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.

 

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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 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 at this point. 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 back again to when they are eleven years old and John’s mother dies in an accident.

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 : The History Boys by Alan Bennett

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I just finished reading the book. It’s a week since I saw the movie and I was knocked off my feet. I’ve been knocked off my feet again. It’s a brilliant play, it is incredibly well written and it got under my skin in a way that little else has done in all my years of reading. It made me smile and it made me laugh, but it also broke my heart a little.

It’s a fairly lighthearted story on the surface. It raises important questions about education and what it’s for and so on, but it has lots of layers and characters who are charming while being all too human. The characters are flawed and they feel very real. You read the play and you can’t help but feel that yes, this could very well have happened somewhere, sometime.

The story is set in 1983 and it is set in a state school called Cuttler’s in Yorkshire. It is a story about eight boys who’ve just got their A level exam results. They’ve all done well and they’re getting ready to take their university entrance examinations. The headmaster is keen that they try to get into Oxford or Cambridge. They have one term left before they have to take the exams and they are all going in for history.

Their teachers are teaching them the way they always have. Mrs Lintott teaches History and Mr Hector teaches Literature and Language, or  General Studies as the headmaster calls it. These teachers don’t see the point of these kids trying for Oxford and Cambridge. They studied at Durham and Sheffield, universities that are less esteemed, but they got a good education nonetheless.

As far as they are concerned, which university the kids go to, has nothing to do with how well they learn or where they end up, in the future. But the headmaster is keen on Oxford and Cambridge, so he hires a new teacher, a Mr Irwin who is young and who, unlike the other teachers did actually study at Oxford.

His brief is to get these kids into Oxford or Cambridge by whatever means he can. He meets the boys and he realises that he doesn’t actually have to teach them anything. They know everything they need to know and more. Both Hector and Mrs Lintott have made sure of that.

But their approach, particularly Hector’s is the kind that believes in knowledge for knowledge’s sake or as he says in the beginning of the play, “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” He’s quoting A E houseman here. Hector’s mission in life is to give the boys a love of literature and reading.

He makes them learn poems and songs by heart. There is a very interesting exchange about poetry in the play (between Hector and one of his students) that I will quote here:

Timms : Sir, I don’t always understand poetry.

Hector : You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.”

Timms : I don’t see how we can understand it, sir. Most of the stuff that poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector : But it will, Timms. It will. And when it does, you’ll have the antidote ready! Grief, Happiness. Even when you’re dying. We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.

He doesn’t care for exams, seeing them as the arbitrary things they are. He’s trying to equip his students for life, or so he believes anyway. Irwin, on the other hand is all about the exams. He goes about teaching the students short cuts and tricks to get the examiner’s attention.

He talks about Stalin in one scene and he says that everyone knows that Stalin was a monster, but if you want to stand out from the crowd then find something to say in his defense…dissent for dissent’s sake, not because you truly believe in it, but because taking a position that is different from the rest means that you will stand out, you will get noticed.

So the book is basically about these two teachers and their approach to teaching. Everybody wants a teacher like Hector, but Hector will not help you pass exams and you do need to pass exams. Examiners are not going to care how much literature, poetry and history you know. They care about the questions and the answers, do you have them or not.

The play doesn’t attempt to answer this question, it just puts it out there. It’s something for the audience to think about and mull over. If this was all, the play would be good. What makes it great is all the sub plots…the stories of the students and the teachers:

A Jewish boy who is small and who never feels like he quite fits in with the others because he matured late and because he’s gay. And he’s in love with another of the boys who of course, doesn’t care for him.

Another boy who is a devout Christian and holds fast to his faith while missing out on a lot of stuff that is normal for boys his age.

And another who has a girlfriend, but doesn’t let that stop him from hitting on Irwin who happens to be gay.

And of course Hector, who though a brilliant teacher, is a bit of a creep. He gives the boys rides on his motorcycle while reaching back every now and then to lay a hand on their knee or to grope them even. He never takes it any further and the boys just groan or roll their eyes at him. They are all eighteen years old and they are well able to take care of themselves, so he’s not a real threat to them and he knows it. They don’t like what he does, but they put up with him anyway.

The crux of the play, though, is that question about education, what it is and what it’s for.  The final scene is a round up of all the boys and what they’ve done with their lives. One of the boys gets into Cambridge, but it doesn’t work out for him because he put so much into getting there, that once he was there, he had nothing left.

They all went to Oxford or Cambridge, something that no one from their school had ever done before. They were all smart and full of life when they were at school, they were special, but none of them ended up doing anything extraordinary with their lives. So what was all that effort for really?

Like I said, the play raises a lot of interesting questions. It has a wonderful set of characters that you can’t help but love. It is funny, sarcastic, witty and poignant. It will stay with you long after you’ve read it because it is full of insights into life and literature, learning and being. It is full of quotations, songs, poems, dialogues from movies and other plays even…all of them interesting and all of them special.

But the words that will stay with me the longest are Bennett’s own. Here is my favourite dialogue in the play:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and peculiar to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, someone even who is long dead. and it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours…