Accordion Crimes

by E. Annie Proulx

Hardcover, 1996




Charles Scribner's Sons (1996), Edition: 1st, 384 pages


E. Annie Proulx's "Accordion Crimes" is a masterpiece of storytelling that spans a century and a continent. Proulx brings the immigrant experience in America to life through the eyes of the descendants of Mexicans, Poles, Africans, Irish-Scots, Franco-Canadians and many others, all linked by their successive ownership of a simple green accordion. The music they make is their last link with the past -- voice for their fantasies, sorrows and exuberance. Proulx's prodigious knowledge, unforgettable characters and radiant language make "Accordion Crimes" a stunning novel, exhilarating in its scope and originality.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Jeffrey414
If you ever have a chance to add a green accordion to your collection of unusual artifacts, take my advice, let it pass. This cursed instrument led to the early demise of a handful of its players. At the end of each chapter, it became apparent that the owner of the accordion would meet with some
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untimely death. From scalding to suicide to spider bite to sunstroke, each owner seemed to perish in a particularly painful way. Proulx’s writing is complex and detailed. She easily transitions from one culture to another with ease. Her research into these different languages and immigrants made me feel at home with the lifestyles of each immigrant group, the abuse they suffered, the foods, the lives they led. The loss of homes, children too young, and the struggles just to survive another day were brought to light on each of her pages. I enjoyed reading this book, one of our more difficult novels, but found it a challenge to finish.
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LibraryThing member oataker
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
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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?
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LibraryThing member Joycepa
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member conformer
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member lawrence
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member misteranchovy
I wanted very much to love this book. I love accordions, and particularly I love button accordions. Some of the segments were well researched and well written and compelling, but patching together the stories with the accordion as the connecting thread didn't hold together as successfully as I'd
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LibraryThing member teaperson
An odd book, but it did draw me in. You follow a green accordion through more than a century, watching it pop up in an almost "where's Waldo" manner through stories of immigration, poverty, tragedy and an incredibly creative range of sorrows (death by spider bite, mistaken shooting of a prize
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horse, arms amputated by sheet metal coming off a truck, race riots, etc.). Then comes a story with something of a happy ending, and I was shocked by it. Then sorrow returns.

An interesting juxtaposition with Adverbs, the last book I read. There the stories interlocked to explore the nature of love. Here the stories interlocked to explore the nature of tragedy. Yet the book was somehow enjoyable, because the tragedy was so picturesque and keenly delineated.
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LibraryThing member zenhikers
This is a wonderul story about the travels of an accordian through the hands and lives of America's immigrants. I have always admired Proulx's writing and this book really showcases her ear for dialogue and talent for weaving emotion into a running narrative with diverse characters.
I actually
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listened to this book on a cassette tape when I was on a cross country road trip. I highly recommend the experience, since the actors are able to truly capture the different accents and capture an authentic sense of place.
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LibraryThing member xtien
This is a great book, though I consider "Postcards" to be Proulx' best. Accordion Crimes is about a little green accordion, made by a peasant in Italy who immigrates in America and brings his green accordion. After he dies, it goes to another immigrant, and another. The title of the book refers to
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the violent deaths of some of the green accordion's owners. The novel really is a collection of short stories, the only thing that the stories have in common is the green accordion and the fact that most of the stories are about accordion players or would-be players. Although this novel is not about Wyoming, it's still the same type of stories. The Shipping News really is the only novel/stories that Proulx wrote that are really different there.
The end of the novel is funny. It's a really sad ending, but at the same time it's a very happy ending.
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LibraryThing member zip_000
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
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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 sh*t, 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.
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LibraryThing member dickcraig
I really wanted to love this book. I have read everything else that Proulx has written. I especially liked "Postcards" and her last few books of short stories. This book just dragged for me. I couldn't identify with any of the characters. The premise was good, but about 1/2 way into the book it was
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a struggle to just get it finished.
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LibraryThing member kevinashley
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member MarkKeeffe
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.
LibraryThing member readingrat
A wide variety of intriguing American stories all tied together by a small green accordion.
LibraryThing member KinnicChick
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member Udge
I gave up on this, I found the lives and the way Proulx disposed of them too relentlessly awful.
LibraryThing member campingmomma
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member eenerd
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
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
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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 themselves. 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.
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LibraryThing member nomadreader
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member pussreboots
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
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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
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LibraryThing member rmckeown
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,
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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
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LibraryThing member mirrani
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
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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?
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LibraryThing member AliceAnna
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
An OK read, the character development was not as captivating as 'The Shipping News'; but it was a clever story line for a book.


Women's Prize for Fiction (Longlist — 1997)
Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 1998)


Original language

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