Literary Review

Mean Greene Machine

greene.jpgTravels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

Sometime in the late 1960s (1969 to be exact), when Philip Roth was ripping it up with raw liver, Graham Greene -- lauded, praised, lionized - kicked back and created one of his greatest "entertainments," Travels with My Aunt. He has confessed in interviews that this was his most pleasurable writing experience, and all I can say, as a reader, it certainly delivers on the pleasure principal. Interestingly, Greene's Aunt Augusta calls to mind that other great literary free-wheeling aunt of mid-century, Auntie Mame. But Augusta's not merely an eccentric globe-hopper. Aged yet spry, her relations are deep, dark, and strange -- as is her relationship with the narrator, surely the most milquetoasty, recently retired, dahlia-cultivating, bachelor bank manager in literature.

Wilt-A-Whirl

Sign of FourWilt by Tom Sharpe

There are a lot of definitions of comedy floating around out there. My personal favorite is the theory of "bad to worse." There's something about watching someone go from bad to worse, but still bring cheerful, even upbeat about it, that just cracks me up. It certainly works in Curb Your Enthusiasm, the reigning heavyweight champ. You'll also see it on The Simpsons. Family Guy, ditto. The hell with the three-act, Robert McKee, story-structure hoo-haa. Instead of getting someone up a tree, throwing sticks at him, and getting him back down again, in comedy, for me, it's just about throwing sticks at him. Then trees. Then the whole frickin' Great North Woods. You get the idea.

Woodman's Muse

Woodman's MuseI was flipping through an old magazine and I came across this quote. "I remember the first person I ever laughed at while reading was Max Shulman." I might not have paid any more attention to it than I usually do to denture adhesive ads or reports of alien abductions, except that the person who said it was Woody Allen. And when the Woodman talks, people listen. Well, at least people in the person of me.

But Max who? I Googled away: 1950s writer, originally from Minneapolis, wrote the novel the groundbreaking TV sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was based on. Yeah. And a week or so later, walking past a used book kiosk, there it was. Goofy, '50s New Yorker-style cover.

Big Biswas

biswas.jpgMohun Biswas is you. When you finish reading the last line of V. S. Naipaul's novel A House for Mr. Biswas, you will feel like a part of your body -- your arm maybe, possibly your leg -- has been removed. Lopped off. Severed. The presence of Mr. Biswas, this ornery, feisty, mean, arrogant, flawed man will have so completely taken you over, you will not be the same person ever again. You will be you plus Biswas.

The magic of Naipaul's long novel is that it has life in it. You may not be of Indian descent. You may not be living in Trinidad during the time of English colonialism. You may not be a man. But as soon as you start reading this book, you will be.

I'm Your Biggest Fan

The energy exchange between fans and musicians during live events can be intoxicating, even without mind-altering substances. New York-based photographer Erin Feinberg has perfectly captured that dynamic in her new B&W coffee table book. Moreover, she knows first hand what it is to be a super fan. As a photographer she has "...photographed these congregations from every vantage point -- around the stages, oppressively hot parking lots, muddy festival grounds, intimate clubs, massive stadiums, and often right the middle of the most pits...."

We'll Always Have France

fall_of_franceThe Fall of France by Julian Jackson (Oxford University Press)

History tends to be written by the winners. How interesting and how poignant it is, then, to read a history of loss, specifically the way that France -- glorious, democratic, politically and artistically advanced France -- folded in three weeks' time to the Nazis during the first half of the first year of World War II. Julian Jackson's The Fall of France, while not written with the style of a Nabokov or the wit of a Wodehouse, has the power to shake you to the pit of your stomach, and to make you ask questions that reverberate to the bottom of your soul. And keep turning the pages in a blur all the while.

Dark Light

becomingabigail.jpgWhen is a book not a book? When is a poem a story? When do words jump off the page, grab you by the throat, slap you around, soothe you down, and do it all over again, with the frantic, sensitive, felt power of music? One instance is in the slim novella Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani (Akashic Press). At once enraging and engaging, Abani's book submerges the reader in a tragic character one would never want to be, Abigail. Told prismatically, with alternating short chapters titled "Then" and "Now," it is the tale of a sensitive, innocent young Nigerian woman who endures personal and social tragedy -- only to be "moved" to London, to live with a distant "uncle." But, and here's an important "but," she's not too innocent, she's a real, angry, flawed human being. The book accomplishes so much, in so little time and space. It has a strong narrative pull, without any tricks. It paints musical pictures. It is poetic without being cloying, or self-aware.

Everyman's Complaint

everyman.jpg

"An important book. A landmark book. A book by our greatest living writer. This is the guy that was voted to have personally written almost a quarter of all the greatest American books of the past 25 years. A misogynist, a genius, a comic. A parable, a missive, a diatribe."

Philip Roth's slim book has generated many times its word count in commentary and criticism. A lot of noise. At the end, you look at the words on the page and see what they do to you. One after another after another. All the hoo-ha really means nothing.

Of Beauty In Grey

striped.jpgThe Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. David Fickling Books.

Some small books cleverly conceal the magnitude of their contents, especially one that must be elusive in order to preserve the intricacies of the story. There is little about the blurb to suggest the scope concealed within these pages. Boyne is a young Irish writer, based in Dublin, who has chosen a setting distant in time but universal in impact, and the reader is simply informed that the novel is about a boy, Bruno, and a friendship, and it merits your attention. It is a brave attempt to undersell, because the very essence of the tale rests within a knowledge the child cannot own. It also betrays the publisher's justified assurance of the book's potency.