22.1.17

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

And so to the book that started it all -- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, from 1985. It was strange to return to this first book of case studies; I noticed was a marked difference between this and the later volumes. This one is more earnest, less self-revealing, more academic, less conversational. There is less of a sense of Oliver Sacks himself in these pages, and some of his reflections have a stilted, almost try-hard quality that he lost later on. I was uncomfortable reading the last section, "The World of the Simple," in which Sacks discusses "simpletons", "retardates", "morons.' As the sister of someone with an intellectual disability, these terms, though probably clinically accurate, made me feel very uneasy, even though Sacks argues throughout for a recognition of these patients as whole people, with skills and passions as well as disabilities.

There was something fascinating from The Mind's Eye that I forgot to mention in my last post. Apparently the ability of humans to adapt to reading was something that much puzzled the early evolutionists -- without divine intervention (and perhaps forward planning on the part of the Almighty), how to explain the human brain's mastery of this complicated process? One theory is that the part of the brain adapted to interpreting landscape and geological features has been co-opted to assist in recognising the shapes of letters. Apparently there have been studies which show that all the world's different alphabets share the same basic forms and shapes, analogous to the shapes found in landscape: hills and rivers, mountains and trees. I just love that theory and I hope it's true!

19.1.17

The Mind's Eye

I'm really enjoying my Oliver Sacks binge. These collections of case studies are perfect holiday reading (for me anyway!): the chapters are short, the cases are fascinating (and sometimes poignant), and the subject matter is often relevant to my interests.

To wit*: The Mind's Eye, from 2010, contains a chapter on a woman with aphasia. Like my father, Pat found herself almost completely without spoken language after a stroke; unlike my father (so far), she was eventually able to adapt with the use of a 'Bible' of words which she used to initiate and direct conversations, and also lively use of gesture and mime. My dad is less outgoing than Pat, and while his speech therapists are working on getting him to use an iPad the way Pat used her 'Bible', it's had limited success so far. (Though there was an outstanding victory when we used a message on the iPad to ask the nursing home staff to turn off lights and close a door which had been bothering Dad terribly at bed-time.) Still, we perservere.

There were also chapters on face-blindness, which I have a mild case of, and stereo vision, which I must admit is something I have never given a moment's thought to before. This was a really interesting study of a woman who acquired stereo vision late in life, and was overwhelmed with delight at the experience of perceiving depth for the first time, and seeing objects 'pop out' at her. I had to conclude that my own vision is relatively flat, in that I don't really see much difference between looking through one eye or two -- maybe this is why I've always been so crap at sport, and why I'm such a tentative parker of the car? Also I have a lot of trouble telling whether a goal has gone through at the footy -- all due to my lack of depth perception! It all makes sense now!

All in all, an engrossing read.




* You never see that any more, do you, to wit, I must use it more often.

16.1.17

The Sky Is Everywhere

The Sky Is Everywhere, which I borrowed from the library for book group, has obviously been well-read and well-loved. The spine is supple, the pages are soft with the texture of paper that has been thumbed over and over. People -- teenage girls, let's face it -- clearly adore this book.

In one sense, there is a lot going on in this YA novel: Lennie's beloved older sister Bailey has died suddenly, leaving her family and her fiance in shock. The sisters' mother is missing in action, having abandoned them years before. And there is a hot new boy in town, leaving Lennie confused -- how can she be interested in a boy when she's so immersed in grief? In another sense, not much happens at all: girl meets boy, boy likes girl, they play music together, girl has more feelings than she can handle, misunderstandings ensue... oh my god, the feelings.

This is probably why this book is so popular -- it is dripping with emotion. No flicker of feeling is left undescribed. There is no restraint here. Even the adolescent poetry is included! I can remember being thirteen-fourteen-fifteen, swimming in an ocean of hormones and frustration and big emotions, and having nowhere to put them, and The Sky is Everywhere took me back there. But I don't think it's a country I want to live in any more -- in fact, I didn't much enjoy living there at the time, and I'm quite content to leave it behind.

14.1.17

The Summer Book

Long considered a classic in Scandinavia, Tove Jansson's The Summer Book is not a children's novel, though she is best known and loved for her Moomin books.

