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Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhoodby Oliver Sacks
After compiling my short list of unconventional memoirs, I discovered that one author was listed twice. While I loved Oaxaca Journal, I found that Uncle Tungsten takes the cake. You just can't go wrong when you read a book by Oliver Sacks.
Synopses & Reviews
From his earliest days, Oliver Sacks, the distinguished neurologist who is also one of the most remarkable storytellers of our time, was irresistibly drawn to understanding the natural world. Born into a large family of doctors, metallurgists, chemists, physicists, and teachers, his curiosity was encouraged and abetted by aunts, uncles, parents, and older brothers. But soon after his sixth birthday, the Second World War broke out and he was evacuated from London, as were hundreds of thousands of children, to escape the bombing. Exiled to a school that rivaled Dickens's grimmest, fed on a steady diet of turnips and beetroots, tormented by a sadistic headmaster, and allowed home only once in four years, he felt desolate and abandoned.
When he returned to London in 1943 at the age of ten, he was a changed, withdrawn boy, one who desperately needed order to make sense of his life. He was sustained by his secret passions: for numbers, for metals, and for finding patterns in the world around him. Under the tutelage of his "chemical" uncle, Uncle Tungsten, Sacks began to experiment with "the stinks and bangs" that almost define a first entry into chemistry: tossing sodium off a bridge to see it take fire in the water below; producing billowing clouds of noxious-smelling chemicals in his home lab. As his interests spread to investigations of batteries and bulbs, vacuum tubes and photography, he discovered his first great scientific heroes, men and women whose genius lay in understanding the hidden order of things and disclosing the forces that sustain and support the tangible world. There was Humphry Davy, the boyish chemist who delighted in sending flaming globules of metal shooting across his lab; Marie Curie, whose heroic efforts in isolating radium would ultimately lead to the unlocking of the secrets of the atom; and Dmitri Mendeleev, inventor of the periodic table, whose pursuit of the classification of elements unfolds like a detective story.
Uncle Tungsten vividly evokes a time when virtual reality had not yet displaced a hands-on knowledge of the world. It draws us into a journey of discovery that reveals, through the enchantment and wonder of a childhood passion, the birth of an extraordinary and original mind.
Like Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, this delightful memoir conveys the author's fascination with the natural world while making you intensely jealous of his childhood. Surrounded by a bouquet of scientific and academically-minded relatives, Sacks was allowed free rein to explore whatever tickled his fancy....More than a memoir, more than a chemistry book, it is a recapturing of wide-eyed fascination and hunger for knowledge." Doug Brown, Powells.com (read the entire Powells review)
"In Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks weaves together the wonders of chemistry and his boyhood experiences with grace, ease, and just the right comedic touch. The result is a rich, unique, and compelling glimpse into the development of an enormously fertile and creative mind." Brian Greene
"Artful, impassioned memoir of a youth spent lost in the blinding light of chemistry from neurologist/essayist Sacks....In a kind and gracious voice, Sacks guides readers on his journey of passionate discovery into the romance of chemistry....The realm of science is alchemy in Sacks's hands as he spins pure gold from base metals." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A gift from a wonderful man and a masterful scholar and writer. This sharing of life can only merit the chemist's symbol for Tungsten: W — a winner!" Stephen Jay Gould
"Oliver Sacks is an extraordinary soul-scientist and artist, healer and explorer-and he has given us an extraordinary memoir. Uncle Tungsten is profoundly illuminating and continually surprising." James Gleick
"Dr. Sacks mourns, with a Wordsworthian sense of loss, the passing of those 'lyrical, mystical perceptions of childhood', those 'sudden landscapes of glory and illumination'. And yet the mixture of rekindled passion, humility and humour with which the older man pays homage to the boy, shows just how little he has faded into the light of common day." The Economist
"Good prose is often described as glowing: luminous, numinous, glimmering, shimmering, incandescent, radiant. Sacks's writing is all that, and sometimes, no matter how closely you read it, you can't quite figure out what makes it so precisely, unsparingly light....By the time he was 15...Sacks's attention began drifting away from chemistry....He can't quite say why he abandoned his first love and Mendeleev's Garden. His 'intellectual limitations? Adolescence? School?....The inevitable course, the natural history, of enthusiasm, that burns hotly, brightly...and then, exhausting itself, gutters out?' No matter. With Uncle Tungsten, Sacks has reignited the fire, so the rest of us can read by its glow." The New York Times Book Review
In an unforgettable portrait of an extraordinary mind, the distinguished neurologist offers an account of his youth, as unexpected and fascinating as his celebrated case histories. 24 drawings.
Long before Oliver Sacks became a distinguished neurologist and bestselling writer, he was a small English boy fascinated by metals–also by chemical reactions (the louder and smellier the better), photography, squids and cuttlefish, H.G. Wells, and the periodic table. In this endlessly charming and eloquent memoir, the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings chronicles his love affair with science and the magnificently odd and sometimes harrowing childhood in which that love affair unfolded.
In Uncle Tungsten we meet Sacks’ extraordinary family, from his surgeon mother (who introduces the fourteen-year-old Oliver to the art of human dissection) and his father, a family doctor who imbues in his son an early enthusiasm for housecalls, to his “Uncle Tungsten,” whose factory produces tungsten-filament lightbulbs. We follow the young Oliver as he is exiled at the age of six to a grim, sadistic boarding school to escape the London Blitz, and later watch as he sets about passionately reliving the exploits of his chemical heroes–in his own home laboratory. Uncle Tungsten is a crystalline view of a brilliant young mind springing to life, a story of growing up which is by turns elegiac, comic, and wistful, full of the electrifying joy of discovery.
About the Author
Oliver Sacks is the author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and many other books, for which he has received numerous awards, including the Hawthornden Prize, a Polk Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and lives in New York City, where he is a practicing neurologist.
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