Tag Archives: confrontations

Lonely Days

The Upright Piano Player: A Novel by David Abbott (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.95, 264 pages)

“In the old days he would inspire them, lift their spirits, and send them back to their desks with renewed energy and enthusiasm.   Now he simply wanted to say goodbye and slip away.”

Henry Cage is a man who has earned the right to enjoy a quiet life.   At least it appears this way before his life turns into a series of explosions.   Cage, the founder of a highly successful international advertising firm based in London, is suddenly forced into retirement in November of 1999 – outfoxed by a legion of new, young and restless (rudely ambitious) partners who cannot wait for him to ride off into the sunset.

Henry Cage is barely out the door of the advertising firm when he learns that his ex-wife, Nessa, is gravely ill.   Nessa lives in Florida.   She does not have much time left and would like to see Henry.   Henry very much loved Nessa until she had a well-publicized affair with an actor, something that brought shame and ridicule to Henry once it was mentioned in London’s daily papers.   Although decades have passed, Henry’s not sure that he’s forgiven Nessa and he certainly has no desire to revisit past events.

And then there’s an angry young man out there on the streets of the city, a failure in life – a man with a broken arm (broken like his future) – who seeks to take his anger out on a symbol of success.   By chance, this man happens to pick Henry as the person whose life he will make miserable…  So miserable does he make Henry that it appears a confrontation between the two is inevitable; it’s likely to be a confrontation so dramatic that only one of them will survive.

The reader also learns, through a non-chronological device, that Henry will have even more to deal with – the loss of the one thing that he sees as irreplaceable.   This is a morality tale about good versus evil, hope versus surrender, and love versus despair.   You’ll want to root for Henry to survive as he’s a representation of us all as we battle the unexpected (and often undeserved) events in our lives.

If you’ve read and loved the novels of Catherine O’Flynn (What Was Lost, The News Where You Are), you will no doubt also love this work.   Like O’Flynn, Abbott writes in a quiet, reserved English voice.   Although you may rush through it, the impression is given that the writer had all of the time in the world to construct the tale – there is never a sense of modern-day impatience.

Abbot’s ability to capture and make meaningful the small details in life calls to mind John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road, The Commoner), whose novels are always engaging.   Further, there’s a tragedy in Piano Player that mirrors something that happened in Reservation Road.

David Abbott, whose real life just happened to be a lot like the life of Henry Cage, has fashioned a wonderful debut novel.   I certainly look forward to reading his next story.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Upright Piano Player will be released on June 7, 2011.

“David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player is a wise and moving debut, an accomplished novel of quiet depths and resonant shadows.”   John Burnham Schwartz

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A Sneak Peek

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, $28.00)

Four dots move along a riverbank in a black and gray Ice Age landscape of 40,000 years ago, the only sign of life on a cold, late autumn day.   Dense morning mist swirls gently over the slow-moving water, stirring fitfully in an icy breeze.   Pine trees crowd on the riverbank, close to a large clearing where aurochs and bison paw through the snow for fodder.   The fur-clad family move slowly — a hunter with a handful of spears, his wife carrying a leather bag of dried meat, a son and daughter.   The five-year-old boy dashes to and fro brandishing a small spear.   His older sister stays by her mother, also carrying a skin bag.   A sudden gust lifts the clinging gloom on the far side of the stream.  

Suddenly, the boy shouts and points, then runs in terror to his mother.   The children burst into tears and cling to her.   A weathered, hirsute face with heavy brows stares out quietly from the undergrowth on the other bank.   Expressionless, yet watchful, its owner stands motionless, seemingly oblivious to the cold.   The father looks across, waves his spear and shrugs.   The face vanished as silently as it had appeared.

As light snow falls, the family resume their journey, the father as always watchful, eyes never still.   During the climb to the rock shelter, he tells his children about their elusive, quiet neighbors, rarely seen and almost never encountered face to face.   There had been more of them in his father’s and grandfather’s day, when he had seen them for the first time.   Now sightings are unusual, especially in the cold months.   They are people different from us, he explains.   They do not speak like we do; we cannot understand them, but they never do us any harm.   We just ignore them…

Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals:  this most classic of historical confrontations, sometimes couched in terms of brutish savagery versus human sophistication, has fascinated archaeologists for generations.   On the side stand primordial humans, endowed with great strength and courage, possessed of the simplest of clothing and weaponry, seemingly incapable of fluent speech, with only limited intellectual powers.   On the other are the Cro-Magnons, the first anatomically modern Europeans, with articulate speech, innovation, and all the impressive cognitive abilities of Homo sapiens.   They harvest game large and small effortlessly with highly efficient weapons and enjoy a complex, sophisticated relationship with their environment, their prey, and the forces of the supernatural world.   We know that the confrontation ended with the extinction of the Neanderthals, perhaps about 30,000 years ago.   But how it unfolded remains one of the most challenging and fascinating of all Ice Age mysteries.

This is an excerpt from the book Cro-Magnon, released by Bloomsbury Press on March 2, 2010.   Very recent research on ancient DNA samples suggests that some Neanderthals may have interbred with modern humans (Cro- Magnons); a fascinating concept meaning that modern human beings are composed of both the winners and losers of this evolutionary battle of rival creatures.   We expect to post a review of Cro-Magnon on this site in the future. 

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