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Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved
Russell Martin
Broadway Books
276 pp.



On December 1, 1994, two Arizona men with the wonderfully improbable names of Ira Brilliant and Che Guevara bought a locket of hair that had been cut from Ludwig van Beethoven's corpse in 1827. Initially, the two men--both Beethoven fanatics--had merely wanted to add a unique (and dividable) item to their Beethoven collections. (Brilliant, a retired real estate developer, had already established the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University in California with his extensive Beethoven collection, while Guevara, a urologist in Nogales, invested in the locket early in his collecting.) But once the locket was in their possession, Russell Martin writes in his delightfully entertaining Beethoven's Hair, some enthralling questions arose:


Might it make sense, Dr. Guevara wondered, to test a bit of the hair, to have it examined by forensic scientists? Was it possible that testing of the hair that lay on the table between them might be able to announce something conclusive about the last days of Beethoven's life? Could it demonstrate what medications he had consumed? Could it conceivably explain the reasons for his chronic intestinal distress, or even decipher his deafness?


It took several years for all the tests to be conducted on a portion of the hair, but the wait--and the tested hair's destruction--were worth it, because the shocking results showed that Beethoven had contracted--

But you didn't really think I'd steal Martin's thunder, did you?

Martin does a splendid job blending biography, musical history and popular science writing, and he shows that the locket's real unsolved mystery is its journey from nineteenth-century Europe to twentieth-century America. The hair had been clipped by fifteen-year-old Ferdinand Hiller (who himself became a composer and well-respected conductor) and passed to his own son in 1883. The son had the locket cleaned and resealed in 1911, lending the relic its first documentation in the process. Some years passed, and then the locket surfaced in a small Danish fishing port, where it was given in mysterious circumstances to a Danish doctor who helped Jews flee the Gestapo during World War Two. Who precisely gave the locket to the doctor--and why--remains uncertain, although Martin offers a compelling theory. Science, it seems, gives better closure than murky history.

Beethoven's Hair is highly recommended for history buffs and scientific mystery fans alike.

--Woody Arbunkle

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The Atlantic Sound
Caryl Phillips
Alfred A. Knopf
278 pp.


Caryl Phillips has written six superb novels, and now, with The Atlantic Sound, he shows once again that he can write equally compelling, thematically complicated nonfiction (his other nonfiction title is The European Tribe). His subject this time out is (in large part) the transatlantic slave trade, and in the course of the book, he travels to Liverpool; Accra, Ghana; and Charleston, South Carolina. Together, these three locations formed the points of a trading 'triangle':


Goods, be they guns, glassware, iron bars or liquor, would be exported from England to the West coast of Africa, where they would be sold in exchange for human captives. The second leg of the 'triangle,' or the 'middle passage', involved the transportation of the captives to the Americas, where they would be sold to plantation owners either for cash or for a combination of cash and crops such as tobacco, sugar, cotton, coffee or any of the 'new world' produce that was becoming fashionable all over Europe. The final leg of the 'triangle' involved a return to England, where the produce was sold to agents and merchants.


While all three legs of the triangle were profitable, it was the slave-bearing leg that generated the most gains, and as Phillips writes, "By the end of the eighteenth century, nearly half the African trade in Europe was being carried on in ships clearing the port of Liverpool.

As a travelling 'reporter' interviewing and observing a variety of subjects, Phillips is wonderful. His quiet observations are keen and largely unobstructed by his own editorializing, although he sometimes lets his skepticism color a scene subtly, often to hilarious effect. For all its subtlety, though, the text--flat-toned and delivered in the present tense--has a generally pessimistic quality. It's the sort of voice that tells you immediately that nothing good will come of these travels, and you and the author both know it. Still, the story is so beautifully presented and (let's admit it) the pessimism about the historical as well as the present state of affairs is so well-grounded that the book is powerfully moving, rather than merely depressing.

