Sunday, February 8, 2009

Book reviews: 'The Soloist,' and three others worth reading

By Bill Williams

One of the best things about being a book reviewer is discovering new titles that capture the imagination, stir the soul or are just plain enjoyable to read. Another reward is getting to tell friends and readers about worthwhile titles.

With that in mind, here are four recent books that stand out:

The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship and the Redemptive Power of Music, by Steve Lopez; Putnam, 273 pp., $25.95.

One of the most heartwarming books of the past year involves an unusual friendship between a journalist and a homeless musician. Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez first encountered Nathaniel Ayers playing Beethoven on a battered violin on a street corner in downtown LA.

Lopez initially viewed Ayers simply as raw material for his column, but eventually found himself caring deeply about his new friend. The result is a lively narrative that explores journalism ethics, mental illness and the nature of friendship. Their remarkable story has been turned into a Hollywood movie scheduled for release in April.

An African-American from Cleveland, Ayers had been a promising student at the famed Juilliard School in New York before he suffered a mental breakdown and received a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He ended up on Skid Row in Los Angeles, sleeping on sidewalks and living out of a shopping cart. The best thing Lopez can offer Ayers is friendship.

In the end, we still are not certain what will happen to the talented musician. All we know is that there is no quick fix for mental illness.

A Healing Touch: True Stories of Life, Death, and Hospice, edited by Richard Russo; Down East, 186 pp., $15.95.

Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel Empire Falls, edited this poignant collection of true stories about hospice experiences. Written by Maine authors, the essays chronicle the impact on families after the death of a teenage son in a car crash, the loss of a 3-month-old boy, a teenager’s suicide and the gradual deterioration of a wife with Alzheimer’s.

One night Ann Duff pulled her car to the side of the road “pale and rigid with terror,” realizing she had forgotten how to drive. It was as if “in the blink of an eye, a child’s game of Chutes and Ladders had become a Rubik’s Cube.” The narrative describes Duff’s gradual deterioration and its impact on her husband.

The book is a moving account of the grieving process. Each story is told with sensitivity and compassion, showing the myriad ways in which the bereaved cope.

This Little Light: Lessons in Living from Sister Thea Bowman, by Michael O’Neill McGrath; Orbis Books, 95 pp., $20.

This book might seem like an odd choice. It brims with colorful paintings by the author and looks like a picture book for children. But the life of African-American Thea Bowman is an uplifting story that likely will appeal to readers of all ages – one that adults can profitably share with their children.

Thea Bowman grew up in Mississippi in the 1940s, converted to Catholicism, became a nun, taught college and found her niche as a popular speaker/singer. She inspired audiences with her renditions of slave spirituals.

“When Thea got the crowds on their feet, moving, swaying, leading them in song, she wasn’t merely entertaining them, she was transforming them, moving their hearts and filling their tired, restless spirits with the love of God,” writes McGrath, a Catholic brother who lives in Philadelphia.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America, by Thomas L. Friedman; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 438 pp., $27.95.

By now most Americans realize that global warming is an urgent issue. Scientists warn that if nations do not stop spewing heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, we are headed for a catastrophe. Esteemed New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has written a fact-filled, urgent manifesto that deserves a wide audience.

He calls on the United States to lead a Green Revolution based on greater energy efficiency, conservation and the eventual discovery of new energy sources to replace fossil fuels. Some states, notably California, have taken a leadership role, but the Bush administration spent eight years in denial.

Friedman includes telling facts to bolster his argument. Electric utilities, for example, are major contributors to global warming, but they have been slow to innovate. Incredibly, their total investment in research and development in 2007 was less than the R&D budget of the pet food industry.

Bill Williams is a free-lance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

1 comment:

billmyfriend said...

Congratulations, Bill, on your selection of must-reads and MY great honor in knowing you for many years.