Another corker from the brilliant mind and pen of Ken Krimstein.
The 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.
When 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.
"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.
The 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.
"Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case." I defy you to stop reading a novel that starts like that. The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes novel, from 1890, has an abiding strangeness that hasn't mellowed with the years. In fact, the night after I finished reading it I was the start of a frantic nightmare featuring many of the book's characters, a fearful fever-dream to rival any film noir vision ever committed to celluloid. Sure, there's a fair amount of what could be termed "hoke" in there -- mysterious pygmies, one-legged seamen, pasha's porting treasure.
The Belgian-born Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was a literary phenomenon of the 20th century, giving Balzac a run for his money, at least in terms of output. According to Wikipedia, he wrote over 200 novels plus many shorter works. The New York Times estimates that number (including his memoirs and nonfiction works) as being between 400 and 500. Not unexpectedly then, Simenon is considered by some to be the most successful author of the 20th century, and his creation, Inspector Jules Maigret, who appeared in about 75 works, "ranks only after Sherlock Holmes as the world's best known fictional detective." (I'm not sure how Poirot feels about that.) In preparation for viewing and reviewing six of the celluloid offerings in the series Cine-Simenon: George Simenon on Film, presented by Anthology Archives with Kathy Geritz and the Pacific Film Archive, I nestled down with the textural Simenon, and within a week, I had plowed through five of his works, four featuring Maigret. An addiction had been born.
Shortness has its virtues. In books. And sometimes in life. The theme of growing big (and small) is the slender thread at the heart of George's Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl, best known as a children's author.
Before you finish reading this review, go out, buy The Collected Stories of Roald Dahl (his adult work), and read it.
Ok, now that you've done that, on to George's Marvelous Medicine. A kid's book, but more than that, a good, maybe even great book.
When I read the title of James Braly’s Life in a Marital Institution: 20 Years of Monogamy in One Terrifying Memoir, I thought I was about to embark on a rollicking ride, a voyeuristic opportunity to enjoy the maddening imperfections of someone else’s relationship for a change. Misery loves company, right? The inside of the jacket flap offers "modern adventures in extended breast feeding, co-sleeping," and promises the inside scoop on cumin-roasted placenta. All of this was enough to get jaded, anti-organic people like myself good and revved up.
But what starts out as a ‘you-must-be-joking’ account of ‘she did what??’ soon becomes a portrait of the dysfunctional, yet oddly endearing family life into which Mr. Braly was born. With one sister a high-strung control freak and the other a cheeky, once hard-living druggy darling facing mortality with, ultimately, her own deathbed wedding, to name a few 'colorful' family members, you begin to forget the "institutional" play on words and are left with a single reference to the insanity that has been Braly’s original family life.
Meanwhile, bits and pieces of Braly's marital life seem only to be sprinkled throughout the narrative in relatively limited engagements, and, while the scenes Braly paints of his own family dynamics portray the most hilarious, eccentric, and oftentimes poignant moments, it is the accounts of his own marriage, and how it evolved over the years, that feels in short supply.
Consider 1972. It was a million years ago. People smoked like chimneys in meetings. Drinks, particularly Martinis (See-Throughs), were consumed with reckless abandon, and sanctioned, especially at lunch. Moustaches were not ironic. Nor were sideburns, bell bottom pants, or convertible cars with "built" blondes.
This is the world of The Advertising Man a long out-of-print novel by an advertising copywriter who, in real life, found himself at the heart of Manhattan and the advertising creative revolution, the first era of smart, funny, relevant advertising that popularized a New York sensibility to the entire country. To the entire world.