Sunday, May 23, 2010

Heaven Before I Die

I've been reading Michael Oliver-Goodwin off and on since the 1970s. He's written for a variety of periodicals, and has a handful of books to his credit, including a biography of Francis Ford Coppola. His most recent work is an excellent and perceptive book on New Orleans, entitled Heaven Before I Die- A Journey to the Heart of New Orleans. Weighing in at nearly five hundred pages, it's arguably the most evocative book to be written about music in the Crescent City since John Broven's Walkin to New Orleans. In many ways, it's better than Broven's influential and ground-breaking book, because Goodwin here has a much larger remit, which is to explore not only the city's live music scene, but to investigate the roots and branches of the culture itself. In describing what it was like to live in the city from the 1970s to the post-Katrina years, one gets a good idea of Goodwin's relationship to the city and the music, as well as the connection between New Orleans and Trinidad, the intricacies and joys of second line dancing and rhythms, and portraits of local personalities and musicians, many of whom, like Danny Barker, Tuts Washinton, Jon Cleary, Tom McDermott, Willie Tee, Davell Crawford, etc., are often relatively unknown outside the city. Heaven Before I Die is available at and on Amazon (Kindle edition), and essential reading for anyone interested in what has always been the lifeblood of the city. But a word of warning: it'll make you fork out some hard earned cash on cds, not to mention wanting to purchase a ticket on the next plane to the Crescent City.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dark Matter by Juli Zeh

When it comes to crime fiction, it's not often that you come across something totally different from anything you've read in the past. Juli Zeh's Dark Matter (US title: In Free Fall) is a philosophical thriller that isn't afraid to be both intelligent, poetic and playful. The novel revolves around the lives of four characters: two physicists and two detectives. The two physicists, Sebastian and Oskar, have been friends since university, where they were considered so brilliant that it would be only a matter of time until they both would win the Nobel Prize. Still deeply attached to one another, they have gone, regarding their work and their private lives, their separate ways. Nevertheless, they see each other on a regular basis. After a heated TV discussion featuring the two of them, Sebastian, who lives in the Black Forest, takes his son to a Scouts camp. On his way he stops at a service station, leaving his sleeping son in the car. When he returns he discovers someone has taken his son and the car. While searching the rest area, he gets a phone call telling him, if he wants his son back, he must kill a man. Sebastian has no choice but to ask for Oskar's assistance. Two detectives eventually become involved. The physically and intellectually impressive Rita, whose entire life revolves around police work, and her over-sensitive and empathetic mentor, Schilf. Now dying from a brain tumour, Schilf had been Rita's teacher, and, considering her naive view of the world, had advised her to always go against her instincts and judgement. Having heeded this advice- not quite the usual mode of operation for fictional cops- Rita is now the most successful detective on the force.

Here, as one can surmise, the focus is not so much on the crime as on character. I suppose this is a particularly European type of thriller, unafraid to tackle large issues and clashing views of the world, such as the ideal versus the materialistic, debates about multiple worlds as opposed to a unifying theory, the bending of reality, the nature of time, and the difference between detection and investigation. At the same time, Zeh's approach is such that the novel, though intellectual, never becomes too weighty or obscure. In the end it reminded me of cross between Jerome Charyn and Philp K. Dick, maybe with a bit of Jack O'Connell thrown in for good measure, but, on the other hand, unlike any of them. One thing for sure, you won't have ever come across anything quite like it before.