Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

It’s been months since I’ve felt like writing a review or had anything in particular to say on this blog. But I have just read something so good and so beautiful, something that moved me so much that I have to talk about it and tell everyone I know to please read this book…

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The book that I am talking about is Gratitude by Dr Oliver Sacks. It is a very short book, just sixty pages. It is a collection of four essays that were written and published at different times in the last two years of his life. (Dr Sacks passed away on 30th August, 2015 at the age of 82.) These essays are meditations on old age, mortality and reflections on a life well lived.

That in itself is not remarkable. What makes this book special is the way Dr Sacks has approached these topics. There is sincerity here, a sense of wonder and an infectious joy that will lift your spirits, make you smile and make you think that maybe life is not so bad after all.

The writing is delightful…lyrical, intelligent, lucid prose that is a joy to read. Despite the fact that Dr Sacks lived in the US for the entirety of his adult life, there is a quintessentially British quality to his writing…a gentle humour and a certain self-deprecation that I find very appealing.

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Here he is in his own words:

“One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’ too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”

The above quote is from the first essay called ‘Mercury’. It was written shortly before Dr Sacks’ 80th birthday. The significance of the title is that Mercury is the 80th element in the periodic table. Dr Sacks was apparently fascinated by the physical sciences and the periodic table in particular, ever since he was a child and he always thought of his birthdays in terms of the elements.

Now that is charming. The next essay is called ‘My own Life’ and it was written several months later when Dr Sacks was told that he had multiple metastases in his liver. There are very few treatment options for this particular type of cancer, so he was basically facing the fact that he only had a few months to live.

This essay isn’t an account of what it’s like to have to deal with cancer or the surreal experience of knowing with reasonable certainty that you’re going to die soon. Instead, it is a meditation on a life that’s been long and rich. Dr Sacks doesn’t dwell on his frailties and his approaching mortality, but he looks back on his life and he is clearly happy, because it was a good life, rich in people, relationships, incident and experience…

Here he is again:

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

I can’t read these words and not be overcome. Being alive is a privilege, one that we don’t appreciate enough. This book is full of gems like this and if I keep going, I will have to quote it all. So I’ll stop here. There are two more essays in this collection that continue to explore these thoughts and ideas and they are well worth reading. This is a book that I’m going to treasure. I’ve always said that the most valuable books in my life are the ones that I know I’m going to read and read again. This is one of them.

 

Book Review : A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

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“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

These are the words that A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with. It is a wonderful beginning…it made me want to dive right in and read the book. And I’m glad I did, because it is brilliant. It is one of the best books I have ever read and very likely, one of the best books ever written. It is a fantastic story, the kind that worms its way into your heart and settles there. It has characters that are beautifully drawn out and the writing is sublime.

This is a long book (over 700 pages) and it has plenty to say…about religion, Christianity in particular, about faith and what it means, about politics, what it means to be an American, about war and its consequences and about a country that seems to have lost its way. It is a book packed full of ideas and yet, it is a very human story.

At its heart, this is a story about friendship…between the narrator, John Wheelwright, who considers himself to be rather an ordinary guy and his best friend, Owen Meany who is the most remarkable person that the John has ever known. He is also the most remarkable person that I have met within the pages of a book. And I use the word, person, because Owen Meany is real to me.

The book is set in two places, New Hampshire and Toronto and it is goes back and forth between two points in time. The first is in the 60’s when John Wheelwright and Owen Meany are both eleven years old. They have already been friends for a several years. The second is the late eighties when John is living in Toronto, missing his friend, remembering him, struggling with his faith and trying to make sense of his life.

The first quarter of the book is focused almost entirely on the early part of John and Owen’s lives. It begins when they are eleven years old, when John loses his mother in a tragic accident. He doesn’t know his father because his mother never told him who he was. The story then goes a little further into the past when John was six years old and then goes on to talk about how his mother met his soon-to-be step dad, Dan Needham.

It explores the growing friendship between the two boys and the way Owen slowly becomes a big part of John’s family. John’s mother is particularly fond of the boy who is tiny for his age. He looks like a five year old when he’s actually eleven. His smallness is one of the most striking features about him.

And then there is his voice. The author tells you that it is a unique voice. Some of the characters in the book find it disturbing and at one point, a speech therapist describes it as a voice that is perpetually set to scream. And the reader is always aware of this voice because the writer has chosen to capitalise every word that comes out of Owen Meany’s mouth. This, I thought was a very useful device, because the voice is important.

