"You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know"

You Don't Look  Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers

This is Heather Sellers' true story of growing up with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, a rare neurological condition that keeps her from recognizing faces. It's a difficult condition to explain to people because it isn't consistent; she may or may not recognize a face at any given time. She knew growing up that something was wrong, but didn't get an actual diagnosis until well into adulthood.

She describes it as taking a handful of stones, naming them, throwing them back among the thousands of other stones on a beach and trying to pick them out again. We'd never be able to distinguish one from the other. She says: "For face-blind people, a given human face looks more or less like all other human faces. They aren't able to organize fine distinctions in mouths, noses, cheekbones, eyes. The special processor, the face processor, isn't installed."

She wondered all her life if she was mentally ill but finally got a true diagnosis when she contacted researchers at Harvard and was invited to take part in trials. MRI scans of her brain while doing recognition exercises showed the areas of her brain that weren't functioning normally and resulted in the prosopagnosia diagnosis.

Since learning the truth about her condition she's done television interviews, met others with the same illness and written this book to help other sufferers. In the afterword she says: "I hope that, at least in some small way, this story will help steer others toward clarity, and toward love, in spite of the greatest odds."

Even without the aspect of face blindness Ms. Sellers' story is quite remarkable. She spent her teen years moving back and forth between her separated parents, her father an alcoholic and her mother a paranoid schizophrenic. It's a wonder she survived at all; it's amazing that she grew up, got an eduction and is now a successful university professor and authour. It's also refreshing that, in this day of blaming our parents for everything, she isn't angry or resentful toward hers, but loves them and is grateful for having them.

If you enjoy memoirs, don't miss this one. I think it will stay with you for a long time.

"The Return Of The Prodigal Son"

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henry Nouwen

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Catholic priest and authour of several books, including The Wounded Healer, In the Name Of Jesus, and The Way Of The Heart. He taught at Yale and Harvard, then worked with the mentally challenged at L'Arche in Toronto, where he saw a poster of the Rembrandt painting that lends it's name to this book.

He was so moved by the painted figures and the emotions they expressed that he traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia to see the original. Seeing things in it that he hadn't fully considered before led him into a lengthy study of the biblical story that inspired the painting, and what he learned he shares with us in this book.

This is not a book one can simply read and set aside - it demands more from the reader. It forces an inward examination, asking questions that will not be left unanswered. It will make you uncomfortable, but it will comfort you as well. Perhaps it's not so much a book, as it is an experience.

Nouwen gives thoughtful consideration to the three main characters in the painting - the prodigal son, the elder son and then the father - looking at each one's part in the story and how each person relates to the others. It's a very personal journey for Nouwen and is sure to affect each reader differently, but I will say that I saw something of myself (most of it not attractive) in all three of the primary characters and I'm aware that this is just the beginning. I read a borrowed copy, but I've ordered one of my own and hope to re-read it every year during Lent. There is so much in this book that is good and the author has a beautifully humble way of sharing it.

Three of my favourite passages:

"Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one."

"As the Beloved I can confront, console, admonish, and encourage without fear of rejection or need for affirmation....and receive praise without using it as proof of my goodness."

"I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety of ways to win the love I so much desire."

"The Return Of The Prodigal Son" is a good book, well worth reading, and then reading again.

Book Blogger Hop

March 22 - March 28

This week's question is:
 What are the top five books you would grab in an emergency?

My answer:
Five? Just five??!!
1. My Bible
2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (I'm not cheating, it's in one volume)
3. The Complete Works of Shakespeare
4. Emily Dickinson's poems
5. The Singer Trilogy by Calvin Miller (again, one volume)

That's five, but I wouldn't be very happy without Lewis, Austen and Hemingway. This question made me panic just thinking about it. And now I feel bad about all the authours I claim to love but left behind.