First published in Finland in 1972, it is a small, exquisite treasure of a book, like a pebble picked up on a beach. The tiny island in the gulf of Finland where the family spend their summers may be small, but it forms a whole world for six-year old Sophia, her Papa (largely in the background) and her grandmother. Sophia's mother is dead (we learn this almost as an aside, and it is never spoken of again), but Sophia's unspoken fears and longings are woven into the tapestry of the book along with Grandmother's quiet, dry reflections and memories of her own long life. Grandmother and Sophia don't always get along; there are quarrels and storms, misunderstandings and awkwardness. But there are small shared joys, too, when they construct a model Venice together or find hiding places in the bushes.

Based on Jansson's own mother and niece, and her own island experiences, the book proceeds through twenty-odd short chapters, each self-contained, like seashells arranged on a windowsill; but together, they tell the story of a summer, or several summers -- it doesn't really matter. The rhythms of life and death, growing older, work and leisure, sigh in and out through the pages like the tides. This is a beautiful, wise, tender book, never sentimental, and frequently funny.

13.1.17

An Anthropologist on Mars

I found An Anthroplogist on Mars at my parents' house -- I'm not sure where it came from. Did I give it to Mum as a present? Or leave it behind on a visit years ago? It was published in 1995, and if I was responsible for bringing it into the house, I can't remember. Oliver Sacks died in 2015, and I was very sad to hear of his passing; I always enjoyed his writing, and I was glad to reacquaint myself with this volume of case studies.

The chapter that I remembered most clearly was the last, on Temple Grandin, the autistic professor of animal science and gifted designer of animal handling equipment. But the other people featured are equally fascinating: a man who has his sight restored after years of blindness, but finds that his brain can't actually learn to see again; an artist who obsessively repaints the lost village of his Tuscan childhood; a surgeon whose Tourette's tics disappear when he operates.

In some ways this book reminded me of The Brain That Changes Itself, though in many cases neuroscience has advanced, as one would expect in twenty years. Sacks does speak of the brain's plasticity, but even I know that research on autism, for example, has developed markedly since this book was first written. But in another way, this book has not dated at all, because Sacks is always interested in his subjects as people, first and foremost. He spends time with them, talks with them, tries to find out what it feels like to experience life the way they do. We enter into their lives, sometimes briefly, sometimes over a period of years, and are left wondering, how would I deal with this situation? What would I make of it? Some people use their challenges to create art, or to invent; others retreat, overwhelmed.

Sacks has written a marvellous combination of science, psychology and reflection on humanity. I must hunt out the books I haven't read.

12.1.17

Peggy & Me

We ADORE Miranda Hart at our house; her self-titled sit-com is one of those rare things that we can all enjoy together 'as a family,' as it very much were (slipping into Miranda-speak there). There is something about Miranda's loveable awkwardness, her very English self-deprecation, that we all relate to. We went to see her stand-up show when she was in Australia a couple of years ago, though Evie was the youngest person in the audience by several years, and it was a fabulous night.

So now Miranda has written a memoir about her gorgeous dog Peggy -- what a perfect Christmas present for Evie, and obviously Father Christmas agreed. Poor Miranda actually wrote this book twice -- the first time she finished it, her laptop was stolen just before she sent the final manuscript to her publisher! What a nightmare. But this re-written version is a sweet, funny, surprisingly philosophical read. Miranda has learned many lessons from Peggy, which other dog-owners will relate to: mindfulness, relaxation, playfulness, and even trust in a higher power. She acquired Peggy at a low point in her life, and found that caring for her dog re-connected her with the world and helped to lift her out of depression.

This is just a lovely, light book, like having Miranda chat in your ear -- and charmingly illustrated with pencil sketches. What-I-call, an absolute treat.


9.1.17

The Ten Gifts

I found this lovely book in an equally lovely and tranquil bookshop in Castlemaine, and it proved the perfect companion to a peaceful seaside holiday. (I should point out that while Sorrento, the town where we spent a few nights, is anything but peaceful this time of year*, the flat where we stayed was beautifully serene, with a sea breeze and a big view out over the water.)

The Ten Gifts is an anthology of Elizabeth Goudge, focusing on her novels for adults, and while there were some extracts I'd read before, there were many I had not. Inevitably this involved spoilers of several plot-lines -- maybe this is why anthologies like this aren't too popular! -- but since I don't read Goudge for the storylines, that doesn't matter much.

