The man who mistook his wife for a hat (Oliver Sacks) – A review

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I knew very little, almost nothing, about Oliver Sacks until one month ago. I came across his famous farewell letter, the one he used to announce he had terminal cancer, through a friend of mine who shared it on Twitter.

That letter is a true reflection of Sacks’ view not just on life, but also on the way life should be lived. “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” is not really about neurological cases, however interesting or shocking they may be. And some of them are undoubtedly very attractive in themselves, they question our perception of normality, even of sanity. It is hard and at the same time fascinating to read through some of the cases, trying to imagine what it is like to be able to see without recognizing objects, or to to hear speech without understanding the words but at the same time being able to interprete the entonation and nuances of the sentences.

So when reading this book it is necessary to go beyond the strange appeal of the medical cases and understand the attraction Sacks feels for the individuals, the patients themselves. He finds hope even in the most bizarre of cases, and that hope is what is left with the reader when the book is finished. Sacks clearly thinks that even the most isolated of autistic patients is capable of giving and receiving. Giving and receiving respect and love, being able to contribute in different and unexpected ways, be it excelling at the arts or simply performing a menial job. I think the most moving case of the book is the one about The Twins. Two autistic brothers with a supernatural ability for figures, particularly prime numbers. What I find moving is how Oliver Sacks regrets the way the brothers were finally “integrated into society”. Sacks clearly thought that there was nothing wrong with their peculiar ability, that depriving them of practising it was nobody’s right.

One may find Sacks’ tolerance extreme, excessive, too generous. I find it hopeful, just like his farewell letter.

reamde (neil stephenson) - a review

REAMDE (Neal Stephenson) – a review

reamde (neil stephenson) - a review

Now that we seem to be attacked from all fronts by ransonware, REAMDE by Neil Stephenson is timely reading.

“REAMDE” has all the ingredients of the headline news. Chinese hackers, virtual currencies, multinational jihadists, Russian mob, tech millionaires and American libertarians.

So described it may sound chaotic, hardly coherent as the plot for a novel. Neal Stephenson however manages to write quite a few words, and the result is very entertaining.

The book is above all entertaining, a bit technical at times, but not overwhelming. The characters simple and in most cases quite emotional, ready to make harsh decisions in a split second. But this is no philosophical treatise, this is a techno thriller not far away from Clancy’s novels.

I quite enjoyed the first half of the book, which takes the reader from Midwest USA to China with sweeping action, turning seemingly ordinary people into almost natural heroes. That is one of Stephenson’s characters features, their readiness to become combat units, their coolness and easy attitude towards violence. Guns are everywhere, and the characters use them with ease, so much that one tends to assume by the end of the book that the libertarians are just right, it is perfectly normal to consider guns as some kind of home appliance.

The second part of the book, no spoilers here, is much less interesting in my opinion. A sort of OK Corral Shoot-out of the modern age, the good guys vs the bad guys. It runs for too long, although Stephenson is undeniably good at narrating action.

Now that the summer is just round the corner, a good one for the beach.

 

Oración por Owen (John Irving) – Reseña

owen meany english

Reseña publicada en El Libro Durmiente

¿Es este libro una parodia, una alegoría o quizá un libro que de verdad trata sobre religión y fe? “Oración por Owen” es todo eso y además el descubrimiento de un personaje inolvidable, Owen Meany.
El argumento gira alrededor de un acontecimiento clave en las vidas de dos amigos, Owen Meany y John Wheelwright. Durante un partido de baseball, Owen batea la bola con tan mala suerte que golpea a la madre de Owen en la cabeza, matándola en el acto. Pero justo ahí Irving incluye una de sus frases más inquietantes del libro: Owen dice “soy el instrumento de Dios”. Lo que sigue es una historia llena de religión, política and excéntricos personajes en una pequeña ciudad de New Hampshire.
John Wheelwright narra en primera persona, y la verdad es que no hace mucho más que eso, si acaso admirar a su amigo Owen, desear con no mucho ardor a su prima Hester y en último lugar abandonar su país para convertirse en un antiamericano nacionalizado canadiense. Pero lo de verdad interesante de este libro es leer entre líneas, interpretar qué hay detrás de los personajes.
Por ejemplo, ¿es Owen una metáfora de los EEUU? Owen es religioso, idealista, seguro de sí mismo, convencido de su “destino manifiesto” hasta un punto que resulta inquietante. También es noble, sincero, valiente, inteligente y un líder natural, todo ello a pesar de ser muy bajito y tener una voz chillona que la gente encuentra paralizante.
¿Es la madre de John, y su muerte, una alegoría de unos EEUU más puros, “más auténticos”, justo cuando en la segunda mitad de los años 50 ese país iba a perder su virginidad en Vietnam? Vietnam tiene un papel clave en el libro. Es desde luego una de las razones por las que John desprecia a su país nativo, aunque su antiamericanismo es demasiado simplón.
Alguno de los pasajes del libro, como la obra de teatro de Navidad cuando son niños, resultan lentos y en exceso detallados. Sin embargo la búsqueda sin descanso de su destino por parte de Owen tiene un toque mágico que hace la novela absorbente, en especial su segunda mitad.

A prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving) – a review

owen meany english

Is this a parody, an allegory or perhaps even a serious book about religion and faith?

“A prayer…” is certainly all of that, plus the unforgettable character who gives the title to the book.