"The Monctons"

The Monctons by Susanna Moodie

Finding this novel available as a free e-book was a surprise after trying, and failing, to find a print copy for several years. I live in a Canadian city named after the Moncton family; it's a name you don't come across often so I was interested in seeing what this book had to say. It's fiction, but still I was hoping there might be a tidbit or two of factual information. It wasn't that kind of novel though, not what I'd call "historical fiction" in the usual sense of the term. The story is set at a particular time in history, but is not about that era. It's completely about relationships within the Moncton family: who cheated who, who lied, who kept secrets and who tried to swindle who out of their rightful inheritance.

It's not a great book, but I found myself interested in the characters and all the intricacies of their relationships - and intricate it was indeed. I got lost amid the brothers, cousins and all their various connections, finally making sense of it all by making a list of names and how they related to each other. Once I could see it laid out it was much easier to follow.

The story centers around Geoffrey Moncton, poor relation of Robert Moncton who takes Geoffrey into his law firm to learn the business. Robert's cousin, Alexander Moncton, holds the title of Baronet and is master of the Moncton estate but has no heir to follow him. Robert has hopes for his own son, the obnoxious, insufferable Theophilus ("as ferocious and hard a human biped as ever disgraced the name of man"), and the lengths to which he will go to make sure his son receives the inheritance are mind-boggling. 

This style of mystery writing serves up a little more melodrama than I like, but on the other hand there was an inspiring nobility in some of the characters that very much appealed to me. I enjoy books that give me someone to look up to and leave me wanting to be a better person. As usual in this type of novel everything is clearly black and white, with no grey areas between good and evil; it's not always realistic but it is the genre. The opening lines of the book suggest the struggle between right and wrong that is about to unfold:

"There was a time - a good old time - when men of rank and fortune were not ashamed of their poor relations; affording the protection of their name and influence to the lower shoots of the great family tree, which, springing from the same root, expected to derive support and nourishment from the main stem.....That time is well-nigh gone forever.."

If I had to slot this novel into a specific genre it would be Victorian mystery, but there are a couple of romantic story lines as well. They are every bit as complicated as the plot of the mystery is, but, then, there's that dependable Victorian ending where all things get sorted out and the future looks bright, at least for those who deserve it.

All in all it was a pretty good read. If you enjoy Victorian style mysteries generally, you'd probably like this one too. The plot could have been laid out with more clarity, and a character or two less might have helped, but there's a wholesomeness to this story that makes it worth reading.  You can't help liking sentiments like this final quote I'll leave with you:

"Nature has always such an exhilarating effect upon my mind that I can hardly feel miserable while the sun shines."

"A Brief History Of Time"

A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking

I have an interest in theoretical physics, but it's a regular person's interest. I like reading about black holes and event horizons and I like science fiction shows that play around with those concepts. I was well aware that Stephen Hawking is far out of my league, but I had read that he wrote this for non-scientists and such so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I had some specific things in mind before I started. I wanted a better understanding of black holes, Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. And I wanted to know what the heck quarks are. I came away from the book satisfied that I'd gotten what I came for but wishing I'd been able to understand more of it. I got lost in his explanations a number of times and had to keep referring back to what I'd learned in previous chapters.

The writing itself wasn't difficult to read, it was the subject matter than got a bit beyond me. He writes clearly and in a reader-friendly style. He makes a few personal references that make the book even more interesting; his life is as fascinating to me as the science he writes about. He has lived with enormous physical challenges but hasn't let them limit him in his chosen work. The man is an inspiration.

I've just read a review of Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" at deadwhiteguyslit that sounds like it tackles the same topics. I'm hoping it might be a little bit easier to read, but that's not a deal breaker and I realize that the subject may too complicated to be written about simply. I hope to get a copy and read it before what I got from this one evaporates in my brain cells.

I do recommend this book for anyone interested in the topic. It took effort to read, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of mental exercise, and in the end I liked it a lot. If you read it I'd like to hear what you think so do come back and comment. 

Book Blogger Hop March 15-21

The Book Blogger Hop is now being hosted by Coffee Addicted Writer, whose question this week is:

"Time to take a seat on the director's chair! If you could turn one of your favorite books into a film, who would you cast?"

