Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)

 I have read The Golden Compass at least four times, and maybe a few more.  This latest round, I listened to a full-cast streaming audio version - which I just found out was narrated by Philip Pullman himself.  It was a truly remarkable way to enjoy this well-written and completely engaging book.

Pullman has a sure hand at creating characters, deftly bringing to life both starring and supporting cast in his entire series, but The Golden Compass in particular.  Lyra and Pantalaimon are fully realized, and (I know at this point it's trite but...) truly come alive for the reader.  Pullman was able to write into being a perfectly formed 11 year old tomboyish, wild girl, so sure and unsure of herself and the world as puberty starts to tickle and trick her mind (as well so well remember).  Just the way she reacts and interacts with various situations and characters  - particularly adult characters, made me always think "He really understands the minds of the young and how they work."  She is a constant study of the duality of humanity - at one moment trusting, the next moment untrusting (as she herself is both trustworthy and untrustworthy, depending on the situation).

As for other characters, Lord Asriel is almost a stock character - we've seen his kind before, the rich aristocrat who wears entitlement like a glove - or a boxing glove.  The gyptians are almost stock as well, although his alternative history for them as transplanted Dutch is interesting. Lee Soresby and Serefina Pekkala are fantastically interesting characters - I always liked Lee's daemon hare (although she is probably a jack rabbit, right?).

 But we all know that, after Lyra herself, the story hinges on the creation of two of the very most memorable characters, two characters that live in dream - and nightmare:  Mrs. Coulter and Iorek Byrnison.  Mrs. Coulter is one of the greatest villainesses I think I've ever found in a book.  Her grace, poise, style and beauty are only matched by her sharp intellect (used for ill), her cunning, her hypnotic cobra personality.  And that golden monkey - my god.  It is her daemon that makes her so goddamn frightening.  Pullman's ability to write these two into spine-tingling authenticity; these two are the kinds of characters you don't encounter often enough in literature.  Cruella deVil - too campy (although deliciously evil in her own way).  Various stepmothers from Grimm come to mind, but they are flat compared to Mrs. Coulter.  Dolores Umbridge certainly could give Mrs. Coulter a run for her money; they went to the same boarding school.

If Mrs. Coulter is the ultimate in evil, then Iorek Byrnison is the ultimate good guy.  Iorek's story depends as much upon plot and characterization; his story is woven carefully into the story of Lyra's doom.  Iorek is even a more original creation than Mrs. Coulter - this entire idea of armored bears is a piece of brilliance, then Iorek rises from this mass of imagination like the sunrise, a brilliant and glorious character.

Pullman really has created a perfect book.  The plot and setting are both so unique, yet adroitly created; a true master writer and storyteller is clearly at work here.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read this book multiple times, and now listened to the fantastic, full-cast audio (with Philip Pullman himself narrating). I come away from this book each time I read it completely amazed that someone could create something so gripping, horrifying, fantastic, un-put-downable. There is a terrific cast of major and minor characters, and Pullman succeeds in creating not one, not two, but three of the most memorable in literature of all sorts: plucky, loyal, brave Lyra; cold, beautiful, stylish, power hungry and oh so evil Mrs. Coulter; and lionhearted, gruff and heroic Iorek Byrnison. Pullman's plot and setting are unique and unexampled. His dramatic tension is my favorite part; he knows how to create a great build up, with a several pay offs that are well worth ride. I've always thought, and continue to think this time, that this is a complicated and difficult work full of grand ideas. It deserves multiple re-readings just to catch everything! It's a thinker's book.

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Some quotes I liked:

But she moved a little closer, because she had to, and then she saw that Iofur was holding something on his knee, as a human might let a cat sit there—or a dæmon. It was a big stuffed doll, a manikin with a vacant stupid human face. It was dressed as Mrs. Coulter would dress, and it had a sort of rough resemblance to her. He was pretending he had a dæmon. Then she knew she was safe.

Pullman is always able to set a scene, perfectly – and write convincing and riveting drama and action.  This passage above is one of my favorite examples of that from the book; that last line “then she knew she was safe” is such perfect cap to the rising action that’s been happening for pages before this.  You, the reader, are definitely with Lyra on this journey.

