Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Alchemist's Daughter by Katharine McMahon

Autumn has come to Brussels. The leaves are changing colour and the air is more damp. Today, however, as I write this we have a wonderful sunny day with blue sky and clear air. Over 22 C I would say. A book suitable for this time of the year is the Alchemist's Daughter. I got it on a book swapping day and it has been on my shelves for some time. A fascinating book, full of the earth and dampness of the autumn and with a story that takes twists and turns all the time.

Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition and from antiquity onwards it has claimed to be the precursor to profound powers. The definitions are varied but some of them more common ones historically are the creation of the fabled philosopher's stone, the ability to make gold or silver and the development of an elixir of life. It is today recognised as a contribution to modern chemistry and medicine but differs from them in its inclusion of Hermetic principles and practices related to mythology, magic, religion and spirituality (these definitions from Wikipedia).

This description fits well in describing this book. It includes, science, philosophy, religion and magic. It tells the story of Emilie who is the only child of John Selden, know as the alchemist. He comes from a long line of scientist and his all life is spent within the sphere of natural philosophy and alchemistry. He educates his only daughter to go in his footsteps.

The story starts when Emilie is around 19 years old. We get to know that her mother died when she was born and she has been raised by her father who has taught her all he knows about science and alchemy. She has been his own scientific experiment. Her father has - as the scientist he is - kept an 'Emilie Notebook' where everything about her is written down, but she is not allowed to see it.  She

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Being There by Jerzy Kosinski

I got this book from my son who had to read it in school for his English class. I say had to read, because for him it is almost a punishment to read a book. Unfortunately, he is not so fond of reading as I am myself. This is really an easy read, a very thin book but it says it all. I remember the film when it came in 1979 starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine and I always wanted to see it but never got around. Well, it is not too late to watch the movie yet.

The book is about a gardener named Chance. He has lived his whole life in a room adjacent to a closed in garden in a big house in New York. It is owned by the Old Man as Chance calls him. We don't get to know too much about him only that he has 'taken care of' Chance and given him this position. Chance has never left the house. It is hinted that he might be the son of the Old Man but it is not for sure. He has been given a room, a TV and a job as a gardener and this is his whole life. When his work with the garden is finished he goes to his room and spends the evening watching TV.

Then one day the Old Man dies. The lawyers who take care of the estate are somewhat puzzled since there is not track on paper that Chance has been employed. There are neither any birth certificate, no passport, no id whatsoever. He has to leave the house with his suitcase. Difficult to say his age but I would guess around 40. This is the first time he is outside the house. The first time he tries to cross the street he has a small accident and is slightly hit by a limousine owned by another rich guy called Rand. Mrs Rand is in the car and feel obliged to take him home to be nursed. That is how he ends up in this house of an important business person who is also close to the president.

Mr Rand takes a liking to him and thinks he is something of a genius. Chance only speaks in metaphors connected to the garden since this is the only reference he has. However, everybody thinks he has a insight in the presently bad economic situation and he becomes the hero of the day. He meets the President, makes TV interviews and are popular on all kinds of gatherings in the political elite.

Here an extract when he meets the President first time in a private meeting with Mr Rand. The President asks him what he thinks about the bad season in The Street.

'Finally, he spoke: 'In a garden,' he said, 'growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severd, all is well and all will be well.' He raised his eyes. Rand was looking at him, nodding. The President seemed quite pleased.
'I must admit, Mr Gardiner,' the President said, 'that what you've just said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I've heard in a very, very long time.' He rose and stood erect, with his back to the fireplace. 'Many of us forget that nature and society are one! Yes, though we have tried to cut ourselves off from nature, we are still part of it. Like nature, our economic system remains, in the long run, stable and rational and that's why we must not fear to be at its mercy. 'The President hesitated for a moment, then turned to Rand. 'We welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, yet we are upset by the seasons of our economy! How foolish of us!' He smiled at Chance. 'I envy Mr. Gardiner his good solid sense. This is just what we lack on Capital Hill.' 

A wonderfully written, rather short book.  The language is as simple, beautiful and straightforward as the mind of Chance. A refreshing book in this complicated world of today. I can highly recommend this book.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The End of your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

This is one of the books I grabbed at Sterlings bookshop the other day. The title had my attention right away. Anything with a book club in it because it has to be a book about books. This is so much more. The writer has written a book about the books he and his mother are reading after she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The mother was always a great reader and loved books. They decided to have a book club between the two of them. They decided on the books, read them and discussed them, often while waiting for the chemo therapy.

This could easily be a very sentimental book but it is not. It is all through written in a matter of fact way and keeps a wonderful balance between the terrible times that are coming, a son's love for this mother and how to create quality time together.

The mother Mary Anne Schwalbe seems to have been a wonderful person. Full of energy and care for everyone around her. She was working all her life (not so common for women to work when she was young) as well as raising a family of three children. She was active in teaching, international humanity organisations and had a never ending regard for refugees around the world. Her last project was a library project in Afghanistan. A quite fantastic woman.
The son, Will, does not understand how she can always be so present and always seem to pay attention to all the people around her. For him, and as I am sure, for a lot of us we simply can't always give our attention like that. He found out when he was accompanying here to an IRC dinner that she was invited to:

'Held in the cavernous gilded ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the dinner and award ceremony were powerful and moving as always. I watched Mom greet people, dozens and dozens of people.
How do you do that? How do you talk to fifty or a hundred different people without interrupting them or yourself? And I understood suddenly what Kabat-Zinn  means about mindfulness - it isn't a trick or a gimmick. It's being present in the moment. When I'm with you, I'm with you. Right now. That's all. No more and no less.'

...and later in the evening

'"The worse it gets in Afghanistan," she added, "the more convinced I am that we need to see this library project through. It may not be the biggest thing we can do, but it's something. And we've just got to do something".

Monday, 2 September 2013

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell

The Sterling Bookshop in Brussels had an open day on Saturday 31 August to inaugurate their new book cafe. I had to have a look of course and being in a bookshop I had to buy a few books. I managed to limit myself to two! One of them is a really funny book on Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops collected by Jen Campbell. The comments come from The Edinburgh Bookshop, and the Ripping Yarns bookshop in London and from some other bookshops around the world. I inaugurated the cafe and started to read this easily read book. I was sitting there on my own and laughing about the hilarious comments people make. It continued during my metro ride home and during cooking dinner in the evening. For your benefit and as a teaser I quote some of the comments here.

Customer: I read a book in the sixties. I don't remember the author, or the title. But it was green, and it made me laugh. Do you know which one I mean?

Customer: Do you have any books by Jane Eyre?

Customer: Do you have any books in this shade of green, to match the wrapping paper I've bought?

Customer: What kind of bookshop is this?
Bookseller: We're an antiquarian bookshop.
Customer: Oh, so you sell books about fish.

Customer: I'm going to America next year and I'd like to read about it before I go.
Bookseller: Sure, our travel section's probably your best bet.
Customer: No, i don't think so...Do you have any stories about cowboys and Indians?
Bookseller: ...

...and many many more. Read, enjoy and laugh!