The story pivots around a key milestone in the life of two friends, Owen Meany and John Wheelwright. While playing a baseball game, Owen unfortunately hits John’s mother with a ball, killing her on the spot. But there comes one of Irving’s most disconcerting sentences in the novel, when Owen says that “I am god’s instrument”. What follows is a story full of religion, politics and weird small town characters.

The story is narrated by John Wheelwright, who does very little other than to admire his friend Owen, silently lust for his cousin Hester and then leave the US for Canada where he becomes an anti US Canadian citizen.

But the real pleasure in this book is in trying to read between the lines, in interpreting what is behind the characters.

For instance, is Owen Meany a metaphor for the US? Owen is religious, idealistic, self-assured, convinced of his “manifest destiny” to a degree that feels not quite right. He is also noble, honest, brave, intelligent and perceived as a leader, all of that despite being very short and in possession of a voice which bewilders everyone.

Is John’s mother, and her death, an allegory for a pure, “more authentic US”, just at a time (the late 50’s) when that country was about to lose its virginity in Vietnam? Vietnam plays a key role in the story. It is obviously one of the reasons why John Wheelwright despises his native country, although John’s anti-americanism feels somewhat too simple.

I found some passages in the book quite heavy going, particularly the nativity play at John’s hometown theatre when he was a kid. But Owen’s relentless search for his destiny has a magic quality that makes this novel absorbing, particularly its second half.

 

In the light of what we know (Zia Haider Rahman)- Review

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This book is an impressive achievement for a debut novel.

At first sight, it is another book from a brilliant writer of Asian origin (a la Rushdie, Mistry or Hamid). And it is true that it shares many of the features of those writers. The cosmopolitism of Rushdie’s or the ability to show the conflict between East and West of Hamid’s are present throughout the novel. In many respects Zia Haider is close to Mohsin Hamid (author of “The reluctant fundamentalist”) in the way he depicts the conflict between the Islamic world and the West, and the fact that there are no easy explanations to the issues in that region.

But Zia Haider’s book goes beyond that. At times it goes too far in my opinion, crossing the line between dealing with profound issues and plain pretentiousness. He is able to move from financial derivatives to Afghan politics with ease, and making sense of the whole. But he elaborates on some of the issues too deeply, or one may say, too unproductively.

The story, the re-encounter of an American investment banker of Pakistani descent with an old friend of Bangladeshi origin, is narrated both by the American and by Zafar (the Bangladeshi). There is a clear contrast between the two. The former comes from a privileged family in Pakistan, whereas Zafar’s parents had to emigrate to England and managed to provide him with a first class education. Both friends share an outstanding academic record, excelling at mathematics and law. And it is that excellence that allows Zafar to access the English upper class.

Zafar narrates his experience as an aoutsider in all the environments he lived in. An outsider in England where, despite his Oxford education, he could not feel completely at home. An outsider in Bangladesh where he admits he lived the happiest days of his life. And particularly an outsider to his own love, the English upper class girl he meets but with whom he never manages to develop a stable relationship.

Not an easy book to read, sometimes bordering a treatise rather than a novel, but powerful anyway.

My losing season (Pat Conroy) – A review

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When I came across Pat Conroy’s life as a writer and college basketball player I knew that I had to read one of his books. I already knew of him as a writer because of “The prince of tides”, although I had not read the book.

There was a connection between us because of his beloved South Carolina, a place that I also keep close to my heart. So I looked up his bibliography and there it was, a book about basketball, or rather, about basketball, writing and a lot more.

“My losing season” is about basketball. The vivid descriptions of the games, the inside knowledge that only a player can provide, make this a great book to read for any basketball fan. However, Conroy uses his passion for the game as the background against which he paints a much larger picture. That of a boy who finds his way in life thanks to a basketball and a rectangular court. His difficult relationship with his father is here present in all its reality, not disguised in fictional characters as in some of his other books. The way Conroy talks about it, the way he describes how his father systematically humiliated him, is quite moving. And his overcoming of it is an example of courage.

Conroy’s style is passionate, honest in a way it is difficult to find these days. His idealistic view on so many things (the Vietnam war, college basketball, friendship) does not sound superficial or hypocritical, it sounds true and eloquent. He loves everything in the book, with the exception of his father of course. He loves basketball, his team mates, at times even his coach and above all South Carolina.

It is quite straight forward, this book makes you feel better. Even if you do not like basketball.

Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates) – a review

Before DiCaprio and Winslet made it a blockbuster movie, this was just a portrait of the apparently happy and affluent 50’s in suburban America.

Richard Yates’ story is in fact a demolition job on that pretended happiness. The central characters, Frank and April Wheeler, seem to have unlimited opportunities and the necessary ambition to grab them. They are young and reasonably talented, but they want to reach beyond the materialistic comfort of their middle class life. They are the subject of envy by their neighbours and friends, and they feel a kind of superiority.

Frank dreams of moving to Paris and becoming a writer. April takes her husband’s dream and makes it hers, passionately. And there Yates starts his ruthless destruction of this middle class couple.

Frank drifts slowly into a rather mediocre man, whose ambitions are more prosaic than he would admit. Work and sex fulfill his life to the extent that he is scared by the prospect of leaving them behind for the uncertain future abroad. At the same time April realises that she is willing to give up things that her husband cannot.

Yates fills his story with disappointment and betrayal, with a relentless sadness that slowly corrupts the lives of Frank and April. It is quite clear that he is no fan of the America of those days, the booming days of consumerism and Cold War certainties. And the portrait that he finally draws is one of emptiness and forgotten dreams.

It is a beautifully written novel which captures a moment in history and turns it into a story with which everyone can identify.