Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Forever Formula

The Forever Formula / Frank Bonham
New York: Scholastic, c1979.
186 p.

I recall reading this book in junior high over and over, and recommending it to my friends who all read it and then thought I was crazy for liking it since it didn't make any sense. But that was part of what I loved about it...I didn't really get it, and knew there was something there that I was missing and if only I read it often enough I might just understand.

Well, I was thinking about it recently so decided to find a copy via the magic of Interlibrary Loan. And so I reread it after many years. There were parts I remembered clearly, and parts that I'd completely forgotten. This time, I feel that I did understand it all, and that I even disagreed with some of its assumptions, but I still really liked it. It held up to a reread -- unlike some of the childhood favourites I've tried rereading.

It opens in the year 2164, as Evan Clark is waking up from a cryogenic sleep of 180 years. He is in a high security hospital, as the governing party wants to pick his brains -- literally. He is the son of a scientist who discovered, in the 1980's, a drug to keep people alive indefinitely. The human lifespan is almost limitless in this new world -- but the aging process doesn't stop. Evan's father discovered a way to turn back aging but destroyed the formula, fearing its social consequences. Now they want to scrape Evan's memories to find out how to synthesize the drug.

The world of the future isn't so rosy, however. The very old, called Guppies due to their physical appearance, own everything -- the nice parts of town, the best air (domes), the best living spaces, food, activities, and so on. Juvies (those under 60 or so) are planning an uprising to get rid of the excess aged population and their iron hand on government. Evan gets caught up in the middle of all this politicking, along with his pretty nurse Eliza (a clone, as are all nurses). He is trying to adjust to the idea that he's been frozen for 180 years, never mind grasping the nuances of the political situation. Adventure, action, treachery, spying, daring escapes, epidemics, and true love all follow. While it is a bit 70's in its gender roles, and ends a bit too quickly and conveniently, it is still an entertaining read, and one that offers a lot of discussion points considering our current environmental and economic situation. Lots of parallels and divergences to talk about in light of where our world is heading, I think. I'd definitely recommend this one as still very readable, and still somehow mysterious.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: Spring Equinox Labyrinth

For this week's Spring Equinox, I made a labyrinth from birdseed and held a walk. The weather here has been extraordinarily warm and summerish so we had to remind ourselves it was just Spring! Ten of us had a lovely evening walking the labyrinth in the light of the setting sun (and discovering that mosquitos are already out and about). A fat black squirrel also enjoyed our labyrinth, sneaking close to grab as many sunflower seeds as he could from the outlines!

I'm sharing this as part of Saturday Snapshot featured by Alyce at At Home with Books.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Me Before You

Me Before You / JoJo Moyes
London: Penguin, c2012.
481 p.

This was an unexpected read for me: I was sent it from a publicist without requesting it, and thought it really wasn't my kind of reading. But it was a nice day and I felt like a lazy read so I picked it up. I should have taken the cover blurb seriously... "partner-ignoringly compulsive" is the truest description I can think of for this book! I started it in the afternoon, and didn't put it down until the last page that evening. And those last pages...well, let's just say that stock prices for Kleenex probably rose thanks to this book.

The story explores the odd couple made when Lou Clark loses her job at a café and finds another through the local job finding centre -- she is to be the carer for quadriplegic Will Traynor, a young man whose life was changed in a motorcycle accident. Lou is small town through and through; the most excitement she has in her life shows up in her crazy outfits. Will, on the other hand, was a high powered businessman in London and an extreme sports fanatic, until his accident. They begin to develop a friendship, each becoming the best listener for the other. And there are moment when Lou (and the reader) forgets Will's disability as their relationship deepens.

But it's not only light and lovely. Moyes draws a strongly realistic picture of what quadriplegia means. Sudden pneumonia, a catheter, dependency, depression, frustration -- she makes Will into a deeply appealing character who is also suffering deeply. Lou begins to understand, even while trying to make him see that life is worth living.

