Sweet reads

By JON GARELICK  |  December 17, 2007

Les Murray | The Biplane Houses
Les Murray is the revered heavyweight of Australian poetry. In The Biplane Houses, as so often in his work, you feel yourself getting close to the actual living element of language itself. “Luminous electric grist/brushed over the night world:/White Korea, Dark Korea,/tofu detailing all Japan. . . . ” (“Bright Lights on Earth”) — the words are so fresh, they seem to have just formed themselves, effortlessly, like a Van Halen solo, out of some germinal ground of polyphonic gibberish. Murray flits between styles with a fat man’s supernatural grace — he always seems to be uttering at least one or two of poetry’s first syllables. Books of real poetry by living poets are a privilege; by poets as alive as this, they’re a blessing.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger | Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus attracted notoriety a couple of years ago when they foretold “the death of environmentalism.” In Break Through, they continue to criticize a negative and narrowly defined environmental movement. Their positive alternative is post-environmentalism, a green philosophy that replaces the “politics of limits” with eco-focused economic development, as a way of addressing the “sociocultural context” that lies beneath most ecological problems. And their purpose is to inspire a movement that’s bigger than its individual dilemmas.

Ben Ratliff | Coltrane: The Story of a Sound
Forty years after this death, John Coltrane’s influence is incalculable. And it’s not just his technical mastery that has influenced scores of jazz musicians, argues New York Times critic Ratliff, but his “sound,” one that transcends jazz and even music itself. The book can serve as a short biography of Coltrane (Ratliff has drawn on may predecessors) and a history of post-war jazz, but the meditation on that sound is what elevates it as major essay on American art. “Musical structure . . . can’t contain morality,” Ratliff writes. “But sound, somehow, can. Coltrane’s large, direct, vibratoless sound transmitted his basic desire: ‘that I’m supposed to grow to the best good that I can get to.’ ” If you can write a biography of an idea, Ratliff has written a great one.

J.K. Rowling | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The seventh and final volume in J.K. Rowling’s magical saga ends our long enchantment on an appropriately bittersweet note. The book’s body count might resemble something out of The Sopranos, but its message of forgiveness, redemption, and rebirth tugs on the heartstrings. It’s the darkest, most chilling installment of the series, and a satisfying resolution of Rowling’s main conflicts: good versus evil, tolerance versus prejudice, sacrifice versus self-interest, choice versus destiny. It’s also a fitting end to this coming-of-age tale, as Rowling depicts the 17-year-old Harry’s final passage from childhood to adulthood.

Oliver Sacks | Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
In his New Yorker pieces over the years, Oliver Sacks has shown a talent for setting personal narratives against the increasingly mapped-out maze of human neurology. Per usual, he here illuminates lives of often unimaginable strangeness. The most haunting is that of British musician Clive Wearing, who suffered a brain infection that left him with severe amnesia — he can remember nothing for more than a few seconds, except how to play pieces like Bach preludes on the piano. Sacks writes, “Remembering music, listening to it, or playing it, is entirely in the present.” As is Clive Wearing himself. But you might never forget him, or the many others in this extraordinary book.

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