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Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx

Accordion Crimes (1999)

by Annie Proulx (Author)

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Genius. Depressing, but profound. Proulx has touched on something dark, deep and true about human nature - and pulled the curtain back on our American mythology. This book tackles the cycle of prejudice- looking at it not from the ‘haves’ condescending to the ‘have-nots’ – but rather from the much more disturbing reality: the fringes adopting prejudicial mentalities to become ‘true Americans.’ A rite of passage for disenfranchised groups- the real fire behind our hallowed melting pot. Stylistically, Proulx’s writing is an experience in itself. One of the most colorful descriptions of her work highlights her intense focus on the physical world, stating “Reading Ms. Proulx’s prose is like bouncing along rutted country roads in a pickup truck with no shock absorbers” (Garner, New York Times). Yes. Proulx’s writing is a bit uncomfortable and jarring--- but something you feel deep in your bones. ( )
  Alidawn | Jan 29, 2016 |
An OK read, the character development was not as captivating as 'The Shipping News'; but it was a clever story line for a book. ( )
  JosephKing6602 | Nov 15, 2015 |
Difficult, depressing slog... must have set a record for variety of horrible deaths; even of animals. Can't remember if there was anything to smile about; even the jokes told by characters are racist and ugly. Hard to explain why you have finished the book; must be the author's "strikingly original" writing; and one is waiting for the money to be found... (disappointing). ( )
  UPMarta | Sep 3, 2015 |
What a depressing book! The concept was interesting - how this hand-made accordiaon wended through many lives and the stories of those lives. However, the accordion in fact just seemed to be a device to link together the author's horrendous descriptions of more and more outrageous methods of death and disfigurement. The one character who achieves some level of happiness promptly kills himself by purposefully walking into a chainsaw neck first. Wow! This woman is sick, and not in a good way. ( )
  AliceAnna | Aug 9, 2014 |
This is the story of an accordion being passed around from owner to owner in different ways. The book is made up of the histories that go with each owner, and how each becomes associated with a "crime" in some way, though some of the crimes are more obvious than others. The writing is beautiful and the concept of following the instrument through time means that a lot of plot and backstory had to be worked out in each section. Never once did you feel like you were being bombarded with yet another new story, having new characters and locations thrown at you in an overwhelming sort of way. The flow of this book was magnificent and the transitions from family to family worked well, though I didn't end up feeling much for any of the characters. I expect that it was more the point to feel the accordion, which is exactly what strikes me when I look back at my reading experience. If the accordion is what we are following through time, why shouldn't you remember it as a character above all else? ( )
  mirrani | May 4, 2014 |
Accordion Crimes follows the stories of America’s many immigrants from 1890 to 1996. The novel is split into eight sections and reads like eight short stories where the only connection is a green accordion and the suffering and hardship that the immigrants each suffer; Germans, Italians and Mexicans etc.
The stories traverse America, Texas, Iowa, Florida and Louisiana to name but a few. The green accordion that connects the lives of the novel’s characters is crafted by a poor Sicilian in the last decade of the 19th century. Through the novel the accordion is stolen, lost or bought by the novel’s protagonists.
The novel’s premise is striking, applaudable and its ambition is as vast as the country in which novel is set, America. The novel attempts to show a hundred years of American history through its poorest people, through ‘foreign’ eyes if you will.
The novel begins in Italy where a Sicilian decides to emigrate to ‘La Merica’ in the hope to start a business of making and selling accordions. As an example of his craftsmanship he creates a green accordion. The accordion is an instrument one associates with the working class. Felida one of the novel’s characters goes further by stating that, “The instrument of unsuccessful men, of poor immigrants and failures.” The green colour of the instrument is significant as it relates to the nativity of its many owners and to the vast verdant landscape envisioned by immigrants who travel to America. The accordion is a complicated and elaborate instrument that belies its lowly ranking in music world.
Like the accordion of the novel’s title the novel is beautifully crafted and one can only admire the author’s in depth research. However, I found the novel dull, bloated and as dry as the paper it is printed on. The author details the making and workings of instruments and cars and sport equipment to the nth degree. After reading the book you will be able to build and create your own accordion and combustion engine due to the complete and minute detail written by the author on these subjects. I understand the author wanted to demonstrate the ingenuity and skills that many immigrants brought with them to their new homeland but it makes for a dry and tedious read.
I found myself having no connection, no sympathy and no empathy with any of the novel’s characters. This is not helped by the ludicrous circumstances they sometimes find themselves in but also the farcical deaths that befall many of the characters. One individual, the grandson of a German immigrant, dies when he loses his balance and falls into a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. However, he manages to drag himself out of the spring with his flesh falling off his bones only for him to fall into another hot spring like a character from a Mack Sennett film.
Many of Ms Proulx’s references and analogies are pretentious, obscure and at times obtuse: “leaving the door ajar like Richard Widmark.” I could make no sense of this simile. Only film aficionados’ would be aware of the actor Richard Widmark and even some of those would be hard pressed to name any of his films.
One feels guilty at having to negatively criticize Annie Proulx’s novel as it is a worthy and ambitious piece of work about a country’s immigrants and their place in that country. To that end it is still relevant in the world today as we move toward the middle of the second decade of the 21st century immigration still high on the agenda of not just governments but the voters.

