The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A HatThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
by Oliver Sacks
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781447203834
Publication Date: January 1, 2007
Pages: 256
Genre: Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Picador

In this extraordinary book, Dr. Oliver Sacks recounts the stories of patients struggling to adapt to often bizarre worlds of neurological disorder. Here are people who can no longer recognize everyday objects or those they love; who are stricken with violent tics or shout involuntary obscenities, and yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents. If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales illuminate what it means to be human.

This has been on my shelf for at least 10 years, and I don’t know why it took me so long to pick it up; I’m a sucker for case studies, and Sacks doesn’t disappoint in that regard.

This is a collection of previously published case studies of various neurological disorders, and reading it reinforces my sense that truly, every day is a miracle when your brain isn’t forsaking you.  I alternated between awe, horror, indignation, anger, sadness and, throughout a growing, overwhelming amount of respect for those that dedicate their lives to their patients.  Sacks impressed me as both a doctor and a human.

The book wasn’t perfect – Sacks had a tendency to meander through citations of similar cases, or other doctors’ hypothesis, and when that happened, my eyes got a bit glassy, and I skimmed, but overall it’s an incredibly readable collection.  I wish there was more follow up for so many of these people – I’m left curious and hopeful that they all found some space in the world for themselves.

It’s hump day for 2022! My biannual stats.

I’m never organised enough, or motivated enough, to do a monthly reading wrap-up, but I usually pull off a mid-year analysis, and as this year seems to be a personal annus horribilis, and I’m all about finding whatever nascent silver linings I can find (I’ve avoided mingling with the COVID masses!), I’ve been looking forward to this year’s mid-point check.  Because if I’ve had anything these first 6 months, it’s been time. Time to read, time to organise, time to learn  little embroidery.

So, here are the stats.  Just before starting this post, I finished my 152nd book for this year.  Before my great personal shattering of bones, I set my reading goal for 2022 at 200.  I think I’ll make it; it’s looking good, but let’s not jinx it.

This 6 month period, like last year’s first 6 months has seen an enormous number of re-reads.  Almost half my books so far have been re-visits of old friends.  What’s new is the number of DNF’s – I’ve hit a lifetime record of 5 DNFs.

That high percentage of re-reads and DNFs would, in any other year, have felt like a failure on some level, because I have so many TBR books and I take a lot of care trying not to buy books I might not read.  BUT, and here’s another tiny silver lining in both the broken leg and the pandemic, I’ve been reading a massive number of books from my TBR shelves – some that have been sitting on that shelf since its inception.

52 books came from previous years’ TBR, vs. 36 books I bought this year.  That, too, I suspect is a personal best.  I’m never truly disappointed when I re-read, because why keep books you aren’t willing to re-read again? but this year it’s felt like pure pleasure, rather than a guilty one, because of the dent I also made in the TBR.

As to what I’ve been reading – that’s been topsy turvy this year too, as I’ve suddenly found my interest in mysteries has waned this year.  I’m certain it’s temporary, as I’m a mood reader in search of solid traditional/cozy type mysteries that are becoming rarer than hen’s teeth.  There’s still a large number of mysteries in my tally, but there’s a lot more wide ranging reading too:

In ‘normal’ years, Urban Fantasy would be vying for the top spot next to mysteries, but this year General Fiction and Magical Realism are top contenders and non-fiction/science/history/biography was near 20%.

The one stat that wasn’t a surprise on some level, and remains static over all the years, is author gender.  Even though at times this year I felt like I was reading a lot of male authors for the first time, the females still dominated.  This is also the first year I’ve kept track of protagonist gender (because the new spreadsheet included it), and – no surprise – the XX’s have it in the bag:


(N/A, if it’s not obvious, are the non-fiction books that discuss a subject rather than people.)

My reading formats this year so far, have been off too; I am really useless with audio unless I’m in the car, so I’ve only read 2 audio books this year.  3 ebooks have made their way onto into the stats too.  Otherwise, Hardcovers dominated, the result of my TBR progress, if I had to guess.

