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July 22, 2014

Book ’em: A Review of Three Very Different Books

Whooo-EEE, talk about damage! I just finished reading That Woman, by Anne Sebba, a biography of Wallis Simpson, also known as the Duchess of Windsor. Total wack-job, and that’s the technical term.

I don’t really recommend the book, if only because it’s rather long on innuendo and short on actual facts. (Exactly what kind of sexual weirdness are we talking about here? I mean…did she have a penis? Also, did she or did she not learn certain fabulous Oriental Secrets of Love during her years in China, secrets that would later allow her to hold the Duke – known, apparently with good reason, as the “Little Man” – in more than just the palm of her hand?) But for someone like me who reads nonfiction the way other people read novels (I read novels for work), this was cheap thrills on steroids. MAN but these people were awful. The Duke – that’s the King of England as was, you understand – was so lacking in any moral sense, so entirely self-absorbed, that more than one senior official thought he was certifiably insane and should be in a locked ward. The two of them together made “profoundly stupid” into an art form; it was noted by a number of guests that neither of their houses in France contained a single book. And then there’s the famous photo of the two of them beaming happily at Hitler. It’s like “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” with better accents.

I fell into this overly perfumed cesspit after splashing gleefully in a vat of soy sauce, courtesy of Matthew Amster-Burton’s Pretty Good Number One, about the month that he and his family spent eating, roughly, everything in Tokyo. I love this book. Amster-Burton is equally nuts about Tokyo, Japanese food, and his six-year-old daughter, and his delight in all three of them just jumps off the page. The Duke and Duchess (see above) were, among other delightful things, a matched set of anorexics, which made my transition to their world – after Amster-Burton’s warm bath of yum – even more of a culture-shock.

I’m also loving my current read: Martin Booth’s Goldenboy, about his childhood in the Hong Kong of the early 1950s. Anyone who knows today’s Hong Kong, which makes Manhattan look like a sparsely populated corner of Montana, will be amazed at his descriptions of the open vistas, the almost bucolic landscape of Kowloon. Interestingly, Booth is particularly good at remembering smells, so much so that I am reminded of how important they are to a child’s world; he’s not judgmental about them so much as very specific, from the mix of engine-oil and curry and sweat that characterized the Corfu (the ship that took a month to carry Booth and his parents from England to Hong Kong) to the opium-and-dirty-feet stink of the crazed White Russian refugee, convinced that she is Anastasia and he is Alexei Romanov, heir to the Russian Imperial throne. Goldenboy is vivid and fascinating, and I can’t wait to read more.



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