The anthology was divided into ten sections, 'Love', 'Courage', 'Tranquillity' etcetera, but many of the pieces chosen could have slotted into more than one category. Most were wise, many were reflective, some amusing, and a few, alas, were very dated. I read them in a dreamy, meditative state, almost like praying, over the three days of our holiday, and relaxed and refreshed my mind and my spirit just as much as my body.

Most important, this book alerted me to the novels of Elizabeth Goudge that I'm most curious to read next -- The Scent of Water, The White Witch -- once my book-buying-ban is over! (Maybe I should start a list...)

* Among the teeming hordes, we came across Western Bulldog celebrities Mitch Wallis AND Peter Gordon!

5.1.17

Lila

The beginning of a new year finds me in a reflective mood, so what better choice for my first book of 2017 than a novel by Marilynne Robinson, one of the authors I most admire. Though she's written only four novels, they each contain such depths that I could study them forever.

Lila is the third book to deal with a small cast of characters living in the tiny Iowa town of Gilead in the 1950s, but this one has a very different voice. For the first time John Ames' much younger wife, Lila, a fleeting, mysterious figure who has appeared only at the edges of the other novels, takes centre stage. Lila has suffered a difficult life; she is damaged, wary, mistrustful. But when she encounters Reverend Ames, 'that good old man,' it is a gift of unexpected grace and love for both of them. Gradually the story of Lila's previous life is peeled back; very slowly she learns to love and, much harder, to allow herself to be loved.

Gilead, Home and Lila form an extended meditation on what Ames calls 'the mysteries of existence,' and there are no easy answers. Ames, his old friend Boughten, Boughten's estranged son Jack and dutiful daughter Glory, and now Lila, all find their own reasons for carrying on. There is always pain and loss, sacrifice and betrayal; but there is also tenderness and passion, kindness and beauty, the sweetness of the seasons passing.

As I sat down to write this post, I spilt coffee over my copy of Lila, and also on Gilead, which I skim-read again last night to remind myself of how Lila appears in that novel. I can't tell you how cross I am with myself for spoiling these beautiful, thoughtful books with my carelessness. But in a way, it seems almost fitting to the message they carry that the books themselves should now be marked and imperfect, but still precious to me.

31.12.16

Reading Roundup 2016

It's that time again, when I analyse my year's reading -- it's interesting to me, even if it's not that fascinating to anyone else! I read a total of 87 books this year, well up on last year's total. I think this may have been because I made a conscious decision to read books I wanted to read, rather than books I felt as if I should read.

I discovered this afternoon that the pie chart is considered "the Comic Sans of the data visualisation world"! Oh dear! But I still like them. (Also, I get a kick out of the fact that Florence Nightingale invented them.)

Male/female authors

As usual, the ladies dominated. But the chaps came much closer to parity! This might be partly due to my discovery of Ben Aaronovitch's six book Peter Grant series, late in the year. I noticed while I was doing my figures that men seem to have written most of the non-fiction I consumed this year. Hm. Something to keep an eye on, perhaps. I read four books with a mix of male and female contributors.

Adult/Children's & YA
Very close to a fifty-fifty split this year! I think I found some adult books I actually enjoyed this year for a change -- I haven't had much luck with adult books in recent times.

Fiction/Non-fiction

And again, fiction is a clear winner, with about three quarters of the total. This is consistent with last year.

Source

What a lovely, colourful, even spread! I'm surprised the proportion of secondhand books is down -- however, this doesn't account for the huge pile of books I've bought secondhand that I haven't got around to reading yet! Lots of books bought for the Kindle, too, a combination of desperation (when I couldn't find a book group title elsewhere) and impatience (hello, Ben Aaronovitch). I re-read lots of books this year too, all my Antonia Forest collection and L. M. Montgomery's Emily series.

Nationality
Yeah, well, so much for diversity. I'm a little ashamed to say that this was the year of the comfort read, not the challenging read, and the diversity of my authors suffered accordingly. Although I think within those national categories, I did read more diversely than this chart would suggest. Maybe.

