Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly/ Jean-Dominique Bauby/ 131 pp.

Paralyzed by a stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly through eye-blinks. This is a literary book, translated from French, but it is accessible with short chapters and rich descriptions. It is almost stream of conscious at times, filled with brief vignettes of life and memories. While reading, I could not help but be amazed at the memories, sensations, tastes, smells, places, etcetera that Bauby can recall - a testament to him having embraced his earlier life experiences.

The first paragraph: “Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner. My room slowly emerges from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children’s drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubiax bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined theses past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock” (3).


Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism/ Temple Grandin/ 240 pp.

Thinking in Pictures is Temple Grandin’s autobiography that also includes insights into autism. Ms. Grandin is a “world-famous animal scientist and autism self-advocate” and “the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world” (homepage). She has a Ph.D in Animal Science, and “one third of the cattle and hogs in the United States are handled in equipment [she has] designed” (p.3).

Throughout Thinking in Pictures, a common theme is Ms. Grandin linking autistic behavior, especially her own, with animal behavior. For example, both autistic children and wild animals tend to calm down when exposed to a firm but gentle touch. Ms. Grandin credits her ability to see from a “cow’s eye view” and design handling implements to her hypersensitive senses and visual thinking. While certain chapters were more interesting than others, I enjoyed this book, especially the few chapters at the start and end that introduced and tied concepts together.

Early in the book, Ms. Grandin describes her visual thinking. “I think in pictures,” she says. “Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. . . . Spatial words such as ‘over’ and ‘under’ had no meaning for me until I had a visual image to fix them in my memory” (from chapter 1). She talks about a video library in her head that she can playback, with new “videos” constantly being added. Her invention process for equipment involves skimming her video library and combining elements to form her invention, rotating the equipment in her mind as it runs and examining it from every angle as it operates.

DBRL, MERLIN, Amazon (new, expanded and updated edition)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Olive Kitteridge / Elizabeth Strout / 286 pages

I picked up this tattered paperback copy at a Saturday morning Daniel Boone Regional booksale, and was sold upon seeing the emblem announcing it was the "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize." I was not disappointed in this powerful book.

Unlike many of the heroines in popular fiction, the character of Olive Kitteridge isn't "special" or even always appealing. She is a teacher in a coastal New England town. There are 13 stories, some of which involve Olive directly, others which only tangentially mention her. Years pass and we see the characters change, including her.

The poignancy of this book is how it captures the disappointments of life: including the ones encountered while getting older, imperfect marriages, and in the decisions of adult children. At the same time, some characters do evolve and are capable of bright glimpses of insight. People do have impact on each other, sometimes in a healing way and sometimes in a destructive way. This is not escapist fare, but you feel so much richer having read it.

We learn so much about ourselves in relations with others. Some are truths we would rather avoid. Olive faces many of these truths courageously. After all, that is often what life requires: courage to keep moving forward and growing. Don't be afraid of your hunger, as she tells her classes.

MERLIN, Daniel Boone Regional Library, Amazon

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Mind's Eye / Oliver Sacks / 263 pp.

The Mind's Eye is another “popular neurology” book by Oliver Sacks. While I did not find it as accessible or emotionally-wrenching as Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I still enjoyed this book. The Mind's Eye highlights people who have lost some part of their perception or “vision.” Among others, Sacks highlights a pianist who looses her ability to mentally recognize objects (including written scores), a writer who overnight looses his ability to recognize letters and thus read, and a woman whose depth perception is restored, giving her a 3-D view of the world. Having read other Sacks books, I especially enjoyed this book’s revelations about Sacks himself, chronicling his battle with an eye tumor and his inability to recognize faces.

Here is a section I found particularly thought-inspiring where Sacks talks about how other senses can be heightened in a blind person.

Ben Underwood [who had both eyes removed at age three] developed an astonishing, dolphin-like strategy of emitting regular clicks with his mouth and accurately reading the resulting echoes from nearby objects. He was so adept at moving about the world in this way that he was able to play field sports and even chess” (p.235).

MOBIUS, Amazon

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages / Ammon Shea / 223 pp.

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea is a book that is sure to please word-lovers. This book chronicles Shea’s journey of reading all 21,730 pages of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary in one year, usually reading 8-10 hours per day. I like how this book is divided with each letter having its own chapter. Each chapter starts with text about Shea, events throughout his year, editorial feuds, histories of dictionaries, etcetera, and ends with a list of some of the most interesting words from that particular letter. Shea provides simple definitions for the words and includes often-hilarious paragraphs about origins, usage or thoughts. I never knew a dictionary could be such rollicking fun.

Here are some of the words that I found most interesting and am already planning to sprinkle into conversations. (I have only included the word and definition.)

