Thursday, May 13, 2021

Book 284: The Island of the Colorblind


"Hearing this mix of languages started to give me a sense of Micronesia as an immense archipelago, a nebula of islands, thousands in all, scattered across the Pacific, each as remote, as space surrounded, as stars in the sky. It was to these islands, to the vast contiguous galaxy of Polynesia, that the greatest mariners in history had been driven – by curiosity, desire, fear, starvation, religion, war, whatever – with only their uncanny knowledge of the ocean and the stars for guidance."

Dates read: December 24-28, 2018

Rating: 5/10

Islands loom large in the cultural imagination. It's easy to project our own subconscious stuff onto them. For some they seem dangerously isolated and lonely. For others, they conjure up images of exclusivity and "getting away from it all". Some might see a place to explore and conquer for their own. For the super-rich, it seems like buying a private island is practically a rite of passage. A whole territory where you can make all the rules.

But islands aren't just symbolically important. They're also important from a scientific perspective...after all, it was the Galapagos Islands that helped Darwin develop his theory of evolution. And the kind of isolated community that islands usually were until very recently, when more of them became accessible through trans-oceanic flight, provide all kinds of data about what can happen to a population that extensively intermarries. Neurologist Oliver Sacks details his travels to two island groups to examine these kinds of phenomena in The Island of the Colorblind. It's really almost two books in one: in the first segment, he goes to Pingelap (in Micronesia) to learn more about the community there, which has a significant incidence of total colorblindness. And in the second, he goes to Guam to look into a unique neurological condition called Lytico-Bodig disease that may be linked to the local cycad flora.

The book departs from Sacks' more usual case study format, instead looking at larger populations with a few specific examples from each. Perhaps this is why I found it by far the least compelling of his work that I've read thus far. The front half of the book was solid but unspectacular, focusing not just on the mechanics of total colorblindness but (as is typical in his work) the experience of life with colorblindness and a thoughtful consideration of whether it should be considered something to be "fixed" if it were possible to do so. The back half was where it fell apart: there's no scientific consensus on what does cause Lytico-Bodig, which is a syndrome with varying symptoms, and Sacks indulges himself in long meditations on the cycad plants that may or may not contribute to the disease's development.

I love reading Sacks' work because of the way he presents his patients as full people, considering not just the obstacles they face from neurological disorder but the ways in which they are able to adapt to their new circumstances. I walk away in awe of how the brain works and the strength and ingenuity of people to cope when their brains stop working the way they used to. The book did none of that for me. That's not to say I didn't get anything out of it! Like I mentioned above, I did find the discussion of colorblindness compelling, if unfocused. But once the book moves to Guam and Sacks begins rhapsodizing about the greenery, it lost me. In Uncle Tungsten, his memoir of his childhood, he did manage to attract and hold my interest with the way he wrote about his love of chemistry and the elements even though neither of those subjects really does much for me on their own. But he fails to bring that same magic to cycads. Another thing that didn't really work for me was Sacks' tendency toward extensive footnoting. Usually it doesn't bother me, but the interruptions to the narrative for footnotes was so frequent that it broke up any momentum it might have been gathering and left this feeling like a slog to read. As you can tell, I didn't love this book. I'd recommend it to Sacks completists only. 
One year ago, I was reading: The Weight of Silence
Two years ago, I was reading: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Three years ago, I was reading: Stiff
Four years ago, I was reading: The Skies Belong to Us
Five years ago, I was reading: I Am Livia

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Trees on the Cover

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's theme is books with nature images on the cover, and I've decided to pick trees as my subject, so here are ten books with arboreal covers that are on my TBR!

The Magicians

A Separate Peace

The Snow Child

The City of Trembling Leaves

Beneath the Bonfire


The Cutting Season

Blue Monday

Winter's Bone

The Daughters

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Book 283: The Prince of Tides

"From my father I inherited a sense of humor, a capacity for hard work, physical strength, a dangerous temper, a love of the sea, and an attraction to failure. From my mother I received far darker and more valuable gifts: a love of language, the ability to lie without remorse, a killer instinct, a passion to teach, madness, and the romance of fanaticism." 