“D’you want me to ask the symbol reader about it?” Lyra said. “Well, I dunno. There’s things I’d rather not know. Seems to me everything I heard of since the Gobblers come to Oxford, everything’s been bad. There en’t been nothing good more than about five minutes ahead. Like I can see now, this bath’s nice, and there’s a nice warm towel there, about five minutes away. And once I’m dry, maybe I’ll think of summing nice to eat, but no further ahead than that. And when I’ve eaten, maybe I’ll look forward to a kip in a comfortable bed. But after that, I dunno, Lyra. There’s been terrible things we seen, en’t there? And more a coming, more’n likely. So I think I’d rather not know what’s in the future. I’ll stick to the present.” “Yeah,” said Lyra wearily. “There’s times I feel like that too.”

I loved this passage.  It’s beautiful – and moving, and sad, knowing what you know will happen to Roger.

It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your dæmon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love. And she knew it was the same for him. Everyone tested it when they were growing up: seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief.

He nestled in her arms, and she knew she would rather die than let them be parted and face that sadness again; it would send her mad with grief and terror. If she died, they’d still be together, like the Scholars in the crypt at Jordan. Then girl and dæmon looked up at the solitary bear. He had no dæmon. He was alone, always alone. She felt such a stir of pity and gentleness for him that she almost reached out to touch his matted pelt, and only a sense of courtesy toward those cold ferocious eyes prevented her.

I was always impressed by how Pullman made you care about what happens to the children in the north, because none of us have a daemon of our own (as much as we want one).  This re-read, I realized how he did that:  these passages, of tenderness and love, and how a bear without a daemon is lost and alone and to be pitied, is just a few pages before we find out what happens to the children. 

She turned and looked down into the shadowed quadrangle, where the black-gowned figures of the Scholars were already beginning to drift in ones and twos toward the buttery, their dæmons strutting or fluttering alongside or perching calmly on their shoulders. The lights were going on in the Hall; she could see the stained-glass windows gradually beginning to glow as a servant moved up the tables lighting the naphtha lamps. The Steward’s bell began to toll, announcing half an hour before dinner. This was her world. She wanted it to stay the same forever and ever, but it was changing around her, for someone out there was stealing children. She sat on the roof ridge, chin in hands.

This captures the thoughts of a young girl on the cusp of puberty; remember wanting the world to just stop, so you could be 11 forever?   

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson (2010)

This is my second Lynne Olsen book - my first being Those Angry Days about the isolationist sentiment in the United States in the first years of World War II. I noted in my Goodreads review of that book how easy it can be to mythologize and romanticize the Greatest Generation, and Olsen was adept at avoiding this.  Olsen was again successful in writing a more nuanced portrait of the characters of World War II.  What has been definitely mythologized over the years is the very special friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.   I think we've always been led to believe that Franklin Roosevelt was working behind the scenes to get the country into war on the side of the British.  Olsen's narrative pokes holes in these balloons; her pins are actually quite long and sharp too.  FDR and Churchill, although never adversaries, weren't bosom buddies, especially in the early years of the war (before the U.S. was attacked by Japan) and then again during the last years (when courting and outwitting Stalin was far more of an objective than appeasing Winston Churchill).

Olsen's writing is quite strong and good; unlike Those Angry Days (which I also noted was long and dry in various sections), Citizens of London never felt overly scholarly or heavy on details.  I don't think I ever felt quite "right there" in the thick of the Blitz; but more than occasionally, the gossip about various figures - Pamela Harriman and her various affairs, for example - was delicious and fun.  I knew nothing at all about John Winant, the ambassador to Great Britain after the Kennedys left town - you'd almost think once Joe and his family packed their bags, there was no ambassador to Great Britain.  The Murrows, too, were new to me, other than knowing bits and pieces about Edward R. Murrow's reporting from the bombing of London.

I have one quibble though, and I think it's a major one.  The first half of the book fits neatly into the title and subtitle of this book - the Murrows, Averell Harriman, Harry Hopkins, the American boys who joined the R.A.F., Lend-Lease.  But somewhere about half way through, for whatever reason, the book took a sharp turn away from the title.  For example, there was a whole chapter on the foreign exiles in London during the war.  There was much on Eisenhower and the various campaigns in North African, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge.  And while all very interesting, and very well written, and very well researched, I felt a little cheated by the promise of the title.

Interestingly, this is twice in six months or so I've read a book that has Pamela Harriman as a character; The Swans of Fifth Avenue had a much older, less attractive portrayal.

