The New York Times Book Review needs to publish a good slash-up job at least once every few weeks — if nothing else, just to satisfy us bloodthirsty readers and keep us from subscribing to Vanity Fair. This week delivers a good mugging, although you’re likely to miss it if you habitually skip over reviews of Anita Brookner books. Brookner is pounded and left for dead by Times critic Caryn James, who goes so far that she seems to feel sorry for her and tosses in a compliment halfway through (“Brookner can still do what she has always done best: write beautiful, piercingly elegant observations.”) Yeah, okay, let’s get back to kicking the old lady …
I’m sure I enjoyed James’s review more than I would have enjoyed Brookner’s book. Similarly, I enjoyed Terrence Rafferty’s informative and praiseful review of Julian Barnes’s new Arthur and George, a dry postmodern collage regarding an episode in the later life of Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle is a favorite writer of mine, and I’d normally be excited about this book. However, I’ve already read a couple of Barnes’ books (a dry postmodern collage regarding the history of the world, and a dry postmodern collage regarding the writing habits of a french novelist), and despite Rafferty’s compliments this book seems destined to be boring and lead nowhere. I always *want* to read a new Barnes book for its subject matter (and it’s strange that Rafferty says Barnes lacks a signature trait as a writer — surely his signature trait is that he writes about historical events and literary lives), but I am always disappointed to find myself at the end of each book holding a postmodern handful of nothing. So I’ll enjoy the review and skip the book. That way I come out ahead and nobody needs to get hurt.
Elsewhere in today’s issue, we get a good variety of national backgrounds and literary settings. Lorraine Adams praises Palestinian novelist Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, and Bella Bathurst makes Belinda Rathbone’s Scottich oddysey The Guynd sound fascinating. Playwright Athol Fugard’s daughter Lisa Fugard has written a novel, Skinner’s Drift that apparently carries on her father’s mission of capturing South Africa in literary form. We also get Andrew McGahan in Australia and Richard Lyman Bushman on Mormon writer Joseph Smith.
The Book Review’s satirical endpaper seems to have missed its intended venue, which is McSweeney’s. Henry Alford collects and pastes together individual sentences from the acknowledgements sections of numerous books, forming one strange and intentionally meaningless mega-acknowledgement, footnoted with the sources. Okay, clever stuff … but Sam Tanenhaus blows it with an editor’s note at the beginning of the publication that actually explains the endpaper in advance. Not necessary, and this pretty much shows why it is that the Book Review is the Book Review and McSweeney’s is McSweeney’s. I’m really not sure which is worse.