Born on a Blue Day – Daniel Tammet

Years ago, I watched a BBC documentary on autistic savants in the world.  Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie, Rainman, was a contribution to the program, but another major focus was on a twenty-something Daniel Tammet.  He was filmed setting the European record for reciting over 22,000 digits of pi, the irrational number which has an infinite amount of decimal digits.  When I picked up ‘Born on a Blue Day,’ I didn’t have this person in mind, but it was a nice surprise to find his autobiography in the pages.

Tammet was the first born in a large family with many siblings, but the new parents could tell from an early age he was unlike most children.  He cried constantly and found it difficult to make friends in school.  His interests were fascinating but bordered on obsessions.  He collected hundreds of ladybirds over a period of weeks (lady bugs to the US readers) and proudly brought them to school one day.  He had thoroughly read about the insects and was excited to share the small pets to classmates and his teacher.  The teacher realized the bugs may live a better life in the wild, so he created a note to send Tammet out of the classroom while a classmate freed the insects outside.  Tammet was crushed and didn’t speak to the teacher for weeks.

Daniel also had a fascination with numbers from an early age.  He uses a rare case of synesthesia to develop visual images of numbers.  The number nine, for example, resembles tall figures, and the number six is represented by a dark hole.  Putting these figures together, he can quickly find arithmetic answers, and even large prime numbers (his favorite).  When he set the record for reciting the digits of pi, he created a landscape of the digits which helped him memorize the thousands of numbers in the correct order.

Tammet’s synesthesia not only gives him numerical gifts, it also allows him to learn foreign languages more easily than most.  One challenge given to him was to learn a language in less than a week, and speak fluently enough in it to be interviewed on a local news program in the native language.  The language chosen by producers was to be Icelandic.  It is a difficult language spoken by only around 300,000 people.  It was a great challenge, but Daniel was successful and gave a great interview on the local news program in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Though his gifts are now apparent, it wasn’t always that way.  As a child, Daniel had few friends. As is common with children with autism, he lacked emotional connections to peers, and found it difficult to maintain conversations. Daniel Tammet said of his experiences, “The very same abilities that had set me apart from my peers as a child and adolescent, and isolated me from them, had actually helped me to connect with other people in adulthood, and to make new friends.”

Currently, Daniel Tammet runs a successful website in the UK that provides language tutorials to consumers.  From a teacher’s prospective, Tammet is  an ideal model for many students with autism.  He has focused on his abilities to create a successful living and has overcome some challenges to become successful in the world.

 

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Nathaniel’s Nutmeg – Giles Milton

In the times of European colonization, the Spice Islands were a hot spot of trade.  The small archipelago is found surrounded by the Philippines to the North, Indonesia to the West, Papua-New Guinea to the East, and Australia to the South.  The islands are protected by reefs and steep, rocky coastlines, but their soils produced a wealth of spices, mainly nutmeg.  In the Sixteenth Century, European nations were pointed in the direction of these islands by traders near India.  Portugal, Spain, Holland, and Britain were the major countries pushing to find the source of the spices, which would reduce their cost and increase their profits, if the ships could survive the journey in between monsoons, hurricanes, and a murderous reef protecting the shoreline.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg took a strong focus in the English accounts of the period, but also provided a lot of Dutch perspective as well. These were the two main forces battling for control of the small islands.  Stories in letters from the time and company records were used to research and piece together the perilous adventures the seamen made.  While both sides were apt to brutality, this account puts the brunt of accusation on the Dutch, who even forced false confessions of an English uprising through relentless torture in Amboyna.

The book’s namesake, Nathaniel Courthope, a British subject, held control of the island, Run. For over four years, his forces starved as the nearby islands were controlled by the enemy Dutch forces.  With three ships left in the harbor, guns unloaded to fortify the island, two sailed away to secure provisions and were captured by the Dutch.  Nathaniel was trapped.  He attempted to sneak over to a nearby island to rally some troops and he was ambushed in the middle of the night in his small boat, never to be seen again.  The handful of British men left on Run gave up the island to the Dutch unopposed.

Much of the world’s history has been involved in the tale of these small islands. The book delved into the stories of adventures to find the fabled shortcuts to the islands, the Northeast Passage and Northwest Passage.  It told the story of the creation of the East India Trading Company, and the Dutch East India Trading Company, better known as the Seventeen.  It also told of how the Dutch and British came to a final agreement to settle ownership of the spice laden island of Run.  British forces captured New Amsterdam in the late Seventeenth Century, and both sides agreed to hold the respective colonies they acquired and to give up claim for the lost land in the Treaty of Breda.  This gave the English full sovereignty of New Amsterdam, which they quickly renamed New York and the rest is history.

The book was well researched and told of many aspects of the adventures seeking fortune in the spice trade.  With over two hundred years of stories, it was at times difficult to follow all of the names of the merchants and captains, along with the names of the distant islands, some now so small and insignificant they are hardly mentioned on maps. Even so, I really enjoyed learning about this subject and the book was a good source for that.

*******7/10

Twitter: @blookworm

Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story – Paul Aurandt

Hearing ‘The Rest of the Story’ programs by Paul Harvey was always a treat.  It has been several years since I’ve heard one on the radio.  I found this book last year and finally picked it up off the shelf and read it.  Most of the anecdotes are about 2-3 pages, all of them were interesting.  I’ll share a few here that I found especially captivating, without his signature suspense…

Chicago’s O’Hare airport is named for Butch O’Hare, a WWII hero, the Navy’s number-one ace, and the first naval aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The rest of the story centers around Butch’s father.  Artful Eddie worked for Al Capone in the 1920’s Chicago and lived comfortably.  He had no reason to turn on the master crook, but he did.  He made a decision to go straight for his son.  Capone’s men ended up killing Butch’s dad but without going against Capone, Artful Eddie’s son might not have ever had the opportunity to be the war hero he became.

A novel named ‘Futility’ described a gigantic ship which sunk after hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic.  The ship’s name was Titan, and along with the name and demise, it also shared similar dimensions to the real-life Titanic. With all of the similarities, ‘Futility’ is still considered a work of non-fiction, with no copyright infringements.  The reason is because the book was written in 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic set off on it’s fateful voyage.

In New Zealand, an old salt known as Pelorus Jack was known for leading vessels through the dangerous Cook Straight.  For years Jack led many boats through the challenging waters for no fee, as a kind of retirement.  After a long time in service, Jack disappeared and many knew that his time had come.  The rest of the story is that the Maori natives had a story that two men fell for the same maiden.  The one who lost the woman went into a rage and killed the other man and woman. The punishment was for the man to forever be reincarnated to be the Pilot of Pelorus Sound.  Jack was a Dolphin, and many of the locals believed he was this reincarnation.

All of the stories had that Paul Harvey signature, a very enjoyable feel of suspense as you read.  As the stories are all short, it makes is so difficult not to glance at the end of the story and reveal the rest of the story too soon!  This was a great read and different twist on history.

Rating: *********9/10

Twitter: @blookworm

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Ah, the great story-teller, Bill Bryson.  I have heard about many of his books but in my 32nd year on this planet, I have finally picked one up and turned the pages.

Moving  back to the states in the 1990s, Bryson settled in New Hampshire, just a few hundred yards from the great Appalachian Trail.  He heard stories of crazy hikers walking the trail in entirety, from Georgia to Maine, nearly 2200 miles, and decided to go on the big walk himself.  As he researched and bought camping equipment, he also sent out several letters inviting friends to accompany him on the trail.  Stephen Katz was an old friend who showed interest, they had, in fact, traveled Europe together several years before.  Bryson was a little leery because they had grown sick and tired of each others company after a few weeks together in Europe, but welcomed the friend to join if he thought he was up for it.  Katz showed up quite overweight and not looking like the image he portrayed to Bryson.  Katz was a former drug addict and alcoholic, who was currently walking everywhere anyway, because his license was revoked due to legal issues. Katz also had a medical condition in which he had to eat sugar frequently due to a bad batch of drugs in his not so distant past.  Not exactly the ideal partner for a 2000 mile walk in the wilderness.  Though his partner might have some difficulties, Bryson’s biggest fear became the realization that the wilderness held a multitude of deadly animals rarely seen from the public standpoint of cities and highways, more specifically, bears.  Bryson relayed several stories of bear attacks in the history of the trail, eventually coming to the conclusion that there was no sure way to avoid them, and no clear reason why they attack or why they may simply walk away from the fearful hikers. Other than bears, there were also venomous spiders, deadly snakes, mountain lions, and bobcats, though Bryson never confirmed a single sighting of any of these on his summer on the trail.

Bryson and Katz began in Georgia in March of 1996, hiking Northward.  It was hell starting the trail. Katz became frustrated and threw several packs of food and necessities to lighten his load, not even considering the situation he was in.  They had weighty packs and several days of snow and below freezing weather those first few weeks.  One evening, they opened their tents to find snow waist-deep.  They slowly hiked through and by the end of the day the sun had melted most of it.  The most joyful parts of the book were when they happened to be close enough to a town to restock supplies, stay in a hotel, and have a restaurant dinner- always a welcomed treat in comparison with the daily ration of noodles they came to tolerate. After several weeks, they reached Virginia where they took a break from the trail.  Katz went back to Iowa to work construction for a few weeks while Bryson returned home.  During those weeks, Bryson took day hikes to stay in shape and hiked several mountains near New Hampshire.  One hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains quickly found him on the edge of hypothermia.  He had started on a sunny July morning and the sudden mountainous weather had changed for a freezing fog half way to a lodge he was headed to.  Being that it was sunny most days, he had only packed a sweater for warmth and neglected to pack waterproofs.  The cold and moisture was penetrating.  For over an hour he bared the elements and made it to the lodge just in time to warm up and drink some hot coffee while the the weather turned back to the sunny day that it had started with.

Katz returned in August and the pair went off to hike the end of the trail in Maine.  Though it is the last 200 miles, the trail in Maine is torturous.  Thick woods and large elevation changes make the trail a real challenge.  They planned on going through the 100 Mile Woods, then to the summit of Katahdin to finish the summer.  After hiking a few days, they made it several miles into the 100 Mile Woods when Bryson left Katz to go ahead on the trail and filter and refill the water bottles.  When Bryson went to find Katz he was nowhere to be found.  Bryson walked several miles up and down the trail looking for any sign of Katz. Fearing the worst, he even looked over the cliffs to check if his friend had taken a fall to his death.  No sign of Katz.  Bryson set up camp and decided to continue on the trail in the morning in the case that Katz might have missed the rendezvous and was ahead of him.  Sure enough he was waiting several miles ahead and they agreed that it was time to head home.

As a part-time traveler, this book was a nice read.  I’m not sure I would ever be up for conquering the trail, but it was an entertaining read.  I enjoyed the stories Bryson supplemented about the history of dangerous tales of the trail.  It would really make a gung-ho, aspiring hiker think twice about wandering off into the woods for a few weeks. The details of the scenery, the towns, and people Bryson encountered made the book a complete modern adventure, and I have to say I look forward to more from Bryson when the time comes.

Rating: *********9/10

Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love in the Time of Cholera was my first experience in reading Nobel Prize winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The mix of love and heartache made this a great read.
The book opened with Dr. Juvenal Urbino providing his professional expertise to the death of his friend, Jeremiah de Saint Amour.  Later that day, Dr. Urbino, too, would meet his fate.  The real story, however was the relationship of Dr. Urbino’s wife, Fermina Daza, and her childhood sweetheart, Florentino Ariza.

Florentino Ariza  became entranced with the school girl as soon as he saw her while delivering a telegram to her father.  She was constantly escorted by her aunt and that left little chances of Florentino Ariza making her acquaintance.  Aunt Escolastica realized the young man who always sat waiting in the park nearby reading poetry was waiting on Fermina Daza. So she did her best to provide the opportunity for him to approach the young lady.  For months he continued this habit until he was brave enough to approach and ask the aunt to give them some privacy.  He delivered her a letter and asked if he could speak to her in the future.  Love letters began and continued for a couple of years until Fermina Daza’s father requested a meeting with Florentino Ariza.  Lorenzo Daza demanded the boy leave his daughter alone and Florentino refused. The father believed his daughter was worthy of a more distinguished suitor. Lorenzo Daza sent his daughter away to live with her late mother’s family to let the love cool down. As Florentino worked in the telegraph office, he made the connections to send messages back and forth with Fermina during her time away.  Suddenly upon her return, Fermina realized she did not truly love Florentino and left him.  Florentino’s heart was broken to the point of illness.

