Book Review: Portrait Inside My Head by Phillip Lopate

Posted February 25, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 6 Comments

Book Review: Portrait Inside My Head by Phillip Lopate
Portrait Inside My Head by Phillip Lopate
Published by Free Press on Feb. 2013
Pages: 304
Genres: Essays, Non-Fiction
Source: Publisher

Portrait Inside My Head is a compilation of personal and critical essays by acclaimed author, film critic, poet, and essayist Phillip Lopate. Although the essays in this collection span a wide variety of topics, they are divided into four categories: The Family Romance, The Consolations of Daily Life, City Spaces, and Literary Matters. The pieces included provide an interesting cross-section of Lopate’s writing over the years, including stories about family life, literary and film criticism, and reflections upon Brooklyn, his hometown.

I’m fairly new to reading essays, but I have enjoyed the collections I’ve read by Joan Didion, Audre Lorde, and David Foster Wallace. I was eager to expand my literary horizons with this new collection by a distinguished author. However, this collection turned out to be a bit too sophisticated for me. I enjoyed the personal essays, but the critical essays in the last two sections — which feature an essay about the master builder Robert Moses, a critical analysis of writer Charles Reznikoff, and an ode to filmmaker Warren Sonbert — were over my head. I’ve never even heard of these artists, much less be familiar with their work. While I appreciated the quality of the writing, I didn’t understand these subjects enough to really appreciate the content.

Although the critical essays were a bit too high-brow for me, I really connected to the personal essays in the first two sections of the book. Among these pieces are essays about Lopate’s childhood in a Brooklyn ghetto, sibling rivalry, his attempts to create precious memories for his daughter, and why he remains a baseball fan.

One of my favorite pieces was “Tea at the Plaza,” in which Lopate recounts his and his wife’s attempts to create “perfect memories” for their daughter. Both parents grew up in working-class families, and they wanted to give her the luxuries they didn’t have as children. They take her on a carriage ride through Central Park (which ends abruptly when she begs to ride the merry-go-round), Broadway shows (where she falls asleep), and high tea at the Plaza’s Palm Court. Like many anticipated family outings, this one goes awry. Despite her parents’ careful planning, Lily grows restless, and eventually the whole event is spoiled when she loses the balloon that had been in her possession for five minutes. It’s a humorous look at the futility of trying to manufacture perfect memories for one’s children.

“My Brother the Radio Star” was another favorite of mine. In this essay, Lopate examines the sibling dynamic between himself and his brother, including his conflicting feelings of pride and criticism, admiration and competition. I could easily relate to this essay, as could anyone who has a sibling.

Lopate’s writing is eloquent, thoughtful, and funny at times. Although the critical essays in this collection were over my head, the ones relating to his personal life were intriguing, ponderous, and relatable. An older, more mature reader who is familiar with Lopate’s film and literary subjects would probably enjoy the critical pieces very much.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

  • I’m sure I’d enjoy the personal essays a lot more than the critical essays as well. I’m glad you enjoyed most of this one πŸ˜‰

    • If it was all personal essays, I would have loved this collection πŸ™‚

  • I’ve never heard of the author and apart from articles and essays related to my literature lessons, I’ve never read a collection of them. I should though. If it counts, I’ve never heard of those authors he mentions either.

    • I hadn’t heard of the author before, either, but he’s published quite a few novels/poetry collections/essay collections and edited multiple anthologies. I’d like to start reading essays on a regular basis, but my Norton Reader weighs like five pounds and I’m afraid of it, hah!

  • I might have to get this one just for the “Tea at the Plaza” essay–love a good New York essay, and parents trying too hard, well, all parents can relate, I think. Thanks for the great review!

    • All of the essays about family are really delightful πŸ™‚