One of the more impressive reporter's skills on display here is Phillips's talent with portraiture. Like the travel genre's master, Jonathan Raban, Phillips has a seemingly magical ability to make himself the invisible observer who witnesses his subjects' most awkward, telling moments and then places them inside beautifully sketched, tightly written scenes that capture the essential dynamics of the personalities and issues without slowing the text down. One wonders how, precisely, the participants didn't realize they were being watched so closely--or how Phillips managed to hide his notebook. (His chameleon quality as a reporter is probably related, I suppose, to the talent he has for placing his own positions so subtly into the text's overall color.) Here, for example, is a scene set on the boat that carries Phillips to England:


Wallace leaves us in Limon, which means there is a spare place at the table with Charles and Mavis and Kevin. However, I decide to remain at my own table, which amuses the German officers and Burmese crew, annoys Charles and Mavis, and leaves Kevin defenceless in the face of Mavis's increasingly unlikely stories about socializing with the Royals. Eventually, Kevin cracks, and having described the Queen Mother as a 'gin-swilling horse owner' he retires to the bar where he attempts to drink a barrel of Holsten lager single-handedly. The two German couples have now developed a strategy for turning up for meals either early or late in order that they might minimize the time spent with each other. Occasionally they get the timing wrong, and they have to suffer the indignity of actually eating with each other.


Phillips's biting portraiture (as deliciously funny as it is) is put to good use, though, particularly in the Ghana sections of the book, where Phillips interviews leaders of the Pan-African movement intended to draw 'exiled' blacks back to their African 'home.' Indeed, it's not until he gets to Charleston that Phillips finds a pair of heroes for his book--a Southern Civil Rights-supporting judge and his Northern wife who gave up their sense of 'home' for a greater good. And it is this notion--of home, of exile and the possibility of return--that lies at the heart of The Atlantic Sound. An exiled people's desire for 'home' is legitimate, Phillips suggests, but the options offered by the Pan-African movement are illusory. And as he shows with Judge Waring, 'home' may not be the ultimate goal. In making pro-Civil Rights judgements and public statements that ostracized him from his fellow Charlestonians (he was an eighth-generation Charlestonian), Waring became a heroic figure, if a tragically 'homeless' one.

The Atlantic Sound is a complicated, layered text that often bears unexpected fruit, and it should place Phillips in the inner circle of such superbly aware 'travel' writers as Raban and V.S. Naipaul.

--Doug Childers

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Three Early Novels: The Old Boys, The Boarding House, The Love Department
William Trevor
Penguin Books
663 pp.



The reprinting of a great writer's early work is often largely academic in its appeal: by sifting through the writer's youthful, presumably minor efforts, we hope to understand better how he produced his mature masterworks. The great Irish writer William Trevor turns out to be another case altogether, though, as readers of the new Penguin collection of his first three novels will happily discover. He was, it seems, a complete, fully developed writer from the beginning. Indeed, the most startling aspect of Trevor's first novel, The Old Boys, is its preternatural mastery of form and theme. The reader must constantly remind herself that Trevor was a relatively youthful thirty-six when The Old Boys first appeared (in 1964); his masterly sense of narrative direction and his skill at evoking his elderly characters' often bitter pessimism are stunning.

There is one way in which these early novels reveal Trevor's relative youth, though. For all his character's septuagenarian pessimism, the youthful fecundity of Trevor's creative impulse in these three novels is intoxicating. He has a wonderful ability, for instance, to embellish his secondary characters with tiny stories that suggest he draws them from a young writer's endless well of material. Of The Old Boys' Miss Burdock, for instance, "a brisk middle-aged woman with a massive bosom and a penchant for long grey clothes," Trevor writes that


Once a year, in June, she put on a flowered dress and went somewhere in the afternoon. She wore a hat on this occasion, a large white one with decorations on it, that had been handed down from her mother. She smeared a pale lipstick on her mouth and dyed the hairs on her upper lip. Her guests wondered where she went, but they never asked her. They preferred to conjecture, and they looked forward quite a lot to this special day. An old lady, now dead, had claimed to have seen Miss Burdock stagger as she returned after one of these outings, and had sworn there was alcohol on Miss Burdock's breath.


