“What an astonishing thing a book is. It is a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts, on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person. […] Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. Books are proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
“I wanted to be a scientist from the moment I first caught on that stars are mighty suns, [and] it dawned on me how staggeringly far away they must be to appear to us as mere points of light.”
That is Carl Sagan who was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934. He was interested in science from the very beginning and he was particularly fascinated by the stars.
He spent many nights of his childhood in a field, situating himself so he couldn’t see any buildings, trees, or anything else and he would sit there and watch the sky.
He graduated from high school and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago when he was only 16. He then went on to become a professor of astronomy at Cornell University.
At a time when most other astronomers were focusing on distant stars, other galaxies, and the history of the universe, Sagan focused his research on the planets in our own solar system. He was particularly interested in the possibility that there might be life beyond the planet Earth.
Because he had done extensive research on nearby planets, NASA hired him as an advisor for a mission to send remote-controlled spacecrafts to Venus. Sagan said: “It was just a dream come true. We were actually going to go to the planets!”
In preparation for the mission, Sagan was shocked to learn that there would be no cameras on the robotic spacecrafts, called Mariner I and Mariner II.
The other scientists thought cameras would be a waste of valuable space and equipment. They wanted to measure things like temperature and magnetism. Sagan couldn’t believe they would give up the chance to see an alien planet up close. He said, “Cameras are important precisely because they could answer questions we are too stupid to ask.”
Sagan lost the argument that time, but he won over NASA eventually. The Mariners were the last exploratory spacecraft ever launched by NASA without cameras.
He contributed to the Viking, Voyager, and Galileo planetary exploration missions, and his insistence on the use of cameras helped us get the first close-up photographs of the outer planets and their moons.
Sagan understood that in order to get the public to care about science and be willing to give tax dollars to science, he would have to appeal to their sense of wonder.
He created the TV show Cosmos, which attracted an audience of more than half a billion people in 60 countries. It was the most popular scientific television program ever produced. The book, also called Cosmos, that Sagan wrote alongside the TV series spent more than 70 weeks on the bestseller list.
He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Dragons of Eden (1977), about the evolution of human intelligence, and he was also the author of the best-selling novel Contact (1985), which was later made into a movie.
Sagan wrote 20 popular books and hundreds of scientific studies. Nevertheless, his fame brought him criticism from other scientists and a snub from the National Academy of Scientists, when he was nominated for membership but not accepted.
Carl Sagan was the most well known American scientist of the 80’s and 90’s, but he was more than a just a TV presenter, author and celebrity. He was a serious scientist who wanted to make the wonder and mystery of science available to everyone. His work has inspired many a young scientist and this is perhaps his greatest legacy.
Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.
Reading has defined me all my life. So when I come across a book titled How Reading Changed my Life, I know that I will probably like it. After all there is little that is more interesting to me than talking about books.
This is a charming book. It is small in that it is a mere 96 pages long, but the author manages to use that space discuss a wide variety of topics. It is divided into five chapters over which Anna Quindlen explores everything from childhood reading to a brief history of printing to worries that the internet will put an end to physical books to literary snobbery, reading habits and reading lists
She begins by talking about her childhood, hours and days spent in a cozy chair as she devoured book after book while other kids ran around and played outside. She says,
“The best part of me was always at home, within some book that had been laid flat on the table to mark my place, its imaginary people waiting for me to return and bring them to life. That was where the real people were, the trees that moved in the wind, the still, dark waters.”
“There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger.”
I felt an instant kinship with her at this point, because this is the way my childhood went as well.
Her parents weren’t avid readers, so she didn’t have many books at home. She describes vividly how it felt the first time she walked into a house that was filled with books. She talks at some length about all the books she has loved over the years. While I have read and loved very few of the books that she mentions, that it no way diminished my interest in her discussion of them.
No writing is wasted. Did you know that sourdough from San Francisco is leavened partly by a bacteria called lactobacillus sanfrancisensis? It is native to the soil there, and does not do well elsewhere. But any kitchen can become an ecosystem. If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can’t put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.
I often hear people saying that they don’t re-read books, either because they don’t see the point or because they don’t want to waste time on a book that they’ve read already when there are so many other books to read.