The word "reactionary" was mentioned in the book (twice actually, both in reference to Winston Churchill).  I never can remember what that word means; even though I look it up all the time.  In my mind, it always means exactly the opposite.

I actually bookmarked and took more notes on this book than on most - there was a lot here that struck me as interesting, or funny, or ponder-worthy.

"After Mrs. Roosevelt and her guests finished a light supper of scrambled eggs and pudding..." I've read elsewhere about the Franklin Roosevelts scrambled eggs suppers; I think I read elsewhere that Eleanor Roosevelt did the scrambling because that's all she knew how to cook.  The Franklin Roosevelts were indifferent to food; but I still think it shows how things have changed that they served scrambled eggs and pudding to Edward R. Murrow and other guests.  What kind of pudding?  I love scrambled eggs myself, particularly as a late night supper.  

“Yet, although he concealed it well, his humble roots also left him with a deep sense of insecurity, a fear of being perceived as a country bumpkin—a not uncommon unease felt by other Americans when mingling with upper-crust Britons."  That's one of my biggest insecurities too.  I completely ken you, Edward R. Murrow.  That whole "town mouse and country mouse" thing, which has been around for thousands of years (re:  Aesop).

"To thwart such Soviet dominance, Churchill “fought like a tiger” at the summit to make sure that France’s postwar role in Europe was as strong as possible. By doing that, he thought, both Britain and France could serve—to some extent, at least—as counterweights to Russia."  When you've read much about Franklin Roosevelt and company, each book contains a multitude of factoids and stories that you've read over and over.  But this was a new one to me.  I actually wondered several times in the book why the French ended up being so important at the end of World War II that they were given some military control over a portion of Germany, even though they had capitulated early in the war, and their government was essentially in a state of collapse and recovery. You would hvae thought another government, like Poland, would have been given as much or more power than France.  But Olson read my mind, and eventually answered my question.  Quite interesting.  

"Winant, meanwhile, came to the general’s rescue in a thorny situation related to his heavy smoking. For much of his life, Eisenhower had been a chain-smoker, a habit that intensified as the pressures on him grew more intense. The ambassador repeatedly reminded him that, at official British dinners, there was to be no smoking until near the end of the dinner and the offering of toasts, a ban that Eisenhower repeatedly forgot." I thought when I read this that the word "Forgot", if read aloud, should be in air quotes.  It was also little stories like this that made the book extra enjoyable.

"When a black GI, on the basis of extremely tenuous evidence, was found guilty of rape and sentenced to death, there was a huge public outcry in the country. Deluged with protesting letters and phone calls, Eisenhower ordered an investigation of the case, which found the evidence to be insufficient.  The serviceman was cleared of the charge and restored to duty."  Olson's writing about the treatment of black servicemen by the British public and government verses their disgraceful treatment by white American servicemen and officers was some of the most powerful in the book.  I don't know if you can exactly call reading about discrimination and unfair treatment "enjoyable" but as I love learning, I found this to be one of the most "enjoyable" parts of the book.  I thought the above story would make a great movie - but now I'm wondering "who was this guy" and "where is he now" and "what later happened."

"On the eve of the invasion of Europe, General Eisenhower assured his troops: “If you see fighting aircraft over you, they will be ours.” Thanks in no small part to an ex–polo star and the plane he championed, Eisenhower was absolutely right."  This mawkish story had a Paul Harvey ending.  Pure mush.

“The American people, who were so willing and proud to give whatever was required of them in blood and sweat, were loudly reluctant to cut down on their normal consumption of red meat and gasoline and their use of such essentials as electric toasters and elastic girdles,” Robert Sherwood observed. “More than any other people on earth, Americans were addicted to the principle that you can eat your cake and have it, which was entirely understandable, for Americans have been assured from the cradle that ‘there is always more cake from where that came from.’  Robert Sherwood, playwright and FDR speechwriter, said this 70 years ago, and it's even more true today, unfortunately.  American Exceptionalism will be the death of us all, I fear.  This is also one of the examples of Olson not viewing World War II with rose-colored glasses.