I think "The Cellist of Sarajevo" would make a phenomenal movie. When I read it I pictured Stellan Skarsgard as Dragan and Donald Sutherland (with long-ish hair) as the cellist. I think Shia LaBoeuf could be good as Kenan (although maybe he's too cute) and Ellen Page is perfect for the part of Arrow. I would love to see this movie so please, Mr. Hollywood Director, if you're out there and reading this (because what else would you have to do on a Friday night?) feel free to use my casting suggestions, no charge. Well, maybe just a small mention in the credits...

Check out the Blog Hop to see what other book bloggers are up to and maybe get a few new titles for your to-read list. And have a great weekend!


Summer by Edith Wharton

Charity Royall lives in the tiny New England village of North Dormer with her guardian, the temperamental Lawyer Royall. Lawyer is his occupation, not his name which I don't think we are ever given. He became her guardian when he "brought her down from the mountain" where she lived among poverty stricken people, taking her away from her mother who was more than willing to have one less mouth to feed. Mrs. Royall died when Charity was about 15 years old, leaving Mr. Royall and Charity to rattle around in the emptiness of their lonely house.

At seventeen, Charity is discontented with her sleepy small town life, especially after her guardian makes it clear he would like to be something more than guardian to her. When the town librarian dies, she applies for the part-time job, hoping for both distraction and a little money of her own. One summer day an attractive young man, Mr. Harney, comes in to find a book and Charity's life suddenly becomes more exciting.

They spend a lot of time together that summer, Charity driving him about the neighbourhood in Mr. Royall's buggy so he can sketch local architecture. For the first time, Charity is happy. She loves both the attention Mr. Harney pays her and the freedom of doing what she pleases, unchaperoned and unchallenged. Eventually though, the fairytale ends and Mr. Harney must return to his job in New York.

When Charity makes the shattering discovery that her lover has been engaged to someone else the entire time, she is already carrying his child. The options open to her are few and none of them attractive. She could go back to the mountain and raise her child in conditions more horrible than she had ever imagined, she could try to suppress the "grave surprise of motherhood" that already has her experiencing the protective maternal instinct and have her child aborted, or she could marry Mr. Royall and face a loveless lifetime of marriage. I won't spoil it by telling you the rest.

I enjoy Edith Wharton's writing; there's an atmosphere of resignation in her stories that I find appealingly realistic. In "Summer" Charity sets the tone early in the first chapter when she sighs: "How I hate everything!" Even when she falls in love and is feeling intensely happy, the reader senses that such happiness can't last. When she loses it, it feels inevitable.

A couple of passages I particularly liked:

"Such had been the sole link between North Dormer and literature, a link piously commemorated by the erection of the monument where Charity Royall, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, sat at her desk under a freckled steel engraving of the deceased authour, and wondered if he felt any deader in his grave than she did in his library.

"...their past was now rich enough to have given them a private language."

Good writing, a great sense of place and realistic characters give me lots of reason to recommend this one - at least to anyone who doesn't absolutely have to have a happy ending.

"My Name Is Memory"

My Name Is Memory by Ann Brashares

Daniel Grey has lived many times and he remembers all of it. Lucy Broward has shared many of those lives but remembers very little, experiencing just the occasional vague feeling of deja-vu. Daniel searches for Lucy in every incarnation - every time period, every location - but circumstances often don't work out for them. They might be far different in age or they might be in family relationships that don't allow for romance. And...they have an enemy: Daniel's one-time brother follows them, carrying a grudge, intent on their destruction.

I've never been a fan of paranormal romance and this book didn't change that. I didn't enjoy the plot or the writing. There were inconsistencies in the reincarnation theory, like telling us you couldn't know if you were coming back in another life, then contradicting it with "it's desire more than anything else that keeps us coming back for more." In another contradiction we're told that suffering doesn't end with death, then we're told about people (souls) who choose to leave their bodies before they have to because they're in pain "and it feels better to get out."  In a blatant inconsistency we are told that "a great ear for music" is a biological thing, of the body not the soul, yet in Daniel's present incarnation he can still play all the instruments he has ever learned to play in his past lives.

