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 : 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: Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

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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.

 

 

Daily Trivia : Issac Asimov

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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.

Sources:

Writer’s Almanac
Biography.com

Reader’s Block and a couple of reviews

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.

 

I’ve been away for a while…

But now I’m back and I hope to get back to posting regularly again. The last book I read was Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side. It is a Jane Marple mystery and it was entertaining but nothing very special. I finished it few days ago and I have been reading magazines ever since.

I get Intelligent Life on my iPad every month and I haven’t read the last three issues. So I’m reading my way through that. Then I’ve been reading a bit of National Geographic. They started a series this May called ‘Feeding 9 Billion’ about food and agriculture and the desperate need to rethink the way we grow food. I am finding this particularly interesting.

Then there’s the fact that The New Yorker has opened all it’s archives to the public for the summer. This is stuff that usually only subscribers get to see and I’m not a subscriber. I like the magazine, but I don’t want to subscribe because I doubt that I would have the time to actually read it. I like what I have been reading and it is a nice change of pace, but no matter how good the magazine, it is still a bit insubstantial when compared to a book.

I picked up a new book yesterday. It’s called Dearie and it is a biography of Julia Child written by Bob Spitz. I’ve long been interested in Julia Child. I’ve read My Life in France and I really enjoyed it, so this is a book I very much wanted to read.

I’m about five chapters in and I find it interesting, but it was slow going at first…Much as I tried, I couldn’t get all that interested in the story of Julia’s grandfather’s life and then her father and her mother. Most biographies are written like this and I understand the importance of the story of the family that a person comes from, but it honestly bores me and I often find myself skipping ahead to what I think of as the real story.

Anyway, the real story is about to begin, so I will get back to my book. Happy reading, everyone.

 

Review : Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

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I am a bit conflicted about this book. It’s a good book. It says on the cover that it is about the life of a chef and it certainly delivers on that count. I gives you a real insight into a chef’s life, the long hours, the training, the mistakes, the learning experiences,  the joys, uncertainties and difficulties of the restaurant business. It is also the story of Samuelsson’s life and it is told with an honesty that I appreciate. He talks about his mistakes, his errors of judgement, his (excessive) ambition and (complete) self absorption without trying to hide or gloss over anything.

But the problem is that the nothing is treated in depth. There are plenty of family stories and emotional moments that should have been given a lot more space than they were. Like his reaction to his father’s death. Samuelsson was in the States cooking at Aquavit when his father passed away. He made the decision not to go to Sweden for the funeral because leaving the States then would have affected his visa situation. That would have a been hard call to make. And it does portray him in a negative light. Now I’m not about to make judgments on anybody’s choices, but the way the incident was presented…it lacked the emotional depth it should have had. He keeps saying that his father’s death was real blow to him, but the way he says it, makes that a bit hard to believe.

Another incident that comes to mind is his first meeting with his daughter who he basically ignored for the first fourteen years of her life. This part of the book reads as if Samuelsson just wanted to rush through the narrative as quickly as possible.  Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t want to face the emotions it brought up, but why write about it, if you cannot treat it with the honesty and the emotion that it deserves? The nature of the narrative here, makes it seem as if this man does not care about anything or anyone. It’s all about the cooking. Even when he talks about meeting his wife and falling in love with her…there is a distinct lack of emotion in the writing that is a bit off putting.

Samuelsson didn’t write the book himself, of course. He had a writer friend do it for him. The writing is fairly fluid in the beginning of the book, but then it starts to read like a bunch of anecdotes strung together rather than a coherent story. There is a lot of writing here about food and it is all very good…whether it talking about the idea behind a dish, the emotion or the tradition behind it, the writing makes you feel as if you can see and smell everything if not taste it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the quality of writing in the book is inconsistent. It’s a good book. But it could have been so much better.

Review : Encore Provence by Peter Mayle

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This is the third in the series of memoirs about his life in Provence that Peter Mayle has written. It has all the spirit and the flavour of his earlier books. It is perhaps a bit special because it was written a few months after Mayle and his wife returned to Provence after a four year long stay (hiatus? Mayle might actually call it exile) in the US.

So it is written with all the fervour of a man who is incredibly happy to be back in his beloved home. As far as Mayle is concerned, Provence is home. He says and I quote:

“…we did our best to adapt. And yet there was something missing. Or rather, an entire spectrum of sights and sounds and smells and sensations that we had taken for granted in Provence, from the smell of thyme in the fields to the swirl and jostle of Sunday morning markets.  Very few weeks went by without a twinge of what I can best describe as homesickness.”

