Tag Archives: In Memorium

Five Book Friday!

And today we honor the life, work, and legacy of Andrea Levy, who, it was announced today, has passed away at the age of 62.

Image result for andrea levy
Andrea Levy, via The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/15/andrea-levy-obituary

Levy was born in 1956 to Jamaican parents who had traveled to England as part of a generation of postwar migrants.  They arrived in the UK on the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought one of the first groups of West Indian migrants to the UK in 1948.

Levy did not start writing until she was in her mid-30s, after enrolling in a creative writing class at an adult education college in London.  There were precious few books about Jamaican immigrants at the time, and in telling the story of her family and her heritage, Levy provided a voice for the thousands of immigrants who made their lives in Britain following the Second World War.

Levy was best known for Small Island, a beautiful and lyrical novel about two Jamaicans immigrants who immigrate to Britain, much like Levy’s own parents did.  Her last novel, The Long Song, was published in 2010, and dealt with the history and legacy of slavery in Jamaica, stretching from the 19th century to the present.  It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.  Her final work was the 2014 release Six Stories and an Essay, a collection of short stories and essays compiled over a lifetime of work about her career and her Caribbean heritage.

The Guardian published a moving tribute to Levy, her work, and her significance as a British and Jamaican author.  We are honored to share it with you today, and to celebrate the live of such a strong, remarkable storyteller.

And in that spirit, we’d like to introduce you to a few of the titles that slogged through this week’s weird winter weather to make your acquaintance:

Death is Hard Work: Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa continues to reside in Damacus, despite the constant threat of physical harm and trauma caused by the ongoing violence across the country.  As a result, this work provides a searing, honest, first-hand account of modern life in a world destroyed by war, and the way it shapes the lives of three otherwise ordinary people.  Abdel Latif, an old man from the Aleppo region, dies peacefully in a hospital bed in Damascus. His final wish, conveyed to his youngest son, Bolbol, is to be buried in the family plot in their ancestral village of Anabiya. Though Abdel was hardly an ideal father, and though Bolbol is estranged from his siblings, this conscientious son persuades his older brother Hussein and his sister Fatima to accompany him and the body to Anabiya, which is―after all―only a two-hour drive from Damascus.  With the landscape of their childhood now a labyrinth of competing armies whose actions are at once arbitrary and lethal, the siblings’ decision to set aside their differences and honor their father’s request quickly balloons from a minor commitment into an epic and life-threatening quest. Syria, however, is no longer a place for heroes, and the decisions the family must make along the way―as they find themselves captured and recaptured, interrogated, imprisoned, and bombed―will prove to have enormous consequences for all of them.  This is a novel that shows the power of fiction to speak truth to power, and has earned glowing reviews from outlets around the world.  Kirkus gave it a starred review, calling it an “Insistent, memorable portrait of the small indignities and large horrors of the civil war in Syria . . . a skillfully constructed epic that packs a tremendous amount of hard-won knowledge into its pages.”

Black Leopard Red Wolf: Marlon James’ Booker Award came as something of a surprise in 2015–but only to those who had not before encountered his magical way with words and stories.  This novel is the opening of a trilogy that utilizes the tools of African legend, mythology, fantasy and historical fiction together to create a magical new world. Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard. As Tracker follows the boy’s scent–from one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivers–he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? Why has he been missing for so long? Why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? And perhaps the most important questions of all: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying?  This is a work that is as entertaining as it is searching and profound, and the reviews are all inspired and elated.  The New York Times provided one of many, cheering,  “Marlon James is one of those novelists who aren’t afraid to give a performance, to change the states of language from viscous to gushing to grand, to get all the way inside the people he’s created…Not only does this book come with a hefty cast of characters (like Seven Killings), there are also shape shifters, fairies, trolls, and, apparently, a map. The map might be handy. But it might be the opposite of why you come to James—to get lost in him.”

