Monday, June 20, 2016

One Year, 25 Books Overture: A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

Reading “A Natural History of the Senses” is like diving into a Niagara Falls of information about our constitution as human beings. In the book, Diane Ackerman delivers an expository of each of our senses that is vastly interesting, outlining the macro and microcosm of it all.  The author divided the book into major chapters (Smell, Touch, Hearing, Vision, Taste Synesthesia) with subchapters for compartmentalization. Upon reading, it was as though Sir David Attenborough’s voice was narrating in the background like in a documentary as it had that feel to it.


The chapter on “smell” discussed about how the stimulation of the olfactory nerves affect our appetite for food, life, bodily drives and memories. Ackerman for example is reminded of her childhood as we would be when we smell something familiar. I for one am endeared to the smell of smoke coming from the fire of dried leaves, papers and kindling because it reminds me of the rubbish we burned from what was swept at our yard in the Philippines (sans plastic). The memory of my mother and I watching the smoke rise higher in the afternoons is invoked and I remember them with clarity every time I get a whiff of that brand of smoke.

The chapter also tells of a Russian perfumer responsible for many high fashion fragrances and how she is paid exorbitantly to be “The Nose” for a famous atelier of perfumes in New York. She is able to draw scents harmoniously from numerous elements around the globe i.e., trees, flowers, fruits and is able mix and match them so a chemist can put it all together and concoct a scent that you or I might already be wearing at this very moment. Take note as she casually exposes the formula for the celebrated eau de toilette Chanel No. 5 which contains Gardenia, ha! no wonder I never took to it, I have bad recollections with Gardenias. 

Newsflash. Remember in the last decade or so when pheromones in perfumes were the fad?  (even now really), well, our good author debunks the notion that if a bodily fluid were incorporated in a scent, it would be  efficacious in making one attractive to the opposite sex. In the case of a woman, Ackerman argues, males from all manner of species would be trailing after her with something crazy in mind if this were so and I concur. Astonished was I to find too that sometimes, minute amounts of excrement from the anal sac of choice animals are mixed in our perfumes or colognes for an optimum whiff of musk. Nice.

The discourse above is an example on how the rest of the book goes. The other chapters on sight, hearing, taste, touch and that hyperdrive sense “synesthesia” are infused with this kind of exposition also.  Science, anatomy, physiology, the cosmos, history and some mysticism and poetry are mixed in. Ackerman is a very palpable believer of evolution yet there are acknowledgements of a Creator and of creation, she flip-flops this way throughout perhaps because she attempts to be all-encompassing and is accepting. The Chicago Tribune  parallels this book primarily with amorousness; as a naturalist, Ackerman does foray into sensuality as it relates  with our senses but not as a rule. She can be just as effusive with savagery as she is with sensuality, take as an example the recipe for Roasted Goose from the Dark Ages found in the chapter for Taste. Egad!

Ironically, the person known in history that is a frequent point of reference here is one who has lost her sight, hearing and ability to speak, Helen Keller. Though unable to see she can describe what she “sees" eloquently and though unable to hear or speak, she can convey most effectively. I understand Helen Keller to be a woman of faith and I would venture to say that her optimism is a testament that even if physical senses are infirmed, imagination and intuition can make up for it, a case for the human being’s sense of hope

This is quite the requested book, it was a bestseller and it initially came out in 1990, it is both subjective and objective and is a veritable education bonanza.  


One Year, 25 Books Overture: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

The Book Thief is about a girl named Liesel Meminger in Nazi Germany after she was dispatched to her foster parents named Hans and Rosa Huberman who turn out to be cool. After witnessing her little brother die en route to the destination of her new life, the book follows
Liesel's journey from mistrust to becoming acclimated with her new environment. It would otherwise be rosy for Liesel except that she is in a time in history where an evil-fueled despot has risen in Germany who is bent on annihilating Jews and conquering the rest of Europe with this mindset. Since this is an unacceptable proposition for the rest of the world indeed (except Italy and Japan), Germany will just have to make do with the full assault of the allied countries against her and that is the backdrop of our book. 

Foster parents Hans and Rosa and now
Liesel live in Himmel St. (German for Heaven), Liesel makes friends with kids in the neighborhood, some adults, even the Mayor’s wife who lives at the villa on the hill, but not with the Nazi woman store owner. In my head her visage is like that of Frau's in the Austin Powers movies but without the humor. The Huberman household gives shelter to a Jew who they all protect and fall in love with and because of this, we surmise that not all Germans were willing SS members or Furor fanatics during WWII. It is this theme of hope and caritas that makes this book a gem. That, the writing and the viewpoint from whom the whole story is told. Death (himself) tells the story of the book thief and it would be apropos as this is one of the periods in history wherein he would be the busiest too, taking lives here and there and all over. Death here in this book is verbose and takes on a personality if you please.