Originally posted at http://womensprizeforfictionbookreview.wordpress.com/
  Kitscot | Dec 27, 2013 |
Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx

I have loved and admired the work of Annie Proulx since I first read The Shipping News when it first came out in 1993. Since then I have read her collections of stories, That Old Ace in the Hole, and the delicious Bird Cloud. Accordion Crimes was the next on my list, and for the first time, I was really disappointed.

This novel relates the story of a home-made accordion that travels from place to place and owner to owner. The story had gaps in some of the movement of the instrument, which I found a bit confusing. But the worst flaw was the characters. I simply could not connect -- much less care about any of them. Several times I flirted with invoking my “Rule of 50,” but I did not want to give up on Annie. Finally, nearly half way through and another cast of thin, cardboard characters introduced, I called it quits. I have a couple of other of Proulx’s works, so after those I may come back and give it another try.

Nobody is perfect, but before Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx was really close. If you have read it, and have a different take on this novel, I would love to hear from you.

--Chiron, 5/8/13 ( )
  rmckeown | May 19, 2013 |
Clearly the author put a lot of thought into the back stories of all the different families who come into possession of the Green Accordion. Her frequent asides hint at the fullness of the story but each scene is so quick, so flitting that I found it difficult to engage any of the characters, save for the builder of the accordion. Each of these 50 page chapters could easily have been expanded into a separate novel making for a series of novels about the Accordion but I'm sure that her publisher wouldn't have wanted to take that much of a risk on a series of books about a musical instrument ( )
  pussreboots | Apr 9, 2013 |
The basics: Accordion Crimes traces the lives of immigrants from a variety of countries throughout the 1900's as a single green accordion ties the stories loosely together.

My thoughts: From the very first pages, I was enchanted with the writing of E. Annie Proulx. I vaguely recall reading Close Range in college, but I can't remember if I even liked her writing or stories. I'll remember her now. The downside to my love of her writing was her brilliant characterization, as I didn't realize when I started this book that it was a series of (long) short stories. When the first story came to an end, I was devastated. In some ways, the book never quite recovered for me. Despite the significance of the accordion to both the characters and stories, the accordion was perhaps my least favorite aspect of this novel. As a narrative device, it worked beautifully. I loved the idea of an object passing through the lives and hands of different people, and most of the transitions were intriguing.

To fault Proulx for being disappointed with this book because I was expecting a novel is unfair. I like to know as little as possible before reading books that come highly recommended (or appear on prize lists). While Accordion Crimes is beautifully written and features several engaging stories, I failed to emotionally connect with some of them. As is so often the case for me as a reader, I enjoyed the first story best. When it ended, I was sad and struggled most with the second story. Once I got a sense of her overarching goals and structure, I was drawn into most of the other stories, but none captured the same spark as the first one.

Favorite passage: "...for he conducted his life as everyone does--by guessing at the future."

The verdict: While the writing was gorgeous, the stories didn’t come together enough for me. Ultimately, it didn’t feel like a novel, despite the strong thematic elements. While I’ll eagerly read Proulx again, next time I’ll try a novel. ( )
  nomadreader | Aug 16, 2012 |
Interesting rather than engaging. Undoubtedly very well written, albeit in Proulx's rather baroque style that takes some getting used to. Amazingly rich and detailed, but that's just the problem with this book. It's just too much. Too much content, too much detail, too much information. I started losing interest by the time I reached the French immigrants in the bayou and after that I couldn't really work it up again. There are enough storylines in the book for at least ten novels, and small details like the parenthetical conclusions giving you an anecdotal summary of the rest of a certain character's life, which seems clever to begin with, just seems laboured towards the end, when you're beyond caring.