Like any serious reader, I too wonder how I am ever going to find the time to read all the books I want to read. I know that I could read so much more if I didn’t keep going back to the books I love. But then I like going back to them.
I fall in love with a book every once in a while and it feels like such a tragedy when the book ends. I can’t bear the idea of putting it aside and never looking at it again. I have to read it and relive it a few times before I feel like I have experienced it properly.
I have been re-reading books ever since I was a kid. Whether it was Little Women , Anne of Green Gables, King Solomon’s Mines or Around the World in Eighty Days…Each of these books was a world that I enjoyed tramping about in and I was always game for a return trip.
The list of books on my ‘to be re-read’ list has morphed and changed over the years but the list itself is a constant. At the moment, it includes books like Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and several of his other books, Aldous Huxley’s Island, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, David Grayson’s Adventures in Contentment and so on…
And then there are writers like James Herriot, P G Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie and Helene Hanff, all of whose books I will happily read again and again.
I go into a familiar book knowing exactly what happens and that is the very thing that makes it so much fun the second time around. I enjoy the book more because I don’t have to worry about what happens next. I can focus on the characters and the dialogue and enjoy the words and the world that they help create.
Perhaps I should admit here that people and characters matter more to me than plot and action. Maybe that is why I like memoirs so much. And my favourite kind of novel is one that has characters with depth and substance, characters that I can truly care about.
While I loved a lot of the books that I read as a child, the first character that I fell in love with is Elizabeth Bennett with Mr Darcy being a close second. I must have been around fifteen years old when my great-grandmother gave me her copy of Pride and Prejudice and told me that it was her favourite book.
It didn’t take me long to understand why. I have read it many times since and yet each time I am caught by the characters and their world and I read feverishly until I stop myself and try to go slow in an effort to make the book last a little bit longer.
The next book that I fell that crazy in love with was 84 Charing Cross Road.. The author, Helene Hanff used to re-read books all the time. She says in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, another beloved book, that,
“While other people are reading fifty books, I’m reading one book fifty times. I only stop when at the bottom of page 20, say, I realize I can recite pages 21 and 22 from memory. Then I put the book away for a few years.”
I’ve had to put 84 Charing Cross Road away for that very reason. But I enjoyed living in that book. It was my first encounter with someone outside my family who was as crazy about books as we were.
Reading a book is more than just entertainment or a way to pass the time. It is an experience and some books are so good that I have to go into them again and again just to live in that world for a bit.
But it is true that all books are not as good the second time, even the well-loved ones. Some books hold a magic for us because of a particular time or place in our lives when we read them, a magic that cannot be recreated a second time.
I think this is particularly true of the books we read as children. I discovered this recently, when I tried to read King Solomon’s Mines. I have such fond memories of this book and I was sure I would enjoy reading it again…I didn’t. I couldn’t even finish the book. And it made me feel awful, like I’d gone and messed up a wonderful memory.
And then there are books that suffer from over-exposure like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. I love these books and I have read them both a couple of times.
But I’ve seen the movies so many times, thanks to my kids who were obsessed with both of these series and would watch nothing else for months on end that it is going to be several years before I can go back to them and find them fresh again. But I know I will go back to them someday and that I will enjoy them thoroughly.
If I love a book, I will read it again. I have to read it again. Not doing so is like throwing away a treasure after holding it just once. Or to quote Anne Fadiman who put together a whole book called Re-readings,
“…the reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.”
In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. More powerfully and persuasively than from the ‘shalt nots’ of the Ten Commandments. I learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong.
One of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, described that evil, that wrong, existing in a different dimension from our own. But I felt that I, too, existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping.
And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island.
This is a book that is hard to describe. It is a bit genre defying or genre busting as one critic called it. It is obviously a book about food and cooking, but it is a lot more than that.
Pollan begins the book by saying that he has spent years writing about the industrial food system, nutrition and health. He’s explored the production end of it and the consumer end of it but he has somehow never focused on the the process in the middle: cooking.
That is what he tries to do in this book. He explores the different processes of cooking by apprenticing himself to experts…barbecue pit masters, chefs, bakers, cheese mongers, brewers and fermentos.
