After spending most of last week working on annotations for our Fanfare list, I read the NYT 100 Notable Books of the Year with new eyes. We'll ignore the fact that the list ignores children's books; what I was fixed on were the annotations of the titles. Some are purely descriptive, such as the one for Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue: "Ali's second novel revolves around the inhabitants of a southern Portuguese village." (At least creating a breeze, one hopes!) Many speak to theme (Lisa Fugard's Skinner's Drift: A white farm family is the foreground of this novel; behind it, the sins of South Africa"). Surprisingly few--maybe a dozen--attempt to note why a particular book is notable or even good: Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children is called "nimble," and Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower is "vivid." The block-that-metaphor award goes to the annotator of Allegra Goodman's Intuition: "A cancer researcher's dubious finding sets off a tidal wave that carries many people away."
But God knows, annotating a list is hard work, the haiku of book reviewing. Not only do you have to express a lot in few words, you have to watch out for mindless repetition. I like to remember Betsy Hearne's rule of reviewing: "The use of the words charming, beautiful, or interesting will be allowed on a one-time basis only."