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.

 

Veronica Decides to Die – Paulo Coelho

As morbid and depressing as the title seems, this Coelho book takes the usual turn for understanding of the universe and an inspiration for readers to strive not to settle into the kind of routine they don’t wish to be in.  Coelho’s books have been NY Times Best Sellers and translated into dozens of languages, he’s one of the top selling modern authors.  It just takes one book to understand why, and this book certainly fits into that category.

Veronica is a young woman with a happy life.  She has loving parents and a nice job.  She lives in Ljubljana, the capital city of the newly formed country of Slovenia (after the Yugoslavian civil war). With as many positives points in her life, Veronica found nearly as much sadness.  She believed the routine of her life was inconsequential and secretly vowed to kill herself to leave the world behind.  After feigning sleeplessness, she collected strong sleeping pills and went about the deed.  She slowly fell into a drowsy state, but the peaceful death was not coming, a burning throughout her body led her into a coma and she woke in the infamous Villette hospital for the mentally insane.  Upon waking, the doctor told the girl she would survive, but her heart had taken the toll from the suicide attempt.  The state her heart was in, she could expect a week of life before she succumbed to the death she had wished for.

Not to give too much away, Veronica reluctantly made friends, and rediscovered her passion for the piano.  In fact, her piano playing was said to lift many spirits in the gloomy hospital.  With a week left to live, what would you do? Veronica searched her soul and others joined.  Her weak heart pushed the limits and she found herself having heart-attacks through the week.

In a previous interview, Coelho explained his need to write this book.  He had been put into a mental asylum himself as a young man. Coelho even modeled a character in the book after himself. His parents expected him to become an engineer, but his thirst for writing could not allow him to complete the studies the family expected of him.  He made his way out and the rest is history.

Whether you’re feeling ‘in a rut’ or just enjoy Coelho’s books, this is a good read.  Coelho never lets you down. Enjoy.

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Hashimoto – Jack Douglas

A couple of years ago, I saw a simple paperback book listed on eBay, which was selling for over $200.  I was intrigued as I had got into a little buying and selling, so I’ve always kept my eyes out for this book: The Japanese-Jewish Sex and Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves by Jack Douglas.  I’ve never seen the book, but I have found a few other books by the author and I have finally got around to reading one- The Adventures of Huckleberry Hashimoto.

The name of the book is based on a nickname a family friend gave the Douglas’ son, Bobby.  Jack and his Japanese wife, Reiko, (20 years his junior) take their infant son on a summer tour of the Orient in the early 1960s.  The family takes the train from NYC to LA, then a ship from the California coast to Tahiti, fly to Honolulu, then fly to Japan to meet Reiko’s family.  If you can imagine what a comedy writer would write in the 1960s, that just about covers the bases.  He [lovingly] complains about wife, kid, locals, etc.  At one point he even calls a friend’s 16 year old daughter ‘sexy’.  I hadn’t heard of Douglas before these books, but apparently he was a popular comedy writer in those days.  He mentions a lot of ‘famous’ people he knew, but I hardly had heard of any of them.  I think I’ve heard of Jack Paar, but I can’t be 100% on that.

Apart from the apparent change in taboo topics from that era, there were many funny parts of the book.  He tells of the way strangers address each other when approaching on a cruise ship: “Well- We meet again,” (followed by a small chuckle), “You’re not walking a straight line,” and “Well- drunk again!” Douglas tells of a short anecdote of cold coffee in Tahiti.  None of the coffee pots have lids, so it cools faster.  The shipment of coffee pots was separate from the lids, and unfortunately, the lids ended up in Samoa where they were sold, then sold again to tourists as the top of Robert Louis Stevenson’s last coffee pot.

In Japan, Douglas told of how he learned to gain patience as the Japanese side of the family had many customs to adhere to.  One involved the changing of shoes.  Shoes worn outside are not allowed to be worn indoors, so slippers are worn when walking through hallways (bare or stocking feet only in bedrooms), the bathrooms have separate bathroom slippers, then the commode has built in ceramic slippers one has to stand in to do their duty.  Another story involved Reiko buying a hair barrette.  The announced her intentions to her parents, who discussed it with her for 15 minutes.  It was decided. They would buy the hair barrette (four cents).  Then another 15 minute discussion was presented to find where they would go to buy the barrette, and another 15 minutes to decide which store to buy it from.  At the street outside, they had another 15 minute discussion to decide if they would walk the two blocks or take a taxi (walking was decided because it didn’t make much sense to spend more on a taxi than a barrette).  When they reached the market, another 15 minute discussion took place to decide to go a few more blocks to the cheaper market, which upon arriving they found that a four cent hair barrette was no cheaper, and they did not have the gold colored one Reiko wanted.  The shop owner provided drinks and they had another lengthy discussion and it was decided Reiko would get the silver barrette and if she was not happy in a couple of weeks she could return it with a full refund.  They took the taxi home.

This was a book I had looked forward to, though there were some funny parts, I can’t say it was my favorite.  I have another book by him, ready to read, but not necessarily at the top of my list at this time.  It was a short book, a quick read, and I think I will read more of his work one day, but it might be a while before I ‘find the time’ for it.

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

Wake Up, Sir! – Jonathan Ames

Just after I completed college, a friend attempted to introduce me to ‘Bored to Death,’ an HBO series starring Jason Schwartzman.  I just couldn’t get into it- a whiny lead and his misfit friends, a 60-something ‘New Yorker’ editor and pot-addict, Ted Danson, and a lazy, self-depreciating cartoonist, Zach Galifaikis.  Several years later, I saw the series on Amazon Prime and revisited to give it another try.  It hit me, surprisingly, and I binged through all three seasons in about a week.  I’ve watched it all the way through again since then.

I was pleased to find a book authored by the same writer of the series at a thrift store earlier this year.  In my mind, Schwartzman played the lead again, along with all the eccentricities that were included.  Written as a first-person narrative, the book ‘Wake Up, Sir!’ is a week long adventure that explores the hero’s struggles with alcoholism.  Alan Blaine is the lead.  He’s working on a novel that explains his odd relationship with his former roommate, an older man who escorts rich old widows in NYC.  Blaine is thirty years old, orphaned, and living with his aunt and uncle and Montclaire, New Jersey.  He has an affinity for sports jackets and wine. Recently, Blaine had won a lawsuit after slipping on ice and put the money to good use, hiring a valet named Jeeves (a nice nod to the Wodenhouse character).  The novelist’s first book was met with mediocre success, and he has his sights on making a bigger splash with his second work. Tired of avoiding his NRA-card-carrying uncle, Blaine decides to bring Jeeves to upstate NY and spend time writing in a Hasidic community, Sharon Springs.  The aunt and uncle were in agreement, and casually mentioned that they had planned on asking him to leave due to his excessive drinking. On the way, he called to check in with his aunt, but his uncle told him an artist colony Blaine had applied to had accepted him.  With changing plans, Blaine made a shorter visit to Sharon Springs.  The hotel he planned to stay in had a massive fire, but Blaine charmed his way into an undamaged double room where Jeeves could join him.  A curiousity had overcome him while calling his uncle and he returned to the phone booth in a drunken state later that night to call ‘Debbie,’ the name from a hand written advertisement that stated she likes her have her ‘kitten’ kissed, along with a phone number.  Well, Debbie showed up, with her boyfriend.  The boyfriend was a giant of a man, referred to as ‘Hill’.  Hill beat up on Blaine and broke his nose, but then Blaine kicked Hill’s knee and punched him in the ear, dropping him and allowing for a brisk escape for the hero.  The next day, Blaine and Jeeves showed up to the Rose Colony with two black eyes and a broken nose.  This appearance intrigued the fellow guests and he quickly made friends, and enemies.  Though Blaine swore off alcohol after the violent episode, he continued to indulge nightly as it was practically a ritual with the artists at the Rose Colony.  Each night brought further escalating malady, until Blaine found himself in the biggest scandal of the colony’s history.

This was a fun read, the main character posed many interesting questions in his thoughts: Why are Jews always persecuted?  Why are the Hebrews in so much popular media, but in so few numbers; what if roles were reversed with the Chinese?  What do you call the erotic infatuation with another human’s nose?

