Reviews by Greg Cahill, Liesel Hofmann, and Patrick Sullivan
SPRING always yields a fresh crop of books from local authors, and lo! here they are, sprouting up on bookshelves across the North Bay. This season's offerings from native scribes include poetry, novels, and nonfiction about everything from global warming to a doomed expedition to the North Pole to a kidnapping racket run by murderous thugs. Flick on your reading lamp and enjoy the bounty.
IN THIS FIFTH St. John detective novel, Santa Rosan William Babula, an SSU professor, again has sardonic St. John (a former lawyer before he'd "come to [his] senses"), aided by his two tough partners--beauteous Mickey, an ex-Playmate; and outsized Seminole Chief Moses Tamiami, a former alligator wrestler. This time, they unearth a kidnapping racket and come up against a dirty handful of murderous characters. Witty repartee, poignant moments, a rekindled love affair, realistic episodes countered by wildly improbable ones, and a San Francisco background make this fast-paced story a kick to read.--L.H.
Susan M. Gaines Carbon Dreams (Creative Arts Book Company; $17.25)
HOW OFTEN do you see the quest for scientific truth lying at the heart of a novel? Yet that's the driving force behind Carbon Dreams, a reasonably engrossing first novel from writer Susan Gaines, who divides her time between Healdsburg and Uruguay. Set in the early '80s at an oceanography institute in Northern California, Carbon Dreams follows the adventures (scientific and otherwise) of Dr. Tina Arenas, a young geochemist whose research into climate variations in the distant geological past yields unexpectedly modern implications. Her findings yank Arenas rudely out of the ivory tower and thrust her into the growing controversy over global warming. To complicate matters, Arenas finds herself falling for a local farmer.
Gaines has an extensive background in chemistry and oceanography--a fact that shows up to both good and bad effect in Carbon Dreams. The author's knowledge certainly lends considerable authenticity to her portrayal of her character's research and the wider academic community. On the other hand, Gaines will bore the socks off some her readers with rather long-winded passages teeming with isotopes, HPLC-Mass spec interfaces, and paleo CO2 methods. Still, these are worth wading through, because Gaines, who is an accomplished short story writer, always picks up the narrative thread and runs with it again.--P.S.
Interrogation at Noon (Graywolf; $14)
IN THESE two new paperbacks, Santa Rosa poet Dana Gioia--author of Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture--proves that he has a knack for writing about love, unrequited and otherwise. The tension between that intensely personal sense of longing and becoming, especially in his considerations of marriage, is most compelling. Interrogation at Noon, a collection of poems, employs various styles--from rhymed couplets to free verse, surrealist elegy to satirical ballad--to explore the affairs of the heart, often with considerable grace and depth.
In the ambitious Nosferatu: An Opera Libretto, Gioia taps into one of the all-time great love stories, which, as author Anne Williams notes in her thoughtful foreword, is ripe for operatic treatment. And that's exactly what it gets here. Gioia's poetic version of this popular fable, based on the 1922 silent film Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau (the inspiration for the recent movie Shadow of the Vampire), was written for the neoromantic composer Alva Henderson. It will soon be staged in New York as a joint production of Derrière Garde and Verse Theatre Manhattan. Hard to believe that Gioia--an acclaimed essayist and critic--has published only two previous volumes of poetry. These two works show that Gioia, at his best, possesses a powerful and often provocative voice.--G.C.
SEBASTOPOL author and researcher Bruce Henderson is hardly the first to write a book about the great 19th-century attempts to explore the frozen wastelands at the ends of the earth. These intrepid journeys have been the focus of a slew of books by the likes of novelist Thomas Keneally, whose Victim of the Aurora is at least as compelling as the author's better-known book, Schindler's List. But Fatal North is a gripping entry in the crowded field, and it stands apart from many such works because Henderson, who has authored a number of well-received nonfiction books, has worked hard to keep his narrative firmly rooted in the facts.
And what a story it is! The facts are these: In a bid for international glory after the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant sent Captain Charles Hall north to make America's first attempt to reach the North Pole. Hall was smart, brave, and an experienced explorer. He had an expensive ship, a talented crew, and a clever plan to make his way through the ice to the closest possible landing point to the pole. But trouble was there from the start: personal rivalries and animosities among his companions eventually came to a boil of dissension.
Hall ended up dying under suspicious circumstances, and his ship sank, leaving several dozen men women and children stranded on the polar ice.
A naval board of inquiry concluded that Hall died from natural causes, but the controversy lingered. Almost a century later, a team of forensic scientists unearthed his corpse from a grave in Greenland and came to some shocking conclusions about his death. How did Hall really die? Suffice it to say that Henderson does a marvelous job of following the thread of that mystery through the story of this doomed expedition and offers a gripping conclusion. --P.S.
UNDERLYING this first novel by Santa Rosan Amalie Langmueller is a plea for mass transit, with the book's title referring not only to the fictitious tale, but also to the railroad's historic triumph over environmental and human deterrents. The heroine of this Eel River Valley mystery is Julie Setten, a 24-year-old archeologist whose diggings here are strictly cerebral as she discovers a marijuana plantation and tries to trace a missing couple. But this is also a refreshing love story (Julie and a new friend don't immediately head for the bedroom after falling in love) and, above all, a paean to trains. Mystery fans may be somewhat derailed by the dogged pace, mired as it is in superfluous details, but railroad buffs may find it all on track.--L.H.
Bob Nugent and Donn Brannon Insetos (Abandoned Press; $3,000)
FOR 30 YEARS, Santa Rosa artist Bob Nugent has collaborated with National Humanities Scholar poet Donn Brannon, a denizen of the San Francisco Beat era, merging visual art and poetry. Over the past 16 years, Nugent has traveled to Brazil, drawing inspiration from that mainly tropical country's vivid palette of flora and fauna. "There are bugs everywhere in the jungle," he says. Those crawling things are the subject of Insetos, a limited-edition hardbound portfolio of 20 hand-colored etchings (only 30 sets were created) that combines Nugent's beautiful renderings of Brazilian insects with Brannon's understated poetry. At $3,000 a pop, the set is targeted at high-end collectors. But for Nugent, the project also was cathartic, so to speak. "It was a way to get the bugs out of my system," he muses.--G.C.
Dr. William Shipley Tales of Sonoma County: Reflections on a Golden Age (Tempus; $29.99)
AT A TIME when Sonoma County is transforming from a once-sleepy rural North Bay community to a player in the fast-paced high-tech get-out-of-my-way-or-I'll-run-ya-over modern world, it's easy to wax nostalgic for a time that, for many us, never was. Fortunately, before his death in 1960, Healdsburg native Dr. William Shipley--founder of Cloverdale's General Hospital--kept a detailed and highly personal account of the way things used to be. Now the Healdsburg Historical Society has compiled those records, most of which appeared as columns in the Healdsburg Tribune, into a charming and often witty remembrance of swimming holes and firemen's picnics and stage drivers and patent medicine shows. A chance to remember--even if you missed it.--G.C
From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.