  • Airling: A person who is both young and thoughtless

  • Nod-crafty: Given to nodding the head with an air of great wisdom

  • Onomatomania: vexation at having difficulty in finding the right word

  • Psithurism: The whisperings of leaves moved by the wind.

MOBIUS, Amazon

The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads / Ammon Shea / 216 pp.

The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads by Ammon Shea was a book I picked up because of its yellow cover. I could not put it down. While a book about phone books had the potential to be dry, this book is fascinating. It also discusses enough related topics to keep the book paced well; topics include sending mail via guided missile, old-time switchboards, making art out of phone books, and ripping phone books in half. This book explores it all. I would recommend this book and enjoyed Ammon Shea’s engaging writing so much that I have already checked out his other book, in which he reads through the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here are some parts of the book I found especially interesting:

  • In 1959, three thousand letters written by the postmaster general were delivered via missile. The missile was launched from a submarine 100 miles off the coast of Florida, took 22 minutes to arrive, and was remotely controlled. The postmaster is quoted as saying that mail would be delivered by guided missile before man reached the moon.

  • Ed Charon, at age 70, ripped fifty-six Portland white pages in half in three minutes.

  • Beginning in the mid-1960s, Bill Holland, a painting contractor in Los Angeles, decided it would be easier to tell people to look him up in the very back of the phone book rather than to use business cards. So he changed his name to Zachary Zzzra” (66). To stay in the back of the phone book, he had to add several more “z”s to his name when Vladimir Zzzzzzabakov appeared in 1978.

MOBIUS, Amazon

Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Ganstas in the Public Library / Don Borchert Memoir / 223 pp.

Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Ganstas in the Public Library is Don Borchert’s memoir about working in an urban public library. All of the chapters are divided by theme, are self-contained, and range through the emotions. Many of his stories are character-based, taking a type of public library regular and telling their story. Uniting a few of his stories are observations of how the library has affected these people’s lives. From his introduction: “[T]here is the belief that once you begin to open books, you will become a better person. It is Pandora’s box, but in a good way. You are inching toward the promised land, page by page. And it doesn’t matter if you subscribe to this theory or not. The subscription has already been bought and paid for.”

While I did enjoy this book, I did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I did find it interesting that it received quite varied Amazon reviews. While I enjoyed the book, I think the writing could have been improved to make the stories more vivid, and I was occasionally rankled by a few blanket statements about libraries or librarians.

A few stories that stood out to me were the story of the man who got upset when his library card number had two sixes next to each other, the man who wanted the circulation people to alphabetize his books for him, and the Mother who tried to scam her way out of hundreds of dollars of fines but was allowed by the library to check out children’s books for her kids.

MOBIUS, Amazon

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Little, Big/John Crowley/538 pp.

I began reading this book because it was part of a list of works that Neil Gaiman said influenced his writing of American Gods. The book tells the story of four generations of a family living on the fictional estate of Edgewood. The family knows that they are part of a great "Tale", which they don't completely understand, but they know their destiny is entwined with that of the fairy folk that have inhabited the estate for generations. The book is a combination of family history and fantasy (but not your typical fairytale, dragons-and-dwarves-and-elves fantasy). It's a difficult book to get started on (and even more difficult, apparently, for me to explain), but for fans of fantasy and turn-of-the-century drama, it's well worth the struggle at the beginning.
Book Links: Amazon, GoogleBooks

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Julian Comstock: A Story of Twenty-Second Century America / Robert Charles Wilson (413 p.)

In an interview with Tor.com about his latest book, Canadian sci-fi author Robert Charles Wilson revealed that, upon deciding to write a novel set 150 years in the future, he looked to popular books of 150 years ago, to see the difference in culture and worldview that he would have to convey between today and his future setting.  As it turns out, this look backward ended up influencing Julian Comstock much more directly: the characters speak as if they had stepped from the pages of a mid-19th century novel, often to hilarious effect; the post-oil future looks uncannily like a coal and steam driven Victorian era...and somehow, nary a machine gun has survived what the novel's religious establishment calls "The False Tribulation" that followed the end of the "Efflorescence of Oil" and the era of "The Secular Ancients" (that is, us), despite ongoing war with the Dutch over Labrador, and various other conflicts.  As prediction in any linguistic or technological sense, the novel cannot be taken seriously.

Nonetheless: once one accepts the idea of a chunk of the 19th-early 20th century being picked up and plunked into the 2170's...this novel is a treat: a splendid read, with memorable characters, a social, political and religious world spun and extrapolated comically and tragically from the substance of America, past and present, and a narrative that is capable of stirring the mind and moving the heart.


Links to Tor.com Interview, Part I and Part II.