The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway
The author is a young man who at the time of writing the book was teaching creative writing at UBC and Simon Fraser University. This gripping novel, based on fact, is heart-rending as it details the lives of three people trying to survive the appalling siege of Sarajevo, the longest in the history of modern warfare. 10,000 people died and this was only thirteen years ago. Read this book and then The Sun Climbs Slow.

A Fair Country, by John Ralston Saul. The author proposes and makes an excellent case that the basic soul of this country is aboriginal, and that our society is turning towards the inclusive aboriginal way of thinking. One story stands out for me. When the first aboriginal leaders were taken to England, they were appalled to see people starving, and wearing rags. Their society did not allow such inhumane treatment. Nor should we.

My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD. is a remarkable book by a neuroanatomist who at the age of thirty-seven had a massive stroke from a cardiovascular malformation that burst, flooding the left side of her brain with blood.
She has written a chronicle of the time from that day to her complete recovery(except for math) eight years later. Although I found much of her language flowery and fanciful, her insights, forty of them stated succinctly in an appendix, should be required reading for anyone caring for people who have suffered a neurological assault.
As for the rest, some of it is inspiring, and some of it sounds a little peculiar, such as a chapter in which she details how she talks to her cells, much as others talk to their plants.
Her achievement in recovery is nonetheless astonishing.
She works for an organization that encourages individuals to leave their brains to science, for the study of physical and mental illness. Something to consider telling your executor.

Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of
Alexander Graham Bell
, by Charlotte Gray. HarperCollins Canada, 2006.

Alexander Graham Bell, claimed by Canada as one of her own, was born in Scotland, lived a short time in Ontario, and spent most of his adult life between the United States, and the Bras D’Or Lake district in Cape Breton.
I enjoyed this book, both for its academic side, the exhaustive well-researched record of Bell’s life, and for the story of his marriage to Mabel, without whom he likely would not have survived.
His work for and with the deaf, including his mother, his wife, and Helen Keller, was interesting, inventive and all-consuming. He developed a system of spelling words, with one hand , into Mabel’s hand. Throughout their life, they were always seen holding hands as they talked and talked. This was also the method that Annie Sullivan first used to communicate with Helen Keller.
For me, this is Mabel’s story: her triumph over deafness, living a full life integrated into her society, the one she wanted to belong to, her strength of character and practical nature, and her tolerance and understanding of her husband’s eccentric genius.
One thread that needs further exploration is the conflict between those who think that the deaf should live within their own culture, with their own language (American Sign) and those that think their life shouldn’t include lip-reading, attempts at speech, or cochlear implants.
Finally, through their lives, we see Victorian daily life, both in America and in Nova Scotia.
I hope the companion book, the story of Mabel Bell, from her point of view is written one day.

The Film Club, A true story of a father and son, by David Gilmour. Thomas Allen, Publishers, 2007
David Gilmour had a son, a boy, suddenly grown into a man’s body, foundering in a school system that couldn’t keep his interest and was killing his spirit. The father decided to let his son drop out of school with the only requirement being no drugs and attendance at the film school in their living room. The book is the story of those years, from Dad’s point of view. A picture emerges of the transition from boyhood to man’s estate, sometimes so intimate I wondered what Jesse thought of the being exposed in this way.
Gilmour takes us inside Jesse’s skin, but also his own. He struggled in those years, to make a living in what ever way he could in jobs from television to supply teaching. Now of course he is the acclaimed winner of the Governor General’s award for Fiction (2005).
During the education through film, he drew Jesse’s attention to the telling line or that moment that defines a film. When you read The Film Club, wait for the scene in Cuba. That moment defines Gilmour’s love for his son.
When I was reading this book, I felt as though I was involved in a conversation with the writer, intimate, personal and absorbing. A lovely book.

The Meaning of Everything: The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester. Oxford University Press, 2003.

