less the case here than usual. These are lectures, introductions and reviews, largely. ?The ways in which families create writers and writers create families – and then negotiate with the ones they have after they've written – obviously captured the essays the Irish novelist and short story writer wrote for a while, whether it was Tennessee Williams' "obsession" with sister Rose or the complex Oedipal dynamics of the Borges family or Thomas Mann as paterfamilias. (In his essay "New Ways to Spoil Your Children," it's hard to resist a writer who begins "Thomas and Katia Mann had six children. It was obvious from early on that Katia most loved the second child, Klaus, who was born in 1906 and that Thomas loved Erika, the eldest, born in 1905 and Elizabeth, born in 1918. The other three – the barely tolerated ones – were Golo, born in 1909, Monika, born in 1910 and Michael born in 1919.… Some things ran in the family. Homosexuality, for instance. Thomas himself was gay most of the time, as his diaries make clear. So were three of his children.")
Other subjects include Samuel Beckett and his mother, the motherless fictions of Jane Austen and Henry James and, are you ready, the fatherlessness of James Baldwin compared with Barack Obama. Call Toibin's book the essence of motherwit.
– Jeff Simon