Still in Love: Readers of Michael Downing’s Perfect Agreement will recognize the characters in this follow-up novel, but there is plenty here to keep new comers spellbound, as well.  Mark Sternum is a veteran teacher. Twenty years older than when we first met him, separated for six months from his longtime lover, and desperate to duck the overtures of double-dealing deans above him and disgruntled adjunct faculty below him, Mark has one ambition every day he is on campus―to close the classroom door and leave the world behind. His escape, however, is complicated by his contentious, complicated wrestling match of a relationship with the Professor, the tenured faculty member with whom Mark has co-taught this creative-writing workshop for ten years. Their exchanges and interactions create the foundation of this of one semester in a college classroom. And it is an urgent reminder that we desperately need classrooms, that those singular, sealed-off-from-the-world sanctuaries are where we learn to love our lives. Publisher’s Weekly noted in their review that “Downing’s witty follow-up …satisfyingly transports readers to college as teacher Mark Sternum begins winter term at Hellman College in New England . . . In depicting Mark’s ordinary semester, Downing poignantly illustrates the dynamics of the college classroom as well as its potential for lasting lessons, making for a resonant campus novel.”

Early Riser: Jasper Fforde has a way with words–and with reality.  By foregoing all the traditional rules of science fiction, he has created a novel set in an alternative Wales that is as funny as it is unsettling.  Every Winter, the human population hibernates.  During those bitterly cold four months, the nation is a snow-draped landscape of desolate loneliness, devoid of human activity.  Well, not quite…Your name is Charlie Worthing and it’s your first season with the Winter Consuls, the committed but mildly unhinged group of misfits who are responsible for ensuring the hibernatory safe passage of the sleeping masses. You are investigating an outbreak of viral dreams which you dismiss as nonsense; nothing more than a quirky artefact borne of the sleeping mind. When the dreams start to kill people, it’s unsettling. When you get the dreams too, it’s weird. When they start to come true, you begin to doubt your sanity.  But teasing truth from the Winter is never easy, and the adventures you encounter on your way will make your nightmares look like child’s play.  Library Journal loved this book, describing its “Veiled commentary on corporate greed, sleep and dreaming, and twisted popular culture highlight why Fforde, perhaps best known for his “Thursday Next” series, is on par with authors such as Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams.”

The Current: Tim Johnston is a marvel at creating characters and natural settings, and this work shows him at his literary best.  In the dead of winter, outside a small Minnesota town, state troopers pull two young women and their car from the icy Black Root River. One is found downriver, drowned, while the other is found at the scenehalf frozen but alive. What happened was no accident, and news of the crime awakens the community’s memories of another young woman who lost her life in the same river ten years earlier, and whose killer may still live among them. Determined to find answers, the surviving young woman soon realizes that she’s connected to the earlier unsolved case by more than just a river, and the deeper she plunges into her own investigation, the closer she comes to dangerous truths, and to the violence that simmers just below the surface of her hometown. Fast-paced, cleverly-plotted, and gripping, this is a work that the Washington Independent Review of Books called “much more than a skillfully constructed, beautifully written whodunit. It’s a subtle and lyrical acclamation of the heart and spirit of small-town America. The Current is not your conventional, frenetically paced page-turner, although it smolders with a brooding, slow-burn tension that nudges the reader forward, catching you up in the lives of the troubled solitaries at the book’s core.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Sad Days…

I think T.S. Eliot might have been mistaken.  This year, February has been the cruelest month.  Particularly, the nineteenth of February, which was the day the world lost both Harper Lee and Umberto Eco, two giants in the literary world, and both truly good human beings, who did much to make us all better human beings.

Harper Lee, courtesy of www.telegraph.co.uk

Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, AL, which severed as the model for Maycomb, the home of Scout and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  It was in Monroeville that Lee not only learned to love reading, but through reading develop the beautifully simple, honest empathy that marked her book, which remains one of the undisputed classics of American literature.  In a letter to Oprah in 2006 (excerpted here from Letters of Note), Lee described how the children of her neighborhood shared books, since they were all too far from a library or store to get new ones–and what a privilege that was:

Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store’s books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another’s entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again….

