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.

 

Daily Trivia : Anne Fadiman

“The most important thing when starting out with essay writing is to find a voice with which you’re comfortable. You need to find a persona that is very much like you, but slightly caricatured. Think of it as your own voice turned up slightly in volume…Once you’ve found that voice, you’ll discover that the essay is something you can be serious or funny with, or both.”

That is Anne Fadiman, author, essayist, editor and teacher. She has many achievements to her name, including a National Book Critics Circle award, but she is best known for her essays.

Her best-selling essay collection Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a book entirely about books — from purchasing them, to reading them, to handling them, loving them and finding more room for them.

The London Observer called Ex Libris “witty, enchanting, and supremely well-written.” It has been or will be translated into fifteen languages, including Korean and Catalan.

The book is full of insightful observations and interesting asides and it contains essays with charming titles such as, ‘Marrying Libraries’, ‘The Joy of Sesquipedalians’, ‘Never do that to a book’, ‘The PM’s Empire of Books’ and so on.

Fadiman’s most recent essay collection is At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, in which she discloses her passions for (among other things) staying up late, reading Coleridge, drinking coffee, and ingesting large quantities of ice cream. The Christian Science Monitor called it “as close to a perfect book as you will ever hope to read.”

Me talk pretty one day by David Sedaris

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This is another interesting collection of essays and stories by David Sedaris. The man has an eccentric and downright weird sense of humour.

His books are not the kind that will appeal to everyone (reviews on goodreads swing wildly between the one star ‘I can’t believe people read this crap’ to the five star ‘I love this man!”, kind of gushing with very few people coming down in the middle.)

But if you like his books, you will really like them. Sedaris writes about ordinary, everyday things. He seems to be of the opinion that nothing is too small to write about.

Not everyone finds that sort of thing interesting, but if (like me) you do, then he is just the writer for you.

Now about Me Talk Pretty One Day, there is a lot here that I liked and some that I couldn’t bring myself to read all the way through. But on the whole, I enjoyed it.

There are stories here about growing up gay in the 1970’s and trying desperately to fit in, dreaming of being an artist, becoming a drug addict, living in New York, the weirdness of modern, experimental cuisine, living in France and struggling to learn the language and so on.

Some of the stories are warm and engaging, some are funny, some of them made my heart ache…and then there are others that I wish he’d never written. They seemed a bit pointless, to be honest.

But on the whole, I liked it. Here is a sample:

“Every day we’re told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it’s always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it’s startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are ‘We’re number two!”

“On my fifth trip to France I limited myself to the words and phrases that people actually use. From the dog owners I learned “Lie down,” “Shut up,” and “Who shit on this carpet?” The couple across the road taught me to ask questions correctly, and the grocer taught me to count. Things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. “Is thems the thoughts of cows?” I’d ask the butcher, pointing to the calves’ brains displayed in the front window.”

“In order to get the things I want, it helps me to pretend I’m a figure in a daytime drama, a schemer. Soap opera characters make emphatic pronouncements. They ball up their fists and state their goals out loud. ‘I will destroy Buchanan Enterprises,’ they say. ‘Phoebe Wallingford will pay for what she’s done to our family.’ Walking home with the back half of the twelve-foot ladder, I turned to look in the direction of Hugh’s loft. ‘You will be mine,’ I commanded.”

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

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This is one of the funniest, most poignant, most touching books that I have read in recent times. This is a collection of essays, observations on life,  part memoir and part opinion. Sedaris has a unique take on life and an ability to observe it in all its shades and to somehow find the humour and poignancy of it all.

There are a lot of humorous writers out there. What makes Sedaris different is that he finds humour in the mundane.  A lot of the time, he writes about himself and his family. He is very self deprecating and his cheerful admission of his faults and his foibles serves to make him even more charming.

This book begins with a quest for a stuffed owl that Sedaris wants to get Hugh (his partner) for Valentine’s day and goes on to talk about his experiences with dentistry in France (one of the funniest bits of writing I have come across in a while) to growing up in a large family at a time before “parenting” was invented.