Dr. Urbino soon met the Daza family and began courting the young woman as well.  With more success, Dr. Urbino found Fermina’s father Lorenzo agreeing to the marriage.  Fermina and Dr. Urbino were married for 50 years, while Florentino Ariza patiently waited for Dr. Urbino’s death for his second chance with his true love, Fermina Daza.

Fermina Daza’s marriage was filled with little love.  After the death of her husband, Florentino soon returned to proclaim his love for her. She still did not love him, but in fact, resented him for calling on her so soon after her husband died.  Florentino did not give up, he began writing her again.  These later letters were not so much love letters, but more of a philosophy of love, which struck a chord with her.  She began inviting him to weekly tea, which turned into a weekly card game with her son and his wife.

The books theme revolved around the sickness of heartbreak. During Florentino Ariza’s lowest points, his mother feared he had cholera as physical illness joined the emotional sickness of the heartbroken.  He spent many lonely years longing to rejoin his sweetheart, passing the time with 622 lovers who each paled in comparison to the sweet Fermina. At one point in the story, he saw her in a mirror in a restaurant, and watched her eat and talk with friends and family for over an hour.  He then offered the proprietor anything he could to buy the mirror off the wall and take it home.

While most of the book was sad, you couldn’t help but cheer on Florentino Ariza as he waited patiently and then seized the opportunity to again pursue his love.  In reality, he was not the most likable character.  The women he found love with included a 14 year-old girl he was the guardian of, along with 621 other women, often widows and married mistresses. However, the heartache he suffered and pain he felt made the reader sympathize with the character and hope that it all worked out in the end.

Rating: ********8/10

Twitter: @blookworm

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

I wanted to see this movie since I saw the first preview, but never did.  I found the book in a secondhand store and decided it would probably be a better read anyway, and it sat for months.  Finally I’ve read it, and I’m sure the movie is good, but aren’t the books always better?  I have my own image of Oskar, his family, the friends he meets and places he goes all floating in my imagination, and no matter how good the movie is, it can’t beat my own inventions of the characters.

Oskar is a nine year-old boy who lost his father two years ago in the World Trade Center on 9-11.  He has a brilliant imagination, but struggles so much from the sudden loss of his best friend and dad, Thomas.  The book triangulates between Oskar’s adventure of finding the lock to match a key he found in a new vase his father had hidden in his room, and letters from Oskar’s grandpa to his son (Oskar’s dad), and letters from Oskar’s grandma to Oskar.

Oskar’s grandparents grew up in Dresden, which was bombed in WWII while they were growing up.  Oskar’s grandpa, Thomas Sr., was in love with Anna (Oskar’s grandma’s sister) and she died in the bombing.  Thomas Sr. was devastated by the loss and happened to bump into her sister years later when they both moved to New York City.  They married and settled down, but both struggled with the loss of Anna.  Soon, Thomas Sr. decided to leave as he felt he wasn’t living or loving as he wished he could, but just before he left his wife confessed she was pregnant.  Thomas Sr was torn, but wrote letters to his unborn son every day, and continued to do so to the day he found out his son died decades later.

The key Oskar found was in an envelope that had the word ‘Black’ written on it in red ink, which led Oskar to believe it was a name, not a color.  He embarked on a journey to find every person in the phone book named ‘Black’ and ask them if they knew what the key was for.  He met many nice people along the way.  A favorite character of mine was A. R. Black, a 103 year-old man who happened to live in the apartment above Oskar.  He was a war correspondent and traveled extensively to cover news of the wars through the years.  He collected many things and had a passion for life.  He was once engaged to F Scott Fitzgerald’s sister.  Mr. Black and Oskar became close and they went together for months searching for the other ‘Blacks’.

The book has many clues throughout it, and many connections between characters and events, so it makes it a little difficult to write about without giving much away.  I liked that.  I think mourning and dealing with the loss of loved ones ties everything together.  Thomas Sr. wandered around lost, trying to get on with life after he lost Anna, but never settling kept him from ever knowing his son.  Oskar was also wandering around New York searching for the lock that matched his key, as a way of finding closure from losing his father. We might never understand why people are taken from our lives, why they die, or why they leave, but the book does a good job of looking into it, and showing the different perspectives.

Rating: *********9/10