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 this novel.

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.