“Uncle Tungsten” by Oliver Sacks

Uncle Tungsten coverUncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood was one of this books I just picked up on a whim, having never really heard of the book or the author. I’ve since found out that Oliver Sacks is a famous neurologist and kind-of-a-big-deal.

This book is absolutely fascinating. It’s about Oliver Sacks’ fascination with chemistry when he was a boy, but it also incorporates an extensive history of chemistry (as seen through the eyes of a young Sacks.) It is also part memoir, more interesting than most because of Sacks’ family – 18 scientist aunts and uncles, each specialising in their own fields, not to mention his parents, who encouraged him to have his own lab and experiment with deadly substances freely, and his siblings, who joined him in many of his scientific endeavours. And all this is set during World War II England, in an affluent Jewish neighbourhood.

Sacks’ passion for chemistry really shines through, and the process of discovering each new fact and deducing new ideas was beautifully demonstrated. His characterisations of his family really brought them to life – each of them seemed to have encyclopaedic knowledge of the field they worked in, but also ardently followed the latest scientific progress, as well as the history of it. I have never been jealous of someone else’s family before, but there’s a first time for everything!

The history sections can get a bit boring, but I’m not sure how much of that was because I already knew a lot of it. I also wished the book’s memoir portion was more chronological – Sacks jumps back and forth a lot. Some things were left unresolved – for example, Sacks describes his brother being mentally disturbed by their stay at a country school during the war, but never follows up on how that ends up turning out.

Despite those flaws, I think the book was well worth it!

This is book 22 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks
Knopf, 2001 | Buy the book

“Yes, Chef” by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef coverI’ve seen Marcus Samuelsson on a lot of TV shows and liked him a lot, so I was pretty stoked when I won Yes, Chef on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers programme.

Samuelsson has certainly had a very interesting life, and it was fascinating to read his perspective as an Ethiopian adopted by a Swedish family, transplanted to the US. I learned a lot about Sweden, the restaurant industry, Ethiopian spices, and a lot more, so I would recommend the book for that reason.

The negatives: this book is clearly ghost-written – even though it’s written in the first person, there’s a peculiar detachment to it which I found slightly off-putting. Also, Samuelsson is not always the most likeable of people, especially when he abandons his daughter and tries to justify it “without sounding like a jerk.”

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
Random House, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books was not the kind of book that I thought it would be. I assumed that it would be the story of the girls that got together to read every Thursday, and that the mention of Lolita in the title was for shock value, since it’s such a controversial book. I should have taken the subtitle (A Memoir in Books) more seriously, since I think it is a great description. The book is Azar Nafisi’s memoir, which includes the story of her Thursday morning classes, and a healthy dose of literary analysis.

Azar Nafisi went from a revolutionary Iranian student in the U.S. to being a professor of English literature at the University of Tehran just after the revolution. She describes how the revolution changed Iran and herself, using liberal comparisons and allusions to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James and Jane Austen and The Great Gatsby. She is extremely frank about her life, even about her initial naivete and her constant confusion about her life.

Once I’d gotten over my expectations of what the book was going to be, I started to enjoy the book. It was still pretty slow reading; I couldn’t focus on the book for long stretches. I think it was because of a few reasons. The first is that life under the Iranian regime sounded very tough, and I couldn’t take reading about it for too long. Secondly, Nafisi’s writing is very poetic, but also quite disjointed and jumps around a lot. Third, she was analysing a few books I hadn’t read, and it seemed a bit dense to me. None of these reasons is a bad thing, of course.

I think that Nafisi’s way of writing really describes her very well – she frequently mentions being confused about what actions to take next and how to counsel her students, and her writing reflects that. She jumps between different time periods and between her interactions with different people. Her constant allusion to books, passages, quotes, characters, etc. was also really interesting – it is clear that she is a professor of literature through and through. As a person who has read a lot but has never taken a college English class, I found those sections of the book fascinating.

I would have liked to read Henry James’ books and The Great Gatsby before reading this one, since they’re now fully spoiled for me. I would’ve gotten a lot more out of the analyses. I did enjoy the analysis of Lolita, and was disappointed that the “Austen” section didn’t really talk much about her books.

This is book 17 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Random House, 2003 | Buy the book

“Two Lives” by Vikram Seth

Cover for "Two Lives"Two Lives: A Memoir is the first Vikram Seth book I’ve read (I seem to be making a habit of introducing myself to authors who primarily write fiction by reading their non-fiction work; the only Barbara Kingsolver book I’ve read is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and On Writing is the only Stephen King book in the house, although I haven’t read that one yet.) I found the title of the book slightly misleading – while the book is certainly about Seth’s uncle Shanti and aunt Henny, it’s also very much about his relationship with them.

The book is divided into five independent parts, each approaching different facet of the story. It starts off with the young Vikram Seth arriving to live with his aunt and uncle while he attends school in England, and his perceptions of them. Then, we learn about Shanti’s life, then Henny’s, then their life together. I was expecting the book to be more narrative than it was; a large portion of it quotes various interviews and letters. Much of the narration that accompanies the quotes seems more like annotation or clarification of context. At first, I found this annoying, but I got used to it.

The story of Shanti and Henny is certainly makes fascinating reading. Shanti is a Hindu from India who studies dentistry in Germany, and Henny is the daughter of the Jewish family he boards with while doing so. However, their love story blossoms in England. Both of them are remarkable people in their own right – Shanti is a much-loved practising dentist, even though he lost one of his arms in World War II. Henny’s story is quite tragic; her mother and sister do not make it out of Germany, and she has to face many truths about her family and friends after the war is over. I think her correspondences were the most interesting part of the book – we got an intimate look at how she coped with a tragedy of the magnitude of the Holocaust. She always remained incredibly dignified and restrained, though.

At times, I found myself wishing that the book was a little more focused. It seemed like Seth structured the book around trying to present every bit of information that he had (especially about Henny), rather than build a cohesive narrative. At other times, I appreciated the tangents and extra details about the couple’s family and friends.

I also had mixed feelings about the author talking about his own feelings at various points in the book. On the one hand, they made it feel more intimate – he is in fact, writing about the aunt and uncle that he loves and respects, so it’s nice to see that come through. On the other hand, some of the things he said seemed superfluous and distracting; for instance, he talks about the different areas of the world and technologies that Germany has had an impact on (including some thoughts on the future.)

This is book 9 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth
Harper Perennial, 2006 | Buy the book