We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up. We ignored them.

And it wasn’t until we were grown, some of us, that we discovered what had befallen the children of our African-American servants. In some of their schools, pupils learned to read three-to-one — three children to one book, which was more than likely a cast-off primer from a white grammar school. We seldom saw them until, older, they came to work for us.

We covered the enormous international interest (and speculation) over the release of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman last summer; there were many who believed that Lee was coerced into publishing, and others who were horror-struck by the evolution of the characters that generations of readers who had grown up loving Atticus and Scout.

watchman1The book’s release has indubitably changed Lee’s legacy, mostly in a way that strikingly mirrors her two published works…Just as the heroic, the untouchable, and the incorruptible Atticus Finch was revealed to be shockingly human, so was Harper Lee herself revealed as a writer of enormous talent, and human shortcomings, whose work was both time-stoppingly haunting and, it has to be said, somewhat clunky and awkward, at times, too.  But, in this past year, what we learned about Harper Lee was not that “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy”; but that their voice–her voice–can make us accept the humanity in ourselves, and work ever harder to see it in those around us, too.
Meanwhile, in a seemingly different world altogether, Umberto Eco was born on  January 5, 1932, in Alessandria, Italy.  Though perhaps best known for his ground-breaking, genre-defying work, The Name of the Rose, and Foucault’s PendulumEco was also a veteran, an essayist, an historian, and a polyglot writer, producing books for children as well as novels, literary theory, thrillers, and more.  He was also a beloved and respected professor, most recently at the University of Bolonga.  He also, apparently, had a library of over 30,000 books, most of which he hadn’t read, believing that an unread book was infinitely more valuable than a read one.

Sky, fog, and clouds on a textured vintage paper background with grunge stains.

In addition to giving us a wealth of books to read, Eco also made him name by helping us learn how to read.  His work on Interpretation helped change the way that scholars read texts, and his surprisingly approachable lectures continue to open our eyes to how writing and reading can change our lives and our world.  In this excerpt from a lecture given at Columbia University in 1996, for example Eco makes the startling and brilliant point that books–specifically printed books–can teach us more about life than any other medium:

Let me conclude with a praise of the finite and limited world that books provide us.

Suppose you are reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace: you are desperately wishing that Natasha will not accept the courtship of that miserable scoundrel who is Anatolij; you desperately wish that that marvellous person who is prince Andrej will not die, and that he and Natasha could live together happy forever. If you had War and Peace in a hypertextual and interactive CD-rom you could rewrite your own story, according to your desires, you could invent innumerable War and Peaces, where Pierre Besuchov succeeds in killing Napoleon or, according to your penchants, Napoleon definitely defeats General Kutusov.

Alas, with a book you cannot. You are obliged to accept the laws of Fate, and to realise that you cannot change Destiny. A hypertextual and interactive novel allows us to practice freedom and creativity, and I hope that such a kind of inventive activity will be practised in the schools of the future. But the written War and Peace does not confront us with the unlimited possibilities of Freedom, but with the severe law of Necessity. In order to be free persons we also need to learn this lesson about Life and Death, and only books can still provide us with such a wisdom.

We’ve discussed this very topic here–that sometimes, books end in ways that make you sad.  And while I railed against cruel fate, and retreated to a world where book endings grew like wildflowers, Eco’s insight teaches us that sometimes, life–and death–is beyond our control.  And learning to accept that lesson through the act of reading, and in the safety of a book, may make us better an wiser than the text of that book ever could.

There aren’t good words to sum up what these two human beings did with their lives, or what their lives have meant to all that they touched with their words and their ideas.  But those words and those ideas are far more durable than flesh, and for that, we can only be grateful.

In Memorium: Oliver Sacks


In Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternack wrote that your soul “is the memory of yourself that you leave behind in others”–essentially, that your obligations in this world are to those around you, and to those who will come after you.