I hope to someday find another book by Ames in the future, but until then, Bored To Death will be on queue.

The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

It’s easy to love this book, but hard to find a place to start explaining it.  Anybody who has had a best friend with four legs and a wagging tail will understand immediately.  The Art of Racing in the Rain is a story of a race car driver, as told by his best friend and dog, Enzo.  The story moves through highs and lows but they stick together through it all.

Enzo is a lab mix, who dreams of the day his soul will be reborn as a human.  He has so much to say, but a long flat tongue gets in the way so he uses gestures to the best of his ability. His ‘master’ is Denny, and young racer who has dreams of becoming a professional driver.  After a couple of years as bachelors, the pair meets Eve, a woman who Denny eventually marries, and they have a daughter, Zoe.  Together, the family enjoys the time they spend together. After six years of marriage, Eve is diagnosed with a brain tumor, a terminal diagnosis.  Her parents are helpful and watch Zoe a lot, and offer to bring Eve into their home for hospice style care.  Denny is reluctant but knows they have the time and money to help her and so he supported Eve’s decision to stay with them.  Soon, they also point out that Zoe should spend more time with her mom before she loses her, and again, Denny reluctantly agrees.  Eve eventually passed and Denny was heartbroken.  To make matters worse, Eve’s parents present Denny with a custody suit for Zoe.  Denny was confident that there didn’t seem to be much of a case, but a ghost in Denny’s past came in and the cards were soon stacked against him.  He had to spend his life savings, and go into debt to fight for his daughter.

The story alone is gripping, but through the perspective of a loyal dog-friend adds even more to it.  Denny was a racer, and together, Denny and Enzo spent a lot of time watching race videos, analyzing them and learning how Denny could become a better driver.  Enzo loved it!  All throughout the book, Enzo was relating race mantras to the readers.

“The car goes where the eyes go.”

“There is no dishonor in losing the race. There is only dishonor in not racing because you’re afraid to lose.”

“It makes one realize that the physicality of our world is a boundary to us only if our will is weak; a true champion can accomplish things that a normal person would think impossible.”

“That which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny. Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.”

I can’t really say I’m much of a race fan, but this book was much more than that.  As I finished, I sat the book down and thought of all of my dog friends I grew up with with fond memories, and imagined them running through endless fields with their tails wagging. It has been one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote

This morning, I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a novella by Truman Capote.  I had read In Cold Blood several years ago, and find some similarities in the characterization, but little else as the narrative follows a fictional relationship between two people in New York. It was a nice short read, the characters were pitiful, but that just makes you love them more.

The narrator, a young writer, is pleased with finally finding a home of his own in a brownstone apartment in New York.  A neighbor has moved in, a young woman named Holly Golightly who spends days sleeping and nights entertaining older gentlemen.  Holly is a character if there ever was one, a self described nut who ran a way from her Texas home at fourteen. She had married the horse doctor who had taken her in, but ran away because she never felt at home.  She went to Hollywood and was on the verge of becoming a star, when she ran again to New York.  She went on many dates and flirted money right out of the pockets of wealthy older gentlemen. Holly ended up with a Brazilian diplomat, preparing to marry him and move to Rio when her world came crashing down as she was arrested for involvement with a notorious gangster.  The gangster, Sally Tomato, was visited by Holly every Thursday, she delivered coded messages to him, unknowingly, but she thought the ‘weather reports’ were a cute game. Pregnant and shattered by the news of the diplomats decision to leave her, she decided to take the flight to Brazil and leave it all behind, facing indictment for fleeing the prosecution.

The two central characters, the narrator and Holly Golightly, were polar opposites.  The narrator was proud to have a place to call home and Holly was never able to find a home to settle in.  This freedom and stability issue was continuous throughout the text.  One Christmas, they exchanged gifts.  Holly gave the man an elaborate birdcage, a home for avian, while he gave her a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of safe travel. At the end of the book, Holly had sent a post card stating she had found a home in Buenos Aires, the the narrator had spend much of his time traveling the world, their roles seemingly reversed.