Five Best (Book Reviews)

Wall Street Journal
August 30, 2008

1. Portuguese Irregular Verbs
By Alexander McCall Smith
Anchor, 2003

British author Alexander McCall Smith, best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mystery series, reliably brings a light touch to his work, but he gives his comedic instincts full rein in the series named for its first entry, “Portuguese Irregular Verbs.” Smith was a longtime law professor at the University of Edinburgh, and here he follows the adventures of Prof. Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, an expert in the Portuguese language who feels that he hasn’t been accorded the sort of professional respect he deserves. His attempts to correct that shortfall invariably end in priceless indignities — as when von Igelfeld, on a visit to Fayetteville, Ark., is mistaken for a German veterinarian and finds himself about to operate on a dog.

2. Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia
By Mark Salzman
Random House, 1995

From the opening line of this hilarious, poignant memoir about growing up in Ridgefield, Conn., it’s clear that Mark Salzman is a decidedly unusual suburban kid. “When I was thirteen years old,” he begins, “I saw my first kung fu movie, and before it ended I decided that the life of a wandering Zen monk was the life for me.” Salzman’s hapless quest includes purple pajamas, a bald wig, incense and a sadistic martial-arts teacher. He entwines his misadventures with stories about his family, in particular his father, who does his best to understand his son’s unusual aspirations.

3. Tartarin of Tarascon
By Alphonse Daudet

For good reason, Henry James called Alphonse Daudet “the happiest novelist of his day” and “beyond comparison the most charming story-teller.” In “Tartarin of Tarascon,” Daudet tells the story of a big-hearted braggart who reads travel books and dreams of hunting lions. But then Tartarin actually embarks on a journey to “the Orient” (read: the eastern Mediterranean region), and he takes one cultural pratfall after another. The book shows how little has changed in the division between the Arab world and the West — but also, alas, how some things are not at all the same. While visiting Algeria, Tartarin delivers a mock sermon in garbled Arabic, proclaiming that Muhammad is a joker not worth an eggplant. What no doubt earned Daudet plenty of laughs at the time would bring him a fatwa today.

4. My Uncle Napoleon
By Iraj Pezeshkzad, translated by Dick Davis
Mage, 1996

It’s difficult to exaggerate the popularity in Iran during the 1970s of “Dayee Jon Napoleon” — both the novel and the TV comedy series based on it. Literally translated as “Dear Uncle Napoleon” but called “My Uncle Napoleon” in its English version, the story centers on three Tehran families in the 1940s living under the thumb of an egotistical patriarch who believes himself the incarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte. He is also extremely paranoid, believing, among other things, that the British are responsible for all of Iran’s misfortunes. To this day, Iranians use the phrase “Uncle Napoleon” to describe a conspiracy theorist. The book and TV series were of course banned in Iran after the 1979 revolution — ensuring their popularity with a new generation.

5. The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol
By Eric A. Kimmel
Holiday House, 1995

Hershel of Ostropol is a traditional figure in Jewish humorous tales set in 19th-century Ukraine, stories in this case “retold” by Eric A. Kimmel. But the exploits of the clever, impoverished nomad who lives by his wits have a universal appeal. It is Hershel who is credited with the sardonic line: “God must love poor people. Why else would he make so many of them?” Intended for younger readers, “The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol” is a wonderful introduction to the pleasures of irony, but it is also a book that this adult — a fortysomething Iranian Muslim (now married to a French Catholic) — devoured with joy.


This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on August 30, 2008.