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Shimmering Ordinariness

book cover
The poetic invisible meets the cold, hard facts of modern life

Glass Paper Beans
Leah Hager Cohen
Doubleday; 1997; 289 pages, $23

Reviewed by Traci Hukill

WE'RE A BUSY and disconnected people. Alarm clocks ring like starting buzzers each morning, front doors fly open like gates at the Preakness, and we wheel around town to day care, gas stations, work places, grocery stores. Information flies at us as fast as our fingers can type--but does any of us know where our keyboard or teapot or favorite pen was made? Should we care?

Leah Hager Cohen, author of Glass Paper Beans, is in the business of elevating the mundane. In her careful, supple fingers, the most ordinary things shimmer: a glass tumbler, a thick bulk of Boston Globe waiting to be read on Sunday morning, the steamy coffee in the glass. First she gifts them with a placid richness of words that flow like good caramel, keeping the laziest reader at her side through every minute turn. Truly this is prose to be savored slowly--like truffles, too much at once can glut the throat.

But a pretty way with a phrase is just the beginning. Like a hound on a scent, Cohen leads us to the origins of these things--glass, paper and coffee beans. Before we know it, we are in an Anchor Hocking glass plant with an arthritic Ohioan named Ruth, making her rounds with clipboard in hand, and then we are sitting high in the cab of Brent Boyd's single-grip harvester as he clears a patch of New Brunswick forest bound for the paper mill, and then we are waking with Basilio Salinas on a dirt floor in Pluma Hidalgo, Oaxaca, and getting ready to check the coffee trees. We get to know each of these characters intimately--how they laugh, what they eat, who their families are--and slowly gather a sense of the momentous effort that goes into producing a bag of dried coffee beans or a truckload of felled spruce.

The book is arranged like a composition, with prelude and coda, a progression from morning to evening, and interludes throughout. Cohen unveils the histories of glass, of paper and of coffee. She muses upon the nature of time and ponders fetishes like charms, leather and money. She discusses Marx and our modern fondness for attaching value to things.

It seems unlikely, but somehow this mishmash of poetry, history, biography and philosophy works, the whole swooped together and bundled up by an elastic, honest intellect.

Beyond her gift for language--beyond, even, the creativity and courage to snatch seemingly unrelated ideas from the air and make them breathe--Cohen's best treasure is her perspective. Unfailingly sincere but free from cloying idealism, she is a writer with whom you could trust your story simply because she believes each story is important.

The book's last line says it best: "Everywhere you rest your eyes, invisible stories blossom."

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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