Dates read: December 17-24, 2018

Rating: 6/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times best-seller

When you're little, your parents are like gods...they have all the power and you assume that they're "normal" because they're all you've ever known. When you get older, though, it's easy to get angry at your parents for the ways they failed you. And all parents fail their children in one way or another, no matter how hard they try. The hard part about growing up is letting go of that upset, of recognizing your parents as flawed but (usually) trying as best as they could. Which is all well and nice to say, of course, but it can be very difficult to put into practice.

And, of course, the scars for some people are deeper than those for others. The Wingos, of Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides, had a particularly brutal childhood in coastal South Carolina. Father Henry is a talented shrimper, but throws himself into get-rich-quick schemes that inevitably fail and takes out his frustrations physically on his wife and children. Mother Lila desires nothing more than to be accepted by the upper-class women who live the life of ease she covets and refuses to acknowledge, either publicly or privately, the abuse she and the kids suffer for fear of losing face. Older brother Luke is physically tough but open-hearted and fiercely protective of his younger siblings, twins Tom and Savannah. The twins are sensitive and smart, so much so that Savannah moves to New York City when she graduates to become a writer, and has some success. But the story begins with her suicide attempt, and Tom, whose own life is falling apart, is summoned north to help her therapist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, piece together the childhood that left her so fragile.

It's a wild and desperately sad tale, of mental illness and horrifying violence and even a tiger. But even with the sometimes-outlandish storytelling touches, most of the story is rooted in strong, real emotions: desperation, shame, greed. And Tom isn't the only one with a dysfunctional family: Lowenstein herself, lovely and intelligent as she might be, is locked into a toxic dynamic with her faithless musician husband. Her teenage son's need for an identity outside his parents' aspirations for him gives Tom a chance to regain his own footing as a football coach and the competent, capable person he'd forgotten he could be after the tragedies he endures. Eventually, Tom and Lowenstein are drawn into a bond of their own as they race through Tom's memories to help his sister.

This is the second Conroy I've read, and I'll be honest: if it had been the first, I might not have been so eager to continue reading his work. There are aspects of this that shine, but it's less compelling than The Lords of Discipline (despite being better known because of the movie adaptation). Conroy has a clear predilection for high drama, which doesn't bother me in and of itself, but some of the plot turns here verge on the ridiculous. That the Wingos acquire and manage to keep a young tiger, for instance, despite the crucial role it plays in a climactic scene, strained my investment in the story because it was so unbelievable. And I wasn't sure about how the story handled Savannah's schizophrenia, treating her struggle with a mental illness as a problem that could be solved by putting together her life story.

What saved the book from devolving into cheesiness is Conroy's commitment to emotional truth. He has a unique talent for investing the male struggle with what it means to "be a man" (particularly, a Southern man, which has its own added level of complication) with real poignancy. The relationships he portrays between Tom and his siblings are rich and deep and realistic, and despite the more melodramatic elements what really drives the action are the kind of everyday human failures that we've all watched happen in our own lives. It took me a while to get into the book, as I struggled to get invested in the self-pity of a middle-aged white dude, but once I did get into it I thought it was solid. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it (I'd point anyone to Discipline first) because it was so uneven for me, but if you like stories about families or the South or want to read the book behind the movie, it's worth reading. 
One year ago, I was reading: Bird Box
Two years ago, I was reading: First
Three years ago, I was reading: On Trails
Four years ago, I was reading: Friday Night Lights
Five years ago, I was reading: The Curious Case of Kiryas Joel

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Most Recent Adds To My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is technically our ten most recent reads, but I tell you about those in my monthly updates anyways. So I thought I'd talk about the ten most recent additions to my to-be-read list instead!

Assembly: This book, about a Black British woman who reconsiders her life and choices as she prepares to go to a fancy party at her fancy boyfriend's fancy house, sounds thoughtful and interesting!

The Nakano Thrift Shop: I will read nearly anything published by Europa Editions, and I do like to try out things that are meant to be charming rather than total downers every once in a while. 

Never Saw Me Coming: I am not big into thrillers, but this one seems like something I'll's about a group of sociopathic students enrolled in a study at their college when one of their own is murdered, and they have to decide how much they can trust each other.

Everybody Behaves Badly: Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is one of my least favorite books I've ever read, but I am intrigued by the real-life story that inspired it. 