Publication date
More than half the books I read this year were published in the last sixteen years, so relatively recently, with the other half being more or less evenly spread through the decades of the twentieth century. Though I notice I didn't read anything published in the 1930s! How did I manage that?

Of the 87 books I read, 5 were graphic novels or predominantly pictorial.

Favourite books of 2016
In no particular order, the books I most enjoyed reading this year were:
A Tangle of Gold, Jaclyn Moriarty: rich, imaginative fantasy
Strandloper, Alan Garner: challenging, thought-provoking, poetic
Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner: deft, sharp, unsparing
Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane: deep, inspiring, quirky
Peter Grant series (Rivers of London), Ben Aaronovitch: intriguing, immersive, magical
Longbourn, Jo Baker: Austen from the servant's perspective; delightful
And I loved re-discovering Elizabeth Goudge, a neglected old favourite: The Dean's Watch, Linnets and Valerians and The Rosemary Tree all soothed and refreshed me this year.

Wishing you all a wonderful 2017 -- and a year filled with reading!

Simple Gifts: Lesson in Living from a Shaker Village

I didn't know much about the Shakers before I read this book. They were an American sect who made chairs? It turns out they were quite similar to the Quakers, but with some crucial differences: they lived in celibate, communal communities, and instead of silent worship, they celebrated God with dance and song. Not surprisingly for a celibate organisation, they've now all but died out -- I think there are four Shaker Brothers and Sisters left. But their legacy endures, in their beautifully crafted, clean-lined furniture, their art and music, and their intriguing history. They were one of the rare sects who truly believed in, and practised, equality of the sexes -- founded by a woman, and with two Brothers and two Sisters appointed to run their affairs. There's much that appeals about the Shaker way of life, and I'm not surprised that they were still attracting converts well into the twentieth century.

In this memoir, June Sprigg recalls the summer of 1972, when she was nineteen, working as a tour guide in one of the last Shaker villages, populated by a mere handful of old women. The young June forged a profound connection with these (mostly) wise, humorous and kind women, a connection that shaped the rest of her life (she went on to write several books about the Shakers, and worked in Shaker museums). She even contemplated staying on as a permanent member of the community, but decided that way was not for her.

It's not exactly a gripping narrative, but this quiet, contemplative book was not a bad way to finish off my reading year.

30.12.16

The Doggies Almanac

Since the Western Bulldogs' unexpected Premiership victory, there has been a veritable tide of memorabilia pouring out of the Whitten Oval and AFL shops: DVD box sets, signed posters, blockmounted jumpers, replica cups, stubby holders, you name it. We've been relatively restrained at our house -- two books and one box set, and a framed photo collage which was a Christmas present and therefore not our fault!

I wasn't aware of this book until I unwrapped it on Christmas morning. Put together by John Harms and Mandy Johnson, it's a product of the on-line site, the Footy Almanac, which collates and publishes fan accounts of each game of the season. This book is a collection of pieces about the Bulldogs' year, round by round, culminating in lots of accounts of the extraordinary journey through the finals. There are lots of stories here, some funny, some poignant, from fans aged 80 and fans aged 11. It was so much fun to live through the year all over again, though there were some very dark moments -- Mitch Wallis's screams of agony, Bob Murphy's knee -- but the happy ending makes it all worth while.

The Bulldogs' story this year reminded everyone what can be so good about football -- the romance, the heartbreak, the history, and the possibility of overwhelming joy, and I'm so grateful to have experienced it all.

29.12.16

Foxglove Summer & The Hanging Tree


Foxglove Summer takes our hero, Peter Grant, out into the countryside of Herefordshire for a nice change of scenery, if not pace. He rapidly becomes entangled with the search for two missing girls, some mysterious bees, the fairy people and echoes of the events of the last book. I really enjoyed this foray into rural magic, feeling more at home with that than the urban kind, much as I've relished that, too. Downside: not much Molly or Thomas Nightingale in this one. But otherwise this is close to being my favourite. I love that Peter, so street smart and knowlegeable on his own turf and filled with fun facts about architecture and the history of London, can't tell one tree from another.

