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My Book of Books

"Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it"

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Fiction

“All the Light we Cannot See” Anthony Doer

This one’s for you if you’re ready for a long and quite complicated novel.

“All the light we Cannot See” follows a blind girl from Paris who lives in Saint Malo during WWII, and an orphan called Werner who has great skill with radios and is recruited by the German military. I have never read a book over 500 pages long with so many chapters of 5 pages or less. At times I found this infuriating- no sooner had you remembered what was happening to one character/in one strand of the story before it switched again. Admittedly, my frustration is probably more a reflection of my lack of patience than any fault with the book which truly is a masterpiece in storytelling. After the first couple of hundred pages of setting the scene, you get that lovely feeling where a novel grips your hands to the page, forcing you to read on, past the point when you normally go to bed, and past the point when your eyelids become heavy as lead. I often fall into the trap of reading non fiction “to learn” and fiction “to relax”. But to do this is to under appreciate how much we can learn from reading such beautiful language, describing the very feelings and emotions that make us human. Language that someone like me can only marvel at.

To answer the question how does it feel to be blind? “It doesn’t hurt, she explains, and there is no darkness, not the kind they imagine. Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture.” p44

“And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point.” p70 1934 in Paris.

“in a moment of disorientation, he feels that he’s looking not up but down, as though a spotlight has been shined into a wedge of bloodshot water, and the sky has become the sea, and airplanes are hungry fish, harrying prey in the dark.” p91

At a military training school for young Germans “You will become like a waterfall, a volley of bullets- you will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause. You will forgo comforts; you will live by duty alone. You will eat country and breathe nation.” p137

Marie Laure describing sand “It’s like cold silk. Cold, sumptuous silk onto which the sea has laid offerings: pebbles, shells, barnacles.” p232

“Don’t you ever get tired of believing, Madame? Don’t you ever want proof?” p292. There are so many different situations in life that I think this feeling relates to- moments of doubt and weakness.

“Marie-Laure paces the staircase, up and down, up and down, as though working her way up and down the spire of an enormous seashell.” p298

During a time when Marie-Laure is stuck in the attic while a soldier searches the house beneath: “Out in the world waits a multitude of sanctuaries- gardens full of bright green wind; kingdoms of hedges; deep pools of forest shade through which butterflies float thinking only of nectar. She can get to none of them.” p305

I have never read a better description of an adrenaline rush “The heart scrambling to deliver oxygenated blood, the mind scrambling to unravel the situation.” p312

Still stuck in the attic “Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and it’s string might sail out of your hands, forever.” p376

“For these past days- how many?- it has felt as though the hunger were a hand inside of him, thrusting around in the cavity of his chest, reaching up to his shoulder blades, then down into his pelvis. Scraping at his bones.” p449

“To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.” p476

My favourite quote of all is on p529:”Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programmes, of e-mail, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to Earth again, I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewellery ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel these paths?”

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“Inside the O’Briens” Lisa Genova

This one’s for you if you’re interested in Huntington’s disease and its effect on the patient and their family.

I love Lisa Genova. If you haven’t heard of her, I would thoroughly recommend “Still Alice”, “Left Neglect” and “Love Anthony”. She has a PhD in neuroscience and I think that puts her in a fantastic position to write novels about patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Neglect, Autism and Huntington’s respectively. “Inside the O’Brien’s” explores the effect of Joe, a policeman in an Irish community in Boston, being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. The book really makes you feel that you are on that tumultuous journey with the patient from their first symptoms through to diagnosis and on to acceptance. Huntington’s is particularly interesting to read about as it is a genetic disease with autosomal dominant inheritance which means that if one of your parents has it, each child has a 50:50 chance of also having the disease. As you can imagine, a single diagnosis can quickly grow into a family of patients, each with their own ticking time bomb. The question of whether or not you would want to be tested for the disease if one of your parents tested positive is one that seems impossible to answer. As a fan of yoga, I liked how yoga gave one of the characters strength to deal with this tragic situation. If you’d like to learn more about Huntington’s, or to donate to a charity which helps those having to deal with it here are a couple of links: http://www.hdscotland.org , http://hda.org.uk.

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you” The Gospel of Thomas, saying 70. Epigraph

“People didn’t have to involve their parents back then. Kids feared their parents more than they did the authorities.” p12

“So it’s all temporary from the start, and they don’t care about where they live as much as people do when they know they’re staying until they get put in a box.” p13

“People don’t forget anything, and who you’re from is as important as who you are.” p17

“Huntington’s destroyed her ability to walk and feed herself. It mutilated her good mood, her patience and reasoning. It strangled her voice and her smile. It stole her family and her dignity, and then it killed her.” p101

“She’d like to talk about JJ being HD positive, how she thinks of him differently now, as if he’s someone who’s already sick or damaged or even contagious, how she’s kind of afraid of him, which is ridiculous, but she can’t help it.” p153/4

“His fingers are flinching, playing Mozart on an invisible flute over the buttons of his uniform shirt, ignoring Joe’s commands, refusing to cooperate.” p201

“It was the humane thing to do. Joe takes note of the word human in humane, and yet that kind of “human” compassion is reserved only for animals, not for people.” p268 The context of this quote was their dog being put down.

