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

Harmony

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 like...it'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 heavy...it'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.