Saturday, September 13, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Enchantress of Florence by Salmon Rushdie

My previous knowledge of Salmon Rushdie was that he had written a book which caused the Ayatollah to declare a fatwah on him. If you judge a man by his enemies, he's looking pretty good.

Coming into this book I had very little expectations, other than it might be a slightly literary work. I was very pleased to find it a joy to read. It follows the tale of a man who travels from Florence to tell the Emperor/Sultan a story of his mother, who is a lost princess. The story draws heavily on the myths and legends of Arabia, leading to an engaging sense of magical realism: the Emperor imagined his wife into existence, at one point the protagonist gains entry to the palace by using unguents which make everyone fall in love with him. This is cleverly contrasted with the more earthy world of Florence, where, if you believe the story, practically everyone is obsessed with having sex with one another, to the point where three young boys will run to a hanging to get a man's semen, so that they can grow a mandrake.

Not a story you could share with children then, but a fun one, and an engaging one. It conjures a wonderful, deep world, with fascinating characters, and made me want to spend lots of time enjoying this company. If I had a gripe with it it would be that the ending feels a little too tidy, a little too pat. I almost wanted more from it, maybe a sense of mystery or confusion, while the book mostly just ends. Still, I would happily recommend this book to all.

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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Books before I'm 30: The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

This book came recommended to me by multiple people. It is comprised of several case histories put together by Oliver Sacks, which focuses primarily on how neurological disfunctions can alter people's identity, or ability to identify others. The titular example is a man who cannot perceive the abstract: the only way he can perceive faces is by looking at details, which can often confuse, hence the attempt to put his wife onto his head.

 Sacks goes out of his way to humanise each case that appears in the book, and each persons struggles to maintain their sense of self. This includes studies of a woman who has lost the sense of her own body, and amnesiacs with very little sense of who they are now. At its best, the book can be quite moving as you see how much people can lose but still manage to carve out something of themselves. 

That said, I'm not sure the book completely works for me as a piece. The case histories are often quite disconnected, to the point where I feel like Sacks repeats himself. The language often varies quite a lot: it goes from lyrical descriptions of people's suffering to rather technical language which I'm afraid went over my head. A minor bug bear as well is that Sacks adds in his conversations with these people, which often sound like he is talking to himself.

Still a good work, and I imagine at its first release date quite a revolutionary one. The "World of the Simple" section where he suggests that people with severe mental retardation still have value strikes me as somewhat patronising, but that might be me looking at it from a more modern perspective.

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