At a recent Intertel party I had several conversations about good books, the titles of which I wrote down, subsequently read, liked immensely, and have reviewed below. I could have sworn I remembered who had recommended these, and emailed to thank her, but she said no, she had never heard of them, and neither had her husband, who was also at the party and part of a different conversation. Hmmm.
The Book of Air and Shadows
by Michael Gruber
I really had no other information than the title and author. I started reading, and it sounded like literary fiction. It was brilliantly written, and kept my interest from the start. Eventually it turned into a spectacularly good mystery/thriller.
The plot revolves around a never-known-before Shakespeare play. How to find it, given the obscure and deliberately hidden clues? Once found, is it authentic or fake? Who owns it?
There are three plot threads here: one about the intellectual property lawyer who receives part of the clues for safekeeping and his closest friend, a Columbia professor and eminent Shakespeare scholar; a second thread about the bookbinder and the accountant from a rare book store who discover the clues; and the third thread around the 17th century documents written by a jack of many trades who knew Will the playwright and actor, who tells in a secret journal what the play is about and why it was hidden. The three stories converge gradually, building suspense all the while.
There are lots of interesting characters, plenty of surprise twists, and a healthy dose of humor. It was easily the best novel I'd read in ages.
I hadn't heard of Michael Gruber before and wondered why. I subsequently discovered he had written several other thrillers and decided I wanted to read them in order. See below for more on this.
The second book I wrote down at that party:
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
by David Abram
When our ancestors invented the alphabet several thousand years ago, one of the tradeoffs was the loss of the intimate communication that the people of preliterate, oral cultures seem to enjoy with the world around them. As a skilled sleight-of-hand magician, Abram knows a thing or two about perception and attention. He has a doctorate related to phenomenology and the psychology of perception. (Neither the book jacket or the internet bio I found said exactly what field.) He traveled to Asia to compare notes with shamans from oral cultures in Indonesia and Nepal, sharing sleight-of-hand tricks and seeking to learn something about their healing techniques for ailments considered intractable in the west. He wanted to try to recapture some of the skills in perception and attention that the remaining preliterate cultures still regard as normal, but which literate man has lost.
It is a book of enormous breadth and depth. Abram is an ecologist who cares deeply about the natural world, but he is not to be confused with so-called ecologists like Michael Moore or Al Gore. He is closer in spirit to E. O. Wilson and Dr. Doolittle, and some of his philosophical analysis reminded me of Marshall McLuhan. This book, his first (published in 1996) has been widely described as visionary, and has been steadily gaining fans and advocates. His thought is described by his fans as pointing to a paradigm shift. His second book, Becoming Animal, was published in September 2011.
One of the chapters is a long, deep analysis of phenomenology, emphasizing the philosophy of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. (Abram kindly invites readers to skip this chapter, but I didn't, and found it well worth while.)
More fascinating for the general reader are the author's uncanny experiences with various aspects of the natural world and his explanations of the ways the people of oral cultures communicate with their surroundings. For example, in nearly all oral cultures, the word for "breath" is the same as the word for "spirit." The ancient Hebrew alphabet, probably the first phonetic alphabet (as contrasted with the pictorial written language of the ancient Egyptians and Chinese) omitted any symbols for vowels. Consonants shape the mouth for speech, but vowels move the breath through the mouth, and Abram theorizes that the alphabet makers' reverence for breath/spirit required that vowels not be represented in the writing. Thus the reader of ancient Hebrew had to interpret the text, choosing from context the intended meaning (or, sometimes, the one chosen by the reader) from a variety of possibilities. The Greeks added vowel symbols around the 8th century BCE, and thus the poetry of the semi-mythical Homer became the earliest written version of these poetic verses that had been told or sung by many storytellers for many generations. Abram sees written vowels as a landmark separating the oral cultures from the modern world.
This is one of those rare books that deserves rereading, maybe several times. It has given me a new perspective on the world around me.
So now, back to Michael Gruber and the first of his thrillers:
The Tropic of Night
I'm only halfway through this one, but it's already marked as a five-star. It turns out that the central character is an anthropologist who goes to Asia to live with and study a preliterate people, hoping to observe the secrets of the shamans, and becomes a firm believer in magic. Cue Twilight Zone music. The threads are coming together...
I've also discovered that one of the reasons I hadn't heard of Gruber before now is that he has been busy ghost-writing legal thrillers for a Washington DC attorney named Robert K. Tanenbaum. He had written about 14 of them, a series featuring characters named Butch Karp and Marlene Ciampi, before he started writing under his own name, and has now brought that series up to #23.
So, who was it who told me about these books? Please identify yourself!