My tracking of Folio Society as a format is a pure reactionary snit in spreadsheet form to my reading of Howard’s End is on the Landing, when the author made some rather sanctimonious comments about people who buy Folio Society editions; apparently we never intend to read them, just show them off.  This is my quiet way of saying “up yours dear”.

And finally, just because the spreadsheet tracks it and it turned out so pretty … really, look at all those colours!, I’m ending with a chart showing the publishers I’ve read so far this year:

It’s like one of those giant insulin-killing lollipops they sell at amusement parks!

How Reading Changed My Life (Re-read)

How Reading Changed My LifeHow Reading Changed My Life
by Anna Quindlen
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780345422781
Publication Date: November 15, 2001
Pages: 85
Genre: Books and Reading, Essays
Publisher: Penguin Random House

THE LIBRARY OF CONTEMPORARY THOUGHT is a groundbreaking series where America’s finest writers and most brilliant minds tackle today’s most provocative, fascinating, and relevant issues. Striking and daring, creative and important, these original voices on matters political, social, economic, and cultural, will enlighten, comfort, entertain, enrage, and ignite healthy debate across the country.

This was a re-read – I meant to grab Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman (which I’ll be re-reading next), but once I started I was happy to keep going.

This is one of those rare books (extended essay, really) that I rated higher on my second read.  While I mainly agree with my thoughts from the first read, I didn’t find myself annoyed by the things that annoyed me the first time around.  (My original review is on the next page.)

Overall, just an excellent essay on reading, re-reading, the importance of reading Important Texts, and just the joy of being a bookworm.

My original review is here.

DNF: Still Water: The Deep Life of the Pond

Still Water: The Deep Life of the PondStill Water: The Deep Life of the Pond
by John Lewis-Stempel
Rating: ★★
isbn: 9780857524577
Publication Date: March 14, 2019
Pages: 289
Genre: Natural Science, Non-fiction, Science
Publisher: Doubleday

The Pond. Nothing in the countryside is more humble or more valuable. It's the moorhen's reedy home, the frog's ancient breeding place, the kill zone of the beautiful dragonfly. More than a hundred rare and threatened fauna and flora depend on it.

Written in gorgeous prose, Still Water tells the seasonal story of the wild animals and plants that live in and around the pond, from the mayfly larvae in the mud to the patrolling bats in the night sky above. It reflects an era before the water was polluted with chemicals and the land built on for housing, a time when ponds shone everywhere like eyes in the land, sustaining life for all, from fish to carthorse.

Still Water is a loving biography of the pond, and an alarm call on behalf of this precious but overlooked habitat. Above all, John Lewis-Stempel takes us on a remarkable journey - deep, deep down into the nature of still water.

Straight up this book was not at all what I was expecting.  The title implies a close analysis of pond life; the pull quote at the bottom reinforces this expectation.

Instead, this is a philosophical naval-gaze / memoir / diary.  Disappointing, given that I was in the mood for a discussion of bugs, amphibians, fish … maybe some algae for color.  But I’ve also enjoyed other books similar to this (A Farmer’s Diary comes immediately to mind) so I shifted my expectations and persevered.  Unfortunately, even with shifted expectations I could not get past “Winter”; the writing was just a bit too meta and the prose was trying too hard to be poetic.  One season in – about 25% of the book – and I still really wasn’t sure what he was trying to accomplish.

I gave it two stars because it was technically well written, the cover is gorgeous, and it might just be me.

A Pelican at Blandings

A Pelican At BlandingsA Pelican At Blandings
by P.G. Wodehouse
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780099514022
Publication Date: August 7, 2008
Pages: 249
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Arrow Books

Unwelcome guests are descending on Blandings Castle uaparticularly the overbearing Duke of Dunstable, who settles in the Garden Suite with no intention of leaving, and Lady Constance, Lord Emsworth's sister and a lady of firm disposition, who arrives unexpectedly from New York.

