Monday, January 31, 2011

A Man Without Words / Susan Schaller / 199 pp.

I cannot give enough praise for A Man Without Words. To understand this book, one must first know that American Sign Language (ASL) is a foreign and fully-formed language, separate from spoken English.

Susan worked part time as an ASL interpreter, and the book starts with her work in a class for deaf adults who have been exposed to very little language. One woman had been kept on a farm all her life and only knew a few signs, and one man “was misdiagnosed as a baby and lived forty years with mentally retarded people until someone discovered he was deaf and had normal intelligence” (30).

Susan connects with Ildefonso, a twenty-seven year old deaf illegal immigrant, who has no language. He is languageless. Susan struggles to get him to understand that objects have names and that communication with others is possible. Through elaborate miming, his breakthrough finally comes with the word “cat.”

“Suddenly he sat up, straight and rigid, his head back and his chin pointing forward. The whites of his eyes expanded as if in terror. . . . His head turned to his left and very gradually back to his right. Slowly at first, then hungrily he took in everything as though he had never seen anything before . . . He slapped both hands flat on the table, demanding a response. . . . My face was wet with tears, but I obediently followed his pointing fingers and hands, signing, 'door,' 'clock,' 'chair.' But as suddenly as he had asked for names, he turned pale, collapsed, and wept. . . . He had entered the universe of humanity, discovered the communication of minds. He now knew that he and a cat and a table all had names, and the fruit of his knowledge had opened his eyes to evil. He could see the prison where he had existed years alone, shut out of the human race for twenty-seven years” (44-45).

Susan ties Ildefonso's lack of language in with many other deaf people without language, often raised in poverty and isolation by hearing parents. Despite the academic world's belief that adults without language are rare and unteachable, Susan finds many such individuals. She also discusses her experiences with a group of deaf illegal immigrants who only communicate with each other in mime, having only about a dozen common signs. She also ties in the “wild children” - children who were raised in isolation, like the boy who was raised in a dark room until he was seventeen. A common theme is deaf people's vulnerability to prejudice and perceptions of mental inferiority.

What was most disturbing about this book is the number of deaf people Susan hears about or meets who have no language or only a very basic understanding of language. Because the vast majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents, many she encountered did not start learning their language (ASL) until they were 5 or 6 years old. Through her surveys in California, Susan estimates that there are “hundreds of languageless deaf adults in California alone” (189).

This book is heart wrenching and highly recommended.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Heavy Sand/Anatoli Rybakov/381 pp.

Heavy Sand is a novel about one Jewish family's experiences from the beginning of the 20th century through the events of World War II and the Holocaust. A Dr. Ivanovski, whose family had immigrated to Switzerland, returns to his birthplace, the Ukrainian town of Ivanovka; his son, who has accompanied him, falls in love with a local girl and eventually marries her. The novel is the story of their family amid the events of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and World War II.
I had to constantly remind myself that this was a work of fiction, and not a memoir of the author's own experiences. The book is written in the first person, and the events that take place are described so well that it feels as if the author had actually experienced them himself. Rybakov's life does mirror that of the narrator of the story in many ways - he grew up in the same region, worked in a factory as an engineer, and served in the Red Army during World War II. Like the family in Heavy Sand his family was also Jewish.
For a long time I've had an interest in the Holocaust experiences of Jews in various countries. While this account was fictional, I understand that Rybakov based it on interviews he made with survivors of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and that parts of it were based on events that occurred during the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto.
In addition to events in World War II, the novel also provides a view into the lives of Soviet citizens in the beginning years of the Soviet Union, including collectivization of agriculture, the first 5-year plans, and the push for technological education. In one chapter, the narrator's father is accused of profiteering by stealing from the factory in which he works. His son, a mid-level Communist party official, is more concerned with how the accusation will affect his own career than he is with helping his father; the scene is a good portrayal of the paranoia so prevalent during the Stalinist era.
The work originally came out in serial form in Oktyabr magazine in 1978, and it is surprising that some of the material, which is at times uncomplimentary toward the Soviet establishment, made it past the censors. Rybakov's more well-known work, Children of the Arbat, which is harshly anti-Stalin, was suppressed by the government and was not published until 1987, although it had been written as early as 1966.

The Count of Monte Cristo / Alexandre Dumas / 1,312 pp.

I read the Penguin Classic version of this book. This translation by Robin Buss is a wonderful translation. Not only is this version unabridged, but it is set in readable, modern (but not trendy!) English. I found The Count of Monte Cristo to be a gripping, fast-paced read. While it is a long book, the plot is very driven and the pages fly by.

For those who do not know the story, the basic plot is about a young man who is unjustly imprisoned and, fourteen years later, is released, his mind set on revenge. For those who don’t know the story, I don’t want to give more away!