The story of the making of the Oxford English dictionary ought to be dry, academic and tedious. Instead it is entertaining, full of drama and brinkmanship, a host of eccentric characters and unlikely heroes. Only in England would a major reader and reviewer of pages also be a convicted murderer who sent his work in from prison, and another a recluse who worked for scores of years, shut away in the English countryside. The petty bureaucrat who almost killed the project with his interfering and parsimonious demands, the businessman who saved it, the spinster sisters whose work appears on many sections, the cast of characters goes on and on.
The major story, however, is that of a fourteen-year-old Scottish school dropout, James Augustus Henry Murray, who became the chief editor, the recipient of honorary degrees, including one from Oxford, and a knighthood, and without whom, the definitive dictionary would not have been.
In spite of the difficulty of reading the miniscule print of the footnotes, I found it absorbing and astounding. Imagine the immensity of the project: every word in English, with its meaning and its provenance, with examples and the first mention of the word in written form. It remains the definitive reference for all words in the English Language and has spawned such offspring as the Oxford Dictionary of Canadian English.
When I turned the last page, I was disappointed, because I wanted it to go on and on, into the present day. Perhaps there will be a sequel. I also wanted to own the dictionary, all twenty volumes, bound in blue morocco, and supplied with a magnifying glass, just for the joy of looking through the pages at all those wonderful words. Not to be at 8000 British pounds.
Simon Winchester has written with the immediacy and energy of the journalist. A very good read.

E=mc2 The Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis. Anchor Canada 2001

David Bonanis has created a lively life for the equation, beginning with its birth in the mind of Einstein, and going on through its troubled childhood, growth and maturity in the crucible of war, and mature life as part of the theory of everything. Finally, the end, as the universe completes its journey.
The humans in its life are a diverse and intriguing lot, beginning with Einstein himself and ending with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel Laureate 1983, the man who saw that space-time could be ripped apart, creating black holes.
The reader doesn’t need knowledge of math or physics to enjoy this book, just an interest in science and history. The cover quote from John Polyani calls it exhilarating, and it is.

Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic That Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries: by Molly Caldwell Crosby. Berkley Publishing Group, March, 2010.

Molly Caldwell Crosby, also author of
The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History, has written a biography of a disease called epidemic encephalitis.
I learned to call this von Economo’s encephalitis, was taught that it followed the 1918 pandemic of influenza, and was the cause of Parkinson’s disease in most of the patients we saw in the 1960’s when I was in medical school. It was not exactly forgotten, but the horror of it certainly was, and the extent.
Ms. Crosby explores this disease by focusing on five patients in New York City and their doctors. Along the way she brings the city to life through their experience of it.
One of the stories, that of a remarkable woman, Dr. Josephine B. Neal , who led the Matheson Commission in its search for a vaccine is astonishing considering that thirty-five years later, there were still quotas for women in North American medical schools.
Five million people across the world were affected by epidemic encephalitis, sleeping sickness. One-third died, one-third recovered and one-third went on to appalling neurological sequelae. They deserve to be remembered and we must remember them to prepare for the day the disease comes back.

The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks Knopf Canada

I’ve just finished reading The Mind’s Eye, the latest book by Oliver Sacks. Dr. Sacks writing always provides insight into some of the most unusual of neurological problems, intriguing both the layperson and the medical practitioner alike. These are stories of loss of ability and adaptability, and the brain’s remarkable abilities to overcome adversity.
This time though, it also is more personal. Sadly, Dr Sacks himself has had a serious cancer, a melanoma that cost him his vision in one eye, and more than that, his stereoscopic ability, a source of scientific and social interest for him since childhood.
Dr. Sacks’ books have given me the opportunity to more fully understand the world of people as diverse as the scientist with Asperger syndrome, in An Anthropologist on Mars to the woman who developed her stereoscopic vision in her fifties, in The Mind’s Eye. Besides his personal story, Dr. Sack’s also tells us about face-blindness, an inability to recognize the faces, even of people one knows quite well, another of his personal afflictions.
As a physician, I understood the language, and the science Dr Sacks was describing. The personal stories are so compelling that a personal unfamiliar with medicine would still, I think, appreciate them. I’m not so sure about the copious footnotes, which contain more science and less narrative.
The Mind’s Eye is well worth the time and effort.