So the book is a memoir of sorts, a record of his experiences in the process of learning to cook. It is clear that he’s had a lot of fun and that he’s worked hard and learned a lot of new skills. That in itself would have made interesting reading.
But the book is more than a memoir. There is the history of barbecue, the science of sourdough bread, the mechanics of sauerkraut and the social and political implications of handing over the business of cooking to corporations.
Through the book he stresses the importance of cooking for yourself. “Cooking is a political act,” he says. By buying fresh, local ingredients and cooking for yourself you are choosing against food companies and industrial farms.
These are themes that he has explored before, but he weaves these ideas rather deftly into his exploration of cooking and makes the discussion more nuanced than it would otherwise have been.
The book begins with a trip to Aiden, North Carolina to sample authentic whole hog barbecue. Then Pollan chronicles his experience learning to cook with barbecue pit master Ed Mitchell.
The next section is about cooking with water, in covered pots the way women have done for centuries. Here Pollan apprentices himself to a chef, Samin Nosrat, a woman who was once his student.
Then comes baking and learning to bake bread. For this he goes to Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery. He learns to bake bread but is then forced to face the fact that his beautiful loaf of white bread is nutritionally empty. This leads to the exploration of whole grain flour and the challenge of baking with it.
Then there are all the intricacies of fermentation from yoghurt to sauerkraut to beer to kimchi to cheese. And the whole science of gut bacteria.
The book has a very broad range and it is fascinating. It is well researched and extremely well written. And despite the history and science and philosophy of the different kinds of food and cooking that Pollan includes here, he manages to keep it interesting.
This is not easy reading by any means. It is information heavy and I found it easier to read in bits and pieces than straight through.
Cooked is a good book. It is an important book and one that will make you think whether you are interested in food or not.
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.
Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel — if it’s a novel of action — depends on the high spots.
The thing to do is to say to yourself, ‘Which are my big scenes?’ and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play.
I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through?
I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, ‘This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I’m such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,’ you’re sunk.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
So begins one of the most famous poems in the English language. Coleridge attributed this poem to a dream vision that he had when he fell asleep one day after reading a story in which Kubla Khan commanded the building of a new palace. Coleridge claimed that while he slept, he had a vision and he composed —while sleeping—some two or three hundred lines of poetry.
When he woke up , he seized a pen and began writing furiously. But after writing down the first three stanzas of this dream poem—the first three stanzas of the current poem as we know it—he was interrupted by a “person on business from Porlock,” who detained him for an hour.
After this interruption, he was unable to recall the rest of the vision or the lines of poetry he had composed in his opium induced dream. The final stanza of the poem which talks of a vision in which he saw “a damsel with a dulcimer” who played and sang of “Mount Abora” were written after the interruption.
The poem as it we know it today is a mere 54 lines long and haunting and beautiful as it is, it leaves you with a sense that there is much more to be said.
Today is the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was born in Ottery St. Mary, England and he was the youngest of 14 children. He studied at Cambridge, but he struggled there, and he dropped out to join the cavalry. He did as poorly as a soldier as he had as a student, and his brothers ended up getting him discharged by reason of insanity.
At Cambridge, Coleridge had struck up an intense friendship with the poet Robert Southey, and the two men devised a plan to move to Pennsylvania and start a utopian community. Marriage was key to this utopia, so when Southey got engaged, Coleridge married the sister of Southey’s fiancée.
Then Southey abandoned his utopian ideal and decided to become a lawyer instead. Coleridge was devastated. He wrote to Southey: “You have left a large void in my heart — I know no man big enough to fill it.” He was depressed for a while, but shortly after that, Coleridge struck up a friendship with William Wordsworth and they became close friends.
The two men went for daily walks over the hills, discussing poetry, and together they wrote the book, Lyrical Ballads in 1798 ,which opens with Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and ends with Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey.
Between the fall of 1797 and the spring of 1798, a period when he saw Wordsworth daily and smoked a lot of opium, Coleridge wrote his most famous poems: Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Christabel, and Frost at Midnight.
He said, “A great poet […] must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child.”
