Book review: New in Paperback

By Nora Krug
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Books we missed, books we raved about, and books back in print.

At age 50, Gordon Hempton, an environmental recording artist who has brought the sounds of nature to museum exhibits, films and other media, faced a sad irony: He'd begun to lose his hearing. "My head was a cauldron of hums and buzzes and distorted sound," he writes in One Square Inch of Silence (Free Press, $16). A man who had long coveted quiet, Hempton was not prepared for the aural solitude of deafness. When his hearing miraculously returned to normal two years later, he asked himself: "What good is perfect hearing in a world filled with noise pollution?" So began his crusade to save us from man-made cacophony, especially the kind that comes from commercial jets.

"One Square Inch of Silence," written with John Grossmann, is a chronicle of this campaign -- a meandering cross-country tour. With his sound-level meter always in reach, Hempton searches for natural quiet, (quietly) talks to people about quiet, and (less quietly) presses federal officials for anti-noise-pollution legislation. The trip takes him to places as diverse as downtown Seattle, rural Montana and the halls of the Department of the Interior. (Guess where he finds the quiet.) Hempton, who has designated a square inch in the Hoh Valley in Olympic National Park as a "sanctuary of silence," is an endearing, quirky narrator. His appreciation of natural sounds -- "the wisp of a floating leaf," the "strumming-humming" of a river -- will make readers prick up their ears and wish this book had come with a soundtrack.

Disquiet is the subject of Kathleen Norris's Acedia & Me (Riverhead, $16), a thoughtful, heartfelt examination of acedia, a kind of apathy, she explains, that monastic people have associated with sin. Central to her exposition is a polarizing question: "Is acedia depression?" To associate depression with a vice, she knows, makes her susceptible to the accusation that she is "judging people who are ill as being morally deficient."

As she did in her bestseller "The Cloister Walk," Norris seeks answers in theological and secular literature as well as in her own life. She delves into a wide-ranging body of work: ancient monastic texts, Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, Aldous Huxley, William Styron, to name a few. (The appendix includes thoughts on the subject from the likes of Wendy Wasserstein, Ian Fleming and Thomas L. Friedman.) More compelling, though, are Norris's revelations about herself, and in particular her marriage to the poet David Dwyer, who struggled with depression. Norris attributes her own bouts with indifference and sadness to acedia, which she has been able to mitigate through writing, prayer and the recitation of psalms. Still, to her credit, she acknowledges that such methods don't work for everyone: "God talk may not be your fancy," she writes, "but it is what worked for this woman."

From our previous reviews

-- The Northern Clemency (Anchor, $16.95), by Philip Hensher, "presents a continuously evolving panorama of two middle-class families in Sheffield," England, Ron Charles wrote, in a novel that illuminates "the flutterings of everyday hope and despair."

-- Cheeta, a chimp who starred in Tarzan films, offers a tell-all of his Hollywood life and loves (thanks to his ghostwriter, James Lever) in Me Cheeta (Ecco, $13.99). Claudia Deane called the pseudo-memoir "hilarious, catty, melancholy and, occasionally, deep."

-- "A jaunty romp through World War II-era Chicago," Steve Amick's novel Nothing but a Smile (Anchor, $15) explores the relationship between a discharged Army officer and the wife of a friend still serving abroad, according to Michael Lindgren.

-- William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, an activist for native land rights, recalls his hardscrabble childhood in rural northern Alaska in Fifty Miles From Tomorrow (Picador, $15). Dennis Drabelle called the memoir "an entertaining and affecting portrait of a man and his extraordinary milieu."

-- In Family Properties (Holt, $18) Beryl Satter uses the story of her father, Mark, a Chicago lawyer who helped black families combat financial exploitation, as the springboard for "a penetrating examination of the financial discrimination that thousands of African Americans encountered in their northward migration," according to David J. Garrow.

-- Michael Dirda called Richard Holmes's history of late 18th- and early 19th-century science, The Age of Wonder (Vintage, $17.95), an "enthralling" book that "itself exemplifies those qualities fostered by a scientific culture." Recently, the book was awarded the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

Krug is The Post's monthly paperback columnist.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company