Sunday, May 31, 2009

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel Tammet

Tammet is a young gay man who has Asperger's Syndrome. Born in 1979, he grew up the oldest of 9 children and credits his supportive family as well as his first lover, Neil, for helping him to overcome the obstacles presented by autism and to learn how to live independently.

Autism may affect 3.4 out of 1000 children, according to a recent American study. Few people on the autism spectrum, however, are as high-functioning as Tammet. He is one of only 50 people in the world who can be called an autistic savant. His brain power is phenomenal. He sees numbers as shapes, colours and textures and can perform amazing calculations in his head. He also sees the patterns and relationships between words and can learn a new language in as little as one week's time.

In 2004, Tammet broke a European record by reciting pi from memory to 22,514 decimal places. It was a feat of stamina as well, taking a little over 5 hours. He undertook the challenge in order to raise money and awareness for epilepsy, which he had as a child.

Doctors and scientists consider Tammet to be a gold mine of information about the way our brains work because he is able to articulate what is happening inside his head. I found his memoir fascinating as well as touching. Since reading the book, I've gone to his website. He now lives in Avignon, France, with a man named Jerome. His newest book is called Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Stet by Diana Athill

From the jacket: "This is a book about books, about the people who write them and the process of making them, a world dissected with sharp and irresistible honesty." Irresistible describes Athill's prose style very well. She knows how to tell a good story in few words.

The first part of the book deals with the two London publishing houses (both headed by publisher Andre Deutsch) where Athill was an editor for nearly 50 years. In the second part, she talks about some of the writers that she got to know, like Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore and Jean Rhys.

I like very much that she is not afraid to say what she thinks. For example, "[Virginia] Woolf, whom I revered in my youth, now seems almost more embarrassing [than Angela Thirkell] because the claims made for her were so high. [...] and that self-consciously 'beautiful' writing, all those adjectives - oh dear!"

If you've been following my blog for a while, you probably know that I'm not often a fan of books that make the bestseller lists. Why some books with little literary merit become popular is always a bit of a mystery to me, so I was interested in what Athill had to say on the subject (in reference to V.S. Naipaul).

"It is natural that a writer who knows himself to be good and who is regularly confirmed in that opinion by critical comment should expect to become a best-seller, but every publisher knows that you don't necessarily become a best-seller by writing well. Of course you don't necessarily have to write badly to do it: it is true that some best-selling books are written astonishingly badly, and equally true that some are written very well. The quality of the writing - even the quality of the thinking - is irrelevant. It is a matter of whether or not a nerve is hit in the wider reading public as opposed to the serious one which is composed of people who are interested in writing as an art."

So, I now count myself among the serious reading public.

Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards by Jim Ottaviani & Big Time Attic

Two 19th century paleontologists, Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, battled for scientific supremacy in the field of dinosaurs. The story is told in black and white comics with lively dialogue. The addition of a "Fact or Fiction?" section at the end clarifies where events were fudged a bit to make a better story, but the truth is often strange enough on its own. I preferred Ottaviani's biography of Niels Bohr, Suspended in Language, but Bone Sharps is accessible to a younger audience (meaning teens) and is more entertaining.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Three Novels by Patricia MacLachlan

I don't know why I had never read anything by Patricia MacLachlan. Sarah, Plain and Tall, which won a Newbery in 1986, is one that I've meant to read for ages. Anyway, I made up for the lack by reading three in a row: Sarah, Plain and Tall; Baby; and Journey. All of them are lovely stories aimed at readers in elementary school.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is about a mail order bride who travels from Maine to meet, and possibly marry, a widower with two children on a prairie frontier farm. Sarah demonstrates her backbone from the start. When the father states that Sarah's cat will be a welcome mouser in the barn, she adds pointedly that the cat will also keep mice away in the house. Sarah was willing to learn new things, she worked hard and she also found time to play and to appreciate beauty; I loved her as much as the children did. They want very much for her to stay and be their new mother, but it is evident how much Sarah misses her home by the sea. A memorable story told in only 58 pages.

Baby is about a family living on an island. The youngest child died at birth, but the parents won't talk about him with their older child, Larkin. That autumn, a year-old baby is left on their doorstep. They care for Sophie until spring, when the mother returns for her. Again, MacLachlan has created some wonderful characters dealing with a momentous event. In 122 pages, emotional healing is sweetly demonstrated. A sophisticated (for young readers) literary technique is also used: Sophie's fragmented memories of the time she spent on the island introduce some of the chapters. Sophie's return 10 years later made a very satisfying conclusion.

In Journey, once again MacLachlan explores the theme of abandonment. A mentally ill mother leaves her two children with their grandparents. Journey, the youngest, is especially angry and the story is told in his voice, with violence even in the landscape imagery.

"Mama named me Journey. Journey, as if somehow she wished her restlessness on me. But it was Mama who would be gone the year that I was eleven -- before spring crashed onto our hillside with explosions of mountain laurel, before summer came with the soft slap of the screen door, breathless nights, and mildew on the books."