In addition to being a poet Coleridge was a literary critic and a lecturer of some repute. He was a highly respected thinker and philosopher. But despite all his achievements, Coleridge always seemed to fall just short of his full potential. He was a habitual oversleeper. He broke plans and missed deadlines. He often left his mail unopened in case it contained bad news and he spent half his life he battlling a crippling opium addiction that made him feel worthless and ashamed.
He never got some of his best ideas down on paper, leaving other, more diligent friends to write the poems Coleridge only talked about. He spent years working on a massive book of philosophy, but he never finished it. Coleridge spent most his life trying to bridge the chasm between the inside world and the outside one, the mind and physical reality. He was tremendously passionate. When he fell in love with an idea or a woman, he fell hard.
His marriage was unhappy from the start but he complicated matters for himself by falling in love with Sara Hutchinson (Wordsworth’s sister in law). He tried to stay faithful to his wife and to maintain a friendship with Sara, but it was too difficult and when Sara distanced herself from him, he was heart-broken. He blamed Wordsworth for advising her to keep her distance and they quarreled.
He separated from his wife and spent the rest of his life giving lectures and writing literary criticism. He continued to write poetry as well, but his best years as a poet were behind him. He finished his major prose work, the Biographia Literaria 1817. It is a volume composed of 23 chapters of autobiographical notes and dissertations on various subjects, including some incisive literary theory and criticism.
He composed some poetry and had many inspirations – a few of them from opium overdose. Perhaps because he conceived such grand projects, he had difficulty carrying them through to completion, and he berated himself for his “indolence”. It is unclear whether his growing use of opium (and the brandy in which it was dissolved) was a symptom or a cause of his growing depression.
He published other writings around this time notably Sibylline Leaves (1817), Hush (1820), Aids to Reflection (1825), and On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830). He died in Highgate, London on 25 July 1834 as a result of heart failure compounded by an unknown lung disorder, possibly linked to his use of opium.
In my post about Issac Asimov last week, I mentioned that he wrote a short story called Nightfall in 1941 which is still considered one of the best science fiction short stories ever written. I looked it up and I was intrigued by the premise. The story is set on a planet called Lagash which has six suns. Since one or the other of their suns is always up in the sky, the people of Lagash have never known the night or darkness in any form.
In fact, darkness is one of their phobias, an experience that most of them simply cannot handle. Now for the first time in 2049 years they are going to experience darkness (cause by an eclipse which happens every 2049 years, a fact that their scientists have only just discovered.) They are a bit disturbed to find that their prediction coincides with that of a religious cult called the Apostles of Flame who have been preaching about the coming darkness and urging people to join their cult to save themselves from the darkness…
The story begins on the night of the eclipse. The scientists of Saro University are ready with their instruments and their computers. The Apostles of Flame are busy fanning fears. But the people of Lagash do not believe either the scientists or the Apostles. They are simply unable to conceive that such a thing as nightfall can happen…and then the eclipse begins.
It is a dramatic story and it is told very well. The people of Lagash are very much human. They don’t feel alien at all. They even refer to themselves as mankind, which is a bit of a let down when you’re reading a story that is supposedly set on another planet. But despite this and despite a couple of plot holes, Asimov tells an engaging story with multiple plot lines all of which come together very well. He builds a complete tale with a history and a very believable back story.
The characters are not very well fleshed out, but that does not matter because the story is driven by plot and action rather than the characters. It was a perfectly enjoyable read.
I can see why Robert Silverberg thought there was enough material in it to turn it into a book. Nightfall the novel was written in 1990, so in some ways, it is more sophisticated than the short story. Silverberg takes the very briefly sketched out back story in the original and fleshes it all out. This part of the book is very interesting. I enjoyed seeing the back story laid out in such detail.
He also fleshes out the characters and adds some new ones. I was glad of this for most part except when he brought in a romance towards the end that felt out of place and down right awkward at times. The characters are also a bit more emotional here and while that adds to the story in some places, it also takes away.
Silverberg sticks to the story laid out by Asimov until the eclipse. He even uses Asimov’s words and descriptions, particularly in the sequence leading up to the eclipse and right after. Asimov’s story ends soon after the darkness sets in. He gives you a hint of what is to come and stops, letting you imagine the rest.