Black Water Sister: This is part of my efforts to read more books set outside of the US/Europe, and is a fantasy novel set in Malaysia about a young woman possessed by a vengeful spirit.

Things We Didn't Talk About When I Was A Girl: This one is going to be's a memoir a woman who was raped by a close friend as a teenager, and what that meant for her and her life and their continued friendship, and her meeting with him to talk about it years later. It's supposed to be very very good. 

Bad Girls Never Say Die: This is apparently inspired by The Outsiders, which is one of those classics I've never actually read, but anything that gets really into the friendships of teenage girls is something I want to try!

The Robber Barons: I have turned into a full History Dad in some ways, so this look at the era of the super rich "robber barons" sounds fascinating. 

The Final Girl Support Group: I really enjoyed Hendrix's previous book and think this looks just as entertaining!

The Fabric of Civilization: I've always had an interest in these sorts of "a look at history through the viewpoint of [thing]", and this one is about textiles and I am very curious.

Friday, April 30, 2021

A Month In The Life: April 2021


This month has seen a major life change: we've moved! As much as we both loved living less than a ten minute walk from work (our work buildings are actually just across the street from each other), it was time to move on after six years where we'd been. Moving is always stressful, but in the middle of legislative session made this a very hectic month indeed!

In Books...

  • The Girl on the Train: I feel like just about the last person in the world to have read this best-selling thriller, and while I can understand why it was popular (it's fast-paced and reasonably engaging), I have to admit it didn't wow me. I'm not sure she sold me on all of the plot twists, and there were some characterization issues as well. A great airplane/beach read but not much more than that.
  • The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: This is similar to recent smash hit Daisy Jones & The Six in that it's told like an oral history, about a fictional musical act, but that's where the similarities end. This story is deeper and more poignant, about a white man from the UK and a black woman from Detroit who made a few rock'n'roll albums together in the 70s and became notorious when a riot broke out when they were performing. The pacing is inconsistent, but the format keeps it moving along and the story really grabbed me. 
  • Swamplandia!: The people who love this book really love it, but I'd been a little hesitant on it because it just didn't seem like it was going to be for me. It was picked for my book club, which meant I got to confirm yet again that I've developed a pretty good sense of what I'm going to enjoy. The writing was vivid, but I just don't get anything out of the Southern Gothic style and I felt like the plot didn't really go anywhere.
  • Endzone: This nonfiction book has a very specific audience...if you are someone who loves Michigan football, and has less-than-fond memories of Dave Brandon (guilty on both counts), this is a book that will fascinate you. Bacon strives to give a real, three-dimensional portrait of Brandon, and depict the process that led to the hiring of Jim Harbaugh as the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. If you're not interested in those subjects, though, this will be a tough sell. 
  • Fangirl: In a stressful moment, this very sweet YA novel about a girl in her first year of college struggling with social anxiety as she writes slash fanfic about her favorite series (centered on a boy wizard fighting evil) and finding first love went down very smooth. I'd not loved my first try at Rowell but found this one very enjoyable indeed. 


In Life...

  • We bought a house: That's right, we didn't just move, we moved into our first house! We started looking in mid-February and put in two offers that didn't work out before we made it happen. Reno is a surprisingly bonkers real estate market! We love our new place and we're super excited to make it our home!
  • I got my first dose of vaccine: My second dose is actually tomorrow, so in just about two weeks I will be about as immune as it is possible to be to COVID. I'll be able to go out to restaurants again, feel mostly comfortable traveling to do things like finally meet my own nephew...after over a year of this disease having changed our world, this is such a relief.

One Thing:

I am a dedicated Oscars-watcher, and have always wondered about the ill-fated year when James Franco and Anne Hathaway hosted together. It seemed like such an odd idea, and was so uncomfortable in execution, that I'd been very curious about the thought process. This behind-the-scenes look at it was interesting and entertaining, especially as the ceremony continues to struggle to find secure footing amid ever-declining ratings.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 


Thursday, April 29, 2021

Book 282: The Goldfinch


"The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up. And it was awful to learn, by having it so suddenly vanish from under me, that all my adult life I'd been privately sustained by that great, hidden, savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any movement blow me apart."

