Christmas 2010 brought me a significant number of new books. Below are some of the books that recently have been or still are on my reading table. Feel free in the comments section to share what falls under your bedside light.
The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks — I finished this book several weeks ago, its stories as fascinating as the narratives of other books by Sacks I've read. Imagine being, like Sacks, unable to recognize faces; of being a neurobiologist unable to see in 3D; of performing as a concert pianist who cannot read notes; of losing your entire visual memory. Sacks relates these challenges in his characteristic style, often in wonder at our abilities to compensate for what we have lost, to both "see" and communicate with "the mind's eye". Of particular note is Sacks' chapter "Persistence of Vision" in which he shares excerpts from his own journal about the loss of his vision on one side because of a tumor on his eye. Book-related videos are available here.
✦ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot — I've just begun reading this story of Virginia-born Lacks, whose genetic material, known as "HeLa cells" and taken during surgery without Lacks' knowledge and consent, have been used in scientific research, from the development of a polio vaccine to in vitro fertilization and gene mapping. We all in some way have benefited from Lacks' unwitting contribution. So far, this has been a wonderful read.
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, Lauren Redniss — The unusual size, the tactile cover, and great title all drew me to open the pages of this book and quickly add it to my stacks. Everything about it but especially its marvelous images produced from cyanotype printing make this unique.
✦ The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, Don Thompson — A gift from my step-son, this book, first published in 2008, promises to take this reader into the "secret world" of art auctions, behind the scenes at art fairs, and toward an understanding of the psychology of art pricing.
✦ Half in Love, Linda Gray Sexton — I was disappointed in this much-hyped chronicle of the attempts of Sexton to overcome the pull to take her own life and to emerge whole from what the author describes as "the legacy of suicide" inherited from her mother, the poet Anne Sexton. The scene the writer describes at the opening are told with disturbing clarity, and Sexton's fascination with cutting herself (a fact about her I did not know until I read this memoir) is itself fascinating. But sections of the book, especially the dulling repetitions in uninteresting detail of her many depressive and manic episodes, are reduced to the bathetic (to wit, such all-too-common descriptions as "We watched television in the evenings, especially the history and the cooking channels...."), and the last several chapters added little value and could have been cut with no damage to the more than 300-page book.
✦ Running the Books, Avi Steinberg — The subtitle of this book describes all you need to know: "The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian".
✦ The Turquoise Ledge, Leslie Marmon Silko — Tucson, Arizona, resident Silko, the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, relates family history as she constructs a self-portrait from memories of walking old trails and criss-crossing arroyos, intent to "release my mind into a less self-conscious state where I could better perceive the delicacy of the light and the dawn moisture in the breeze."
✦ The Pages of Day and Night, Adonis, translated by Samuel Hazo — I had not read much of this influential Syria-born poet's work until purchasing this 1994 collection. Prolific (he's written more than 20 books), Adonis defines poetry as "an act without a beginning or an end. It is really a promise of a beginning, a perpetual beginning." As he also says in his Preface, he "write[s] in a language that exiles me."
. . . I broke away
and watched until
I swayed like a wave
between the life
I dreamed and the changing
dream I lived.
~ From "The Passage"
The collection includes the essay "Poetry and Apoetical Culture", translated from the French by Esther Allen.
Readers not familiar with Adonis may be interested in the background provided in the New York Times article "A Revolutionary of Arabic Verse".
Poetry from Paradise Valley, edited by Edward Byrne — This collection, celebrating the first decade of poetry from Valparaiso Poetry Review, is available directly from Pecan Grove Press. It's a wonderful anthology, limited to 50 poets, including Kwame Dawes, Claudia Emerson, Patricia Fargnoli, Dorianne Laux, Diane Lockward, Stanley Plumley, Brian Turner, and Charles Wright. I've read the poems several times already.
✦ Silver Roses, Rachel Wetzsteon — Anyone familiar with the late poet's Sakura Park or earlier work will want to add this posthumous collection. The poems are characteristic of Wetzsteon's elegant and passionate style, sustained vision, and command of stunning imagery. One of my favorite poems is "Gold Leaves" in which Wetzsteon urges that "someone" write about "stage three of alchemy": "not inauspicious metal turned into / a gilded page, but that same page turned back / to basics when you step outside for air / and feel a radiance that was not there / the day before, your sidewalks lined with gold."