Friday, January 30, 2015

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007)

The Debbie Downers, my "only sad books" book club, selected a real downer for our latest read, Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007).

The book goes back and forth between the present and the past. First we have the story of Sarah, the daughter of Jewish Polish immigrants living in Paris in 1942. The family is taken as part of the Vel' d'Hiv roundup (something I'd never really heard of before), where French police took entire families, locked them in the Vel' d'Hiv for days without food or water, then shipped them to work camps, separated the fathers from their families and then the mothers from their children, and ultimately sent everyone to Auschwitz. It is a particularly grim part of French history since the atrocities were committed not by the Nazi's, but by Frenchmen. When the police knock on Sarah's door, she hides her 4-year-old brother Michel in a secret crawlspace that they often used to play in and the police do not find him. She takes the key with her, assuming that they will be back in a few hours when the police finish with them.

Interspersed with Sarah's story, we have the story of modern-day journalist Julia Jarmond. Julia is an American who married a Parisian and has lived in Paris for almost 20 years with her husband and daughter. She has a passionate but rocky marriage that is pushed to the breaking point when she finds out she is pregnant again (at 45, after multiple miscarriages) and decides to keep the baby even though her husband does not want them to have it. Julia gets sucked into Sarah's story when she discovered that the apartment that her husband has recently inherited from his grandmother had belonged to Sarah's family when they were taken by the police in 1942. She doggedly tracks down information about the roundup and Sarah's family and brings Sarah's story into the present day.

The plot with Julia and her husband was pretty ham-fisted and the husband really couldn't be more of a one-dimensional jerk. Still, as the book moves forward, Julia becomes a more and more sympathetic character, and I found myself getting caught up in her story as much as I was in Sarah's. I've been trying really hard to figure out if this book was originally published in French or English (I'm finding contradictory information on that). de Rosnay is French, but her mother is English and she spent some of her youth in the U.S. She lives in Paris and writes in both French and English. I'm going to use the fact that English is not her primary language to excuse some of the sappy dialogue and occasionally flat phrase. Luckily the horrific plot of Sarah and her family is enough to keep the reader going through some rough spots.

Overall this is a worthwhile book, perhaps more for the historical part of its story than for its writing style or the modern half of the plot. Learning about the Vel' d'Hiv and confronting a less familiar part of the horror of the Holocaust was something that I'm glad I did. And man, it certainly fit the bill for a sad sad sad sad book.

[This was made into a movie by a French director in 2011 starring Kristin Scott-Thomas. If the trailer is anything to go by, it looks like they make the shitty husband / impending baby part of the plot pretty minor.]

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ghost World: Special Edition by Daniel Clowes (2008)

This next read is another fabulous selection from the St. Denis lending library: Ghost World: Special Edition by Daniel Clowes (2008).

Like many people, I had read the original collection of Ghost World comics right around the same time Terry Zwigoff's movie came out, in 2001, and really enjoyed them. This ultra deluxe edition brings together the original comics, the screen play from the movie, annotations and essays by Clowes and Zwigoff, and lots of extra material.

Reading the comics and then immediately reading the screenplay really highlights the differences between the two stories. I don't read many screenplays, so it was fun to throw my brain into that exercise and draw connections between my memories of the movie and the experience of reading the comics all in one go. I find movie Edith a lot more sympathetic, and the ending a little softer, but I'm not sure which way I like better. Both works (the comics and the movie) are pretty great, and this is an example of the rare occurrence of both a movie and book being great, but in different ways.

I'm not sure how Clowes gets the weirdness of being a teenage girl quite right (except that maybe the weirdness of being a teenage boy isn't all that different), but he really really does. Let's all use this review as an excuse to revisit one of my favorite Aimee Mann songs, "Ghost World" (which gets in my head every time I pick up this book), and really just dig into that lonely teenage melancholy:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bring Him Back Dead by Day Keene (1956)

It's no secret that I have a soft spot for pulpy novels, and even though this copy of Bring Him Back Dead by Day Keene (1956) was practically falling apart at the seams when I found it at the used bookstore, I had to bring it home and give it a read.

Andy Latour is from one of the oldest families in the Louisiana town of French Bayou, a sleepy place made frantic by a recent oil boom. Unfortunately, Latour's land is one of the only parcels with a dry well and he is left to support his beautiful new Russian wife (who he met while he was in the service) on his paltry salary as Deputy Sheriff. While other members of the force are raking in the bucks through bribes, Latour plays it clean and that makes him the least popular member of the force, both with his colleagues and with the criminally minded population of the boom town.

After a shitty day where he was shot at three times by an unseen assailant, Latour has some serious sex with his beautiful wife that, afterwards, makes him feel even shittier since he is certain that she resents his lack of oil wealth. That shitty mood is made only shittier when he runs into his wife's drunk and mooching brother in the living room on his way back out to take care of some police business. He is worried about the young and beautiful wife of an old town drunk that he drove back to their isolated trailer after the drunk husband caused a scene in the middle of town. There has been a serial rapist attacking women in the town and he feels the young woman is a target. He also feels like he needs to clear the air with her after they had a mutually desired near-assignation in her trailer with her husband passed out in the corner. He had made some vague plans to meet her later, but now regrets that planned infidelity and wants to tell her so.

