June 18, 2007

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique-Bauby is a brief and beautiful memoire by a man who suffered a stroke to his brain stem which left him with Locked In Syndrome and the use of only his brain and one eye. Despite the extreme difficulties of his condition and his keen awareness of them, the book is optimistic, life affirming, and has the occasional flash of irony. It is also a tribute to his nurse who first noticed his responsive eye and then worked with him using a letter frequency chart to write the book, letter by letter, blink by blink. Over the years, I have probably bought 20 copies of the book which I have given away to friends who were struggling against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." It is a slim enough volume and so beautifully written, that people do not shy away from reading it. I was drawn to the book by its title, which reminded me of a poem by Ralph Sneeden, of PEA, "Hummingbird Caught in a Moving Van." Both titles speak to the fragility and beauty of life, and the sometimes overwhelming obstacles those delicate wings beat against. There has been some talk of a movie version of the book starring Johnny Depp, directed by Julian Schnable. I hope it happens.

As a second choice --
The Princess Bride by William Goldman. First, I think Goldman is one of the most overlooked American authors. People forget that he wrote novels first, and that the stories and characters in his books or so compelling it is a simple thing to create the screenplay. The book is a love story on many levels, with a grandfather telling the story to his ailing grandson, with Princess Buttercup and Westley overcoming all obstacles to be together, and with the love among comrades working toward a goal. The book is full of humor and insight, largely reflecting popular American culture. A torturer says to his future victim, "Get some rest. If you haven't got your health you haven't got anything," recalling a television ad that aired in the 60's. A character, Vizzini, says during a wonderful battle of wits with Westley, "You only think I guessed wrong! That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" Goldman uses a wonderful literary device as well, attributing this story to a fictional author, S. Morgenstern. This is a book for writers to learn from and for everyone to enjoy.

Chosen by
Pat Frisella, President, Poetry Society of NH
Farmington, NH

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