On the Move: a Life by Oliver Sacks

Find in catalogWho is that dashing young man in a leather jacket, astride a motorcycle in a photo on the cover of the autobiography “On the Move?”  It’s none other than Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and brilliant author of more than a dozen books and countless magazine articles.  Now in his 80s, Sacks regales us with the details of a life lived with passion and exuberance.

Sacks grew up a shy child in London during the Blitz.  He went to Oxford and became a doctor, then left England to intern at a hospital in California.  He fell in love with our West, putting thousands of miles on his motorbike, scuba diving, and hitch-hiking.  He set a state record in weight lifting, and experimented with amphetamines and LSD.

In 1965 he moved to New York and began treating patients who had been “frozen” by encephalitis into catatonic postures.  His book “Awakenings” resulted and launched him as a major literary figure.

A man of tremendous energy and boundless enthusiasms, Sacks writes with honesty and humor about his personal and professional life.  What a lovely book!  What an extraordinary man!

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One Came Home by Amy Timberlake

Find in catalogThis historical novel for middle school readers reminded me of “True Grit.”  Both take place in the 1870s, and have young teen-age girl narrators on a quest.  From a small town in Wisconsin, Georgie sets out to find her sister, Agatha, whom is presumed dead.  Luckily, Georgie is a sharp-shooter of prodigious skill, and a determined, clever girl.  Though her vocabulary strains credulity;  what 13 year-old would say, “I am a girl with a palatable attitude” or use words like “veneration,” “inconsequential,” and “ablutions”?  Still, the book is an exciting adventure with a spirited heroine, set in an interesting time when passenger pigeons migrate in huge numbers in the Midwest.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

a tale for the time beingThis far-reaching and philosophical novel, set in Tokyo and British Columbia, touches upon Buddhist teaching, Marcel Proust, quantum mechanics, World War II’s kamikaze pilots, and the recent tsunami in Japan.

Ruth, a middle-aged Canadian writer living with her husband in a remote island home, finds a freezer bag containing a lunchbox washed up on the shore. Inside is a pack of letters written in French, an antique wrist watch, and a diary written by a 16-year-old Japanese girl named Nao.

Nao has lived most of her life in California, but when her dad loses his job there the family moves back to Tokyo where Nao is bullied and isolated by her schoolmates. She seeks solace in writing a diary addressed to an unknown reader, and she plans to write the story of her beloved 104-year-old great grandmother, a Buddhist nun living in a mountain temple.

We are all time beings, and the novel explores the deepening relationships between these three women, each at a different stage of life.

Reviewed by Hopalong

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith

Unusual Uses for Olive OilFriends try to convince me that Alexander McCall Smith’s books are simply light-weight fluff.  They are right, of course, but I love chocolate mousse and don’t expect it to be nourishing or hearty fare.  So with the gentle pot boilers that McCall Smith turns out–almost 40 of them at last count.  Luckily I’m addicted to only the Botswana series and the Portuguese Irregular Verbs books, of which “Unusual Uses for Olive Oil” is one.  The protagonist, Professor von Igelfeld (German for “hedgehog field”), is a silly, socially clueless and stuffy academician who’s written an arcane text on philology, but manages nevertheless to be somewhat loveable throughout his hapless adventures.  Hurray for chocolate mousse!

Reviewed by Hopalong

Benediction by Kent Haruf

BenedictionThis elegiac novel, written with extraordinary simplicity, tells the story of ordinary people in a small town on the high plains of Colorado. Dad Lewis, owner of the town’s hardware store, is dying of lung cancer, and his wife Mary makes his last days comfortable with the help of their daughter who hurries home from Denver. Their son Frank is estranged from the family and they have lost track of him. Next door is an 11-year-old orphan who has moved in with her grandmother; another new arrival is an idealistic preacher whose wife and son are alienated and miserable in their new surroundings. Throughout the story, and old widow and her daughter are a source of help to their neighbors. The novel is a tender glimpse of small town life.

Reviewed by Hopalong

The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

The book of my livesAleksandar Hemon grew up in Sarajevo, and his remarkable book, a memoir in essays, is all the more remarkable because he learned English as an adult. He was visiting Chicago at the start of the war in Bosnia, and never again lived in his home country, though his love of Sarajevo is evident. The essays are full of humor and sadness; we experience Hemon’s searing losses as well as his love of family, dogs, chess and soccer. Our world is so torn with ethnic violence these days, and Hemon’s book reminds us of the anger and heartbreak of those who survive with the strength to go on.

Reviewed by Hopalong

A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez

This lovely book chronicles two journeys into Haiti, made months apart, by Julia Alvarez, a native of the Dominican Republic who lives in Vermont with her husband. The couple maintain a coffee farm in D.R.  Piti, a young Haitian man they’ve befriended on their farm, invites them to his wedding in his homeland, so they make the harrowing trip by pick-up truck.  Alvarez writes of this trip, and a subsequent one made after the horrendous earthquake that killed more than 300,000 Haitians.  Of both journeys she writes with lively humor and thoughtfulness, showing how such adventures teach her and us “how much is possible when we step outside the boundaries that separate us one from another.”

Reviewed by Hopalong

The Big U by Neal Stephenson

I know this is a sexist statement, but here it is–The Big U is a guy’s book.  Set in the early 80s, the novel is a wacky, apocalyptic send-up of university life.  No one is spared–students, janitors, administrators, faculty–all are skewered in the uproar as stupid pranks escalate to terrorism.  A few characters are memorable–level-headed Sarah, a charming geek named Casimir Radon, and a mad organist called Pertinax.  But these people are submerged beneath the fantastically overdone technical details of the Dungeons and Dragons style plot. Brilliant writing, but it wore me out.

Reviewed by Hopalong