Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Bob Dylan in America and Think of a Number

Book 88: Think of a Number by John Verdon

Think of a Number by John Verdon begins with a puzzle that could test the deductive skills of the great Sherlock Holmes and ends with the movie equivalent of a car chase.

Whether Verdon got lazy or is simply making a naked pitch to the Hollywood rainmakers, the disappointing finale to his debut novel derails a promising and intriguing beginning. It's as if Alfred Hitchcock directed three quarters of a film only to let Wes Craven finish it.

The puzzle is presented to Dave Gurney, a retired NYPD homicide detective, by a frightened college chum he hasn't seen in decades. Gurney's erstwhile pal has received a mysterious letter that invites him to "think of any number . . . and see how well I know your secret."

He thinks of a number, and when he opens a second envelope tucked inside the first, it appears the letter writer does know him well, because the number that came to mind also appears on the printed page.

The letter writer pulls off this bit of conjuration again and that mysterious ability, combined with some decidedly threatening poems, ratchets up the suspense.

Which only heightens when Gurney's college friend is brutally murdered. Gurney's investigation uncovers a series of murders that appear connected, yet no visible tie exists.

It's a creepy and altogether satisfying mystery -- how did the letter writer know that number? -- until Verdon brings the reader and Gurney and the letter writer together for a conclusion that does not do justice to the thriller he has fashioned so expertly to this point.

Book 89: Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz's book on Bob Dylan caught me by surprise, pleasantly so. I was familiar with Wilentz's work as a historian, including his biography of Andrew Jackson that is part of the American Presidents series.

But I hesitated to buy this book. I wondered what Wilentz knew about Dylan and his music, or music at all for that matter. I was like a school child who doesn't realize that his teacher has a life outside the classroom.

My hesitation was unfounded. Wilentz has been a Dylan fan for decades. He has an impressive knowledge of Dylan's work based on many hours of listening and his understanding of music approaches that of a performer. Yet, ultimately, it is Wilentz's grounding in history that makes this book so special.

Bob Dylan in America explores the antecedents and influences upon Dylan, the performer and songwriter. He charts a journey that takes us from Aaron Copland to the murder behind the song Delia, from the shape note movement in 19th Century America to the life story of Blind Willie McTell.

Chock with footnotes and rich in research, Bob Dylan in America's greatest strength lies in Wilentz's gifts as a storyteller. Part biography, part musical criticism, part history, Bob Dylan in America is ultimately a perceptive and powerful argument of Bob Dylan as an gifted musician who defined America even as America defined the musician.

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