Woven inextricably into the tale is the spectre of assisted suicide. As Lou goes online to discover many chatrooms and websites for friends and carers of quadriplegics, she finds that people react differently, and that many choose to end their lives by their own decision. Perhaps because it is set in the UK, the availability of a specifically created clinic in Switzerland makes assisted suicide seem easily accessible and possible in a way that it wouldn't be for North Americans. Moyes is able to take this love story and turn it into a discussion of all these issues at the same time that she is developing interesting, appealing characters and relationships.

I really enjoyed this book. It was funny in parts, light, sweet, yet not overly sentimental or mawkish. It dealt with troubling issues and events and yet didn't feel hopeless. I found it a lot more thought-provoking than I'd expected and was reminded not to assume I know what a book is going to be like simply by blurbs or covers. But I must warn any interested readers -- you will want to be sure not to finish this on public transit or before going out somewhere. I'm not sure anyone could come to the end without a bout of sobbing.

This was a surprise find for me, one which caught me and resulted in an entire evening's compulsive reading. I may just have to search out a few more of her titles. And some more Kleenex.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Walking a Literary Labyrinth

Walking a Literary Labyrinth / Nancy M. Malone
New York: Riverhead, 2003.
208 p.

This is a lovely book, written by a nun who has found in reading a true spiritual path. In reading this, I felt that she was preaching to the choir, since I feel exactly the same way. Plus, she uses the labyrinth as a metaphor for our journey through could I not want to read it? I feel as though this book was written with me in mind, considering that I am a labyrinth facilitator and a proponent of the healing power of books and writing, with my own small business focused on those areas!

Fortunately, I found it moving and clever and very satisfying. Nancy Malone spent many years as a busy nun, not reading at all. But she has somehow, now, found a way to live as a nun but outside of a community, reading and sharing the spiritual aspects of literature. Writing as a nun, of course there is a Christian, Catholic viewpoint to the book, but one that doesn't interfere with her insights or make a non-Catholic, non-nun reader feel distanced from the author.

One of the things she stresses is the power of imagination. I'd never thought of imagination as a spiritual gift but she makes the case that imagination brings us closer to a sense of the divine, to our need for interpersonal connection and for transcendence.

Much of what she says in the book is not new to me, nor, I suspect, to any serious reader. She discusses the ability of reading to increase empathy and allow us to understand the inner life of others. She talks about the quiet act of reading and how it can be a spiritual practice in and of itself. For example, it can resemble meditation:
"the words we read fix our attention. We pause over them and the thoughts they suggest, comparing them in unbroken silence with our own experience.Sometimes, as can happen in contemplative prayer, we're taken completely out of ourselves as we read, and return to ourselves refreshed."
She compares walking the labyrinth with reading our way through life; we may be heading in to our centre, but there are others on our journey, and the centre is not the "goal" -- the entire labyrinth is our path and we are part of the whole. I love the imagery of a life's reading as a literary labyrinth; unlike a maze, a labyrinth is one path, with no dead-ends or places to get lost. Malone states that the authors she's read have helped her move along the pathway, that reading time hasn't been wasted. We are heading to our own interiority at the centre, but we are also heading back out into the world.

All of these concepts are things I've thought and written about before. But the way in which she expresses them and shares her love for both reading and the labyrinth inspired me and consolidated some of my more vague ideas. She states the power of literature to inspire, enlighten, comfort and encourage us, to give us new ways of understanding human life, new approaches to living. There are copious quotable bits sprinkled throughout, sentences or paragraphs that made me stop and reconsider and write down phrases. Some examples:

"In good novels, and I count Middlemarch among the best I have read, we can find pleasure — I do — in the close observation and insightful portrayal of human personalities, the complexity of our relationships, the ambiguity of our motives, the immense power inherent in social structures to influence our lives, the forces that are arrayed against the human good. And I taste the rightness of Wayne Booth's statement in The Rhetoric of Fiction: 'There is pleasure from learning the simple truth, and there is a pleasure from learning that the truth is not simple.' "

“For me, reading—and I don’t mean just inspirational, devotional reading—has been and is a spiritual practice. It is my partner in the conversation we are always having with ourselves (our interiority), influencing who I’ve thought I was, who I wanted to be, who I am and am called to be."

