Between the Covers
Holiday Gift Ideas for (Almost) Everyone
By James H. Johnson
Dec 6, 2007

For the Thriller Buff: 

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (among other titles)

Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon

$9.60 – $11.20 at Amazon  

If you know someone with a predilection for thrillers or detective novels, Georges Simenon represents a rare opportunity. He is probably the most famous European writer who American readers have never heard of. In the 1930s, he wrote between three and 12 books a year, down from the 40 he penned in1929. He was prolific and intensely popular, and today is – even in translation – more than accessible enough to thrill any reader.

His major creation, Inspector Maigret, is the Sherlock Holmes of the French-speaking world and comes to life through dozens of Simenon’s novels. He is empathetic to the frailty of the people he investigates; he wears bowlers and smokes a pipe. (Dunhill even named a tobacco brand after him.) In short, Maigret is from another time. Of the Maigret novels, “The Bar on the Seine” and “Lock 14” are especially popular.

Simenon also wrote what he termed “novel-novels,” that is, books with a little more head on them. However heady they may be, these are more thrillers than anything else.

The settings are exotic, but stark and thoroughly noir and the characters are often fascinatingly peculiar. The plots involve a ruse, a murder, shady hotels and loose women, and white winter evenings sullied by puddles of blood. While Dirty Snow is his masterpiece (and a great read) among the “novel-novels,” it’s probably best to start with The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. An upstanding family man is suddenly swindled of his fortune, so he takes flight to commence a maniacal spree of sex and death, until he finally finds himself in a kind of chess match with the police, the newspapers, and possibly all of Paris. 

For the Family Goth, or Any Angst-Ridden Teenager, Really:


David Zane Mairowitz and by Robert Crumb

$10.17 at Amazon

In this graphic biography of the tortured writer, David Zane Mairowitz’s words are fleshed out by Robert Crumb’s illustrations. The two authors’ strengths entwine to recreate an often shocking lifetime search for an acceptable identity.

Kafka’s personal and intellectual struggles were played out in stories and novels that were marked by self-loathing, morbidity, and gloom. His work was defined most, however, by ever-present and tortuous power struggles, through which the protagonists must meander (with the reader in tow) only to find emptiness in the end.

Mairowitz names a new horror for the writer: much to his dismay, Kafka has become “Kafkaesque.” That is to say, he has passed from humanity into the lexicon. Where he was once a man building his prose by looking into the mirror, Kafka has been reduced to nearly nothing – to a mere adjective, in fact, and in his hometown, a t-shirt, a lunchtime tour.

Crumb and Mairowitz re-draw some of Kafka’s essential works as well, which mark the biography’s finest (and most harrowing) moments.

For the Geek:

What Is Your Dangerous Idea?

John Brockman, Ed.

$11.16 at Amazon

Big Brain

Big Idea

John Brockman, Editor

Pulled together 100 leading scientists and scholars and asked them what theories they had that might have a lasting, as well as a dangerous, resonance in the future of human culture.

David Gelernter

How significant is the “info” part of the information age? On the whole, Gelernter says, it’s making us dumber.

Brian Greene

The universes we don’t know about may eventually kill science.

Joel Garreau

Technological transcendence will be a social phenomenon. He also quotes Churchill and Faulkner.

Irene Pepperberg

Differences between humans and nonhumans are blurring, which spurs a reevaluation of how the two groups’ are defined. Animals are more human than we thought, and humans, less so. Speaking of Faulkner: perhaps my mother is a fish, after all.

Freeman Dyson

Biotechnology will become domesticated. Leisure will mean playing with genomes. Basically, in 2020, my children’s Xbox will have to be buried in the backyard because they forgot to feed it. Perhaps they will invent a species of fish and name it after Mom.

Terrence Sejnowski

The Internet is in many ways comparable to the human brain, down to memory capacity and the circadian rhythms it follows. How would we know if it became self-aware? Is it already?

George Dyson

Distinctions between organic and inorganic molecules are, for the purposes of the science, possibly arbitrary. Perhaps my mother is a doorknob.


For the Lit. Nerd:

Novels in Three Lines

Félix Fénéon

Pointillism painting of Feneon

$11.20 at Amazon

Talking heads frequently remark in varying vaguenesses about the public’s news appetite these days: immediate and concise. They might be surprised to learn that at the turn of the 19th Century, newspapers often hired writers to parse incoming news items and reconstruct them into nouvelles en trios lignes. These daily news briefs, whose name translates as “news in three lines” or “novels in three lines,” were succinct and entertaining, shorter than modern-day “News in Brief” sections but longer than the items that roll across news tickers.

Félix Fénéon was employed by the Paris daily Le Matin to write these fait-divers, but he brought a special literary talent to the task. Fénéon was the first to translate James Joyce into French, and he published a literary journal, which in its bylines boasted the names Debussy, Andre Gide, and Marcel Proust, among others. In his spare time, he was a practicing anarchist who befriended the kind of blokes who left pipe bombs on windowsills. Novels in Three Lines compiles Fénéon’s work for Le Matin in 1906 and is composed of 170 pages of the briefs.

At times the lines have a poetic essence to them:

“The schoolchildren of Niort were being crowned. The chandelier fell, and the laurels of three among them were spotted with a little blood.”

Too often, Fénéon crafts his subject to offer the reader his own morbid amusement:

“At 80, Mme Saout, of Lambézellec, Finistère, was beginning to fear that death had forgotten her. While her daughter was out she hanged herself.”

The thumbnail of news always indicates a greater complexity that rests just outside the accessible frame of the story. One can sense the great themes of story-telling crowded about each item’s edges:

“Eugene Perichot, of Pailles, near Saint-Maixent, entertained at his home Mme Lemartrier. Eugene Dupuis came to fetch her. They killed him. Love.”   

For My Buddy Bryan (or Similar Gift Recipients) Who Borrowed My Copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being to Prop Up His Coffee Table’s Broken Leg:

Dead Blow Hammers

$40.95 at Amazon

Slim Line Dead Blow Hammers (Especially the one pictured at top, the SK Hand Tools Slim Line Dead Blow Deep Throat Hammer.)

This totally sweet hammer’s Trucothane construction provides extreme resistance to avoid flying chips and the production of sparks. Its steel canister is welded to the rod and fully encased in the SureGrip handle for power and safety. Also, the canister is filled with shot to counteract the tendency to bounce back. That means the full force of your hammer swing is transferred to the strike point. Each head face features a convex design to reinforce the non-bounce action, and each is cut-resistant. This hammer is made in the U.S.A., presumably with a non-lead-based paint, unlike your other hammer. It has a lifetime warranty – you will NEVER buy another hammer as long as you live (think of the long-term benefits). Plus it comes in a stocking-friendly Bright-Ass Red.

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