Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Other Summer Reads

The summer is almost over and, despite my best intentions, I have not kept up with this reading blog. Doesn't mean I didn't read. I just didn't write about what I read. So, in short, here are a few of the books I read this summer, with a few choice words...

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro is a collection of five short stories, all connected by the theme of music. I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but then, I like everything Ishiguro writes. He is a clever writer and makes me think. My only complaint: as a musician, I'm not so sure Ishiguro himself knows anything about playing music. He sounds like an avid listener who imagines himself playing an instrument.

The Selected Works of TS Spivet by Reif Larsen. I didn't know anything about this book when I picked it up. It reminded me of some of the books by one of my favorite authors, Eric Kraft (Herb 'n' Lorna, Where Do You Stop?, and many others). Kraft's books are filled with nostalgic recreations of a fictitious 1950's Long Island community and sometimes have charts, drawings, and diagrams in the margins. Larsen's book, wider than most paperbacks, also had charts and drawings (maps, I came to realize) in the margins so I imagined the book to have the same kind of fanciful back and forth aspect with its sidenotes. The main character is a young boy who lives on the Continental Divide in Montana whose incredible mapmaking skills brings him an award from the Smithsonian. He sets out across the vast sea of the country by himself to collect the award in an action-packed improbable journey. I had such high hopes for the book but, in the end, it was rather a forced wannabe kind of book—the author wanted his main character to be engaging and amazing in an autistic savant kind of way, yet it all came off as unbelievable and manufactured. Not to say the book is totally without merit, but it felt like a big idea that sort of went pffft at the end. Unbeknownst to me when I bought it, the book was the subject of a huge bidding war in the UK where the first-time author received a gigantic advance and a huge amount of press. I'd never heard of it.

Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley. Excellent beach reading. I have loved Buckley's books and this was no exception. He makes me guffaw embarrassingly in public. The set-up: there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The over-zealous right wingers on the Senate Judiciary Committee have shot down the president's first two candidates. To get back at them, the president selects a beautiful, popular, down-home, tough as nails former real judge who has found success and stardom as a judge on a reality show. Great send-ups of Washington and the political process, with really funny caricatures of Scalia, Thomas, and others.

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Foer is a journalist who became fascinated with memory and the brain after attending the world memory championships. Using some of the techniques he describes and used himself, I quickly learned how to memorize lists of things very easily.  This was an interesting and fun book—a journalist's perspective on memory, memory competitions, and the brain. It's amazing to think how much he was able to improve his own memory—if only I could do the same thing in crosswords.

My favorite part of the book was at the end when, after months and months of practice, leading him to win the US memory competition and competing in the world championship, he had an incredible realization: "And yet a few nights after the world championship, I went out to dinner with a couple of friends, took the subway home, and only remembered as I was walking in the door to my parents' house that I'd driven a car to dinner. I hadn't just forgotten where I parked it. I'd forgotten I had it."

But I liked thinking and learning about the role of memory in education and the different types of memories. It's interesting to think about what makes memories "stick" and how you can teach yourself these tricks to improve what all of us older folks think of as the inevitable dying off of brain cells (where are my glasses?). I also enjoyed the part of the book where he describes the Egyptian god giving the king the gift of writing, a replacement for the tradition of telling stories, singing songs, and passing on the knowledge and lore of a society orally, yet the king refuses the gift, saying, "They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding."

From one who can't believe how much he forgets, it was a fascinating read.