The fact that the sections are so disconnected - you know they are going to end soon anyway - and that Proulx makes most of her characters so unlikeable, means that you don't really become invested in what happens to the people in the story (let alone the accordion, after a while). I do see where she was going with the book, though, and the perspective of all the immigrants is very, very interesting. There are certain rather sad themes running throughout the book, such as every ethnic group's firm belief in its own superiority and consequent treatment of all the others which is just as xenophobic as its own reception by the American "mainstream" (whatever that might be, after all). I guess these points could have been made in a much shorter novel, though. Unfortunately, a lot of the time I got the feeling that the story was just a vehicle for the writer to show off all the (undoubtedly excruciatingly painstaking) research she had done. ( )
  evaberry | Aug 8, 2012 |
8 quite long stories about immigrant life in the US all linked by their involvement in some way with accordian music, but also sharing deprivation, hardship, misery, depravity and isolation. All the immigrants are on their own, it vividly shows up the lack of state help, but none of them seem to have loving friends or relations.
She certainly knows a lot about accordian music, but I should hate to be trapped in a railway carriage with her talking on the subject. She has a compulsion to lists, which are paraded before you, the writing is a bit like a stream of consciousness.
I wondered whether she was really going for a sort of black humour, a subtitle could be "99 horrible ways to die violently", but surely life isn't really this bad, even in the USA? ( )
2 vote othurtle | Jul 13, 2012 |
This book was a selection by my book club. We chose it because Annie Proulx is known as a superb American woman writer. I have read Close Range, from which Broke Back Mountain was taken, Shipping News, and Postcards. None of the members of my book club including myself liked this book or finished it. The stories were depressing and none of the characters in it had any redeeming quality. None were sympathetic. The novel features a type of accordion and a story of an ethnic group for which it comes from in each of the long sections: Italian, German, Polish, French Canadian to name a few. Terrible things happen to the characters and they have to persevere against great heartship, as all immigrants do. But just when things can't get worse, they do and the most unhappy aspect is that each and every character treats others with contempt and meaness. Annie Proulx is a good writer and very good with desciption. But her characters are not people I want to spend any time with. ( )
  mstruck | Mar 10, 2012 |
This is a dense, rich, packed-to-the-rafters attic of a novel. Totally engrossing, but with so many story lines, so many sets of characters, so much detail, that I felt rather like I was reading a Russian novel, or perhaps 4 or 5 books at a time. The writing, as always with Annie Proulx, just grabs you and won't let go, but just when I'd start to feel invested in one bunch of characters, she'd leave them behind and move on to another group, any of which could have supported a very fine novel all by itself. The central character of this book is a small green, hand-made, two-button accordion, and the focus of Proulx's storytelling is the instrument's long life history as it passes from its maker down the generations through multiple owners, with long periods where it lies forgotten in pawn shops or storage rooms, guarding its very own secret until its final sad days. I can't imagine the research that must have gone into this novel, which takes the reader from late 19th century Sicily to late 20th century Minnesota, from one immigrant culture to another, along the way embracing food, music, occupations, lifestyles, geographies...all of it feeling absolutely authentic. I loved it and want to start from the beginning to experience it all again. ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Jan 30, 2012 |
Giving this book 3 stars was pushing it. I love Annie Proulx and have most of her books, but this one was a real struggle to finish. I read two other books while reading this book I was so bored with it. The writing itself was good (thats how she got the 3 stars), but the book sucked. Most of the stories bounced around so much it was hard to keep up with the story and the characters were unsympathetic. I was really disappointed with it. ( )
  campingmomma | Nov 23, 2011 |
This is a book which I loved reading, despite its lenth, dark undercurrents and somewhat brisk dispatching of most of the characters. It follows the trail of a green button-accordion across the United States from its passage from Sicily in 1890, and from immigrant to immigrant's child and beyond. Along the way it's lost, sold, given away, and stolen by a colourful variety of characters. Part of what makes the story flow is the emotional investment most of the down-trodden owners make in the similarly misused and abused musical instrument. They recognise in its wail of misery a kindred spirit which comforts them at their lowest moments. There is a historical bent to the novel and Proulx's flair for grimy detail give each of the ages and places the accordion passes through a distinct odour, flavour and feeling. Some of the characters are unlikable and their demise draws little sympathy, but I got quite attached to a few of them and was sad when they met their wonderfully grim ends. The book says a lot about America's treatment of its immigrants - from Germans and Poles to French and Irish, all find the place a harsh and unforgiving land where dreams serve only to remind them of their own naiveté.
I've often wondered at the previous lives of some of my second-hand items (in fact I think this book was second or third or who knows how many hands!) so I enjoyed the detailed vignettes of the owner's lives and cultures, and how each one made the instrument their own. Highly recommended for an entertaining, sad, and sometimes disturbing read. ( )
  featherbook | May 23, 2011 |
Ups and downs.
  kc_wedding | May 19, 2011 |
I gave this book 3 stars because, although it was brilliantly written, I really didn't enjoy it. I had no sympathy for any of the characters, except perhaps the first fellow - the one who made the little green accordion. I certainly learned a good deal about history and the cultural mosaic that is the USA. It's just that every chapter, and multiple times within each chapter, the author went off on a wild swing from the narrative and found myself wishing she'd just go on with the story. Each time, right up until the very last few pages, I kept asking myself if I really wanted to finish the book. The only thing that kept me going was the sheer brilliance of the prose and that fact that I had so much time invested in it. I need to take a break from reading after slogging through this one. ( )
  lawrence | Mar 1, 2011 |
Pretty depressing but amazing writing. Series of vignettes following a particular small green accordion from its creation in Italy in the late 1800's through all of the owners of the instrument around the United States and Canada through to the 2000's. Incredibly gritty, very few high points, some interesting humor, but all of the characters are so well crafted and the stories so compelling that you really want to see if that accordion every manages to bring happiness rather bitterness and tragedy. Annie Proulx is an amazing writer, but be warned this is a really sad book. ( )
  eenerd | Dec 11, 2010 |
Yes, it took me over two months to read this book. Longer than most books I’ve read of late. There were several times while reading it, that I looked ahead to see how many pages/chapters I had left to get to the end. But at no time did I wonder if I would be able to finish. At no time did I think, “This is boring, difficult, bad, I will quit before the end.” It isn’t a race through to the end. It isn’t a point A to point B story with characters that were all connected by story or blood.

