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Book reviews: 'Hark Hung the Moon' and 'The Aleppo Codex'


"Hark Hung the Moon ... And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts." By Rheta Grimsley Johnson. NewSouth Books. 191 pages. $24.95

Hank Williams has been dead for almost 60 years, yet he is still an iconic figure in Southern country music.

So much so that the prize-winning columnist and author Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who wasn't born until the year he died, has chosen to write a book about him.

She was helped greatly by her late husband, Don Grierson, and his former wife, Pat, who had talked to everyone they could find who had known Williams, sung with him or drank with him. But they never actually wrote the book they planned. All their material was stored in a box marked "HANK," and after Grierson's death, Johnson found it in her attic. She was determined to finish the book they never had the time to write.

The songs of Hank Williams have been part of Johnson's life as long as she can remember. He sang of love and loss and heartbreak and loneliness, and she has found herself frequently turning to his music for support and consolation and just because she loves it so much.

Actually, this book is more about her than it is about Williams. She describes her own childhood in Georgia and Alabama, her efforts to make it as a singer ("I couldn't sing but it didn't stop me from trying. And trying."), her marriages, her writing career.

She interviewed his daughter and an old singing partner and the friend who helped him get started, singers who built their careers on his songs, Williams imitators -- in short, everyone whose life has been changed by the music he turned out in his too-short 29 years.

She is occasionally self-indulgent, and at times seems to be shoveling in everything she knows about Williams, but she writes well and lovingly about a country legend.

If you're a Williams fan, or even if you just love country music, you'll find it fun to read.


"The Aleppo Codex," by Matti Friedman. Algonquin Books. 299 pages. $24.95

This is a true-life detective story about a 1,000-year-old volume, the most perfect copy of the original Hebrew Bible ever written, and how it has survived one crisis after another. Friedman is a good reporter, and this is the most complete account of the troubled history of the book many Jews believe holds them together as a people.

It began for Friedman when he was allowed to see this sacred book, considered to be "God's word as it was sent into the world of men in their language."

Known as the Aleppo Codex, it was hidden for centuries in the synagogue of Aleppo, Syria. Believed destroyed in the widespread rioting following the establishment of Israel, the "Crown of Aleppo," simply went into hiding.

A substantial part of the opening pages -- perhaps up to 40 percent of them -- were missing, and the author spends the last third of the book trying to find out what happened to them. He travels from Jerusalem to Aleppo to London to Brooklyn, uncovering many tales of espionage, murder and deception.

He never finds all of the missing pages, but probably solves more of the mysteries whirling around this book than anyone else will.

This skillfully reported book is not for everyone, but if you're Jewish or interested in religious history, you'll be rewarded.