And speaking of trees... The Hanging Tree finds us back in London, but this time it's posh London, with spoilt kids and fast cars and flash apartments, and Peter is getting closer to discovering the identity of the Faceless Man. I think Guleed, the Somali ninja, has taken over Lesley's place in my heart... All the threads of the story are starting to weave together, and we are getting some answers. I love that the magical world is expanding, too, with schools of American magic and parallel women's magic entering the plot. But the story isn't finished yet.

How long till the next one, Ben? HOW LONG???

22.12.16

Broken Homes

Wow.

I wasn't expecting -- that.

I was expecting something big and shocking to happen, because Memoranda had warned me that something big and shocking happened at the end of this book, so as I was reading, I was scanning for clues and anticipating possible scenarios.

But not this.

I read Broken Homes* in less than a day, vacuuming up the story which this time revolves around architecture - apparently Peter Grant wanted to become an architect, or perhaps Ben Aaronovitch wanted to become an architect, because there has been quite a bit of information about London's buildings sprinkled through the previous volumes. I love architecture, despite knowing almost zilch about it, so I really enjoyed all that stuff. In this book, Peter and Lesley are closing in on the Faceless Man, a rogue wizard, who seems to be using a block of flats as a kind of magical engine.**

But the ending has left me gobsmacked... though it does make sense. I think.

Gotta go -- book 5 is waiting on my Kindle... Do I really have to cook dinner first? Just one chapter? Please?

* These titles are so clever, by the way.
** This idea appeals to me because I once used it in a book myself -- ie The Waterless Sea.

Whispers Under Ground

I am deep in my Ben Aaronovitch binge session and I inhaled this third volume in next to no time - hey, it's the holidays now, right? So it's perfectly okay to sit in bed and read during daylight hours. Anyway I have to be quick in case I need to buy any more books before my New Year's Eve deadline!

Whispers Under Ground is a creepy adventure involving the Tube, wading through sewers, magic pottery, modern art, half-goblins, an FBI agent, and Lesley becoming a fully-fledged member of the Folly (though it's never been really explained to my satisfaction how she can do magic without being properly and laboriously taught the way Peter himself is. But never mind, I'm just glad she is more involved in the story, with her proper policing instincts.) The more we learn about the Folly and Nightingale's colleagues, the sadder it is -- they were all wiped out during World War II during a dreadful operation at Ettersburg, the wizarding equivalent of the destruction of Gallifrey in the new Dr Who. I think Nightingale, marooned in his pre-war understanding of the world and codes of honour, might be my favourite character. After poor Lesley. And Peter himself is pretty good too. And then there are all the other fantastic, colourful, interesting characters. Oh, I can't decide!

Suffice to say that I am loving this world and feeling thoroughly immersed in it. Had to buy Broken Homes on the Kindle because the library doesn't have it. And as of last night, I am 51% through...

19.12.16

Moon Over Soho

If Moon Over Soho wasn't part 2 of Rivers of London, there's no way I would have picked it up cold - what an unappealing cover! I much prefer the UK cover designs; this is the American version. And because it was the US edition (I may as well get all my gripes out of the way at once!), I also had to put up with US spellings throughout (favorite, gray etc) which I don't mind in a US book, but which grates horribly when I'm reading a book written and set in England. But my biggest annoyance was the fact that they changed Lesley's name to "Leslie" which is, conventionally, the male version of the name. I mean, why?? It's not like it's uncomprehensible spelled the other way! (I'm pleased to report that in vol 3, also an American edition, they have reverted to the right spelling. Which just makes the decision all the more bizarre...)

So... more adventures of Peter Grant, Thomas Nightingale, Molly, Dr Walid and the crew. This book is a fair bit raunchier than the first, which is important for the plot. It also centres on the jazz scene in Soho, and jazz doesn't really float my boat, but having said that, this is a satisfying follow-up. The action and the gore are exciting, but the parts of the series I really enjoy involve Peter's deepening knowledge of magic itself and the history of the practioners who have gone before (also important to the plot in this book), and, funnily enough, the mundane details of police work, the jargon and insider culture. I don't know if that stuff is all invented or if Ben Aaronovitch has an informant in the force, but it's very convincing.

These books have been coming out in rapid succession. Either Aaronovitch is an impressively swift writer, or he's been planning this series for a long time. Either way, kudos to him, it's a great achievement.

I've already started book 3...