Monday, April 25, 2016

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony - Lewis Thomas

I've been trying to purge my book collection of those I don't absolutely love.  I either need to read them again and discard or trade or give them away.  This book of essays was from the collection of my friend Teddi,  It was written in the 70's and 80's when the threat of nuclear weaponry was a major fear.  Lewis Thomas was a "poet-philosopher of medicine" who commented on world issues from a medical perspective.

I'd read another of his well-known books, The Lives of a Cell some time back.  He was an early medical professional who wrote to explain complex topics, similar to some of my other favorite medical writers like Oliver Sacks or Atul Gawande.

He is often quoted and I can understand why when I ran across these clips:

"...the only question I am inclined to turn aside as being impossible to respond to happens to be the one most often raised these days...the question about stress, how to avoid stress, prevent stress, allay stress.  I refuse to have anything to do with this matter, having made up my mind, from everything I have read or heard about it in recent years, that what people mean by stress is simply the condition of being human, and I will not recommend any meddling with that, by medicine or any other profession."
"there can be no promise that we will ever emerge from the great depths of the mystery of being".
[On why humans have such a long period of life before adulthood] "Language is what childhood is for."
[On the uniqueness of our existence in the universe] "We [humans] can go four ways at once, depending on how the air feels: go, no-go, but also maybe, plus what the hell let's give it a try." 
He also discussed in one essay a book about the memories of the survivors of Hiroshima titled Unforgettable Fire.  I'll have to check that one out.

The title of the book is from one of his essays of the same title, where he muses on the end of life.  I found a recording on YouTube of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony and listened to it while writing this review.  I like it when a book takes me beyond its covers.

Published: 1980  Read: April 2016  Genre: Essay

ISBN 0 670 70390 7

Saturday, April 9, 2016

An Absent Mind - Eric Rill

I'm always drawn to stories about aging, death and dying, just one of my many quirks.  This book tells the story of a family losing their father to Alzheimer's disease.  Saul, the father, reflects on his illness and each family member shares their perspective and experiences as he continues to decline.  It's a touching portrayl of the slow, inexorable path of this horrible disease.  The feelings and interactions of the family members with Saul and with each other are realistic.  The author shows us how the actions of a person can be interpreted in different ways, leading to misunderstandings and incorrect judgments.

It's a quick read on an all-to-common experience these days.

Published: 2015  Read: April 2016  Genre: Fiction

ISBN:  3 1740 08610 6352

At the Edge of the Orchard - Tracy Chevalier

This was a book my step-daughter got me for Easter, by the author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which I read many years ago.  It's the story of a family in the 1800's that moves from Connecticut to Ohio to create a homestead and grow apples.  The first half of the story tells of their struggles in Ohio and the second half is the life of their son who heads west for a better life.

I found the book painful to read because the mother, Sadie, is a mean-spirited, broken woman who abuses applejack and takes out her unhappiness on her children and husband.  He's completely absorbed in raising the apple trees and blandly overlooks her nastiness as long as the orchard thrives. Johnny Appleseed is an occasional visitor to the family, feeding Sadie's need for hard cider.

The story shifts abruptly to their son, Robert, who strikes out as a teen for the west. He quickly wanders across America, ending up in California during the gold rush.  He hooks up with a botanist in the Calaveras big trees area, collecting seeds of the giant trees to be exported to England, all the time keeping a secret of his family's past.  We visited this park back in 2008 and I liked the backstory this book provided on its use in the 1800's.

There's a lot of research here on the life of pioneer settlers but with unlikeable characters, the story is hard to enjoy.

Published: 2016  Read: April 2016  Genre: Fiction

ISBN: 978 0 525 95300 5

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Forty Rooms - Olga Grushin

I heard about this book on the NYT Review of books podcast.  The story of a woman's life is told as a series of experiences in different rooms in her life, from the nursery where she is a small child to the foyer of her home in old age.  The heroine is not given a first name; we know her only as Mrs. Caldwell.  Her life begins in Russia as a child with a vivid imagination.  She loves words and early in her life composes poetry to capture the world around her and the one she imagines.  But her dreams are thwarted by the expectations of the life of a female - relationships, marriage, children, and a home. Throughout the story she faces choices and her decisions leave her wondering if she should have chosen differently.

I liked the style of the book and the writing was lyrical. Each chapter is titled with the name of a room and a phrase hinting of the content.  There is a dreamy, reflective quality to the writing that is reinforced by the conversations she has throughout her life with her imagined friends and her thoughts.  Some examples:

"For this, I know at last, is why I am here: to experience deeply, my senses a heartbeat away from exploding, then take everything I am feeling - the insignificance of being human, the enormity of being human...and use the best words I have to convey it all...and make it bright, make it personal, make it forever."
"Now, as always, you have a choice. must remember this: Whenever you come to a fork in the road always choose the harder path, otherwise the path of least resistance will be chosen for you."
For what, after all, is the difference between a memory and a fantasy?  Are not both a succession of imprecisely rendered images further obscured by imprecisely chosen words and animated only by the wistful effort of one's imagination?  And who is to say that a vividly imagined moment of happiness is not, in the end, more enriching to the spirit than a hazy semi-recollection of some pallid pastime?" 
I was left unsettled in the end, wondering if I have made the best choices in my life, if I've chosen the harder path.  I think that's a sign of a good story, it makes me think.

Published:  2016  Read: April 2016  Genre: Fiction

ISBN:9 781101982334