"In Washington, members of Congress fought Roosevelt’s call for higher taxes, tried to eviscerate the Office of Price Control, and insisted they were entitled to unlimited gasoline supplies because, they argued, their driving was essential for the war effort. “The very men to whom the whole country looks to set an example and to encourage the public to accept the personal inconvenience are doing exactly the reverse,” Raymond Clapper, a noted Washington newspaper columnist, wrote in disgust. “Instead of trying to cooperate, they are cackling like wet hens to hold their special privileges.”  We need a word in English that means "even more true today" because this is certainly something that still happens.  Our elected officials haven't changed all that much in 70 years!

“We must always remember,” he said, “that it is the things of the spirit that in the end prevail. That caring counts. That where there is no vision, people perish. That hope and faith count, and that without charity there can be nothing good. That by daring to live dangerously, we are learning to live generously. And that by believing in the inherent goodness of man, we may meet the call of your great Prime Minister and "stride forward into the unknown with growing confidence."   Winant wasn't a great orator, but this speech he gave to striking miners in England during the war is incredibly moving and beautiful.  

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest HourCitizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Olson's book is quite strong and good; I dove into it from beginning to end. her writing never feels dry or scholarly, and she has a way with historical storytelling without coming across as overly pop. Though many of the stories Olson writes about are well known, there were also plenty of anecdotes and facts in the book that were completely new to me. For example, I knew next to nothing about Ambassador Winant before reading her book; he's a fascinating figure, almost as fascinating (or at least Olson made sure he was, the mark of a strong writer of history and biography) as his predecessor Joseph Kennedy (and with a son who had an equally fascinating World War II story as Joe Kennedy's son Jack). Her writing on how black soldiers were treated by British subjects of all races verses their treatment by their fellow (but white) Americans was also new and quite interesting . My only quibble is that the title and subtitle only really covered about half of the book; the latter half meandered a bit, although never into dull places. Something I like about Olson's research and writing (this is the second book I've read by her) is that she doesn't rest on mythology or wear rose-colored Greatest Generation glasses; the major and minor players in this book. including on occasion the American public (those white racist Southern generals, for example) are all "stark naked" when it comes to their good and bad points. If the blitzed British come off as romantic figures - well, perhaps they all were for a brief, but shining (and terrifying) moment.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons (2011)

In the last six months or so, my Luddite tendencies have begun to wane, and I started reading more e-books.  Don't question me - I know  I'm part of the reason Rome is going to fall.  

One of the things I like about e-books is the easy way you can highlight passages and then return to them later.  It's so simple and you can even take notes.  It's terrific. 

But there are passages I mark that I later return to that I have no idea what the hell I was thinking when I did it.  Here is the ONLY passage I highlighted from The House at Tyneford.  The only one.  "The back door led into a dark passageway smelling of damp and mouse—". Not even the whole paragraph.  Not even the whole sentence.  Just that.  What struck me about that passage?  (Really, it's barely a passage).  Was it the smell of damp?  The smell of mouse?  Mickey Mouse?  Who the hell knows.

This book was remarkably and pleasantly ludicrous.  The first fourth or so of the book was believable, but the rest of the book was very much Downton Abbey, third episode, you know the one, that storyline that gets resolved very easily and in a most unbelievable way. Servants did fall in love and marry their employers.  But I had a hard, hard time suspending my belief enough to think that the maid could learn enough English to communicate with the little lordling of the manor , and then marry his father.

And that marrying his father thing could have been played for Dallas/Dynasty sort of delicious melodrama, but was instead played straight.  I don't care what anyone says, a maid who escapes from the Nazis, promptly falls in love with the son of the lord of the manor, and then after he dies, marries his father, looks like a gold digger no matter how pure her intentions were. 

But for some reason, I kept plugging away.  Solomons made me care in spite of my cynical self.  So cheers to her.

Interesting side note: the other book I'm reading, Citizens of London by Lynne Olsen, nominally about Americans in Britain during World War II (I will argue that this title is pretty much bullshit and Lynne Olsen wrote whatever the hell she pleased, although she writes so well I didn't really give a rat's ass, or perhaps I should say a mouse's ass), had a brief description of the same thing Solomons wrote about - the abandonment of several villages to the British and American military, of which the fictional Tyneford was one. 