This novel is a collection of stories that covered a lot of time in America and a lot of the American immigrant experience connected by the life span of a green accordion. From it’s trip here to this country until its demise many years later throughout all of its many owners, showing their vast and frequently tragic experiences while they were in possession of the accordion, even if they did nothing with it.

If you don’t enjoy a collection of stories that are only very loosely connected and find it a confusing thing to keep track of with so very many characters coming in and out of the book, you may not like this story. That is probably the number one complaint that I read in other reviews. That, and Ms. Proulx’s love of long sentences full of lists. Personally, I read every single word. I savored every sentence. I am a fan. And I found the end? Fitting and satisfying. ( )
  KinnicChick | Apr 20, 2010 |
Proulx proves beyond a shadow of a doubt (whatever that means) that a best-selling novel can be bereft of plot, transformative characters, evocative prose, stimulating dialogue, and other common literary elements that would normally serve to keep the reader engaged and stop them from either killing themselves or using the book as kindling. In fact, Accordian Crimes is physical evidence that a book can be composed entirely of comma separated lists and people will still read it if enough self-appointed critics give it props. ( )
1 vote conformer | Feb 9, 2010 |
A wide variety of intriguing American stories all tied together by a small green accordion. ( )
  readingrat | Apr 9, 2009 |
The idea of following the life of an accordion is interesting. However there were so many individual stories and family connections and histories that I tended to lose track. Needs concentration to follow. Covered a big chunk of American hiistory which was interesting.
  MarkKeeffe | Apr 1, 2009 |
Annie Proulx has written an odd and compelling book, ostensibly about the fate of those who in one way or another have come into possession of a green accordion, made in Sicily towards the end of the 19th century. It passes from one person to another over a hundred years, seeming to bring bad luck on all who own it. In this narrative, however, Proulx has woven together two histories—that of various ethnic minorities in the US over the last hundred years and an account of accordion music in those groups. Each ethnic group—Italian, German, French-Canadian, Hispanic and others—has its own history of folk accordion music, and its own masters of the genre.

