Reviewing the Review: September 3 2006

I’m totally not interested in Thomas McGuane’s new blast of post-Hemingway fiction, Gallatin Canyon, so I guess I have to give critic Stephen Metcalf credit for writing a review that kept me interested to the end. Likewise to Jennifer Egan, who makes Janet Daney’s broken-family drama First Aid sound fascinating even though I’ll probably never pick up this novel either.

The New York Times Book Review usually does a late summer fadeout around this time, as we brace ourselves for the onslaught of new fall season titles. But this weekend’s issue isn’t a disaster, though it’s not exceptional either. Perhaps the most exciting news to be found in this publication is that Robert Olen Butler has written a book of 62 short stories each told from the point of view of a different decapitated head. Butler got the idea for Severance, critic Tom Barbash tells us, after learning that a sliced head will continue to think for 90 seconds before losing consciousness, and apparently Butler’s book brings us into the decaying awarenesses of John the Baptist, Yukio Mishima, Medusa and a chicken, as well as a Shiite cleric in Iraq and three victims of Henry III. This is certainly a notable concept, though I wish Tom Barbash didn’t end the article with a dumb pun. I’d also like editor Sam Tanenhaus to know that if he’d chosen me to review this book instead of Tom Barbash I would have certainly referenced the scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado in which Pooh-bah sings of an executed criminal:

Now though you’d have said that head was dead
For its owner dead was he
It stood on its neck, with a smile well-bred,
And bowed three times to me
It was none of your impudent off-hand nods,
But as humble as could be;
For it clearly knew
The deference due
To a man of pedigree,
Of pedigree!

And it’s oh, I vow,
This deathly bow
Was a touching sight to see;
Though trunkless, yet
It couldn’t forget
The deference due to me

I also wish Tanenhaus would stop choosing anybody but David Barber to review poetry in the Book Review, since Barber is the only poetry critic who doesn’t routinely screw up the task. Brad Leithauser gets a full page to expound upon W. D. Snodgrass’s new career collection, Not For Specialists, and fails to do anything exceptional with it.

But Richard Brookhiser comes up with a great endpaper, John Adams Talks To His Books, which details the hilarious exchanges found in the marginalia of America’s second president’s book collection. Adams’ notes in volumes of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft are quite remarkable (“Calmness of the passions of savages! ha! ha! ha!” is found in Adams’ copy of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality). One might object that Brookhiser’s article simply summarizes the findings on display in a new Boston Public Library exhibition, “John Adams Unbound”, but in fact few of us will ever see this exhibit, and this is a fine way for the Book Review to use this space.

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