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Pleasantly ludicrous. Remarkably incoherent. Delightfully nonsensical. (Insert your own adverb/adjective here). At some point, Solomons, whose plot is straight out of some sort of fantasy season of Dynasty (not even Downton Abbey was this idiotic), played it straight rather than milking the melodrama for all its worth. Thus and ergo, there is a bounty of plot that happens in the meandering second half or so that will make you, dear reader, struggle in your ability to suspend disbelief. I imagine you, like me, will think to yourself that time honored phrase - "no fucking way." Yes, fucking way, many things happen in this book without tongue planted firmly in cheek. And also, thus, alas, no one gets thrown, fully gowned and tiara-ed, into a fountain, like they should, which would make this book a five star wonder rather than the 2 star piece of dipshittery that it sputters along to become. All that butchery and bitchery aside, Solomons created likable characters; even if they are put into crazy situations, I still kept plugging away, wondering what would happen next. She made me care in spite of myself, so cheers to her and her excellent writing.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais (2008)

Every few months - and if I'm really lucky, a spell of weeks - books come along that astound, enchant, amaze. The books you read in one, incredible sitting.  The books you read you devour quickly because you can't wait to see what happens at the end.  The books of Hilary Mantel. The books of Jo Walton.   A Tale for the Time Being.  Station Eleven.   I can keep listing these books, back 35 years or so, to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Headless Cupid.  The great ones.

And then there are the almost greats.  The Persian Pickle Club or Tall Grass by Sandra Dallas come to mind.  Incredible stories, but not necessarily life changing.  The murder mysteries of Rhys Bowen.  The Bone Clocks.  Not books stored in the literary corner of my heart, but books I can look at, and sigh, and think "that was a good book."

And then there are books like The Hundred-Foot Journey.

 I listened to The Hundred Foot Journey on streaming audio.  Perhaps the experience is different reading it.  I imagine that actually sitting down to read it, you are allowed the pleasure of skimming and skipping to parts you like.  That's more difficult to do when you are listening to a book, in the car, on the way to work or back home again after a long day.  Or washing dishes or folding laundry.
Usually, there is something comforting about this.  Among my fondest memories are those of my Grandma Thrasher, reading aloud The Poky Little Puppy.  Or Miss Shull, my fourth grade teacher, reading Escape from Warsaw or that book about basenji dogs, or Searching For Shona.  The narrator of The Hundred Foot Journey, Neil Shah, was strong and good.  There were no problems with his interpretations of characters or his narrative style.

Listening to The Hundred-Foot Journey was not comforting.  It was not comforting because I started to hate this book.  Hate it.

Let me admit that I didn't finish listening to it.  I was unable to throw it down in disdain, because it's a streaming audio book.  Virtually, Tron-like, I did so though.

Because I hated this book.

I hated it for so many reasons.

I hated the plot.  Actually, I hated it because it had no plot.  It was like reading a cookbook.  There were description of delicious sounding food.  Foodie food porn kinds of food.  Five kinds of oysters.  Braised hare Indian foods of all sorts and spices.  Food food food food food.

I'm not being totally serious; there was a plot.  Of sorts.  But it was the saddest-ass excuse for a plot imaginable.  Really, it was a plot that's existence was solely for the author to describe food.  Again.  And again.  And again.

You'd think a novel would require some sort of conflict.  If the plot was the saddest-ass excuse for a plot ever, the conflict in that plot was even more sad-ass.  Every time conflict started, something almost deus ex machina-like would turn the story a different direction, and erase that conflict.  Mom dies in a horrible accident; family forced to move to England. Hint of conflict - then WHOOSH, the gods descend and the family takes an extended vacation to Europe.  Hint of conflict - the gods descend, and the family buys a restaurant in France, across the street from a racist mean old lady restaurant that hates them.  Hint of conflict, the lady decides she loves them, takes son under her wing - who the fuck knows why.  Hint of conflict, gods descend, son moves to Paris... and then I really stopped listening and caring.

One of the great ones has interesting and complicated characters.  The almost greats have interesting and complicated characters as well.  The Hundred-Foot Journey, though, has a cast of hundreds, and can't quite ever make any of them complicated or interesting.  Have you ever seen the movie version of The Color Purple? It's not a good movie.  It's got some great actors, and they get to say and do some great things.  But something I always wonder when I watch this movie is that the background is full of characters, who are there for no reasons we can fathom.  They just exist to populate the background, to add spice, but I think end up detracting from the film because you are always wondering who the hell all those kids belong to, or who are all those old ladies nodding in church, or who the hell are all those people eating at the Easter dinner when Miss Celie takes after Albert with the knife.  It's JUST LIKE THAT in Hundred Foot Journey.  I think the Indian family has child after child after child who appear WHEN CONVENIENT TO THE PLOT, yet add nothing to the story.  The same is true for the French villagers.  They only exist as paper dolls, as a setting but DON'T REALLY MATTER TO THE STORY.

