Literary Review

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.

The Sign of the Four: Elementary Existentialism

Sign of Four

"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 Prolific Georges Simenon

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.

Short Sharp Shocker

short.jpgShortness 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.

Have Yourself Committed

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.

Mad Ave Time Machine

Ad ManConsider 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.

The Wicked Witch of the West Village

Wicked PavilionSometimes you still see them, lurking around Greenwich Village, scurrying past Starbucks and Duane Reade drugstores under their crumpled fedoras, ink-smeared newspapers in their gnarled hands, ghosts. These are the living reminders of the days when any artist, intellectual, blowhard, genius, fakir, poet, or debutante with a diploma from one of the 'Seven Sisters' and a penchant for hard liquor and brittle conversation could turn the world on its head --all within a half-mile radius of Washington Square. That scene was even far gone when Dawn Powell wrote her satiric elegy to it in 1954. But it rings true today, not just as a nostalgia-trip, but as an x-ray of the way people, especially that unique subspecies known as New Yorkers, live and work and make love and generally get on with life.

Poetry of Perception and Power

This is a slim, beautiful chapbook of twenty poems by Victoria Sullivan of one or two pages each, accompanied by photos by Barbara Milman. Though the photos and the poems are not specifically related or aligned, they share a Zen-like artistic sensibility that makes them work well together.

Sullivan (an occasional CultureCatch contributor) maintains homes in both New York City and Saugerties; it is the latter location, where she is in constant contact with nature, that most informs the tone of this book. She is a poet of a certain age; she has lived, and loved, and lost, and learned. In the latter category, she has acquired the wisdom -- partly thanks to Buddhism, one guesses based on direct references, not least the brilliant poem titled "Zen" that closes the volume -- of acceptance and non-attachment without overdoing either.

Sterner Measures

stern.jpgAt the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the '60s, if you owned a farm or an orchard within 50 miles of a major city, you were one happy camper. That's because, in the flash of a checkbook, you were rich rich rich. Which probably explains why there are no books about the plight of a suburban farmer getting a huge wad of cash to let his cornfield or pear orchard be turned into "Revolutionary Estate" or "Laurel Hills"or "Old Orchard," and why, at the same time, there were so many written about the poor displaced city people (mostly men) who had to trade in the bubbling, cosmopolitan, ethnic stew or the big town (mostly New York) for suburban bliss. Well, not exactly bliss. Well, to be precise, damn far from bliss -- more like mind-numbing, mind-addling, mind-breaking fear, longing, and horror.

Prime Time

Jean BrodieIt's hell revisiting things that school has rubbed smooth. You know, books you had to read, plays you had to act in, essays you had to write. Not only do they seem, when you think about them, about as edgy as tapioca, they inevitably bring to mind the gray-skinned, watery-eyed, crunchy-haired teachers who harangued you about them, the five-page papers you had to write about them, the paperback books you wanted to crumble to pieces that held them. It's hard to believe that before they were anesthetized by the school district, these books were -- often -- art. They were shots across the bow of society by men and women who cared, about life. Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a prime case. Forget the movie. Forget the tests and the quizzes.