I personally love this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys long and sometimes- melodramatic period novels about revenge!


Fantastic Mr. Fox / Roald Dahl / 81 pp.

I loved Roald Dahl growing up and still regularly read his books. I had actually never read Fantastic Mr. Fox before now, but it did not disappoint. And of course, if you read any Dahl book, you have to read an edition with illustrations by Quentin Blake. For those unfamiliar with Dahl, he is best known for James in the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda.

Dahl has vivid writing and quirky/dark humor in his children’s books. Some examples are his headmistress who throws little girls with pigtails over fences, or his story where witches are plotting to turn every little kid in the world into a mouse, or his enormous giants who gallop to their favorite country at night to eat people - all delivered with humor. Yes, one must have a sense of humor to enjoy Dahl.

In Fantastic Mr. Fox, three farmers join forces to kill a fox that has been stealing from them, but at the end, the Fox is the victor with a feast of chicken, turkey, ducks, geese, and cider. It is a very quick read ,full of illustrations and child-sized font.


Musicophilia / Oliver Sacks / 347 pp.

Musicophilia is another “popular neurology” book by Oliver Sacks centering around, of course, music. From people who have a loop of three notes continuously playing in their head, to people for whom music makes colors, to people who are emotionally detached from music, this is an interesting book. I found the chapters to be shorter than other books by Sacks. This gave the book the feeling of being a collection of mini case studies. Instead of treating one case in depth, he summarized a myriad of them.

Chapter 15 really caught my interest. It discusses Clive, a man with severe amnesia who retained his musical abilities, still playing the piano and organ and even regularly conducting his old choir. I found the description of his type of amnesia moving.

His ability to perceive what he saw and heard was unimpaired. But he did not seem able to retain any impression of anything for more than a blink. Indeed, if he did blink, his eyelids parted to reveal a new scene. The view before the blink was utterly forgotten. Each blink, each glance away and back, brought him an entirely new view” (188).


A Leg to Stand On / Oliver Sacks / 222 pp.

A Leg to Stand On is an early book of Sacks, his third. In this book, he tells the story of how, when mountain climbing, he severely hurt his leg and had to “row” himself down the mountain. The story focuses on his recovery, chronicling his difficulties and linking them to difficulties faced by many patients with similar injuries. For example, with his leg having undergone surgery and in a cast, Sacks experiences a disconnect from it - not believing it is his leg. Also, when his leg is well enough to walk on, his long bed-rest has caused him to forget how to walk until he hears a certain song. I liked how Sacks used his own experiences to validate the common but overlooked experiences of others in similar situations.


Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea / Barbara Demick, 314 p.

You can read all the facts and statistics you want about totalitarian regimes like the one in North Korea, but nothing puts you inside that Orwellian universe like having the lives of six different people narrated, year by starving, repressive, life-twisting year, by the L.A. Times reporter who interviewed them after all of them, in their own ways, managed to escape the troubled country of their birth.  When you see how people meet, fall in love, marry, live in families and neighborhoods and cities, it is hard not to care what happens to them.

There are elements here of post-apocalyptic novels like Julian Comstock (reviewed earlier) or World Made By Hand, as lives previously lived in quiet, disciplined austerity descend into anarchy punctuated by brutality,  as electricity, medicine and food depart and some rules of social and physical survival change...and others do not.  The whole while, government street-criers, newspaper reporters, and eventually homeless orphans chorus on with paeons to the fatherly benevolence of North Korea's rulers, past and present. Of course, this book is nonfiction - the author has dedicated some ten years of her life to the book, conducting multiple in-depth interviews, finding documentary evidence and other corroboration under incredibly constrained conditions inherent to dictatorship.  That simply makes it all the more compelling.

The Gift of Fear / Gavin de Becker / 420 p.

The full title of this 1997 nonfiction bestseller is The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence.  I bought myself a copy because Carolyn Hax recommends it so often in her "Tell Me About It" advice column and online chats, especially when a letter writer shows signs of being the victim of domestic abuse, stalking or other potentially violent circumstances. 

At first, I was not sure if I was going to like the book.  Having read, and mostly agreed with, sociologist Barry Glassner's Culture of Fear (1999), which points out how much media portrayals of violence and other fear-inducing phenomena grossly distort people's perception of what they truly need to be afraid of, I thought this book would simply urge people to trust their every fearful instinct.