"I can hardly conceive how limited my perception would be without the books I have been privileged to read, how superficial my understanding of others, how undeveloped my sympathies. And I mean here, especially, without fiction, which puts flesh and blood on, and the soul and feeling in, other human beings....In fiction I come to know and understand people I may not have met otherwise. And thus I am persuaded to a more compassionate, generous, and loving response in my life beyond books."
I loved the quiet certainty of her writing, the way she can draw her ideas together and use her own life as an example of what she is talking about. She even includes a reading list at the end, suggesting some fiction and theological reading to explore. I'm not sure I am the most objective reader of this book, since, as I've mentioned, so many of the tenets that are forwarded are ones I already wholeheartedly agree with and am actively working toward expanding in my own life. That said, I can fully recommend this to anyone else with similar interests. It stands out among all my reading, so much so that I've ordered my own copy since I've got to return the library one I have now. I know this is a book that I'll reread and refer to often.

And, as she says in closing, we all have our vocations.

“You do what you were made to do. Some of us were made to read and write. Thanks be to God.”

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Case of the General's Thumb

The Case of the General's Thumb / Andrey Kurkov
London: Harvill, 2003.
224 p.

This book has just been released by Melville House Books in North America -- however, my copy has been with me for quite a while, as it is the UK translation which I picked up at a small English language bookshop when I was in Kyiv in 2008. I know, I know, why has it taken so long to read it? Well, I was saving it, hoping to hang on to that sense of possibility and anticipation for as long as I could. However, I've since read two other books by Kurkov (Death and the Penguin and Pengin Lost) which I got via the library -- and they were both very good. So I decided it was silly not to read this book which was just sitting on my shelf easily available to me.

It is definitely in the same line as his other books, though perhaps a little more slapstick, a bit more action oriented. The bizarre nature of the tale can be seen in this cover -- a Bonnie & Clyde style adventure that includes driving a hearse, tossing fish over gates, and carting around a parrot. Too bad it doesn't show the turtle... As you can see, there is a large serving of absurdity in this tale.

It begins in Ukraine, in the Maidan (main square) where a general is found dead, attached to an advertising balloon, missing a thumb. A police officer and a KGB agent are assigned to investigate, neither of whom trusts the other. Add in a criminal or two also on the trail, and the resultant chaos leads the story all over Europe -- from Ukraine to Germany and beyond. The surreal characters are weird but compelling, and the action is as incomprehensible to the characters as it is to us at times. But it is darkly funny and I read it very quickly and with great enjoyment. There is something about Kurkov's sense of irony and humour that appeals to me, and even the bleak violence of life as a Ukrainian criminal is bearable when he writes about it.

His style is very particular -- in this one there is a lot of jumping back and forth from various characters' perspectives and perhaps has a feeling of not being as consistent as the others I've read. And the ending is rather sudden and/or anticlimactic. Still, definitely worth a read for its absurdist essence and strong evocation of a particular cultural moment. Since this is the UK translation, I did notice some word choices that stuck out as odd -- perhaps the American edition will solve that issue for American readers. In any case, I enjoyed it, and Kurkov is still on my must-read list. Glad to see that he is getting wider distribution as I think he has a distinctive voice that is well worth sharing.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pilish or Perish!

I've been so busy that time has flown.... It has been two weeks since I've posted anything at all here, sadly enough. I promise you all that I have been reading!

So today is a day to return and celebrate Pi Day at the same time -- do you know about Pi Day? It's great fun to celebrate 3.14 on 03/14 each year.

My husband discovered some great Pi Day fun, including Pilish. And attempted a tweet sized poem using this style of writing.

You can actually use the day to focus on some science-based activities for kids, using Pi -- there are lots of ideas online -- whether you are a parent or a teacher.

Although random holidays are always fun, and I'm delighted to have discovered Pilish, my favourite way to celebrate is still with some PIE that is DELISH!

Saskatoon Berry Pie, by the way. What is your favourite?