I hate this book.  So much.

And the number one reason I hate this book.  More than it's lack of plot, or shitty prose, or cookbookish writing, or fake memoir, or sappy sentiment (because oh my god, it's got so much sappy sentiment, again for no good reason).  I most of all hate this book because it's one long, tedious film treatment.  I don't know who this author is, but I do know this book became a movie starring Helen Mirren.  I've heard it was a good movie too.  I don't know if I want to find out now. At some point, I started to wonder if this was a movie novelization. That the movie was made and then this guy wrote a book based on the movie.  But I don't think it was.  What I do think is that the author had the idea for a movie, or at the very least a miniseries on BBC, and "wrote" a "book" to get that movie made.

Good for him.

The Hundred-Foot JourneyThe Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It's too bad we can't give negative reviews. What's the opposite of a star?

Here is what I think happened. An author - quite possibly a respectable one, a good one -- "wrote" a "book" because he had an idea for a great movie. And shazam, a "beloved bestseller" was hatched, like an alien, from his brain to the page, and then quickly to the big screen. Where I suspect it made many people at least some money.

At some point, I thought I had stumbled into a movie novelization, but no. The film treatment - I mean book - I mean "book" was written first.

This book has something you can barely describe as a plot, with a cast of hundreds of mostly dull characters who mostly exist as some sort of backdrop, an annoying lack of conflict and a deus ex machina quality that might have worked well in 18th century opera but left me cold as vichyssoise. Left out overnight. In the street. In January.

I must be an idiot though. The "book" was a bestseller, it's beloved. Who am I to question a blurb?

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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Dinner by Herman Koch (2012)

The DinnerThe Dinner by Herman Koch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The burb on the book flap describe the hinge: "Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son. The two boys are united by their accountability for a single horrific act." But you gradually realize what the boys did, while truly horrific, isn't all that's rotten in Denmark (or Holland). One of the arch questions this book forces you to ask yourself is the old chestnut - are people inherently evil, or is evil made? The answer here isn't that simple, as Koch layers on a tale of what, is on the surface, a simple meal at a restaurant between these two couples. Koch is great at lulling you into thinking various things are true about these four people and their children; don't be fooled. The unreliable narrator is such a delightful device, wiggly and tricky, and when done as well as this, ain't we got fun.

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My boss recommended this book to me, a couple of years ago. It's a strong read, disturbing but not the nightmare inducing type of disturbing.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

Gyasi has concocted a cool conceit - two sisters from 1700s Ghana, separated, one headed to America on a slave ship, the other left behind, and how the path of history divides them before eventually and unknowingly reconnect them. I only give this away because - duh.  Only an idiot didn't see this coming.  It's not quite a symphony of Ghanian and African American history; more like a string quartet; light but occasionally dramatic, and quite interesting.  Can a book so short be called an epic?` In a world without Michener, this will have to do.

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gyasi has concocted a cool conceit - two sisters from 1700s Ghana, separated, one headed to America on a slave ship, the other left behind, and how the path of history divides them before eventually and unknowingly reconnect them. I only give this away because - duh. Only an idiot didn't see this coming.

It's not quite a symphony of Ghanian and African American history; more like a string quartet; light but occasionally dramatic, and quite interesting. Can a book so short be called an epic?` In a world without Michener, this will have to do.

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Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Soul of the Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (2015)

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Sy Montgomery herself, who has an incredible and excellent narrative voice.

You would not expect a book about octopuses (and indeed, it is "octpuses" rather than the much used but grammatically incorrect "octopi" - among many things I learned in this book) to be so beautifully contemplative and make you think about what it means to be human, to exist, to think and feel and love, but it most certainly does.  Everything the title and subtitle says is true, which is amazing in itself, because titles, and particularly subtitles, can often be misleading or even  distortions, stretching of truth.