Silverberg tries to continue the story and this is where the novel breaks down. It becomes tedious and needlessly descriptive. The same events are gone over by a whole bunch of people, so it is repetitive as well. The plot meanders along with the characters and you begin to wonder of there is an end in sight.
I was bored by this point, but I kept reading because I wanted to know how it would all end. The resolution was not lame perhaps, but definitely disappointing.
On May 24th this year, a drawing by Hergé was sold for 2.5 million euros, a new world record for a comic strip. The piece, dating from 1937 and signed by the creator is a double page ink drawing created by Hergé for the inside cover of the Tintin adventures published between 1937 and 1958. It went to an American collector after 15 minutes of furious bidding at the Artcurial auction in Paris.
Although he would go on to be one of the world’s most iconic cartoonists, Hergé (Georges Remi) was not a particularly standout student as a young boy. Instead, he preferred to indulge in his love for adventure and games with his friends on the streets of Brussels.
In secondary school, he joined the Boy Scouts. His drawing skills quickly caught the attention of the Scout leaders, and soon he was illustrating a Scout magazine and creating his first characters. Long before Tintin appeared in 1929, Georges Remi’s active imagination was conjuring up stories of international intrigue.
During the years of the First World War, Georges used the margins of his schoolbooks to scribble stories about a little character who played dirty tricks on German soldiers. He began drawing a comic strip featuring Totor, an adventurous Boy Scout who would become the basis for Tintin.
After leaving school and beginning work at the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, Hergé oversaw a weekly supplement for children entitled Le Petit Vingtième. This got him thinking about a new character: “The little brother of Totor, a Totor-turned-journalist, yet with the spirit of a Boy Scout.”
Hergé’s job provided him access to all the latest news, including the real-life exploits of French reporter and investigator Albert Londres. Londres’s career, as well as stories from Belgian and foreign papers, became fodder for Tintin’s adventures.
Tintin himself was modelled after Totor, with a round head, a button for a nose and two dots for eyes — but with the iconic quiff that makes him instantly recognizable. Tintin was the reporter that Hergé himself would have liked to be.
“Tintin is myself. He reflects the best and brightest in me; he is my successful double. I am not a hero. But like all 15-year-old boys, I dreamt of being one…and I have never stopped dreaming. Tintin has accomplished many things on my behalf.” -Hergé –
The first Tintin adventure, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was an instant hit with children and adults alike. As the adventures progressed, Hergé added all kinds of characters, some of whom he based on famous people (such as Bianca Castafiore, whose character was inspired by the opera singer Maria Callas). He also based some characters on friends and family (such as Thomson & Thompson, who were inspired by his father and his father’s twin brother).
Although he started out as an investigative reporter, Tintin developed into a detective. He had a sharp eye for detail and considerable powers of deduction. A bit like James Bond, there was no car, motorcycle, locomotive, submarine, airplane, helicopter, horse or camel that Tintin could not drive, ride, steer or fly. No matter what situation Tintin found himself in, he was never at a loss for what to do.
Tintin was also an explorer, a fact that led to his most memorable achievement — taking the first steps on the moon, some 16 years before the American astronaut Neil Armstrong.
For any child growing up amid the political and cultural changes of the twentieth century, Tintin was a role model who both inspired and delighted. Hergé drew upon the political events of the time and dedicated his life to creating adventures that transported readers to places around the world — from Japanese-occupied China in The Blue Lotus to the Arctic Ocean in The Shooting Star.
Throughout his career, Hergé strove to bring as much of the real world as he could into the world of Tintin. Although Tintin travelled around the world, Hergé stayed in Belgium for most of his life. In his later years, the artist and author managed to make trips to several countries and see first-hand the places that had inspired Tintin’s adventures.
Hergé’s career as a cartoonist was successful from the start, but it had one major hurdle. It came after the Second World War, after the end of German occupation when he was accused of being a collaborator because of the Nazi control of the paper (Le Soir),that he had been writing for. He claimed that he was simply doing a job under the occupation, like a plumber or carpenter, without any political sympathies.
But he admitted later that: “I recognize that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order…In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error…” Tintin, however was never depicted as being pro-German but the comic had hints of anti-Semitic themes that angered quite a few people.
