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Fear of Blue Skies
Richard Burgin
Johns Hopkins University Press, $19.95

Richard Burgin's mostly middle-aged characters are tentative creatures, trusting neither themselves nor the chancy world around them. "Alienated" is too definite a word for them; they are recessive. They seem to have below-normal body temperature, and low blood pressure. Of the eleven stories in this collection, many are so similarly anemic that one begins resisting them. A few, like "Barry and Elliot," an agonizing account of a manipulative friendship, are slack and repetitious; others, like "Ghost Parks" and "Mercury" are undermined by plot contrivance and flat dialogue. But when a character tells a story or tries to explain what seems singular in his life, Burgin's strengths cohere and the result is emotionally uncompromising--and unsettling. This occurs in the three finest stories in the book: "Bodysurfing," "Mistakes," and "The Park." The narrator in the latter cannot connect socially or romantically because he lives daily with the unrepeatably pure love of his dead parents. It's an authentically heart-breaking story. Burgin's greatest gift may be his sincerity, and that is by no means faint praise.

--Randall Curb

Shopping Cart Soldiers
John Mulligan
Curbstone Press, $22.95

The Vietnam War has been over long enough for two generations of novelists to have written books about it, yet few authors of either generation have managed to write successfully about the soul shattering effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD fractures the psyche of Mulligan's alter ego Finn MacDonald, a twenty-year-old Scottish immigrant to the United States who, in 1970, volunteers for combat in Vietnam. Finn witnesses unimaginable violence, including a horrific ambush and the gruesome slaughter of a magnificent white water buffalo, a vision that haunts him for 25 years after leaving Vietnam. Homeless for over a decade, the numbed Finn has an alcoholic seizure in San Francisco's Paranoid Park and lapses into a three-day coma. The bulk of this hallucinatory, anguished, wrenching first novel recounts his vividly rendered interior life during the coma, as his divided selves accompany such characters as Robert Louis Stevenson on a spiritual quest to find Finn's soul, reintegrate his selves, and return to society whole. Inventive language heightens the surreal effect of this journey, with Finn eventually regaining his will to live from the strength he finds in a mythic version of his ancestry.

--Ann Collette

Solti: Memoirs
Sir Georg Solti
Knopf, $24.95

Solti's memoirs are about as substantial as a performance of Mahler's Ninth conducted by Annie Dillard or Tobias Wolff. An ordinary man with some very specific talents, Solti could, as he puts it, push an orchestra to the limits of its capacity. But in most other ways, he was rather unremarkable. Born into a middle-class Hungarian Jewish family, Solti spent World War II in Switzerland, emerging during "de-nazification" to take control of the Bavarian State Opera. (How did he justify entertaining the very people who had just perpetrated genocide? "The desire to conduct was an irresistible force in me.") From there, everything was smooth sailing. His memoir is lightly seasoned with the usual maestro cliches: a "pathological aversion" to dirt; fear of knives, kitchens, and solitude; belief that the music of Mozart demonstrates the existence of God; and so on. At one point a wife becomes inconvenient; a new one appears, three months and two paragraphs later. There are some musical insights in the book, but not enough to justify the reader's time and trouble.

--Dmitri Tymoczko

Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
John F. Szwed
Pantheon, $29.95

One of America's most prolific and daring musicians, Sun Ra located himself in outer space, beyond both the geographical limits of the United States and the ideological limits of Jim Crow and the Cold War. Such views, spliced with a homegrown Egyptology, earned Sun Ra a reputation as an Afro-eccentric charlatan-genius in the tradition of Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad, and kept his"Arkestra" below the radar of concert halls and record companies. This biography charts Sun Ra's career, showing how he defied critics' periodization schemes, pioneering free jazz and electronic music in the 1940s and reviving big bands in the 1970s. Szwed presents Sun Ra's neoplatonic philosophizing as serious scholarship, however, rather than the charismatic myth-making and -unmaking that it clearly was. The book's treatment of his music--a joyful noise authorized by biblical prophecy, rooted in his native Birmingham's African-American fraternal, club, and society dance orchestras of the 1930s, and branching out into the heavenly spheres--suffers by comparison. Perhaps this late romantic jazz totalist, who shunned sex and drugs, rejected modern notions of race and nation, and took his merry band of"tone scientists" on shoestring-and-bootstrap world tours, will never be brought down to earth.

--Jonathan Gill

Originally published in the February/ March 1998 issue of Boston Review

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