There were also some rather extraordinary co-incidences, such as Daniel always coming back as a boy and Lucy as a girl, while this does not hold true for other characters. In another, Daniel tells us at one point that his parents had his IQ tested and he implies it is high: "You've got to have a large and unusual mental capacity to remember a thousand years of largely insignificant history." Isn't it a bit too much luck that in every life he is born into a body that has a brain with that capacity? There are too many of these differences for it to be credible, even if I did believe in the possibility of re-incarnation.

From what I've read online it seems this was intended to be the first part of a trilogy, but the sequels have never been written. If it's true this is just part of the story, then the ending is understandable; if it's not true, there is simply no excuse. The story builds up to a great battle that doesn't happen and a major plot element is introduced just before the end, then dropped. No part of the story line comes to any conclusion. It's a terrible ending.

Even if a sequel does make it to print, I won't read it because I couldn't get invested in the characters at all. I found them quite flat, without much personality, interested only in themselves. In the long centuries of Daniel's life, all he ever focuses on is his feeling, yearning, aching and longing for Lucy (Sophia, Constance, etc). In a novel written for adults, I would expect fuller characters and a more solid plot. Yes, there's a sex scene and a few rude words, but surely more than that is needed to cross the line from a YA novel to an adult novel. If it wasn't for those things I would have thought this book was intended for teens.

No book is all good or all bad and I did like a few things. There was a description of death that was creative, and I loved this line: "I felt like a pianist who'd been forced to play on a few white keys in the middle, finally allowed to run his hands all up and down the keyboard."

I can't recommend "My Name Is Memory". There were people in my book club who loved it though, so like most things it's probably a matter of taste. I've just never acquired the taste for paranormal romance.

"The Secret Of Lost Things"

The Secret Of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay

Rosemary Savage is 18 years old when her mother dies and she leaves her home in Tasmania for a new beginning in New York City. When she arrives it's late at night, pouring rain, and the residential hotel where she has booked a room has gone out of business. Her feelings are summed up as: "I was barely eighteen years old, absent Mother and country, soaking wet, and so bereft that I sagged inside my damp clothes, shrunken and childlike." That pretty much sets the tone for this whole, rather dreary tale.

Rosemary finds a job at an old bookshop called the Arcade, where used books are crammed onto shelves and lay about the store in huge stacks, and where collectors frequent the rare book room in search of treasures. Staffing the store is a cast of misfits as eccentric as you'll find anywhere. There is George Pike, the owner who sits at his desk all day every day putting prices on books and being as miserable as humanly possible. The store manager is Walter Geist, an albino whose emotional fragility leads to a creepy, and eventually gross, obsession with Rosemary. The kindly-seeming ruler of the Rare Book Room is Mr. Mitchell who, sadly, also turns out to be a disappointment. Oscar runs the non-fiction section and is the one Rosemary finds herself attracted to. Oscar, however, is just as odd as everybody else and isn't interested in personal relationships. Rosemary's only real friend at the bookshop is Pearl, the warm, caring cashier who is actually a man awaiting gender change surgery.

The plot is slow getting started but is potentially interesting. It concerns a "lost" book of Herman Melville's that Oscar and Walter are working against each other to find, both thinking they have Rosemary's undivided loyalty, while she just seems confused by the whole situation and not very sure of what she's doing. The plot never gets big enough to support all the bizarre characters, and the tone of sadness that permeates the whole thing was tiresome by the end of the story.
I can't say I enjoyed this novel, even though it has a lot of things going for it: a bookshop setting, a plot about a "lost" book, some weird smart people (I like weird smart people), and New York City. Unfortunately all those things didn't add up to a great book for me. I didn't find the characters appealing and I thought the plot was weak. I loved the Arcade bookshop setting, but that wasn't enough. I can't decide if I'd give it a 5 or a 6 out of 10, so 5.5 it is.