The unfortunate pros/cons that come with so many modern medications: “So let’s give people facing a brutal terminal illness who probably already exhibit depression a drug that can exacerbate that depression and cause suicidal ideation. That’s a great f*****’ idea. But if Joe wants to treat his chorea, and he does, Tetrabenzine is the best and only thing they’ve got.” p285

“You can be in Downward Dog, hating every second of it. Or you can be in this pose, peaceful and non-reactive, breathing calmly. Either way, you’re in this pose. You decide the quality of your experience. Be the thermostat, not the temperature.” p286

“It’s as if the command centre for voluntary movement in his brain has been hijacked by a gang of naughty kids, and they’re in there maniacally laughing as they randomly, repetitively flip the switches.” p295

“Lotus flowers blossom while rooted in mud, a reminder that beauty and grace can rise above something ugly.” p333

“I am Pilgrim” Terry Hayes

This one’s for you if you love a thriller.

“I am Pilgrim” was the first thriller I have ever read, and it was a serious page turner. You’re sitting up in bed, gripping the book much harder than you realise, with your shoulders up at your ears, and your eyelids getting heavier with every second but the story pulling you further and further through its pages. The pure joy of reading! It is the story of a former intelligence agent and his efforts to thwart an act of biological warfare. The scary part? It could be true.

“People say love is weak, but they’re wrong: love is strong. In nearly everyone it trumps all other things- patriotism and ambition, religion and upbringing.” p62 I thought this was a beautiful point. It was raised in the book in the context that often under interrogation or pressure, what makes people ‘give in’ is their love for someone.

“If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go” p86

Taliban is the Arabic word for a person seeking religious knowledge p144

Al-Qaeda is Arabic for the law or the base p149

“It’s a terrible commentary of our times, when a suitcase nuclear bomb is more palatable than the truth” p355

“Some people say compassion is the purest form of love because it is neither expects nor demands anything in return” p416

“A shark hunts, but a crocodile lies silently in the reeds and waits for its prey to come to him.” p724 His point was that not every apex predator hunts, which is interesting.

“I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty; I woke, and found that life was duty.” p786

“how many great skills the world had lost, how many things of value had passed without any of us even noticing. The old men with their chisels and hand saws were once the most highly paid members of their community, and what had we put in their place? Financial engineers and young currency traders.” p878

“Cutting for Stone” Abraham Verghese

This one’s for you if you’re looking for a brilliant novel.

You know that feeling when you’re between books, and you just really want a novel to jump out and grab you? Well that’s what Cutting for Stone did for me. It has all the components of a great novel: triumphs, disasters, difficult relationships and moral dilemmas. Throw in a huge helping of beautiful language that a student of science can but marvel at, and its a winner. It is the story of conjoined twins born in Ethiopia in 1954- how they came to be, what happened as they grow up, and how their lives diverge and converge again. The author was born in Ethiopia in 1955 to Indian parents, where he started his medical education, before leaving to go to America because of civil unrest. This leaves you wondering how much of the story is autobiographical, to which I found some answers here. In my search for the answer to this question I also found this where I discovered how much the author wanted to show a different side of medicine to that which we see on TV.

Cutting for Stone is a longer book than the subjects of my previous posts so I’ve decided to split the quotes up into four themes. I would have loved to have given you more examples of his language but I felt like I had too many already- you’ll have to read the book!

MEDICINE

“You live it [life] forward, but understand it backward. It is only when you stop and look to the rear that you see the corpse caught under your wheel.” p9 In the context of a morbidity and mortality hospital.

“It was often the second mistake that came in the haste to correct the first mistake that did the patient in.” p116

“A rich man’s faults are covered with money, but a surgeon’s faults are covered with Earth.” p203

“When you are driving, you look to see where you are going, but when you make an incision, you look to see where you have been.” p494

LANGUAGE

“The city was at once dead and yet in continuous motion, like a blanket of maggots animating a rotting corpse.” p29

DIFFERENT CULTURES/COUNTRIES

“Its [a child] head had been shaved to leave a traffic island tuft in front; Hema was told when she first came to Ethiopia that this strange haircut was so that if God chose to take that child (and He took so many), the tuft gave Him a handle by which to lift it to heaven.” p91

“It was as if nothing I’d ever done in my life prior to this counted. As if my past life was revealed to be a waste, a gesture in slow motion, because what I considered scarce and precious was in fact plentiful and cheap, and what I counted as rapid progress turned out to be glacially slow.” p464

“Judging people to be beyond help never crossed the minds of police, firemen, or doctors here [America].” p477

“Whatever America needs, the world will supply. Cocaine? Colombia steps up to the plate. Shortage of firearms, corn detasselers? Thank God for Mexico. Baseball players? Viva the Dominican Republic.” p491

PROFOUNDITIES

“We come unbidden into this life, and if we are lucky we find a purpose beyond starvation, misery, and early death which, lest we forget, is the common lot.” p6

“What she couldn’t bear was the feeling that something vital had been plucked out and uprooted from her chest when we walked away…There was, she saw now, a void in her life that she’d never known existed.” p28

“Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?” p95

“What a bad idea it had been to give the Bible to anyone but priests, Ghosh thought. It made a preacher out of everybody.” p139

“How we treat the least of our brethren, how we treat the peasant suffering with volvulus, that’s the measure of this country. Not our fighter planes or tanks, or how big the Emperor’s place happens to be.” p184

“Years later, when Idi Amin said and did outrageous things, I understood that his motivation was to rattle the good people of Greenwich mean time, have them raise their heads from their tea and scones, and say, Oh, yes. Africa.” p288

“How could they find an enemy they couldn’t see, in a countryside where they didn’t speak the language and couldn’t tell civilians and sympathisers from guerrillas?” p444

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