If this is true, I can think of few greater souls than Dr. Oliver Sacks, who passed away on August 30, at the age of 82.  Dr. Sacks will be remembered for many reasons; he was a brilliant neuroscientist who made ground-breaking discoveries, not only into the structure, but also the functioning of the human brain; he was a daring practitioner, who was willing to try new and inventive treatment methods if they would prove most beneficial to his patients’ well-being.  Above all, though, he was a teacher, who gave the world a collection of case-studies that not only taught us about the obscurities of the human brain, but also about the wonders of it.

2710517Sacks is perhaps best known for his bestselling book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, a book that details some of Sacks’ most interesting (and bizarre) cases of loss, whether it is patients who cannot remember words (aphasia), familiar faces, or who suffer from ‘phantom limbs’ (which happens when the mind still ‘feels’ a part of the body that has been amputated, creating an itch that literally cannot be scratched, or a pain that cannot be soothed).  Though this explanation makes these essays sound grotesque or somehow invasive, in truth, they are some of the most beautifully written and compassionate medical texts you will ever read.  Sacks truly came to know his patients, to understand their lives and how their conditions affected them, and described them with humanity and dignity.  He also, clearly, delighted in all the inner workings of the brain and the mind, and made that wonder tangible in his writing.  Even in describing the brain when it was broken, his writing makes you respect the wonder and complexity of the human brain.

2670280His other books not only expanded his study of brain disorders, but explored how the brain responses to music, and why music is such a fundamental part of the human existence, and considered how the brain adapts to various conditions, such as autism and deafness.  In each of these works, Sacks’ empathy and humanity shines through, and each of these stories is far more about what it means to be human than what it means to be different.

When he was diagnosed with inoperable metastasized melanoma, Sacks again turned his condition into a chance to reach out and make the inexplicable somehow easier.  He wrote a series of opinion pieces for The New York Times, not just to announce that he had cancer, but to consider the process of living, as well as the process of dying.

In his final article, Sacks explained his own career in his characteristic simplicity: “I found meaningful work in New York, in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx…I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories — stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly…Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct.”

Oliver Sacks was a consummate scientist, and a consummate teacher; when faced with his own death, he didn’t retreat into himself, or hide from the inevitable–he allowed us to share in the process, teaching us what it was like to die so that it wouldn’t seem as scary, in much the same way he wrote about the brain.  Rather than leaving us with regret or anger, he left us marveling at life, how precious, how remarkable, and how beautiful it was, and offering us a chance to consciously appreciate it, and ourselves for what we can do with it: “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

If that isn’t an ideal memory to leave behind, I don’t know what is.

To learn more about Oliver Sacks and his remarkable work, check out the following:

2029034Awakenings: One of Sack’s first jobs was in that chronic care hospital, where he cared for and observed patients who had been in a coma-like state for some fifty years.  When medical advances offered methods to wake these people up, Sacks chronicled their adaptations (or lack thereof) to the world around them, and his relationships with these patients.

2929901The Mind’s EyeIn this incredibly moving book, Sacks looks at patients who have learned to adapt and thrive despite what would normally be considered cataclysmic losses–the inability to recognize faces, lack of three-dimensional perception, or the loss of reading ability.  While the reasons and diagnoses of these conditions are fascinating, what comes through most in these essays is the incredible endurance of the human mind and soul, and Sacks’ wonder at the strength of the people he treats.  Even as we learn about the ways the brain can go wrong, this is an inspirational book that gives hope in so many unexpected ways.

3633704On the Move:  Though this book was written before Sacks received his terminal diagnosis, it was published after his opinion piece to The New York Times, so it feels like much more of a retrospective than may have been intended.  Nevertheless, Sacks is at his thoughtful, humorous, and gregarious best in this work, sharing his stories and memories, his fears and loves, and, as always, reveling in the human experience.  It is a book worthy of its author, and a life well-lived.