Trevor's generous use of these sorts of nicely turned asides (which to an older writer, might seem downright spendthrift) along with his willingness to devote whole pages to seemingly meandering but hilarious dialogue (Trevor's ear for the musicality of spoken speech is unmatched today) belies the tight narrative structures that actually drive these novels relentlessly (if subtly) toward their decidedly grim endings. Trevor is best-known for his superb short stories, and he brings to these early novels the same talent for concision and the minimalist's eye for the perfectly-chosen detail that drives his short fiction. (Trevor's concision also means that Penguin could publish these three novels in a single, manageable volume of 663 pages.)

The three novels' decidedly pessimistic themes (loneliness, isolation, old age, the general hopelessness of being a human in contemporary society) might discourage impressionable readers from tackling all three novels at once, but it's a splendid collection that holds up well to repeated (if small) doses, I think. Besides, the black comedy Trevor wrings out of frightful situations can be shockingly good. Consider, for instance, this exchange from The Boarding House, which appeared a year after The Old Boys:


'I am going to cry,' said Miss Clerricot, and she uttered the first moan, touching her face with a handkerchief.

'Mr Bird has died,' said Nurse Clock, entering the kitchen. 'He died a half-hour ago.'

'Dead?' said one and then the other.

'I do not know what killed him. No doubt the poor nurse will get the blame for negligence. He felt himself dying; it was a most extraordinary thing.'

'He caught a cold,' said Mrs. Slape, 'through the soles of his feet. He walked with broken shoes out across the common. He should have known, him a cripple.'

Gallelty was staring, the twitch in her right eye working busily.

'Hardly a cripple,' corrected Nurse Clock. 'He dragged his foot a bit; it's not at all the same.'

'Oh,' cried Gallelty, shaking on her chair and sobbing.


Trevor is a brilliant, darkly funny novelist, and the popular notion that he'll ultimately be remembered primarily for his short stories will hopefully prove wrong.

--Charlie Onion

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Jazz: A History of America's Music
Geoffrey C. Ward
Alfred A. Knopf
490 pp.



Covering the century-long history of American jazz in a single book is not an easy task. Stylistic shifts--from New Orleans to Swing and Big Band, from Bebop to West Coast to Fusion--are complicated both musically and culturally, and doing justice to the dynamics that drive the shifts while also examining the personal styles of individual masters who transcend generic definitions and anticipate larger innovations is daunting. Even coming up with a definition of 'jazz' that is both broad enough to encompass a century's worth of differing styles and penetrating enough to find the common quality that makes it all one sort of music and not many is a tall order.

Happily, Geoffrey C. Ward's Jazz: A History of America's Music achieves most of its goals, deftly blending history and biography into a highly readable text that rewards both idle reading and sustained study. It's a companion volume to Ken Burns's ten-part PBS documentary (to air in January 2001; Ward wrote the documentary's script), and while its large, hefty format (think of a coffee table book on steroids) may discourage reading it in bed, the beautifully reproduced photographs (obligatory to any Burns project) are worth the extra weight.

In a book with such comprehensive ambition, some readers' favorite musicians will inevitably be slighted. I, for instance, found the sidebar on the great Fats Waller to be a little undersized, compared to the justifiably extended space Ward gives to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. I did appreciate his sustained attention to early jazz, though, along with his effort to document how early jazz masters anticipated much that would be credited to the pioneers of later styles. Be forewarned, though: readers who prefer jazz produced since 1960 will find Ward's coverage weak. Overall, he devotes far more space to the first half of the century--nearly a third of the book has passed before he even reaches Swing. And if you like Fusion and think it's a legitimate form of jazz (I'm referring to all two of you), you may find Ward's distaste for much of it to be nothing short of fighting words.

Note: A companion five-CD collection is also available.

--Charlie Onion

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