In fact, de Becker's and Glassner's books fit together very well.  De Becker is the founder and CEO of a major personal security firm, Gavin De Becker and Associates.  He is in the business of predicting and preventing violence, so he has no truck with what in the later chapters of his book he calls "manufactured" fears brought on by an eyeball-hungry media.  Unlike Glassner, though, de Becker explicitly values the sensation of "true fear" as a valuable signal that can save one's life in a truly dangerous situation - a signal that is all too frequently suppressed.  That observation will be familiar to reader's of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink (2005), another book exploring the power of rapid cognition in situations in which one is forced to think fast.

Both Gladwell and de Becker recognize that intuition, like chance, favors the prepared mind - even the evolutionarily-honed survival instinct that de Becker believes resides in every one of us. De Becker's aim in The Gift of Fear is to bring his own expertise to bear on the ordinary and extraordinary instances of his readers' lives in which "high-stakes prediction" of violence is necessary.  He does this through many stories drawn from his clients' experiences with crimes as unusual as assassination and as common as spousal abuse and stalking, interspersed with glimpses into his own process of judging the likelihood of violence in the situation at hand.  He wants his readersto accept that violence is inherent to human society,  to trust and act upon intuitions warning them of immanent violence, (here de Becker urges women, especially,  to overcome their social conditioning toward "niceness") - but to reduce the intrusion of worries that can actually detract from one's ability to respond to "real fear." 

This seems like a very tricky line to walk, but de Becker manages it, with authority.  I would recommend this book to many people, for many reasons.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

I Feel Bad about My Neck / Nora Ephron / 137 p.

The subtitle of this book was "and other thoughts on being a woman" so it probably will appeal largely to the female gender. It proved to be a great airport read, helping the time fly by (hah!), as I read her witty chapters. These chapters include the one taking after the title, as well as others such as "I Hate my Purse," "On Maintenance," "Moving on," "What I Wish I'd Known," and "Considering the Alternative."

As someone who has catapulted over the big 4-0 and beyond, I identified with many of her observations on aging, but this book could appeal to any generation. For example, here are two classics:
  • "Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go right this minute, put on a bikini, and don't take it off until you're thirty-four."
  • "Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for at the age of forty-five."
I've had occasion to think of this book at odd moments. The latest incident was my purchasing of yet another cutsie, too-small purse. Once I arrived home, I unsuccessfully tried to cram all my stuff in it as if I'm trying to fit into skinny jeans from high school. It's just not going to work and I've decided the better part of wisdom is to give up and embrace my big purse lifestyle.

On the plane back, I finished the book, expecting her last chapter of "Consider the Alternative" to be in the same light and humorous tone as her other chapters. However, she turned her penetrating eye toward the "D-word" and mused on the nearness of death as you age--"Death is a sniper. It strikes people you love..." The end of the book induced a contemplative mood that was quite a contrast from the light beginning. I'd highly recommend this book and she definitely has made my list of authors whose writings I want to read more of, whether in the airport or not.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wishful Drinking/ Carrie Fisher /163 p.

"Wishful Drinking" is Carrie Fisher's memoir about growing up as the daughter of "America's Sweethearts" Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher and her subsequent battles with alcoholism, drug addiction, and bi-polar disease. The book stems from her hugely successful one woman show, and tends to take the form of quick one-liners. That sometimes disguises both her penetrating insights and the depth of her struggle to overcome mental illness. If you want long reminiscences about her days as Princess Leia or her marriage with Paul Simon, you'll be disappointed, although there are funny stories about such topics as her dad's philandering ways and having a phone intervention with Cary Grant (yes, THE Cary Grant). It's much more a look at how she sees the world she grew up and now lives in and how she ultimately survived it. Insightful, poignant, and frequently hysterical.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Enough's Enough/Calvin Trillin/251 pp.

Syndicated columnist Calvin Trillin, a Kansas City native and sometime visitor to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, offered this 1990 collection of some of his best columns from the late 1980s. While Trillin is not a political columnist per se, some of these columns do deal with the Reagan and Bush (Sr.) administrations and political campaigns, along with such 80s figures as Michael Milliken, Gary Hart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Imelda Marcos, and Manuel Noriega (not to mention Noriega's red underwear and his evil voodoo tamales). Trillin also covers more everyday topics, like family vacations (and Packing Greatness), empty-nest syndrome, and three a.m. car alarms. Since this was written over 20 years ago, some of it was a little out-of-date, but some topics were strangely similar to issues being dealt with today - the invasion of Grenada by the Reagan administration, and of Noriega's Panama by the Bush administration, bring to mind the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in our recent history, for example.
I enjoyed Trillin's easy-going, dry sense of humor, and the shortness of the columns (average of 2-3 pp.) lends them to easy reading. Trillin is one of my favorite columnists, and I recommend the book. By the way, this was another MULSA book sale remainder!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Warden/Anthony Trollope/214 pp.

