A few people told me I’ve been a little rough on the New York Times Book Review regular critics, who are after all just mortal humans doing their literary best. Yes, this is probably true. Thankfully, I liked this week’s edition just fine.
The cover of today’s Book Review is devoted to Suite Francaise, a newly published set of fictional documents by the Ukranian/French writer Irene Nemirovsky, who died at Auschwitz in 1942. Paul Gray’s review stresses the immediacy of these works, which transformed the murderous horrors of Nazi-conquered France into art exactly as they were taking place. Only time will tell if this is an important text, but this prominent review makes a strong case for it.
Thomas Mallon’s lively exposition of Stephen Harrigan’s Challenger Park, a realistic novel about love and marriage and infidelity among NASA space-shuttle staffers and astronauts makes me want to read the book even though I almost certainly won’t. I like lines like: “when desire does get the better of them, Harrigan fast-forwards past most of the sex, as if he knows it would be a waste of fuel.”
Liesl Schillinger does her usual excellent job in making me care about Elinor Lipman’s My Latest Grievance, which is about a teenage girl with unconventional parents who discovers a family secret, and Terrence Rafferty generously strives to place the career of Portugese magical-absurdist Jose Saramago in context. I will be looking for Saramago’s new novel Seeing, based on this review.
Other good stuff: Christopher Corbett on Emily Barton’s Brookland, Eve Conant on Marti Leimbach’s novel about a family with an autistic child, Daniel Isn’t Talking, and Charles McGrath’s enticing introduction to British humorist Alan Bennett’s new collection, Untold Stories. Griel Marcus phones in his review of Jason Shinder’s essay collection Howl: The Poem That Changed America, but D. H. Tracy does a better job with On Earth, the summary collection of the late great Robert Creeley’s final works. “On Earth carries on the emergence of rhyme and form in Creeley’s later work, going so far as doggerel, and there is even an entire poem that scans.”
All the above stuff is good, but it just wouldn’t feel like Sunday if I didn’t complain about something, so let’s talk about the endpaper. This is great journalistic real estate, but it’s wasted, week after week, on one of two things: a predictable attempt at satire that always falls limp (the New York Times Book Review is not McSweeneys nor The Onion and we don’t even want it to be) or a plain, workmanlike sociological essay. Today’s offering, “Where Have All The Strivers Gone,” Joseph Finder’s study of the role of wealth and aspiration in contemporary fiction, is the very model of dullness. It’s not bad; it’s just not exceptional enough for this space, and that seems to be the case week after week.
Maybe the editors should toss out that dusty old rolodex and try to find fresher new voices somewhere entirely new. For instance, I can think of at least fifteen bloggers who could turn out a more dynamic two-thousand words, on a day’s notice.