“Provence is still beautiful. Vast areas of it are still wild and empty. Peace and silence, which have become endangered commodities in the modern world, are still available. The old men still play their endless games of boules. The markets are as colourful and abundant as ever. There is room to breathe and the air is clean.”

There are stories here about planting olives, trying to grow truffles, the glories of olive oil, how and why the people of Provence are as long lived as they are, all the lazy and seriously enjoyable things you can do in Provence (not for the serious tourist), life in a typical Provencal village, the art of creating perfumes, the importance of the perfect corkscrew and so on. There are of course, several descriptions of wonderful meals and extraordinary restaurants.

It is the sort of writing that we have come to expect from Peter Mayle, stories and observations about the little things in life, the small pleasures and the everyday joys. He writes lovingly about Provence and its people, even when he’s poking fun at them. This is a man who is happy. It seems to take a particular place to make him so, but he has found it and Provence has found him.

Of the three memoirs, A Year in Provence continues to be my favourite, but the quality of writing in this book is far superior. The narration is tighter, the stories are told in a more engaging fashion and the open eyed wonder  that comes through the first book has been replaced by a warmer, deeper appreciation of life in his beloved Provence.

 

 

 

On the reading front…

I bought a book last night…Encore Provence by Peter Mayle. It is the only one of his memoirs that I haven’t read. It is the third in the series that began with A Year in Provence which was published back in 1989. I love travel books and memoirs of all shades and Peter Mayle is by far my favourite writer of both genres. I’m not a big fan of his novels, but his memoirs are delicious.

I couldn’t wait to get into my new book. So what did I do? I put it aside and I picked up A Year In Provence (I have already read it several times, but not in the last three or more years) and I started at the beginning. And remarkably, it feels every bit as fresh and delightful as did the first time around.

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I read A Year in Provence a long time ago and like millions of readers around the world, I fell hopelessly in love with Provence and Mayle’s lighthearted  account of his life there. I was two pages into that first book and I was hooked. Mayle talks about how he and his wife finally made the decision to move to Provence, a place that they had long been dreaming about living in and he says:

“… And now, somewhat to our surprise, we had done it. We had committed ourselves. We had bought a house, taken French lessons, said our goodbyes, shipped over our two dogs and become foreigners. In the end, it had happened quickly-almost impulsively- because of the house. We saw it one afternoon and had mentally moved in by dinner…”

“It was a mas, or farmhouse, built from local stone which two hundred years of wind and sun had weathered to a colour somewhere between pale honey and pale grey… Attached to the back of the house was an enclosed courtyard…There were three wells, there were established shade trees and slim green cypresses, hedges of Rosemary, a giant almond tree.  In the afternoon sun, with the wooden shutters half closed like sleepy eyelids, it was irresistible.

And from that point on, so was the book and it’s charming author. There is an ease in Mayle’s writing and a certain whimsy. He is clearly enamoured of Provence and he’s charmed and amused by the people and the customs and it all comes through in his writing.

He is a gifted story teller with an eye for detail and an ability to write the most evocative prose, particularly while describing the beauty of his adopted home:

“The Luberon mountains rise up immediately behind the house to a high point of of nearly 3,500 feet and run in deep folds for about forty miles from west to east. Cedars and Pines and scrub oak keep them perpetually green and provide for cover for boar and rabbits and game birds. Wild flowers, thyme, lavender and mushrooms grow between the rocks and under the trees, and from the summit on a clear day the view is of the Basses-Alpes on one side and the Mediterranean on the other.”

And who can blame him, considering that Provence, the part of it that he lives in, looks like this:

 

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But it isn’t just the beauty of the place, it is the sheer quality of life that comes from living in the countryside, where the pace of life is slow and there is time to appreciate the good things in life, like a morning spent at the market, an evening at the cafe watching a game of boules, a dinner at a friends house, a walk through the mountains, a wine tasting, a spectacular meal at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere… and France,  particularly Provence seems to have an abundance of the good things. In the end, what appeals to me the most in Mayle’s writing is the sheer joy in life that comes through the pages of his books.

 

 

 

 

Book Review : The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

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This is a book about a book, De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things written by Titus Lucretius Carus over 2,000 years ago. Lucretius was born nearly a century before Christ and nothing much is known about him. He was an accomplished poet; he lived during the first century BC and he was devoted to the teachings of Epicurus all of which he wrote eloquently about in his magnificent poem, De Rerum Natura. 