Dates read: December 7-17, 2018

Rating: 8/10

Lists/awards: Pulitzer Prize

When I was little, my mom took me (and later, my sister) often to the Detroit Institute of Arts. When I was really young, we lived in the city, so it wasn't a long drive. But even when we moved out to the suburbs, we went fairly frequently. It's an amazing museum, commensurate with the sophistication of Detroit at the time it was established, and I've been lucky enough to see some truly wonderful art there, but the first painting I remember loving isn't one of the big name pieces (though it is one of the most popular). It's called "The Nut Gatherers", by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and shows two little girls in a forest clearing. It's hard to put my finger on what I've always found so compelling about it, but it's my first memory of art that made me feel something.

While not every artwork is for everyone, great art can have a powerful effect on the viewer. The title work of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is a small painting by Carel Fabritius, showing the namesake bird perched on a feeder to which it is chained. Theo Decker first sees it on what is the worst day of his life. In trouble for getting into some adolescent mischief, he and his mother have been summoned to the principal's office. With time to kill before their meeting, they stop at the MoMA to see an exhibition that includes the title artwork. Theo likes the paintings, but is mostly busy paying attention to a lovely red-haired girl about his age, accompanied by a much older man. He's just spotted her again by the gift shop when his mother goes back to take one last look at the art...and then the bomb goes off. When Theo comes to, the old man he'd seen with the pretty redhead directs him to take The Goldfinch off the wall and keep it, and then dies.

Theo returns home, and when he learns of his mother's death, he's taken in by the upper-crust family of a school friend. He also forges a connection with Hobie, the business partner of the old man, who turns out to have been the great-uncle of Pippa, the red-headed girl he finally actually meets. Of course once Theo is finding some stability and solace, his father (who'd left the family and New York quite a while before) suddenly reappears, taking Theo back with him to his new home in Las Vegas. While there, the traumatized Theo meets fellow damaged teen Boris, who introduces him to drugs and alcohol. After another tragedy strikes, Theo takes back off to New York, going to Hobie for support, and eventually growing up to become his new partner in the antique shop he runs. But when a mysterious customer hints that he knows what happened to the long-missing painting, Theo finds himself drawn into a criminal underworld to try to extricate himself from his problem.

Tartt's The Secret History is an all-time favorite of mine. She's an assured and extremely talented writer, which is a good thing because this is a wildly ambitious novel. And she mostly pulls it off! There's a LOT going on here, but Tartt keeps her plot moving while she develops Theo, Boris, and Hobie into rich, deep characters. The references to classic literature, Great Expectations and Crime & Punishment particularly, are heady comparisons to invite but they feel earned, Tartt's writing quality really holds up to the canon. I was engrossed in the story she was telling me pretty much the whole time. And it's not a big thing, but as a transplant to Nevada myself (albeit the northern end), I thought she captured the feeling of the desert outskirts of Las Vegas beautifully, especially the ridiculous space of it when compared to a city as tightly compacted as New York. And I loved the way she wrote about Popper!

As good as it is, there are definitely things that don't quite work here. I thought the main female characters (Pippa and Kitsey) were mostly underwritten and sometimes felt contrived. Despite the occasional references to cell phones/modern technology, the book felt old-fashioned in a way that made those references feel shoehorned and anachronistic. It felt like the two "halves" of the book (Theo's childhood and then adulthood) were unbalanced...I thought some of the former could probably have been edited down to let the latter breathe a little more. And while Theo's issues with drugs were written in a way that made them very understandable, I've never found reading about people taking substances all that interesting and the book's continued engagement with it sometimes lost my attention. But all in all, these are fairly minor quibbles. The book is a very very good one, and I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind a bit of a doorstoper!

One year ago, I was reading: Foundation

Two years ago, I was reading: Jackaby

Three years ago, I was reading: The Book of Unknown Americans

Four years ago, I was reading: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Five years ago, I was reading: The President's Club

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Animals In Their Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is meant to be animals in books, but since I just did a list like that about six months ago, I've decided to instead give you a list of ten books off of my TBR list with an animal in their title. There are a LOT of avian ones, so I've started with five of those and then gone on from there!

The Thorn Birds

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Black Swan Green

Silver Sparrow

The Nightingale

Wolf in White Van

Archivist Wasp 

All The Pretty Horses

Sweet Lamb of Heaven

The Tigress of Forli