Skulduggery is also afoot involving the sale of a modern nude painting (mistaken by Lord Emsworth for a pig). It's enough to take the noble earl on the short journey to the end of his wits. Luckily Clarence's brother Galahad Threepwood, cheery survivor of the raffish Pelican Club, is on hand to set things right, restore sundered lovers and even solve all the mysteries.

Who doesn’t like Wodehouse?  It’s situational and narrative humor at its best.  But you really have to be in the mood for it, and even then, I’ll go so far as to say Wodehouse is best consumed in short story form.  It’s hard enough to sustain the humor for a novel length book at Wodehouse’s madcap pace, but it’s been harder to sustain the laughs.  After a few chapters a reader can become inured to the comedy, and start to feel a bit numb, especially when character development is necessarily thin-to-non-existent, and the plotting not much more complex than the characters.  This isn’t a criticism; humor succeeds where both are pushed to the background.

Short or long length though, Wodehouse is a genius.

A Cup of Silver Linings

A Cup of Silver LiningsA Cup of Silver Linings
by Karen Hawkins
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781982105563
Publication Date: August 1, 2021
Pages: 354
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Gallery Books

Ava Dove—the sixth of the seven famed Dove sisters and owner of Ava Dove’s Landscaping and Specialty Teas—is frantic.

Just as her new tearoom is about to open, her herbal teas have gone haywire. Suddenly, her sleep-inducing tea is startling her clients awake with vivid dreams, her romance-kindling tea is causing people to blurt out their darkest secrets, and her anti-anxiety tea is making them spend hours staring into mirrors. Ava is desperate for a remedy, but her search leads her into dangerous territory, as she is forced to face a dark secret she’s been hiding for over a decade.

Meanwhile, successful architect Ellen Foster has arrived in Dove Pond to attend the funeral of her estranged daughter, Julie. Grieving deeply, Ellen is determined to fix up her daughter’s ramshackle house, sell it, and then sweep her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Kristen, off to a saner, calmer life. But Kristen has other plans. Desperate to stay with her friends in Dove Pond, she sets off on a quest she’s avoided her whole life—to find her absent father in the hopes of winning her freedom from the grandmother she barely knows.

The follow up to The Book Charmer, and the book that arrived yesterday.  I figured I should dive right into a book that inspired me to take my first solo walk in over 6 months.

Is there a fairy tale involving an evil grandmother?  If so, this is a take on that, sort of.  Kristen’s mom dies, she has no idea who her father is, and so her estranged grandmother comes riding in on her metaphorical bulldozer to rescue her grand-daughter, who, by-the-by, doesn’t need rescuing.  Grandma is a selfish, stubborn, wealthy cow, but Kristen is stubborn and as it turns out, rather wealthy too, so there.

In a parallel and connected story line, Ava Dove, one of the ‘gifted’ Dove sisters, is stressing about having kept a secret for a couple of decades, and the secret is fighting back.  Remember, this is magical realism, so the secret is literally fighting back, trying to escape its box and throw Ava under the bus for a stupid mistake she made when she was a kid.  Ava is also trying to get a tearoom reading for opening and the special bespoke teas she makes to help people are starting to cause some strange behaviours in those that drink them, leaving Ava scrambling to figure out why.

On the fringes of this is an unresolved plot point from the first book involving Ava’s sister, Sarah.  It all comes together into a fairly coherent story line, and if you suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy magical realism, the redemption of Grandma ice queen is believable.  Still, the secrets (Ava’s and who is Kristen’s dad) are both pretty transparent to the reader, the former especially if one remembers events from the first book.

Overall, it’s a charming read, with strong individuals and friendships that make the story work better than it might have otherwise.

Conan Doyle

Conan DoyleConan Doyle
by Hesketh Pearson
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1974
Pages: 256
Genre: Biography
Publisher: White Lion Publishing

Conan Doyle (1859-1930) will always be remembered for the character of Sherlock Holmes, but he was a prolific writer—of short stories, of science fiction and historical fiction1including The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. In his comprehensive biography, Pearson considers how his life is reflected in his books—including his background as a doctor and his enduring (and public) belief in spiritualism.