The Swerve is an account of the rediscovery of this poem after it had been forgotten for centuries after the birth of Christ and the revolutionary impact it had on the writers, artists and scientists of the time when it was discovered in a monastery in 1417. This epic poem is presented in six books and it undertakes a full and completely naturalistic explanation of the physical origin, structure, and destiny of the universe. Included in it are ideas such as the atomic structure of matter and the emergence and evolution of life forms over the millennia.

On the Nature of Things laid out what is a strikingly modern understanding of the world. Every page reflected a core scientific vision—a vision of atoms moving constantly in an infinite universe, coming together to form first one thing and then another. The poem claimed that atoms are at the core of everything in the universe, from the trees to the oceans to the animals to the stars to human beings. It claimed that there is no such thing as an afterlife, no heaven or hell and that it is foolish to believe in an all powerful, all seeing God who is so minutely concerned with human affairs that he sees everything we do and will eventually reward us or punish us for it.

All of these ideas were of course, considered heresy back in the 15th century and the Church tried its best to denounce Lucretius and to prevent the circulation of his epic poem. But despite their best efforts the poem was copied again and again and it was circulated fairly widely. The ideas in the poem inspired the Renaissance. It influenced artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

That, briefly, is the story behind this book. It is interesting in itself, but it becomes more so in the hands of Stephen Greenblatt who takes a tremendous amount of information and brings it all together in a very engaging narrative. Despite the wealth of information here and the many different threads of the same story, the narrative never gets dense or heavy.

Greenblatt paints a vivid picture of pre-rennaisance Europe. There is a reason why that period is referred to as the dark ages. It was a time when every word and every thought had to be censored and where intellectual curiosity was deemed a crime…The author writes about it all very casually and that more than anything else, makes it a chilling portrait.

We all know that Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake and that Galileo was persecuted for stating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. All of that is brought to life vividly here. And when taken against the thought of all the knowledge and wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome that was lost for over a thousand years and had to be painstakingly learned and rediscovered …it is almost as if the world went backwards for a thousand years before it found its way again.

I knew all of this already, but Stephen Greenblatt paints such a vivid picture of the people and the time that I found myself feeling an acute sense of loss.

I took my time in reading this book, forcing myself to go slow because I didn’t want to miss anything. But much as I learned, it made me want to learn more…both about ancient Greece and Rome and about the Renaissance. This is a wonderful book and must read for anyone interested in history.

Wishlist Wednesday : Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

Wishlist Wednesday is a meme hosted by Pen to Paper, where bloggers get the chance to show which books they’ve added to their wishlist this week.

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This is to some extent a biography of E M Foster, but the narrative is centered around the writing of A Passage to India, which is widely considered to be Foster’s greatest work. The title of this book is drawn form Foster’s last, unfinished novel.

Synopsis:

In 1912, the SS Birmingham approaches India. On board is Edward Morgan Forster, novelist and man of letters, who is embarking on a journey of discovery. As Morgan stands on deck, the promise of a strange new future begins to take shape before his eyes. The seeds of a story start to gather at the corner of his mind: a sense of impending menace, lust in close confines, under a hot, empty sky.

It will be another twelve years, and a second time spent in India, before A Passage to India, E. M. Forster’s great work of literature, is published. During these years, Morgan will come to a profound understanding of himself as a man, and of the infinite subtleties and complexity of human nature, bringing these great insights to bear in his remarkable novel.

Arctic Summer is a fictional exploration of the life and times of one of Britain’s finest novelists, his struggle to find a way of living and being, and a stunningly vivid evocation of the mysterious alchemy of the creative process.

I haven’t read A passage to India. I was unfortunate enough to encounter Foster in literature class. We read Howard’s End in my second year of college and I hated it. It was not the fault of the novel, it was just reading it in class that killed it for me (I had the same response to Emma. I couldn’t read it for years after I left college. It is still my least favourite Austen.)

Getting back to Arctic Summer, I heard an interview with Damon Galgut on the BBC and I was intrigued. I am drawn to biographies and memoirs anyway, but this one seems a bit special, because it is as much a biography of a book as it is of the man who wrote it.

 

 

Flashback Friday : All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

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Flashback Friday is a meme hosted by Bookshelf fantasies  focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. 

My book for this week is one of my favourite books of all time and I suspect, a lot of other people’s as well.

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This is another book that I first read as a teenager and it is one of those rare books that I fell in love with almost instantly. This is the first of James Herriot’s books and it is the best.