Another MULSA book sale remainder...

In the grand Buddhist tradition, I needed to balance my previous read (Shakespeare Undead) with something a little more... upscale. Hence Trollope. Rev. Septimus Harding is a clergyman in mid-19th century England, precentor (choir director) at the local cathedral, and warden (director) of a small charity home for elderly working-class men. The residents of the home receive a small monthly stipend, but Warden Harding receives a salary of 800 pounds a year (at the time, a pretty hefty sum). A local progressive convinces the residents that they should be receiving the profits of the charity, and they hire a lawyer to sue the warden and the church. The meat of the story is how Warden Harding comes to realize that he doesn't deserve all the money he's been receiving; at issue is the difference between what is legally allowed and what is morally right.
Considering the novel was written in 1855, I found it to be a fairly easy read, especially as compared to someone like Charles Dickens. The author of the critical afterword in my edition says that, unlike many of Trollope's other novels, The Warden is "one of those small novels [...] in which every word has weight." Trollope uses a minimum of words to express his ideas, so we don't get a bunch of extraneous extra descriptions of blue skies and meaningful glances. Trollope definitely has a message he is trying to convey, but he doesn't take the usual "preachy" approach that so many of his contemporaries seemed to.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Shakespeare Undead/Lori Handeland/291 pp.

William Shakespeare, actor, playwright, zombie hunter. Don't judge me. He's also a vampire necromancer, with the ability to create zombies, and an affinity for talking with ghosts. (That's where some of his best dramatic plots have come from, after all.) There's a zombie horde on the loose in Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare joins forces with a young hunter named Clay (who turns out to be a young lady named Kate, natch) to destroy the zombies and find out who's creating them, and for what purpose. Handeland, whose background is in romance, spends a bit too much time on the romantic/sexual relationship that develops between Shakespeare and Kate, but otherwise this is a fun, tongue-in-cheek romp in the same "vein" (sorry, I couldn't resist) as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell/Susanna Clarke/782 pp.

Mr. Norrell is the only practicing true magician in pre-Victorian England. We're not talking about side-show hucksters and scam artists, but true magicians. Sure, there are quite a few theoretical magicians, scholarly types who have studied the history of magic in England but, as gentlemen, would never dream of actually performing magic. And that's just how Mr. Norrell likes things. When young Jonathan Strange has the audacity to begin performing magic, Mr. Norrell has two choices - remove Strange as a threat, or take him on as an apprentice. He chooses the latter, and that decision ushers in a new age of English magic. The Duke of Wellington uses Strange to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo, which causes a rift between Norrell and Strange, but they eventually join forces to defeat a powerful faerie magician who wants to destroy George III and replace him with a cabinet minister's butler.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories/Susanna Clarke/235 pp.

This anthology presents more stories from the world of Clarke's 19th-century based magical novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The stories take place in and around the village of Grace Adieu, and include among the characters not only magicians and faerie princes, but also such historical figures as the Duke of Wellington and Mary, Queen of Scots. I made the mistake of reading the book before reading the novel, so I didn't recognize some of the references to characters and action in the novel. But all-in-all, this was a fun visit to the world of Victorian magic.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files / Jim Butcher / 418 p.

All but one of these short stories have been published before, in one or another anthology, but I don't read a lot of short-story anthologies, and picked this book up only for the sake of the final story, which takes place a few hours after the end of Changes, the latest full-length novel in the Dresden Files series that I am addicted to, the story-world within which all the stories take place

Jim Butcher uses several of these stories to bring out elements of the series that have not appeared in the novels - to narrate from the perspective of characters other than Harry Dresden (Harry's half-brother, the vampire, and Harry's bff Murphy, the cop), or to tell a story with a lighter tone than the nail-bitingly suspenseful and high-stakes novel series.  Other stories just read like shorter versions of the kinds of problems Harry deals with in the novels: a crime or spate of magic/monster-related crimes occurs in Chicago, Harry the wizard PI, with help from one or more of his sidekicks, confronts the perps and removes the menace.

The only short story in this collection that didn't thoroughly please me was "Last Call."  Not that it was awful, but it just didn't seem all that fresh.  I like the Dresden Files series for Harry's mixture of doofus and daredevil, and Murphy's strong action-heroine mojo, and even some of the amusement of recognizing a genre cliche...but I found "Last Call" a little too strong on the latter.

"Aftermath," the one previously unpublished story, written from the perspective of Murphy, performed pretty much as expected.  It added new action and developed some key character relationships in the series, while leaving the reader in the dark about the major unresolved question at the end of Changes.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Warmup Over...Now It's ON!!!

All book review entries will now count toward the MU Libraries' entry in the Missouri Book Challenge!  Go team!