Not quite what I expected, I don’t think. I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical biography, just based on the slimness of the volume, but it sat on the TBR shelves for a few years because I really have to be in the mood for the tedium that comes with biographies.  However, Pearson skipped the tedious bits and instead, this is more an overview of Conan Doyle’s life.  In that it’s a great ‘first look’ at this magnificent author’s life.

My problem, and hence the three stars, is that it’s truly a mystery whether Pearson even liked Conan Doyle.  This is not an unbiased look at a literary titan’s life – it’s totally biased.  But which way?  Throughout the text, Pearson is extolling Doyle’s genius, praising his ability to write gripping tales, and at the same time calling him simple whenever he can.  He uses the word ‘simple’, and I could give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he means ‘free from guile’ – which Doyle was – but he takes snipes at him in other ways too that makes me wonder.

Pearson continued to irritate me the further along in the text I went; he went off on a long diatribe about the difference between having an imagination and being fanciful.  Apparently, Shakespeare had imagination, but Doyle was merely fanciful, as, apparently, was Edgar Allan Poe.  He also kept referring to “the war of 1914-1918”, or “the 1914-1918 war”, refusing to call it World War I, or even the Great War.  This bugged me more than it should have.

But the part that pissed me off the most was the last chapter where he tackles the elephant in the room – Doyle’s embracement of spiritualism.  It is, to put it mildly, extremely unsympathetic, unbiased and, frankly screw mildly, the man was sneering and contemptuous and couldn’t have written it more condescendingly if he tried.  He made me want to thump him right between the eyes for his extraordinary poor form.  I could rant about this for ages, but I’ll save time and just say, the last chapter cost him a star and a half.

It’s an easy and informative read, but unless you can tolerate an author who talks out of both sides of their mouth in a completely biased fashion, there are probably better biographies of Conan Doyle out there.

Bitch In A Bonnet: Reclaiming Jane Austen From The Stiffs, The Snobs, The Simps And The Saps, Vol. 1

Bitch In A Bonnet Reclaiming Jane Austen From The Stiffs, The Snobs, The Simps And The Saps, Vol. 1Bitch In A Bonnet Reclaiming Jane Austen From The Stiffs, The Snobs, The Simps And The Saps, Vol. 1
by Robert Rodi
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781469922652
Publication Date: January 1, 2011
Pages: 409
Genre: Books and Reading
Publisher: Createspace

Novelist Rodi launches a broadside against the depiction of Jane Austen as a “a woman’s writer…quaint and darling, doe-eyed and demure, parochial if not pastoral, and dizzily, swooningly romantic — the inventor and mother goddess of ‘chick lit.’”

Instead he sees her as “a sly subversive, a clear-eyed social Darwinist, and the most unsparing satirist of her century… She takes sharp, swift swipes at the social structure and leaves it, not lethally wounded, but shorn of it prettifying garb, its flabby flesh exposed in all its naked grossness. And then she laughs.”

In this volume, which collects and amplifies two-and-a-half years’ worth of blog entries, he combs through the first three novels in Austen’s canon — Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park — with the aim of charting her growth as both a novelist and a humorist, and of shattering the notion that she’s a romantic of any kind (“Weddings bore her, and the unrelenting vulgarity of our modern wedding industry — which strives to turn each marriage ceremony into the kind of blockbuster apotheosis that makes grand opera look like a campfire sing along — would appall her into derisive laughter”).

Volume 1 gets 1 star less than volume 2. The entertainment is no less raucous, and wit no less scathing, it just comes down to my thoughts about his analysis. I’m with him on Sense and Sensibility, but I felt like his analysis/thoughts about Jane in Pride and Prejudice rather shallow, although the rest was spot-on.

Where he lost me completely was Mansfield Park. I recognise that Fanny is a problematic heroine, and that MP is not revered by most, but his scorched earth analysis suffered from a too-narrow, current century cultural bias and an assumption of Austen’s motives that nobody but nobody can possibly know. I know that these entires are based on his personal readings, interpretations, feelings, etc. but his use of plurality (‘we’, etc.) throughout the text assumes his reader is going to agree with him, and I don’t. Mansfield Park isn’t my favourite, but it’s not my least favourite either (It ranks 4th, if you’re curious).

