jfine@northshire.com's blog

What Is the What

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What Is the What Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307385901
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - October 9th, 2007

To not read this epic "memoir-esque" novel of the life of Valentino Acha Deng is, frankly, to not be aware of the true nature and depth-and hellaciousness- of human experience transpiring right here on earth in the modern age. Out of eye and earshot for the, largely, safe citizens of the USA there dwells another variety of life experience nearly unimaginable to most of us. The violence and civil strife in Sudan over the past many years may garner a headline or two which, may in turn, cross our paths and offer us a moderate amount of information as to the mass-murder, chaos and genocide that has been transpiring in that country during that time. Through the words of Dave Eggers and his portrayl of Deng's seemingly cursed existence, however, we gain a near first hand experience of what it felt, looked and smelled like to be in Sudan when the first murahaleen began their murderous death rides.

The author and his subject chose the form of fiction for this work so as best to serve the expression of the story given the difficulties inherent in recounting exact specific memories. The overall story that comes through, however, rings with truth. Egger's literary triumph in telling this story is bested only by Deng's remarkably resilient and generous spirit. Tragic but epic. ~ Reviewed by Jon Fine

Clapton's Guitar

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Clapton's Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument Cover Image
ISBN: 9780743266369
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Published: Free Press - June 6th, 2006

This book might more appropriately be entitled, "Wayne Henderson and His Guitars: Old Martin Masterpieces, New Henderson Heirlooms", but who could blame author Allen St. John for wanting to grab more readership by evoking the Clapton name. St. John's primary mission at book's beginning, after all, is to follow what happens when Eric Clapton falls in love with a sound engineer's Henderson guitar and requests that the semi-eccentric guitar builder craft him one of his own. What just might keep Clapton from getting his guitar, however, is that everyone who has ever seen, heard or touched a Henderson guitar wants one for themself and as gifted as both Wayne Henderson the luthier and Wayne Henderson the musician are, mass-productions is definitely not his thing. Most frequently, furthermore, neither is finishing one project before starting another (hence the wild and wooly state of his workshop) and we're never quite sure how much or how little weight, in the world apart that Henderson occupies, Clapton's name carries with this master guitar builder.

As we get to know Wayne Henderson the luthier, Wayne Henderson the musician and Wayne Henderson the character we cannot help but be enlightened by his devotion to craft and his life approach. Along the way we may even learn a bit about regional musical history (Henderson lives in the remote hills of Virginia- the Carter family and Doc Watson occasionally figure in) as well as become experts ourselves on the holy grail of acoustic luthiery: pre-1950s C.F. Martin guitars. For this we are in debt not only to Henderson and his amazing classic guitar collection- which we are exposed to from time to time- but also, of course, author St. John who is quite the knowledgeable collector himself. More so, however, we find ourselves in debt to St. John not merely for bringing this warm and intriguing story and its heartwarming cast of characters to us in the first place, but for doing it in the way of all the classic narrators; he is there constantly, thinking, observing and feeling for us yet, in the end, offering himself merely as a window through which we can more clearly observe the story that he has carefully yet generously laid out before us.

A confession- I have not even completely finished reading this book. But, in my defense, this is not due to negligence on my part but rather the dread that at some time soon I will have to close this book once and for all and walk away from this very special work and the characters contained within. ~ Reviewed by Jon Fine

The Corrections

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The Corrections: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780312421274
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Published: Picador - September 1st, 2002

Set around the framework of a mother's wish to bring her fractured family together for one last Christmas before her husband loses his final ounce of dignity and sanity to Parkinson's disease, Franzen's razor-sharp "The Corrections" is an American masterwork. What Franzen has accomplished is truly staggering; savaging contemporary American life and values with fearless abandon, yet doing it all with scalpel-edge precision.

Beyond and beneath the prim cultivated life that matriarch Enid has imagined for her family lies a rotted and diseased root structure born in 3 childhoods littered with off-kilter moments- glimpses of which are doled out periodically by Franzen- as each of the now adult children's- and their parent's - lives play out over the course of the novel. Those early malfunctions and injustices perhaps, we imagine, were seedlings that sprouted chutes inch by inch later in life as we learn more and more of the hidden but omnipresent dark dysfunction in children Gary, Chip and Denise's respective worlds. Perhaps deep down, despite appearances to the contrary and near pathologically concerted efforts to keep up those appearances, Enid does possess some inherent awareness of the damage done as she progressively places more and more significance on achieving one, final, family get together.

There are no shortage of horror novels available- Stephen King is highly prolific after all- yet for my money, there are moments in which Franzen's unblinking portraits of contemporary, American, familial dysfunction are some of the most terrifying reading imaginable. Although I count this as an all time favorite novel, there were, after all, moments- conversations actually- between Gary, his wife and their children- power plays, manipulations and inter-spousal character assassinations- that made it wretchedly unpleasant to read on. Franzen's prose itself is, indeed, razor sharp and crackles and slices with a keenness rarely realized.

If clarity of vision and a fully realized achievement of that vision is the watermark of artistic brilliance, this is one of the brightest gems of the past 10 years. To read this novel and subsequently revisit the opening paragraph is to be dazzled by that brilliance. A National Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize finalist and absolute must-read. ~ Reviewed by Jon Fine


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