Saturday, September 11, 2010

Merrily Rolling Along

I think I've figured out another problem with writing "regular" reviews, which is that I'm way more interested in writing about a book while I'm in the middle of it than when I finish.  What I want to talk about is the experience of reading it, not the experience of having read it.  But the former turns into the latter as soon as you finish, and then I feel like, well, I'm glad I read it.  What do you want me to say?

Whereas right now--well, let's talk about Between Silk and Cyanide.  Leo Marks clearly knew when he was writing the book that most of the people who picked it up would do so because his father ran Marks & Co., the bookstore located at 84, Charing Cross Road.  If you are not familiar with the book by Helene Hanff, run out and get it right now.  Seriously.  I'll wait.  If you're reading a book blog, you need to have read this book.

Anyway, Leo Marks.  He has an audience built in, and he plays to them by mentioning the bookstore way more often than a book about spies and secret codes in World War II justifies.  I know I wouldn't have heard of the book if not for 84 CCR, but I'm enjoying it for itself. 

It's mostly a memoir, which is probably for the best, since I often have trouble with histories.  And it's not flawless--if what you're looking for is a book you can follow, and broad information about Signals and spies in WWII, then this probably isn't the place.  If, however, you're like me and you want a string of funny and fascinating anecdotes about an amazing place and time in history, well, there we are.

Marks was a 22 year old graduate who was sent to code school and nearly flunked out.  Headstrong, mouthy, funny, and completely unable to accept the idea that someone else was in charge and doing something he disapproved of, he's a great narrator.  Cocky, sure, but assuming he's not fudging the facts, he's also pretty amazing. 

I wasn't kidding about not being able to follow it.  There are a handful of "characters" who he works with and who are consistent in the book, but there are dozens and dozens of other people who you only meet for one encounter, then maybe hear about by their code name half a book later.  Who's a colonel, and what was he in command of in July?  Who knows?  But when you need to remember someone, he gives you enough clues, and if you lay back and roll with it, you realize that it doesn't really matter who Wilson is (the same guy who denied your personnel request?  Or was he the guy who kicked you out of coding school?)--you have enough info to know what you think of Wilson right now and what his relationship to Marks is--that's enough.

Witty, urgent, firmly British and lovingly Jewish, this is a book to meander through, learn about code breaking, and watch a genius (in his own mind, and I'm pretty sure in real life) at work.

1 comment:

Mrs N said...

I loved this book. I loved it. I desperately wanted to read more about codes and spying but then realized anything else would probably disappoint me. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.