Liesel stole books for a few reasons. At first it was by accident and complacency really, the second out of passive protest from the periodic book-burnings headed by the Nazis and the succeeding ones were because of repressed anger under the tedium of being subjugated in a hell created by a demented man and his cohorts. A moral question, since the owner of the books Liesel mostly steals from knew and accorded the act, is it still stealing? In the book, a justification for Liesel’s thefts is made with the explanation that she did not steal with greed, for example, she reads the stolen books repeatedly before she takes another one. This reminds me of that argument by a son stealing from her mother’s purse and declaring, he wasn’t stealing but merely borrowing without consent. Haha.

Not at bad read this, and it can be lighthearted even in its dark setting.

Monday, June 13, 2016

One Year, 25 Books: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Captain Nemo sailed away...

First off: A league equals 3 nautical miles.

I have wasted precious time by not reading this quite sooner. I did remember that "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea," the movie, was a bit alarming and unappealing to me as a wee girl because of the visions imprinted in my mind of those giant squids and the behemoths under the ocean, I thought, what a fright to be close to it with just the glass to separate man and beast, what if it broke? But this is quite a must read. Very educational although some events written here are inconceivable. That said, the voyages of the Nautilus, that fantastic submarine with Captain Nemo at the helm is a treat of a lifetime for our adventurous inner teenager.


Professor Pierre Aronnax, a curious, well mannered and enterprising biologist who heads the Les Jardin de Plantes in the Museum of Natural History in Paris is commissioned to investigate a sea creature being hunted in many oceans known as the "Narwhal.” Tales of this “beast" became taller and taller as men related it to the next one and so on; though it was discovered early on that this behemoth is none other than the formidable and wonderful submarine itself, the "Nautilus."

Prof. Aronnax with his companions Conseil, his assistant and Ned Land, a blood-thirsty harpooner first embark at the ship called the Abraham Lincoln for the hunt of the famed Narwhal. A battle takes place between the Lincoln and the "Narwhal" wherein the former gets discomfited and the three men find themselves captured by Captain Nemo inside what they have known to be a monster whale but was in fact, a submarine. Seen as enemy combatants at first, they were informed that they could choose to be executed or be treated as guests inside the vessel where they will explore the depths of the ocean, learn about marine wildlife but with the caveat of never going back to live in terra firma. For the moment, the men chose to stay. 

Their expedition takes them to very many parts of the earth’s hydrographic realm such as the Asiatic seas, the Artic and  Antarctic, Vigo Bay in Spain where treasures are found in sunken galleons, the Sagrasso Sea where there’s a higher concentration of salt compared to the other seas, the Red Sea, the same one which Moses parted, the Atlantic where they trace that mythical fallen continent Atlantis. On to spend harrowing days at the South Pole, interesting events at the Indian Ocean and even on the shores of Papua, New Guinea.  Indeed it’s quite the voyage around the world, underwater. The marine species are very vividly described here, like the zoophytes, various fishes, mollusks, crustaceans and cetaceans/whales,  all manner of corals, fucus or that seaweed with thick leathery stalks and the episode with "Bouguer’s Cuttlefish” is the one that gave me nightmares as a child though today, the case isn’t the same. Only this, I will not look at the cuttlefish the same way again. 

Transparent in this book is Verne’s fascination with the various phenomena of the sea, like  the phosphorescence,  a.k.a. St. Elmo’s fire wherein a bright translucent plasma is created by a discharge from a pointed object in a strong electrical field in the atmosphere caused by thunder and lightning storms. Navigational and nautical terms too are abundant, the Nautilus sub which was a very modern and self-sustaining vessel harnessing energy from the electrolytes of the sea has made me wonder if Verne may not have been a time traveler himself, being privy to something very advanced for the time frame when he wrote this book. I have read that many submarine makers have gleaned from and took notes from this book when making new ones in these modern times, fictitious it may be.

Just read the book why don’t you? Your sense of adventure will be awakened, encourage your children, loved ones to read it and their imagination will delve into the ocean depths. Because of it, now more than ever I have the desire to be friends with the sea, something I both fear and am awed by. 

Last, allusions overflow about this mysterious underwater genius named Captain Nemo, from anime/manga, Disney movies, TV shows, rock bands and that Sarah Brightman song and that is telltale of the mystique of this book. There is more from Jules Verne about Capt. Nemo in "The Mysterious Island," and I'm looking forward to that. El Capitan himself is left as a conundrum even after the book ends, much like his fate. Was he a madman? An executioner or a brilliant scientist that the world needed? We shall see, in my view there can never be enough spinoffs about him and I wished, this book didn't end.