Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Soloist by Steve Lopez

While scurrying back to his office one day Steve Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times
, is stopped short by the ethereal strains of violin music. Searching for the sound, he spots a homeless man coaxing those beautiful sounds from a battered two-string violin. When the man finishes, Lopez compliments him briefly and rushes off to write about his newfound subject, Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless violinist. Over the next few days, Lopez discovers that Nathaniel was once a promising classical bass student at Juilliard, but that various pressures—including being one of a few African-American students and mounting schizophrenia—caused him to drop out. Enlisting the help of doctors, mental health professionals and professional musicians, Lopez attempts to help Nathaniel move off Skid Row, regain his dignity, develop his musical talent and free himself of the demons induced by the schizophrenia. Throughout, Lopez endures disappointments and setbacks with Nathaniel's case, questions his own motives for helping his friend and acknowledges that Nathaniel has taught him about courage and humanity. -By Publisher's Weekly via

My Review: This was a great “feel good” story of how two people can have a positive impact in each other’s lives. I also thought it was fairly good at de-stigmatizing homelessness as caused by mental illness, schizophrenia in particular. I love reading non-fiction biographical because I don’t have to worry about the author throwing in “dramatic” plot turns that I find manipulating. Of course, my cynical nature showed through as I neared the end of the book, waiting for the “horrible” thing to happen, which, I’ll just tell you and save you some anxiety, did not happen. The story ends on a high note (no pun intended) and has nice closure, leaving you with the assumption that things continue either at status quo or improving.

The content of the book does have some political/social commentary but not in an over the top way. It is really just in an “I want to show you something you many not know” way. It did have just a bit too much “soul-searching” by the author himself, but even that wasn’t embarrassingly sappy. It was probably necessary, in fact, to point out the positive impact that both heroes had in each other’s life.

For me personally, it has inspired me to give a bit more thought to classical music. There were many passages in the book talking about how music written 150 years ago is creating harmony and peace in the modern life of this musician, Nathaniel. That really struck me. I definitely understand the English language more that “musical language” but the fact of the matter is, over time, many of the classics (Shakespeare, the Bible, transcendentalists) have become difficult to relate to, simply because of the changing nature of language and culture. In contrast, the organization of sounds that make up music, once it has stood the test of time, generally remains approachable and understandable, even to a beginner and even in relationship to current compositions.

As for the fact that this book is soon to be released as a movie - in this case, because the real strength of the book is the story itself, with the journalistic writing style acting as a quiet vehicle for telling it, I see no harm in just waiting to see the movie. Perhaps I’ll revisit that statement after actually seeing the movie. I look forward to Jamie Foxx’s interpretation of Nathaniel, the homeless, schizophrenic artist, and of the visual presentation of his Skid Row stomping grounds. Not that I revel in seeing such suffering, but I expect it to be intriguing and compelling.

Edited August 9, 2009 - I just saw the movie and would like to change my statement. While the movie is definately well done, there is a LOT of detail and social background from the book missing in the movie. You get a good story in the movie but not the complete story. Don't skip the book!

My rating: 4 stars - compelling story, but not life changing.

If I could sum this book up in one phrase it would be: Recommended reading for: musicians, mental health & social workers, law-enforcement, public policy makers, people who want to know things, people who care about other people, journalists.

1 comment:

MindySue said...

Em, you have been holding out on us!!! That was an amazing, articulate, wonderful review! I'm jealous ;). That book sounds like a really good read...maybe one I'd even like to read BEFORE i see the movie. Great job!


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