Still a very worthy read, and an excellent exercise in getting back to the core of Austen’s writing.

Other People’s Houses

Other People's HousesOther People's Houses
by Abbi Waxman
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780399587924
Publication Date: April 3, 2018
Pages: 330
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Berkley

At any given moment in other people’s houses, you can find…repressed hopes and dreams…moments of unexpected joy…someone making love on the floor to a man who is most definitely not her husband…

*record scratch*

As the longtime local carpool mom, Frances Bloom is sometimes an unwilling witness to her neighbors’ private lives. She knows her cousin is hiding her desire for another baby from her spouse, Bill Horton’s wife is mysteriously missing, and now this…

After the shock of seeing Anne Porter in all her extramarital glory, Frances vows to stay in her own lane. But that’s a notion easier said than done when Anne’s husband throws her out a couple of days later. The repercussions of the affair reverberate through the four carpool families–and Frances finds herself navigating a moral minefield that could make or break a marriage.

Well, this is not the Abbi Waxman I was looking for.  This was a much more intense, painful story than the other 3 I’ve read so far, and while the humor is still there, it’s not at all light-hearted.  This is a story that reads like a fictionalised version of the author’s experience (there is no evidence at all that this is the case).  The language is cruder, the emotions are rawer; there’s a lot of anger.  There’s also a lot of navel gazing about parenthood, which, you know, not really my jam.  But the writing is excellent and I got sucked into the lives of all these people, whether I wanted to be there or not.  A very compelling read.

The Unbearable Bassington

The Unbearable BassingtonThe Unbearable Bassington
by Saki
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1978
Pages: 146
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Folio Society

The handsome and infuriatingly nonchalant Comus Bassington and his mother Francesca are struggling along at the edges somewhat — an advantageous marriage would certainly help. And Comus has met an heiress who appeals, Elaine de Frey. But he has a rival, his friend Courtenay Youghal, who is an up and coming young politician of great surface charm.

Francesca is relying on Comus, and there’s no accounting for what she might do if he doesn’t come up trumps. It will not only be embarrassing to his and his mother’s pride, it will also place a terrible strain on their resources.

The tracing of not only the simmering and uproarious repartee, but also the implicit tragedy in the venal expectations of high society in The Unbearable Bassington introduced a new note in Saki’s repertoire. Their combined power made for a book which was instantly celebrated as one of the great novels of its decade.

I discovered Saki, (Hector Hugh Munro) when I read one of his short stories in a Folio collection of Christmas Ghost Stories.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, so when I saw this short novel at a used book store I snapped it up, where it languished with all my other ‘improving’ books on my TBR.

Digression:  The pandemic and this stupid broken leg have been a pain in the ass in most ways, but together they’ve wrought great improvements on the size of my TBR.  There are noticeable spaces on the shelves!

The Unbearable Bassington – I don’t know what to say about it.  Imagine an Austen novel with no redeeming or sympathetic characters.  None. at. all.  Imagine her scathing wit let loose on such a cast of worthless characters.  The result is the pure misanthropic comedy Saki released here.    Either Saki was having a bad day when he wrote this, or he truly found nothing redeeming in humanity, but either way this is the most mercenary glimpse of early 20th century London society I’ve ever read, and while it starts out as a comedy, and remains so through most of the book (a black comedy, to be sure) the ending is thoroughly … not tragic, because tragedy implies a level of sympathy or empathy and there’s none of that to be found between these covers, but not at all happy.  In fact the author’s note at the beginning sums it up best:

Exactly so.

But oh, the writing is brilliant.  Even though I found myself uncomfortable with the complete and utter lack of any redeeming quality, I couldn’t stop reading.

I’m not sure I could recommend this book unless someone was in the mood for a misanthropic read, but I do recommend giving Saki a try one way or there other.