Le Soir was shut down by the allied authorities and Tintin’s adventures were interrupted toward the end of The Seven Crystal Balls. During the chaotic post-occupation period, Hergé was arrested four times and he was publicly accused of Nasi and Rexist sympathies. Like other former employees of the Nazi-controlled press, Hergé found himself barred from newspaper work in post-war Belgium. He spent the next two years adapting many of the early Tintin adventures into colour.
Tintin’s exile ended on 26 September 1946. The publisher and wartime resistance fighter Raymond Leblanc provided the financial support and anti-Nazi credentials to launch Tintin the magazine with Hergé. It was a weekly publication that featured two pages of Tintin’s adventures, beginning with the remainder of The Seven Crystal Balls as well as other comic strips and assorted articles. It became highly successful, and weekly circulation surpassed 100,000 at one time.
Since then Tintin’s adventures continued uninterrupted until Hergé’s death in 1983. Tintin has been translated into over a hundred languages. In German he is called Tim, in Turkish he is called Tenten and in Latin he is known as Titinus. To celebrate Hergé’s seventy-fifth birthday, the Société Belge d’Astronomie gave his name to a newly discovered asteroid. The asteroid Hergé is located between Mars and Jupiter.
The full title of this book is : Four Seasons in Rome : On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World. Now if that is not an intriguing title I don’t know what is. This is a memoir of four seasons or one year that the author spent in Rome with his wife and two infant sons. In 2004, the day after Anthony Doerr and his wife had twins, he received a letter informing him that he had won the Rome Prize, one of the most prestigious awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and with it a stipend and a writing studio in Rome for a year.
While it was daunting to move to another country with infant twins to take care of, particularly when you don’t speak the language, Doerr and his wife Shauna made the move because they knew they would regret it if they didn’t. Their sons were six months old when they landed in Rome and took possession of a small apartment with a huge terrace that gave them a lovely view of the city. Doerr had a studio at the American Academy that was next door to their apartment building.
He would go there every morning and spend a few hours trying to work on a novel set in France in world war two (All the Light We Cannot See which was published earlier this year), but he ended up spending more time writing in his journal than working on his novel and that that journal is what turned into this book.
It is very much a journal in that he chronicles the ordinary and the every day, visits to the grocery store, walks to the piazza, staying up all night with kids who will not sleep and so on, but then there’s the day they walked down to the Vatican which was less than a mile from their apartment, the day they took their sons to the Pantheon, visits to ancient temples and cisterns, the night he took one of his sons to watch the starlings flying over the city, the week long trip to a village in Umbria, they day he joined thousands of people keeping vigil over the dying Pope John Paul II (whose funeral is the one referred to in the title) and so on.
It is a chronicle of one year that was full of new experiences both mundane and grand. What I loved about it was the engaging honesty with which it is written. There is a lot here about children and what it means to be a parent and how difficult it can be and yet how joyful. And then there’s the dramatic experience of not just being in another country, but being in one of the oldest cities in the world where there’s art and history everywhere you look and the food is fabulous, the people are interesting and quirky…
They don’t have any great adventures. They’re parents of babies just trying to get through days dominated by their kids, just as they would have been of they’d never left home, but just being in a new place, being taken out of context like that somehow made even the ordinary spectacular. And Doerr manages to convey that feeling so well.
The book is full of observations and insights that make you stop and think. Here’s an example:
“The mind craves ease; it encourages the senses to recognize symbols, to gloss. It makes maps of our kitchen drawers and neighborhood streets; it fashions a sort of algebra out of life. And this is useful, even essential— X is the route to work, Y is the heft and feel of a nickel between your fingers.
Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw— actually saw— a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs.”
Talking about the election of the new pope, standing in front of St Peter’s along with thousands of other people he says,
“Are we here because we want to know who will become pope? Or are we here out of vanity— because we want to be able to say we were here? Both, of course. The Church is making narrative, and this is the story’s climactic moment. Right now we’re here mostly because we want to know what will happen next, because we’re most of the way through a rich and complicated story. The curtain is up, the orchestra is playing; this is the thrill of drama and the Catholic Church is the most experienced dramatist in the world.”
