Memory Book: a reading from the novel
Reviewed: June 18, 2007
By: Howard Engel
Publisher: BTC Audio Books
3 CDs, 3 1/2 hours, $29.95
A funny thing happened to Howard Engel one
morning in 2000. He walked to the front door, picked up his daily papers, which
he devoured from cover to cover every day, and discovered that the Globe and
Mail had decided to publish in Serbo-Croatian. At least, it might as well have
been that. The doctors figured that Engel had had a stroke in his sleep and had
awakened with damage to the part of his brain that allows a person to decode
written language and read it. Oddly enough this condition, called alexia sine
agraphia, did not rob him of the ability to write, which how we happen to have
It’s not unusual
for writers to parlay their own personal experiences into parts of their work.
Since Stephen King was hit by a van while walking near his country residence in
Maine, characters in at least three of his novels (including himself in the
last of the Dark Tower books) have been hit by cars or vans and have had to go
through the recovery that he did, which he also recounted in his
autobiographical work On Writing.
So Engel has
afflicted his detective, Benny Cooperman, with his own problem, and added a few
wrinkles to boot.
The novel begins
with Benny living through a train wreck, perhaps his heavy-handed
sub-consciousness’s way of evaluating his situation. There is, however, an
important clue to the mystery in that recurring dream, once Benny realizes that
it is a dream.
Benny wakes up in
the hospital, He’s been in a coma for about a month, has no memory of what he
was doing just prior to the massive blow to the head which produced the insult
to his brain, as Nurse MacKay (“rhymes with day”) likes to phrase it.
Worse, Benny can’t
form long term memories well, and days after day goes by during which he has
the same conversations about his condition until things finally do begin to
stick. Howard didn’t suffer this condition, but it makes for an interesting
challenge for a detective: having to figure out who you are, what’s wrong with
you, what you were doing that caused you to get into this mess.
The accident didn’t
diminish Benny’s intelligence, so he is capable of working it all out in the
long term - but it’s very long term. Months pass during this novel, while Benny
learns to abandon denial, accepts his need for several kinds of therapy, a
chafes under the restrictions of his diminished capabilities.
He is assisted in
this by the nurse he comes to call ÔRhymes with”. Her name is “MacKay - rhymes
with day”, but names are a particular part of Benny’s problem, and even
remembering his own (or what floor he’s on, in what hospital, and in what
city),, is difficult at first.
Anna Abraham’s name
is one that he can remember, though he’s sometimes a little vague on the
details of her last visit to his room. Anna assists him in many ways, almost
playing Archie Goodwin to his hospital bound Nero Wolfe. As Benny says, he’s
not quite an armchair detective in this novel. He does eventually learn to use
the telephone (numbers are difficult too) and is able to interview some of the people he
needs to talk to that way. He makes one foray out into the wide world on his
own and does manage to cope with that, learning a few things in the process,
including the limits of his endurance.
He also retains his
ability as a shrewd judge of character, and it is this, along with some
essential clues that meant nothing to anyone else, which enables him to break
the log jam in a case which had been stalled since the day he was found
unconscious in a dumpster with a similarly assaulted, and unfortunately dead,
female university professor beside him.
The title of the books
comes from the “memory book” that Benny is given by hospital staff to help him
keep track of things. He can write down things he needs to recall, questions he
needs to ask, and comes to be able to puzzle out enough of his own scribbling
for this to be useful
The folks at Between
the Covers wisely decided that Benny talks to so many women in this story that
it would be a good idea to have a male actor do the first person narration and
the male voices, while a female portrayed Anna, Rhymes With, and the other
women’s voices. Good decision. Ron Halder and Donna White do a great job
bringing the narrative to life. I could wish they had abridged the book a
little less but it was, on the whole, an enjoyable listening experience.
I’ve read that Engel is
hard at work on his 12th Cooperman novel. He has recovered some of his reading
ability, but it is a struggle for him. He works at his writing. He can read the
words he writes as he is typing them but for rereading and editing later he has
to count on the help of his friends.