All three novels are timeless and deserve their continued popularity. MacLachlan has written many more books for children and she has a new fan: me.

Link to radio discussion of MacLachlan's work (thanks to Claire).

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

Avery was a young engineer working on the dam of the St. Lawrence River in 1957 when he met Jean, his future bride. She was a botany student collecting plant samples from the area that would be flooded when the dam was complete. Whole towns would be covered and people were forced to move. This displacement is a central issue of the novel, presenting the question, what is home?

In 1964, Jean travels with Avery to the Nile river, where he oversees the dismantling and moving of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel before the Aswan dam floods the ancient kingdom of Nubia. 70,000 people in the Sudanese part of the flood area would lose their villages. This displacement was the result of a choice made by politicians; the moral question of such decisions is also central to the novel.

The third displacement is the story of Warsaw during the Second World War, a city completely and systematically destroyed by the departing German forces. How do we live through such actions and their consequences? How can we compare individual loss to greater devastation?

Michaels explores love, compassion and grief, the emotions that make us -- and keep us -- human. Her prose is breathtakingly beautiful. The Winter Vault is even better than Fugitive Pieces.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

"Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster round procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away." At 89 years of age, Athill writes about the experience of being old. It is an absolute joy to read, being lively and clear. If I am blessed with the longevity of my grandmother, who is now 94 and still living on her own, I hope that I also have the zest for life that both she and Athill exhibit.

Fall by Colin McAdam

I finished reading Fall a few days ago and am still haunted by the story. It is set in an elite Canadian boarding school and centers on the relationships between three students in their final year. Julius, a golden boy, is the son of the American ambassador to Canada. Fallon, one of the few girls at the school, is his beautiful girlfriend. Noel, obsessively attracted to Fallon, is Julius' roommate.

Noel kills Fallon. I'm not giving away much of the plot here because this happens very early in the book. The rest of the story tells of the aftermath as well as what led up to the tragedy. It is brilliantly told in multiple points of view.

Readers intrigued by the actions of sociopaths will especially enjoy this book. I'm not exactly pleased that creepy Noel is now in my head.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I had not intended to read this book, in spite of its popularity and excellent reviews, because I found the premise distasteful. In a future time, in a place formerly the USA, twenty-four teens are chosen by lottery every year to participate in the hunger games. It is an event broadcast to all citizens, much like survivor reality television shows are today. Except that there can be only one survivor left alive at the end.

My book group chose this title and so I've read it. Collins' writing is of high quality. Katniss, the central character, is 16 and has provided food for her mother and younger sister by hunting and gathering ever since her father died in a mine explosion five years earlier. She knows that people in her town like her but is unaware that it is for her own attributes, and not because they respected her father or because they know they can barter for fresh food from her. When her little sister's name is drawn in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is loyal, courageous and resourceful. As a reader, I had no doubt that she was capable of winning the game.

I liked Katniss but I did not like the book. Two thirds of the way through, as I picked it up to continue reading, I found myself thinking, "I suppose I should see what happens next in this stupid book." The central premise requires a suspension of disbelief that I could never accomplish. Teenagers forced to fight to death? It got even more over-the-top when mutant wolves, with eyes of the players who had already been killed, appeared towards the end of the game. The close of the story forecasts the tension in the next book in the series. I've had enough.

Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film About the Grapes of Wrath by Steven Goldman

Totally charming and very funny. I loved the voice of Mitchell Wells, a straight seventeen-year-old who has never had a date. His best friend, David, is gay and in love with him. David has never had a date either, with a boy or a girl. Together, they negotiate the minefields of relationships -- friendship as well as romantic -- and of school and growing up.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

On a flight between Paris and Toronto two days ago, I watched 3 movies, all based on books: Inkheart, Marley and Me, and The Reader. Then there was a wait of more than 4 hours in Toronto before the final flight home to Edmonton. I was not quite desperate enough for sleep to lay on the floor in the airport, but I needed an absorbing book to carry me through the long wait. I was lucky to have Divisadero with me (thanks to my beloved travelling companion).

This novel, a winner of the Governor General's Award, has garnered so much praise already that I feel that anything I say is but echoes of accolades already received: "hauntingly beautiful" - "vividly original language" - "unusually rich" - "powerful and deeply intimate."

The story begins in 1970s California, where we meet a family of unusual composition. Coop was 4 when the rest of his family was murdered. He was taken in by people at a neighbouring farm, then later that year, his foster mother died giving birth to Anna. Anna's father went home from the hospital with a second baby, Claire, whose mother had also died. The three grew up together, until the event that shattered their family forever.

Anna as an adult is a writer living in south-central France, researching the life and translating the work of a French poet. I had expected to feel more of an evocation of the setting in this part of the book, which is very near where I had just spent 3 weeks, and where I've spent months in previous years. In Divisidero, however, Ondaatje captures the landscape of the human heart more perfectly than that of geographical area. Instead of being transported back to France, I was in a deeper and more mysterious place. I finished the last pages, closed my eyes and the next thing I knew, the plane was touching down in Edmonton.