For those familiar with The Shipping News, Proulx’s style in this book is very different, although she has the same way of looking at the lives of ordinary people, viewing them at an angle that illuminates the oddities of their personalities, the traits and habits that set them apart from others. But in the former book, her prose style was very often abrupt, with short or part sentences that were as jarring as the landscape of Newfoundland. Accordion Crimes, on the other hand, is written with long, long sentences, many times filled with bizarre lists that illustrate the person or the era she is describing:

“He listened to the radio, it was better than the TV late at night, the distant hillbilly music and sermons and promises of cures from the wildcat border stations down in Mexico—funny their signal could reach all the way to Maine—offers for weight-loss tonics, pills to make you put on pounds, plastic broncos, moon pens, zircon rings, Yellow Boy fishing lures, apron patterns, twelve styles for just one dollar, rat killer and polystyrene gravestones, send no money, send your name and address in care of this station, less than a penny a capsule, for each order received before December 15 you’ll receive in addition, absolutely free, while this special offer lasts, insist on the genuine, prosperity, plain brown sealed wrapper, a package containing rigidly inspected pharmaceuticals, if you are nervous and wakeful at night.”

Food, as in The Shipping News, makes its odd appearance from time to time:

"Every morning Mrs. Pelky labored to his door on her bad ankles with a plate of curious cookery: Orange Buds, Pork Fruit Cake, Deviled Clams and Bean Mash, Lentil Loaf, or The poor Man’s Omelet—bread sopped in hot milk…..He ate everything she brought him for it was better than his own strange combinations, a peach and kale sandwich, macaroni and vinegar, canned salmon and rat cheese."

You have to wonder about Proulx’s own attitude towards food.

The book is sectioned in parts according to whoever the current owner, a member of a different ethnic group, is. Each part is broken up into many different titled subsection--The Pulp Truck, A Smell of Burning, Prank, Inspection-- sequences of events in the lives of the characters, allowing a narrative that doesn’t have to be absolutely continuous in order to run smoothly. It’s very effective.

While I loved the book overall and marveled at Proulx’s ability to find the bizarre in even the most ordinary of human lives, towards the end the long, long sentences started to wear me out. I found that I was skipping over them half-way through, anxious to get to the end and on to the next thought. I slowed down my reading rate, and that helped.

The end of the book is as bizarre as the rest of the story. Proulx is nothing if not consistent.

Highly recommended. ( )
2 vote Joycepa | Dec 6, 2008 |
Tells the story of white (primarily) American immigrants through the ages via the device of an accordion which passes through many people's hands. The premise can be summed up by the quote that "without black people, there would be no whites in America - just italians, germans, poles, etc."

Full of fascinating historical detail and excellent characters, but all of them meet untimely ends of one sort or another and it cannot be described as uplifting. Also required me to reach for the dictionary on a few occasions - not a bad thing per se, but not something I've had to do with a novel for a long time.

But this is excellent writing and well-crafted story-telling and, though it may require persistence - it did from me - it's ultimately worth it. ( )
  kevinashley | Sep 22, 2008 |
I've so far only read two of Proulx's books, this and the Shipping News. I really enjoyed the Shipping News, but I found this one to be depressing and eventually tedious (though the Shipping News was rather depressing as well if I recall correctly).

I really enjoyed the first few stories here, but I just eventually got tired of it and was ready for the book to be over. I can't say exactly what it was that put me off - maybe it was the general bleakness of everything. She would here and there insert snippets - just a sentence or two - about what would later happen to a character, and it always ended badly for everyone.

While it's true that it pretty much always does end badly for everyone in reality, that doesn't mean that everything before the end is bleak and sad or that the sum of it all is despair. We'll all eventually die and death is usually horrible (the only way that it isn't is if it is quick, and then it is usually pretty horrible for that person's loved ones), and we'll all also be bad people at some point ; we'll do bad things and we'll say bad things, we'll hurt the people that we love, etc. But, the whole life of a person isn't sad (at least not all people), but in Accordion Crimes it always seemed like the message - over and over - was it all turns to shit, so don't bother.

That turned me off. The books was fairly good - writing was excellent and the characters were well drawn, it was just too bleak for me in this part of my life. ( )
  zip_000 | Jul 20, 2008 |
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