Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hills of Virginia

Josh Weil was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and according to his bio he now “divides his time between New York City and a cabin in southwestern Virginia, where he is at work on a novel”. It's easy to tell that he has a strong connection to the rugged hill country between Virginia and West Virginia where the three novellas of The New Valley take place. The remoteness and stark beauty of the landscape seem to color the lives of each of the main characters. These are isolated men trying to make human connections, and their stories are sometimes amusing but more often haunting and heartrending.

There's something reminiscent of Ron Carlson or Daniel Woodrell in his powerful descriptions of decent but inarticulate men and unforgiving nature, but some of Weil's characters are unconventional enough to remind me a little of Flannery O'Connor. Make no mistake, these are not upbeat tales. Not recommended for readers who like uplifting endings, but I look forward to reading the novel that emerges from that remote cabin.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Little Jewel

I'm always looking for book ideas, so when I stumbled onto a link to Time magazine summer reading recommendations from 23 authors (Pack Your (Book) Bag) I was happy to explore it. Some recommendations were for books not yet published, some were for books I'd already read, some just didn't appeal to me.

But Deborah Eisenberg's choice of Skylark, written by  Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolanyi in 1924, was really intriguing. Here's her description: “On the surface, it seems very simple and local, the story of a homely girl in a small Hungarian town, but it is electrifying, hilarious and unbelievably painful. It encapsulates just about all of human experience, like a magic diorama you enter that becomes absolutely real and endless.”

I completely agree. This poignant short novel, covering a week in the life of a simple family, reaches from comedy to tragedy and touches universal themes so subtly and honestly that I was overwhelmed. If you're interested, don't read anything else about it, just dive in and let it carry you.

PS: You've probably all experienced earworms, those annoying commercial jingles or cheesy sitcom themes that won't leave your brain. Lucky me. My earworm for the past ten days has been the beautiful Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer jazz classic “Skylark”. Check it out on iTunes – Carmen McCrae and Tony Bennett have great classic versions, beautiful instrumentals by Wynton Marsalis and Art Blakey, and k.d. Lang's version is a knockout.

Monday, July 11, 2011

How can the deaf understand sound?

Have you ever wondered about deafness? How does one live in a silent world? In Myron Uhlberg's "Hands of My Father", a memoir about growing up the hearing son of two deaf parents, he tries to answer his father's questions about the nature of sound. "Does sound have rhythm? Does it rise and fall like the ocean?" Myron's father Louis expresses himself using his hands, face and body, methods which are just as powerful as speech. But those who cannot understand sign are cut off from much of his communication. Heartbreakingly, this includes Louis' own parents and siblings.
Young Myron, born in 1933, is the bridge between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf, interpreting each to the other as soon as he can speak aloud and sign. He cycles back and forth between adult responsibilities and childhood desires, even being first intermediary for the needs of his infant brother.
This is a sweet, loving story of a family with special challenges and special bonds. The deaf parents have rich and complex interactions but spend their lives isolated from the world outside. Their son takes on huge responsibilities yet his life is immeasurably enhanced by his unique perspective.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Poison in Manhattan

Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a book with something for everyone. At its heart it is the story of New York City's first medical examiner Charles Norris, and his toxicologist Alexander Gettler. At the time of Norris’s appointment in 1918 the coroner's office was run by incompetent political cronies with no background in medicine or science. The two men worked tirelessly to turn the office into a model of forensic science. But don't be fooled by that dry description.

Each chapter has a poison as its title, and each chronicles events where poison plays a role. Are you a fan of CSI? The two men use their skills to discover murders by poison (chloroform) and to exonerate the innocent (thallium).

Are you interested in the history of New York City during prohibition? Blum takes you through the traffic clogged streets of Manhattan (carbon monoxide) and into the speakeasies (methyl alcohol). And if you've never understood the role of the US government in enforcing prohibition by endangering the lives of its citizens, you'll be interested in the story of this marriage of chemistry and politics.

Do you like stories about unlikely heroes? There could hardly be an odder couple than the patrician Norris, a blue-blooded descendant of bankers, and the Hungarian Jewish immigrant Gettler, who loved betting on the horses, and whose Irish Catholic in-laws brewed beer throughout Prohibition one floor below his flat.

Are you a science geek? Blum explains in detail the chemical makeup of the poisons and the lab tests used to detect them. (I skipped some of this).

All in all, I found it an entertaining and informative read.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Twelve Years Later

In John Burnham Schwartz's 1998 novel “Reservation Road” a fatal hit-and-run accident has occurred and the story revolves around two fathers – the father of the victim and the driver of the car. Schwartz's new book Northwest Corner picks up the story twelve years later. I didn't read the first novel, and although I started to watch the movie (I'm a big Mark Ruffalo fan), the death of a child and its aftermath was just too dark for me and I bailed.

But when I started reading the sequel I was immediately drawn in. The short (sometimes less than a page) chapters jump between the points of view of five characters: Dwight Arno, the hit-and-run driver who has served prison time and moved to California, his college age son Sam, who was in the car when the crime was committed but was lied to by his father about what had happened, Dwight's ex-wife Ruth, his quasi girlfriend Penny, and Emma, a classmate of Sam's and sister of the accident victim. The most powerful chapters deal with Dwight and Sam. Both father and son are still reeling from the accident and its aftermath. Their emotions are raw, their judgments are flawed, and they are capable of doing to damage to each other. It can be painful to watch as they struggle with their demons, but I couldn't look away.

For me Dwight Arno belongs to Flawed But Decent Male school of Updike's Rabbit Angstrom and Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe. If you didn't find much sympathy for those characters you might want to skip this book. But I was drawn to Schwartz's minimalist style and his ability reveal the humanity in all his characters.