This is a memoir of a country vet, James Alfred Wight. James Herriot is his pen name. This book begins in the 1937 when Herriot went from Glasgow to Yorkshire looking for a job and it chronicles all his adventures and experiences as a country vet, tending cows and horses, sheep, pigs and dogs.

It talks of all the interesting, funny, crazy, wonderful people he encountered and all the joys and quirks of a country life.There have been other books like this, I’m sure, but this book and this writer are both exceptional.

Herriot writes with a lot of warmth and there is a certain joy in his writing that is hard to find. His writing is funny and engaging, it is gripping, it charms you, it touches you, it makes you laugh and it makes you cry.

When this book first came out, the publishers dubbed it “a miracle” and a lot of the reviewers agreed. The review in the Chicago Tribune said,

“...a book that offers something for everyone…gusto, humour, pathos, information, romance, insight, style. It is vicarious living with one of the happiest and most admirable of people…Many more famous authors could work for a lifetime and not achieve more flawless literary control than this unknown country vet has in his first book…

But if living well is even mote difficult than writing well, his character and his temperament are more miraculous than his style…The whole book, in both it’s funniest and most tragic episodes, expresses a joyous and affectionate acceptance of life, animal and human.”

Currently Reading : The Swerve and Mr Darcy’s Diary

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt.

Synopsis:

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem full of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions. 

The copying and translation of this ancient book—the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age—fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

This book traces the effects of Lucretius’ magnificent poem on the renaissance. I have just started reading it, so I can’t say much about it, except that it is written well and it seems very interesting.

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Mr Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange

Synopsis:

Monday 9th September
“”I left London today and met Bingley at Netherfield Park. I had forgotten what good company he is; always ready to be pleased and always cheerful. After my difficult summer, it is good to be with him again. …””

The only place Darcy could share his innermost feelings was in the private pages of his diary…

Torn between his sense of duty to his family name and his growing passion for Elizabeth Bennet, all he can do is struggle not to fall in love.

Mr. Darcy’s Diary presents the story of the unlikely courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Darcy’s point of view. This graceful imagining and companion to Pride and Prejudice explains Darcy’s moodiness and the difficulties of his reluctant relationship as he struggles to avoid falling in love with Miss Bennet.

Though seemingly stiff and stubborn at times, Darcy’s words prove him also to be quite devoted and endearing – qualities that eventually win over Miss Bennet’s heart. This reimagining of a classic romantic novel is charming and elegant, much like Darcy himself.

I picked up this book more out of curiosity than anything else. I am a 120 pages into it and I like it. It is fanfiction, but it is fanfiction of the best kind. The author, Amanda Grange is thoroughly respectful of the original, she uses Austen’s words wherever possible and she stays faithful to the original. She is simply telling the same story from a different perspective.

Currently Reading : The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Shwalbe

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I heard about this book a while ago and I wanted to read it immediately. It took me a while to get around to it because of all the other books that I have piled up. Anyway, I got it on my kindle last night and since then, I have been eating it up.

As for what this book is about, take a look at the synopsis:

What are you reading?”

That’s the question Will Schwalbe asks his mother, Mary Anne, as they sit in the waiting room of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 2007, Mary Anne returned from a humanitarian trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan suffering from what her doctors believed was a rare type of hepatitis.

Months later she was diagnosed with a form of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is almost always fatal, often in six months or less. 

This is the inspiring true story of a son and his mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as her life comes to a close. Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne carry on conversations that are both wide-ranging and deeply personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading.

Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual. The issues they discuss include questions of faith and courage as well as everyday topics such as expressing gratitude and learning to listen.

Throughout, they are constantly reminded of the power of books to comfort us, astonish us, teach us, and tell us what we need to do with our lives and in the world. Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. 

Will and Mary Anne share their hopes and concerns with each other—and rediscover their lives—through their favorite books. When they read, they aren’t a sick person and a well person, but a mother and a son taking a journey together.

The result is a profoundly moving tale of loss that is also a joyful, and often humorous, celebration of life: Will’s love letter to his mother, and theirs to the printed page. 

I am more than sixty pages into this book and it is beautiful.

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.”

10% Happier by Dan Harris

The full title of this book is
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story.

It is quite a mouthful. The book is about meditation and how the practice of mindfulness can help you discover yourself and become aware of habitual patterns of behavior which are pointless and often harmful.

What makes the book intriguing is that it is not written by a self help guru, a Buddhist or a psychologist. Dan Harris is a television journalist. And this is a memoir exploring his personal journey away from drugs and towards greater self awareness.

