READS OF THE YEAR 2017: Naomi Richards
Thomas Wright, Oscar’s Books: A Journey around the Library of Oscar Wilde
If you love books then this book surely must be a treasure. It is a literary journey through the mind of Oscar Wilde, who never kept a diary, but instead kept a library of about two thousand volumes. Thomas Wright, a devoted Wildean, argues in a delightful and scholarly fashion that ‘the greatest style influence of Wilde’s life and writing’ were books. From risky French novels, yellow books, Madame Blavatsky and popular Victorian novels to books on fishing, as well as the Boy’s Own Annual, Wilde’s tastes were wide and frequently surprising. Rather than a standard literary biography here is a biography that is literally built on books. For Wilde, words were a form of magic as well as music; he adored sensuous imagery in stories. Oscar’s Books beautifully dips into the philosophical and aesthetic theories of the Victorian age. Wilde was seduced by books and used books to seduce others. The books in Wright’s study take on a persona, showing a very detailed prism of Wild’s thought, relationships and intellect as well as an insight into his creative processes. There are occasional leaps of speculation, based on the author’s instinct due to his at times obsessive knowledge of all things Wildean but these over enthusiastic moments can be easily brushed aside. What we are left with is a beautiful study of a complex man, as Wilde said, ‘the good we get from art is not what we learn from it; it is what we become through it.’
Dr Eben Alexander Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife
This is a lovely, inspiring and reassuring book but also one that provides a different perspective on near death experiences. It is written by an eminent American neurosurgeon with 150 peer reviewed papers on neurosurgery behind him. Previously Dr Alexander had been very skeptical of the near death experiences (NDE) described by his patients, until his own lengthy NDE which happened over seven days.
Proof of Heaven is written in short alternating chapters, either describing his near death experiences or the physical state he was in during the coma. This double perspective draws on notes provided by Dr Alexander’s doctors and family when he was in a coma and also from his own memories of his astonishing experiences. Dr Alexander suffered from a very rare form of bacterial meningitis caused by the E. coli. Bacteria. In very accessible terms he explains the medical implications of the condition. Brain scans showed massive damage to Dr Alexander’s cortex to the point where it was not functioning and he was unlikely to recover. Therefore it was medically impossible (at least with our current knowledge of the brain) for him to have the sort of intense and almost hyper-real outer body experiences which he describes. For those interested in the medical arguments there is a detailed appendix where Dr Alexander considers and refutes neuroscientific hypothesis to explain his NDE. Although written for those with a medical background it is clear and understandable for the layperson. I would highly recommend this book, which can be read over two evenings.
Jamaica Kincaid Annie John
If you know Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl” then you will find many echoes in her novella Annie John. Kincaid tends to obsessively explore mother-daughter relationships in much of her writing. Annie John is a coming of age story, thought to be largely autobiographical, set in Antigua during the 1950/1960s. Growing up on an island full of ghosts, green figs and snakes and a mother who is watching your every move is bound to leave a mark. Annie’s extreme feelings of love and hate (typical of the young) keep the novel shifting and unpredictable. As Jane Smiley has said, Annie John like all child characters exists ‘outside of time’ living for one intense moment after another. Although the incidents described are everyday-ish: preparing lunch, carrying clothes pins, growing taller, coming home from church, listening for the school bell and just waiting to grow up; there is also a sense of dis-connection and alienation which provides the novel with a darker texture against the green lushness of the island. Annie John is a beguiling read, the psychology of growing up female is openly and honestly portrayed; the island is a character itself, magical, far away venomous and beautiful. Annie John is Everygirl and at the same time unique and troubling. This story is like the snake in the green figs – it might never leave you.