Owen’s size and his voice are the most immediately noticeable things about him, but as you get to know the character, you realise that he’s extremely intelligent, opinionated, very sure of himself and very strong in his faith. He has no doubts about God, religion or his place in the world. I found myself envying his certainty. Faith is a tricky thing to write about. It can easily become preachy and just plain annoying, but John Irving never lets that happen. Owen’s faith is beautiful, it is touching and seeing him as we do, through the eyes of the narrator, it is impossible not to love him.

Owen has the most interesting ideas and opinionated though he is, he’s usually right. And this is brought out beautifully through the book. So the story begins when the two boys are eleven years old and then it goes back a bit to when they’re both six and just starting to play with each other and then John meets his step-father, Dan and a few years later his mother and Dan get married.

And then his mother dies in an accident and he has to deal with that. Owen is involved in this accident as mentioned in the opening sentences of the book, but how, I will leave for the author to tell you. What follows are the many years of growing up when John is adopted by his step-dad and he has to make his way through school which is a struggle for him because he’s dyslexic and no one has cottoned on to that…

Owen is with him all the way, lending his unique perspective to everything that happens to John and helping him in every way he can. He’s the one who figures out that John is dyslexic and he teaches him a few tricks to help him with his reading. He teaches John how to study, he helps him with his homework and he shows him how to write his papers. And John in turn is Owen’s biggest support. They go from the local high school to Gravesend Academy, they experience all the pangs of adolescence, all the trouble and confusion of growing up…

Through all this, we get glimpses of John all grown up and living in Toronto where he’s now a school teacher, teaching English. Reading is his life now as much as religion. We’re told that he thinks fondly of his friend and that he misses him a lot, though why, you won’t find out until the end of the novel. It is a long book, like I said, but it never feels tedious or drawn out. The pacing is perfect and the writing is incredible. Even when the characters are doing nothing more than watching Liberace on TV, it is all very engaging, somehow.

This is the story of two boys and their shared experiences, growing up and as such, it could’ve been very, very ordinary. What it is, is an extraordinary tale of courage, faith, love and friendship. And it is all due to the unique genius of John Irving. This book is an experience and it is impossible to read it and come out unchanged. It is a very special book and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Book Review : Beaten, Seared and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon

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The book comes with the tagline, “On Becoming a Chef at The Culinary Institute of America.” That should give you a fair idea of what the book is about. It is about one man’s experience, training to be a chef. It is a memoir and a surprisingly good one. I have read quite a few such memoirs, so I came to this book feeling a bit blasé.

I was between books and I wasn’t in the mood to pick up anything very heavy or very engrossing. So, a bit of light reading, I thought. And it was. But it was also a surprising amount of fun. This is a good book. The writing is not exceptional, but it is good. And it is written with an honesty that I found rather appealing.

Jonathan Dixon is a writer and a journalist who in his late thirties decided to make a career change. So he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and he trained to become a chef. He had a lot of doubts and insecurities, obviously.  It is not easy to go back to school when you’re pushing forty. It takes a fair bit of courage and faith in yourself.

Some of the book is about that…the joy and the fear involved in throwing everything up and going off to follow your dream when you’re at an age where you’re supposed to be settled into a career, married, starting a family and so on. It is a difficult choice to make and it is even harder to stick to it once you’ve made it, particularly when you are having money troubles and you’re surrounded by people half your age.

The bigger part of the book is an account of his experience learning to cook. He writes about the CIA, the teachers, his fellow students, all of the things he learns, both small and big and you get a real sense of what it is like to be in culinary school and how difficult and how rewarding the entire experience can be, for someone who loves to cook.

I like to cook and I love memoirs, so of course, I enjoyed the book. But I don’t think you have to be interested in food to enjoy this book. It is a well written memoir, full of interesting characters and it is at its core an account of someone trying to follow a dream.

Book Review : A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C Clarke

I have been on a bit of a science fiction trip ever since I read The Martian. I read 3001 The Final Odyssey soon after and then I went back to read 2001…and 2010…, the first two books in the Space Odyssey series and I have discovered once again the genius of Arthur C Clarke.

He is a wonderful writer with the ability to create interesting characters and to write engrossing stories with intricate plots and the kind of plot twists that keep you reading. But his great strength as a writer of science fiction is his ability to imagine believable futures.

