Sunday, February 05, 2006

Saturday book review

Bearing in mind the discussion on Books, Inq. about stand-alone newspaper book-review supplements, I read Saturday's Times with particular interest this week. The Books supplement started out badly with a cover picture of Jordan with a caption "model wife, model mother". However, what appeals to me about the stand-alone Books section, apart from the su doku and crossword, is the ecelcticism of it, so I just ignored the article with the header about how Jordan is "a real person who has made it on her own" (sack that sub). Other articles didn't catch my fancy either, but a couple did. One was an article by the author John Irving about Kurt Vonnegut's autobiography (if KV could write anything in a definable category, which I doubt). Surprisingly, Irving's article seems to have been written de novo for the Times rather than having been reprinted from a US publication. The article was fascinating: how could it not be with such a subject? I have enjoyed a couple of John Irving's books -- Garp was so magnificently elegaic and almost unbearably tragic (or so I thought when I read it, a very long time ago), but nothing else I have read by him comes close. Rather like Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse 5, actually, but I am sure that similarity was not why Irving had been commissioned to write the piece. An article in a newspaper by an author about another author is usually a good bet, and this piece is no exception to the rule. Irving made great use of his 1000 words, and of course you don't get many subjects like Vonnegut. The fact that KV had been a teacher of Irving gave the article authenticity (a bit like Lodge on Bradbury a week or two earlier). A journalist could have written a good article but it would have been different; the stand-alone books section provides an opportunity for weekend essays such as this, which aren't really pieces of journalism, and perhaps don't belong in daily newspapers when speed-reading is necessary. There was some lovely stuff about semi-colons (KV doesn't believe in them), thoughtful vignettes about Hamlet, and a great line or two, for example the team of Martian anthropologists who have been studying Earth for 10 years and still do not understand things about American culture: "what can it possibly be about blowjobs and golf?". One section jarred significantly: Irving discusses some of KV's thoughts about the six-day war, and adds what seems to be a gratuitous paragraph of his own, 100 per cent pro Israel and anti "Hamas" and the Palestinians. I'm not going to go there, except to say that Irving's somewhat hysterical diatribe about refusal of Hamas to recognise the state of Israel, etc, should surely at least acknowledge that not a lot of people recognise Palestine either (it is always "Palenstinian Authority" in Internet dropdown menus for one thing). Nevertheless, KV is very funny on the six-day war, with Nassar and Hussein's assertion that British and American aircraft must have helped the Israelis. Contemporary events bear out KV's line: "The only way Israel could have lost the six-day war was with American and British assistance". Irving's article epitomises why I like these supplements. I would never have come across the Vonnegut autobiography any other way. I may not buy it or read it, but I may. The article by Irving was well-argued (apart from "that" paragraph), thoughtful and interesting, with a touch of nostalgia for that "Slaughterhouse 5" discovery moment - it is one of those books that is just different.