When he gets to the trailer he knocks on the door and tells the young woman who he is. Then, suddenly, he is hit over the head and knocked out. When he comes to, he is in the police station, accused of murdering the old drunk and violently raping his wife. Since no one really likes him, no one believes that he didn't do it, and someone who wants him dead is going around town riling up the drunks to rush the jail and hang him as an act of mob justice. No one but Latour himself can get him out of this jam and figure out who the real violent criminal is before he strikes again.

This is a great pulpy novel with a nicely used gulf coast location. The action is convincing, the characters are complicated, and the twists are satisfying. I figured out the main mystery just a page or so before it was revealed which, for this reader, is perfect timing. The author, Day Keene, was a prolific writer of radio shows and pulp stories and novels, and I look forward to seeking him out on the paperback shelves in the future. If you like 1950s crime fiction, then this is for you.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Amazing Screw-on Head and Other Curious Objects by Mike Mignola (2010)

The Amazing Screw-on Head and Other Curious Objects by Mike Mignola (2010) is my next entry in my journey through my friend John's books.

This is a collection of off-beat one-off comics by the creator of Hellboy. The title comic has more of a super hero bent to it (with The Amazing Screw-on Head saving the world from the machinations of the evil Emperor Zombie), but all the pieces in the collection share the same Victorian horror stylings, dark palates, and sly sense of humor.

I have to admit, my first spin through this one I was amused but not super engaged. The super hero format leaves me a little cold and the other comics, while sort of interesting, seemed more like drawing exercises than a coherent work. After reading Mignola's author notes at the end I went back through the book a second time and got a lot more out of it. Mignola is definitely a fan boy darling, but once I set that aside and jumped into his dark sense of humor and detailed gothic drawings, I really enjoyed this collection.

The main story was originally published in 2002, and after a quick Google search I just learned that a pilot for an animated series based on the comic starring Paul Giamatti, David Hyde Pierce, and Patton Oswalt.  was made in 2006, but never picked up. I haven't watched it yet, but I'm planning to check it out on YouTube when I can.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz (2014)

My latest LibraryThing Early Reviewers book is The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz (2014). And who could resist a title like that? I'm a fan of the history of science, AND a fan of Sherlock Holmes, so this seemed like just the pick for me.

Robert Koch was a late-19th century provincial German doctor with an interest in the brand new, and at the time very controversial, field of microbiology. In his home laboratory, he developed skepticism-proof methods for studying the mysterious anthrax epidemic that would regularly overtake area livestock and proved that the illness was caused by a bacteria. This gave him a footing on the national science scene and put him head-to-head with France's Pasteur, who was working in the same field from a slightly different angle. When Pasteur developed a vaccine for anthrax based on Koch's work without giving Koch what he thought was his due, the two men started a serious feud. They went back and forth, topping each other with discoveries and methods in their respective labs, until Koch played his royal flush -- a potential cure for the most deadly and inescapable disease of the era, tuberculosis (or "consumption.")

Arthur Conan Doyle (not "Sir" yet) was a late-19th century provincial British doctor who also had an interest in the new-fangled "germ theory." When Koch let the scientific world know he was going to unveil his big discovery in Berlin, Doyle dropped everything and secured some money to go to Berlin and see for himself, covering the announcement as a journalist. Doyle couldn't actually get a ticket in to see Koch, but he did get to tour his laboratories and speak to other medical men of the day about the announcement and read their notes. Unfortunately for Koch, his desire for glory led him to muddle some of his skepticism-proof methods and his premature announcement led to disappointment when the remedy didn't end up being much of a remedy at all. Doyle saw this sooner than most and wrote a well-reasoned piece upon his return to London laying out his reasoning.

At that point, the rising career of Koch began to fall (although he still ended up being a very well-respected scientist) and the humble medical career of Doyle turned into the sky-rocketing success of writing short stories and novels featuring a certain Mr. Holmes fellow. Doyle's tragedy is desperately wanting to be known as a serious novelist. Even when he tried to kill his hero, the public demand for Holmes' return led publishers to make Doyle an offer he couldn't refuse and bring the observant detective back to life.

These are two very interesting and influential lives, and Goetz gives them a nicely researched treatment. While Goetz's writing style wasn't always my thing, the content really carries this book and sucks the reader in. I think the conceit of Koch having any real impact on Doyle's career or Doyle on Koch's is a little far-fetched -- both men were medical doctors, they were in Berlin together (but didn't meet), and Doyle published a piece doubting Koch's claims (which Koch probably never read). Both men were also affected by tuberculosis (Koch through his work and Doyle by his wife's illness), but so were the majority of people in the late 19th century. Still, bringing the two men together shines an interesting light on each career that wouldn't have been there otherwise, and emphasizing some kind of cosmic connection sounds really great on the back of the book.

This is a good one if you are interested in medical history, some context for the 1800s, or if you just really really love Sherlock Holmes. Slight downgrade for the uneven writing style, but still worth checking out.