The book is well written. I liked the insight into the world of television news and Harris’ own story which is interesting. But ultimately, the book is about meditation and its usefulness in modern life.

Harris does a good job of taking us through his experiences as he gradually builds the case for meditation. And it helps that he comes to the entire experience as a sceptic and asks all the questions that readers might be tempted to raise.

It is a good book. It is not brilliant, but it is honest and it makes for engaging reading. Harris has an easy writing style and a sense of humour that is self deprecating and genuinely funny on occasion

I usually avoid any thing that even vaguely suggests self help, but I liked this book.

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.

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.

 

The Dictionary of Troublesome words by Bill Bryson

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I have just begun reading Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. It is utterly fascinating. It is a about the English language in all it’s quirkiness and confusion. Bryson says in the introduction that:

“One of the abiding glories of English is that it has no governing authority, no group of august worthies empowered to decree how words may be spelled and deployed. We are a messy democracy, and all the more delightful for it. We spell eight as we do not because that makes sense, but because that is the way we like to spell it.

When we tire of a meaning or usage or spelling—when we decide, for example, that masque would be niftier as mask—we change it, not by fiat but by consensus. The result is a language that is wonderfully fluid and accommodating, but also complex, undirected and often puzzling—in a word, troublesome.”

So he has put together a guide to help us navigate the confusion and figure out what Good English really is. To find not the correct usage of words and expressions, perhaps, but the agreed upon on usage, the big consensus so that we can all write in a way that our words and our intent as as clear to everyone else as they are to us.

As I already told you, the book is fascinating. Let me give you a few examples:

affinity: denotes a mutual relationship. Therefore, strictly speaking, one should not speak of someone or something having an affinity for another but should speak of an affinity with or between. When mutuality is not intended sympathy would be a better word.”

all intents and purposes is colorless, redundant, and hackneyed. Almost any other expression would be an improvement. “He is, to all intents and purposes, king of the island” (Mail on Sunday) would be instantly made better by changing the central phrase to “in effect” or removing it altogether. If the phrase must be used at all, it can always be shorn of the last two words. “To all intents” says as much as “to all intents and purposes.”

all right: A sound case could be made for shortening all right to alright, as many informal users of English do already. Many other compounds beginning with all have been contracted without protest for centuries, among them already, almost, altogether, and even alone, which originally was all one. English, however, is a slow and fickle tongue, and alright continues to be looked on as illiterate and unacceptable, and consequently it ought never to appear in serious writing.”

altercation:  “Three youths were injured in the altercation” (Chicago Tribune). No one suffers physical injury in an altercation. It is a heated exchange of words and nothing more.”

and: The belief that and should not be used to begin a sentence is without foundation. And that is all there is to it.”

That last one is the most satisfying to me, personally. I start sentences with ‘and’ all the time and it is not something I can change, so it is good to be vindicated.

The book is full of gems like these and is a must have for anyone who is interested in writing and language.

When a book grips you, moves you, shakes you up and makes you cry…

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I finished reading Team of Rivals: The Polical Genius of Abraham Lincoln last night and I am so moved and warmed and inspired and hurt by this book that I don’t think I could possibly do anything like justice in this attempt to write a review. But I have to try…

This is one of the best books I have ever read. The writing is brilliant and it is immensely helped by the fact that the subject of the book is so inspiring.

There have been many books written about Abraham Lincoln. But this one is special. It begins in 1860 with Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican candidate for the presidency.

He was a surprise nominee who won out over far more experienced rivals like William H Seward, Salmon P Chase and Edward Bates. And against everybody’s expectations, he became the president and he invited Seward, Chase and Bates to join his cabinet, hence the title Team of Rivals.

The book follows Lincoln’s presidency through the next five years. It takes us through Lincoln’s handling of the civil war, his inspired creation of the Emancipation proclamation, his adept  handling of all the political infighting in his cabinet as well as the Republican party and finally to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery forever…

Team of Rivals is very engaging and extremely hard to put down. Goodwin draws on a whole lot of disparate sources and somehow manages to weave them all into a very fluid narrative.

But what makes the book great in the end is Lincoln himself. His generosity, his magnanimity, his wisdom and general good sense made him a wonderful man. He was also a brilliant politician who knew how to deal with his colleagues and how to inspire his generals and his soldiers.

He was a very far seeing man who knew the pulse of the people and he took the time and made the effort to educate them and change their sentiments so that when the time came to put an end to slavery, he had most of the country behind him.

It is a brilliant story and Goodwin has done an incredible job of telling it.