The soul of the octopus - Montgomery's friendship - because that is exactly what it becomes - with three octopuses at the New England Aquarium, allows her, and then us, to ponder whether octopuses, and hence all animals, have souls.  Montgomery makes no bones about it; her long experience writing about and being around animals, and these particular animals, leads her to conclude that "I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul - and I think I do - an octopus has a soul too."  That's amazing stuff coming from a science and biology writer.  I think of scientists as dry, logical, android-like creatures, with faith only in proofs and theories, who have sucked the magic out of our existence and replaced it with technology and theorems, but not anything approaching the beautiful, soaring medieval faith of old.  I'm not a religious luddite who wants us to return to the time of burning witches and banning Galileo.    But I've thought quite a bit lately, on my drive to work and back, when I'm pondering life, the universe, and everything, that as many good things as science has done for us, there's plenty of things science has ruined too.  It was refreshing to read a science writer talking about "the soul" and "praying" and "the creator" and pondering the metaphysics of a creature we usually would put right above a kitchen sponge in thought and emotion.  Surprising, definitely.   A wonder, most definitely.  What a terrific book.  (and she quotes Richard Dawkins too).

Montgomery's prose is thoughtful and engaging.  I particularly liked this evocative passage:

“In her memoir of living among the Bushmen, The Old Way A Story of the First People, my friend Liz lovingly invokes an image first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: "You are standing beside your mother, holding her hand. She is holding her mother's hand, who is holding her mother's hand… " Eventually the line stretches three hundred miles long and goes back five mil-lion years, and the clasping hand of the ancestor looks like that of a chimpanzee. I loved picturing one of Octavia's arms stretching out to meet one of her mother's arms, and one of her mother's mother's arms, and her mother's mother's mother's, . . Suckered, elastic arms, reaching back through time: an octopus chorus line stretching not just hundreds, but many thousands of miles long. Back past the Cenozoic, the time when our ancestors descended from the trees; back past the Mesozoic, when dinosaurs ruled the land; back past the Permian and the rise of the ancestors of the mammals; back, past the Carboniferous's coal-forming swamp forests; back past the Devonian, when amphibians emerged from the water; back past the Silurian, when plants first took root on land—all the way to the Ordovician, to a time before the advent of wings or knees or lungs, before the fishes had bony jaws, before blood pumped from a multi-chambered heart. More than 500 million years ago, the tides would have been stronger, the days shorter, the year longer, and the air too high in carbon dioxide for mammals or birds to breathe. All the earth's continents huddled in the Southern Hemisphere. And yet still, the arm of Octavia's ancestor, sensitive, suckered, and supple, would have been recognizable as one of an octopus.”

There is a narrative story in this book; it's not simply the natural history of the octopus (Sy Montgomery, you're no Grzimek).  Each chapter builds upon Montgomery's growing love and fascination with the octopus, her volunteer work at the New England Aquarium, her growing knowledge base of octopuses (as well as her growing skill base of working with octopuses), and her wonderment at their intelligence.  Each chapter also seems to explore either specific parts of an octopus's life cycle (birth, old age, death) or some biological aspect of the octopus (food, sex) but Montgomery injects philosophical ideas that make you ponder your own birth, death, friendships, love, soul.

The particular passages towards the end about dementia hit me particularly hard.

So many books today about animals are alarmist, scary, and deeply depressing.  The world is going to hell in handbasket, and I'm not sure normal, every day  people can do a fucking thing about it anymore.  I love animals and nature, and I despise the way the world is going.  But I also get deeply upset reading about it, feeling hopeless. It was a nice change, a guilty pleasure, to read a book that wasn't so doom and gloom about the future of biology on our planet.

Also, luckily, I don't like eating octopus.  Now squid is another thing altogether.

I didn't realize, until I started reading reviews on Goodreads, the political petticoats in a bunch about aquariums and zoos.  The Harambe of it all.  Bleah.  I still liked the book, and thought it was thoughtful and contemplative.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I listened to the audio version of this book, excellently narrated by Sy Montgomery herself. The entire experience was a thoughtful one, and I learned more about octopuses (including the correct grammatical plural spelling) than I ever thought I even needed to know. What I particularly liked about this book was the idea that animals, like us, have souls. I vaguely knew that octopuses are "intelligent" animals, but put them somewhere between a kitchen sponge and my dog. Little did I know, until reading this book, that they are intelligent, inquisitive, caring creatures - and really quite interesting. I also liked how Montgomery's narrative wasn't simply the natural history of the octopus a la Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, but rather a true exploration of what it means to not only be an octopus, but what it means to be a human as well. Surprising, yes. A wonder, yes.

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