A lot of fantastic things happen in his stories, but the situation of the characters and the kind of world that they live in is nearly always the kind of world that ours might very easily evolve into. He is often idealistic in his assumptions that humans will finally put aside their petty grievances and attempt peace rather than war, but I don’t think idealism is a bad thing in a writer. The way I see it, if we are going to imagine a future, why not imagine a good one, why not imagine that humanity will make sensible choices instead of stupid ones?

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So this book, A Fall of Moondust, is set on the Moon, in a future in which humans have gone beyond the Earth and have settlements on most of the planets and sattelites in the solar system. They have in fact, been living on the moon long enough to have had people born there.

But most people still live on Earth and the Moon is a popular travel destination. And one of the tourist attractions on the Moon is a trip on the Selene, a hovercraft, the moon’s equivalent of a tourist bus. One of the attractions on the tour is the ‘Sea of Thirst’.

This is a fictitious location on the Moon. It is supposed to be a flat plane covered with fine dust which flows almost like water. The Selene and it’s crew have crossed the ‘Sea of Thirst’ many, many times. But on this particular trip, there is a moonquake that occurs, causing an underground cavern to collapse. The Selene goes under the dust and is trapped. It has to be rescued.

The entire book is about this rescue mission. It is a classic premise and it plays out like any good thriller. There are interesting characters, difficult situations, a whole lot of problems and a great deal of intelligent problem solving…all of it based on real science.

This is hard science fiction (a term that I learnt recently.) It just means science fiction with an emphasis on scientific accuracy and technical detail or science fiction with a good deal of real science in it (which is what I used to call it in my head until I learnt that there was an actual term for this.)

The book begins with the moonquake and the ship getting trapped under all that dust. We see the passengers and the crew on the ship and their attempts to cope with the situation. On the other side are the scientists and the crew involved in the rescue and the problems they face in dealing with the peculiar nature of the Moon.

When the Selene goes underground, for example, the dust covers it right up and goes back to being as smooth and undisturbed as before…something that would never happen on Earth. And the dust itself is so weird. It is not solid, like mud and not liquid like water. And there’s tons of it that has to be moved somehow and twenty-two people on the Selene who have to be dug out of there.

Arthur C Clarke begins with an interesting premise and he delivers a book that is interesting and engaging. It feels real enough that after a while you start to think that ‘Calvius base’ is a real place and that there are real people living and working on the moon…it is not a brilliant book, but it is a good one and it is definitely worth reading.

Book Review : Paris Letters by Janice Macleod

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The blurb for this book is as follows:

“How much money does it take to quit your job?”

Exhausted and on the verge of burnout, Janice poses this question to herself as she doodles on a notepad at her desk. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t as daunting as she expected. With a little math and a lot of determination, Janice cuts back, saves up and buys herself two years of freedom in Europe.

A few days into her stop in Paris, Janice meets Christophe, the cute butcher down the street—who doesn’t speak English. Through a combination of sign language and franglais, they embark on a whirlwind Paris romance.

She soon realizes that she can’t ever return to the world of twelve-hour workdays and greasy corporate lingo. But her dwindling savings force her to find a way to fund her dreams again. So Janice turns to her three loves—words, art, and Christophe—to figure out a way to make her happily-ever-after in Paris last forever.

It sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? It’s a memoir and it could have been cheesy given the well worn, oft-repeated theme, but it isn’t. It is an honest, funny, self-deprecating account of the author’s attempts to turn her life around, to get out of the corporate rut and create a life that is happy and meaningful.

And the way she goes about it is so unusual. She writes letters to people, painted letters. Each letter is set in a particular spot in Paris. She paints the scene, leaving some room for text and writes about that place and that moment in time.

Then she makes copies of that letter and sells them on etsy.com. The letters are beautiful and she has subscribers who get twelve letters a year. Some of them write back and there is this wonderful correspondence in the book between Janice and her grandmother and this other lady, a Canadian called Mary.

The book is written well and it holds your interest all through. The reason for this, apart from the writing is the author herself. She’s funny and quirky and she’s engagingly honest. And Christophe, her husband by the end of the book, is very charming.

She writes lovingly about him and her account of their wordless romance (you can’t talk much when you don’t know each other’s language) is well worth reading about.