20 June 2009

Review: The Man Who Forgot How to Read by Howard Engel

I have occasional, passing bouts of interest in memoirs and auto/biographers, but generally only in cases where I'm already a fan of the author or subject. I quite loved Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, for example, but it's pretty unlikely that I'd have read it if I hadn't already read and loved his novels. A month ago, I'd never heard of Howard Engel, so The Man who Forgot How to Read would never have even been on my radar except that when I went to check the weather on the CBC website one day, they had a big link to their online book club, which read the memoir in May. I read a fair bit about the book at their site and was intrigued.

The Man who Forgot How to Read tells the story of how author Howard Engel woke up one morning, having unknowingly had a stroke, and discovers that he can no longer read. Having written an (apparently) well known series of novels about detective Benny Cooperman, the loss of Engel's reading skills was a blow not just to his sense of self (Engel is/was a voracious reader), but also to his career. He could still write, but couldn't read what he'd written; the letters on the page looked foreign, as if they'd been printed in Serbo-Croatian rather than English. How could he complete and edit a novel like that? Maybe it's better to say that this memoir is about how Engel came back to himself, both as a reader and a writer.

Opening paragraph:
My name is Howard Engel. I write detective stories. That's what I tell people when they ask me what I do. I could say I'm a writer or a novelist, but that raises a false echo in my brain, so I'm happier with the more modest claim of writing detective stories. I've written quite a few of them.
Although I can't speak to Engel's skills as a writer before his stroke – I've never read any of the Benny Cooperman novels – this particular bit of writing is simple and understated. It's very straightforward, feels honest, and unpretentious. I don't know how much of that is a result of Engel's style as a writer and how much is due to his stroke. There are occasional blurbs (particularly noticeable in the section about his childhood and the years leading up to the stroke) that felt unnecessary and repetitive sometimes in word choice and sometimes in subject (though of course I can't find any of them by skimming just now). There are bits that felt like unnecessary diversions, but again I don't know if Engel thought that there were important points to be made (that I obviously missed) or if they were also a result of the stroke.

Nevertheless, this is quite an interesting book, at least if you're intrigued by the oddities of the human brain and just how amazing it is at finding ways of working around problems. (Engel spends a fair bit of time talking about the ways he's learned to trick his brain into working better for him.) I think it would be interesting to compare his writing now with his writing before, though that would probably require dredging up an interest in detective fiction that I'm not sure I've got.

Howard Engel wrote close to a dozen detective novels before the stroke, beginning with The Suicide Murders, and he's published one since, Memory Book and is at work on another. He's also written a few non-fiction books, including Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, and Their Kind and Crimes of Passion: An Unblinking Look at Murderous Love.

Engel, Howard. The Man who Forgot How to Read. Toronto: Harper, 2008.
Finished: 19 June 2009
Rating: 3 of 5 Sero-Croation newspapers
This was my 4th book in June and my 21st in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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