It is clear that he has some very painful memories of his childhood, but he writes about them in a way that is not at all dramatic and all the more poignant for that. There are stories here about the pitfalls of learning a foreign language (again very funny), to President Obama’s election, to getting a colonoscopy, to the conservative reaction to gay marriage…there are a few pieces here that are bitingly satirical, but easy reading all the same.

I heard the audio of this book and the fact that it was Sedaris himself doing the reading made it even more enjoyable.

Daily Trivia : Joseph Addison

Joseph Addison, born in Wiltshire, England in 1672. Along with his friend Richard Steele, Addison was an essayist for The Tatler, a newspaper that covered London’s political and social elite.

When The Tatler ceased production in 1711, Steele and Addison formed The Spectator, with the intent to “enliven Morality with Wit, and to temper Wit with Morality.” The Spectator offered a single, long essay every day but Sunday, on subjects ranging from fashion to literary criticism.

It was narrated by the fictitious Mr. Spectator, whose “Spectator’s Club” included a cast of characters to entertain, comment on affairs of the day, and teach moral lessons.

The most memorable of these characters was Sir Roger de Coverly who has been described as follows:

“No character in our literature, not even Mr Pickwick has more endeared himself to successive generations of readers than Addison’s Sir Roger de Coverley: there are many figures in drama and fiction of whom we feel that they are in a way personal friends of our own, that once introduced to us they remain a permanent part of our little world.

It is the abiding glory of Dickens, it is one of Shakespeare’s abiding glories, to have created many such: but we look to find these characters in the novel or the play: the essay by virtue of its limitations of space is unsuited for character-studies.

But here before the birth of the modern English novel we have a full-length portrait of such a character as we have described, in addition to a number of other more sketchy but still convincing delineations of English types.

We are brought into the society of a fine old-fashioned country gentleman, simple, generous, and upright, with just those touches of whimsicality and those lovable faults which go straight to our hearts: and all so charmingly described that these Essays have delighted all who have read them since they first began to appear on the breakfast-tables of the polite world in Queen Anne’s day.”

One of the paper’s biggest fans was Benjamin Franklin, who admitted in his autobiography that he had modeled his prose after Addison’s essays.

Current Reading : Quiet and Let’s explore Diabetes with Owls

I am currently reading two books :

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. 

Synopsis:

At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favour working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labelled “quiet,” it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society–from van Gogh’s sunflowers to the invention of the personal computer.

Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. Taking the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie’s birthplace to Harvard Business School, from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical mega church, Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century and explores its far-reaching effects.

She talks to Asian-American students who feel alienated from the brash, backslapping atmosphere of American schools. She questions the dominant values of American business culture, where forced collaboration can stand in the way of innovation, and where the leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked. And she draws on cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to reveal the surprising differences between extroverts and introverts.

Perhaps most inspiring, she introduces us to successful introverts–from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Finally, she offers invaluable advice on everything from how to better negotiate differences in introvert-extrovert relationships to how to empower an introverted child…

I am an introvert and I’ve never had a problem with it, but I do find it hard to explain to people why I need be quiet and why I need a few hours of alone time every day. I’m only around a hundred pages into this book and I can tell you that it is very good. Reading it feels like a validation of sorts.

The second book is:

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Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris (Yes, that is the actual title. It is so delightfully eccentric, I love it.)

Synopsis:

A guy walks into a bar car and…

From here the story could take many turns. When this guy is David Sedaris, the possibilities are endless, but the result is always the same: he will both delight you with twists of humour and intelligence and leave you deeply moved.

Sedaris remembers his father’s dinnertime attire (shirtsleeves and underpants), his first colonoscopy (remarkably pleasant), and the time he considered buying the skeleton of a murdered Pygmy.

With Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris shows once again why his work has been called “hilarious, elegant, and surprisingly moving”.

This is a collection of essays, observations on life, a recounting of experiences, part memoir and part opinion. I’ve been listening to this book on audio. It is read by the author himself and it is delightful. It is also the first time that I have ever preferred the audio of a book over reading it. David Sedaris is brilliant. He writes extremely well and he makes the book even better in the way he reads it.