Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates

After suffering through years of history lessons about the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and John Winthrop’s role in shaping his “city upon a hill,” one would think that (yet another) novel on the subject would be a less exciting read than the New York City phone book.
Sarah Vowell’s newest novel about the Puritans’ stateside adventures, however, is a pleasant anomaly in the catalogue of history books about 17th century New Englanders. Witty and cheeky in the face of Puritan sobriety, Vowell interprets excerpts of our forefathers’ diaries and doctrines to reveal a society more complex than our history books have taught us.


Gloria Lenhoff has a captivating voice and a catalogue of over 2,000 songs in her memory, but can’t add two plus two. Toni Cicoria, after having been struck by lightning in a telephone booth (he was calling his mother), develops a sudden, intense desire to listen to and play piano music — constantly. He becomes so obsessed, so dominated by the music, he gets divorced.
Oliver Sacks relates Gloria’s and Toni’s stories, among dozens of others, in his newest novel, Musicophilia, with a well-balanced mixture of science and story-telling. In a genre he seems to have created for himself — let’s call it scientific narrative — Sacks delves into the case histories of dozens of individuals with an array of diseases and gifts that affect musicality. In the style of an academic old uncle (perhaps a tad obsessed with mental disorders) he tells the stories of his own bona-fide case histories.