He spends a lot of his words trying to describe Rome and while some of his descriptions are lyrical they are never cheesy or over the top. For example:
“It seems impossible but today is more beautiful than yesterday. The sky is a depthless, flawless cobalt. Everywhere little chamomile daisies open their white faces to the sun— the lawns look as if they’re covered with snow.”
“What is Rome? It’s a place where a grown man can drive a tiny car called a Panda or Musa (the Muse) or Punto (the Dot) or Stilo (the Stylus) or Picasso. It’s a feast every damned week. It’s maddening retail hours. It’s a city about to become half old-people’s home/ half tourist museum. It’s like America before coffee was “to go,” when a playground was a patch of gravel, some cigarette butts, and an uninspected swing set; when everybody smoked; when businesses in your neighborhood were owned by people who lived in your neighborhood; when children still stood on the front seats of moving cars and spread their fingers across the dash.”
The book reads very much like a journal in that it jumps from one topic to another, dwelling for a while on this and then on something else, moving between observation and musing, thoughts and descriptions. There is a certain immediacy in the writing that makes it all very real. It makes you feel as if you are right there with the writer seeing what he sees and at least to some extent feeling what he feels.
It is a thoroughly charming book and one that I made me want to rush through it and savour it all at the same time.
Issac Asimov was born in Petrovichi, Russia (1920). Three years later his family immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, where they ran a candy store that carried science fiction magazines. Isaac’s father didn’t allow him to read the magazines but he did it anyway. His family wanted him to go to medical school and become a doctor, which he had no interest in doing, but he applied and was happy when he was turned down and could go to college to study chemistry instead.
Asimov published his first short story in Amazing Stories when he was 18. He was able to put himself through college and graduate school at Columbia University by writing and publishing stories. He published his 32nd story called Nightfall in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction magazine when he was just 21 years old. It won numerous awards and is often considered the best science-fiction short story ever written.
After graduate school Asimov taught biochemistry at Boston University school of Medicine, but he had no interest in research or academic publishing. He continued to write short stories until 1950 when he published his first science fiction novel, Pebble in the Sky.
1950 was also the year in which he published I, Robot, which featured the ‘Three Laws of Robotics”, which seem so sensible and self-evident almost, that people believed that any future robots would have to have these laws built into them.
Just year after this Asimov published Foundation which is perhaps his best known work. Then came Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953). There were four more books in this series, two sequels and two prequels a couple of which were published in the 1980’s.
Isaac Asimov called himself “a born explainer” and he is known for writing books on a wide variety of subjects like Astronomy, Biology, Mathematics and Religion.
Kurt Vonnegut once asked him how it felt to know everything, to which he replied, “I only know how it feels to have the reputation of knowing everything. Uneasy.” He said when he had to write about something he knew little about he closed his eyes and typed “very very fast.”
Isaac Asimov died in 1992 after contracting AIDS from an HIV infected blood transfusion he received during a 1982 open heart surgery operation.
I have been away from this blog for over two months. Some of it was life getting in the way, but mostly it was a lot of not reading. Sometimes I get into this rut when for whatever reason, I can’t seem to find a single book I like. It seems absurd, considering how many books I have that I still haven’t read, but for whatever reason, I just can’t seem to get interested in anything.
The last book I mentioned here was Dearie by Bob Spitz. It was interesting and I read it through, but only because the subject (Julia Child) was interesting. The writing was not. The book was at least a 100 pages too long. It could’ve done with tighter editing and and a more interesting manner of presentation. There is a wealth of research here, but it is poorly organised and a lot of times it felt like an information dump rather than the story of somebody’s life…
Anyway, I couldn’t read anything for a few days after I finished this. Then I picked up The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs. I had never heard of this author before and I didn’t know anything about her style of writing. I only picked up the book because it had an interesting premise and a lot of good reviews.
The book started well and it drew me in, but somewhere around the middle it began to unravel. The story has a complex plot and it deserved a far better resolution than it got. A lot of the conflicts which had been built up rather well, were resolved, with what I thought was unrealistic ease. Towards the end, I was only reading it because I wanted to find out how it all ended…
Since then I haven’t been able to settle on anything to read. At least until a couple of days ago. I am now reading and thoroughly enjoying Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. I am only sixty pages from the end, so I will be done by tonight and I should be able to post a review tomorrow.