The New England Patriots’ odds-defying Super Bowl victory was exhilarating. No, I didn’t watch it. In the decades I lived in Massachusetts, the Pats were an embarrassment. Only when I left forRead More…
Back in the pre-social-media late 20th century, it was The New Yorker magazine that “broke” many of my favorite authors. That’s where I discovered Oliver Sacks’s remarkable book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Literary categories were less Procrustean then, & readers were more adventurous. At the time, what made this book a sensation was Sacks’s extraordinary blend of curiosity, compassion, & academic rigor as a neurologist.
The case studies he presents here are astonishing, fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking. Each was referred to him because of some unusual, even bizarre, biochemical & physiological syndrome which sets this person apart from other people: the navy man whose memories ended around 1945; the elderly woman who suddenly began hearing loud Irish songs, like a radio that wouldn’t shut off; the distinguished musician of the title, who’d forgotten how to recognize a human face. Some of these patients frightened or repelled “normal” people, but Sacks approaches each one as a multifaceted person worthy of respect & help. He watches, he listens, he tries different tactics; he sets aside the judgment of others who dismiss the patient as defective, less than human. Often his best collaborator is the patient, who is more eager than anyone to find out what’s wrong & how to deal with it. Sacks’s expertise coupled with sympathy enables him to help nearly all of them.
But what kind of book is this? Sacks the healer & writer tells us heart-wrenching human stories — & emphasizes the need that humans have for stories, whether in the form of memories or constructed narratives that make up for inaccessible memories. Yet Sacks the neurologist is writing for his peers, in an era before political correctness ruled out classifications like “retarded” & “defective” (although he repudiates them). Some of the prose is so technical that any 21st-century editor would have refused to publish it. Yet when this book came out, it became a best-seller. Rereading it now, decades later, I was surprised to see how rare it’s become for such rich 3-D human interactions to be presented in a mostly accessible but sometimes stuffy medical style.
The rise of algorithms has encouraged modern publishers to underestimate their readers, much as Sacks’s fellow physicians tended to underestimate his patients, & likewise has led us as readers to underestimate our own ability to grapple with complex writing for the sake of illumination. This is a book that’s well worth reading, even if one chapter at a time.
Murder in E Minor by Robert Goldsborough My rating: 3 of 5 stars The dilemma: Why would anyone but a devoted Rex Stout fan read another author’s sequel to the Stout’s long,Read More…
A Perfect Victim by Patricia Dusenbury My rating: 5 of 5 stars This suspenseful mystery drops us into the Louisiana Bayou with a local oyster-poacher who’s about to blunder into the wrongRead More…
You’re invited! Join San Francisco writers & readers at the Mechanics’ Institute, 57 Post (nr Montgomery BART), at noon on Friday, Dec. 16 for drinks, snacks, & a Writers’ Lunch panel: “IndieRead More…
Faint Promise of Rain by Anjali Mitter Duva My rating: 4 of 5 stars This is a luminous journey into a long-ago time, faraway place, & little-known vocation I was fascinated toRead More…
Leonard Cohen is dead; Gwen Ifill has vanished; San Francisco’s DPW has brazenly flouted its own rules, local protests, and city law to OK a Verizon antenna right outside my and my neighbors’ windows. Last and worst, an unabashed bigot, liar, and crook is poised to assume the presidency of the United States.
The Internet’s abuzz with recriminations (mostly pointless) and questions (infinite). Given that, like Beckett’s characters, we have no choice but to go on, here are the best answers I can offer to two of the most immediate questions about the travesty-in-chief:
Q: What can I tell my children/students?
A: See “Teaching Trump” by Daniel J. Kevles, an insightful, realistic, constructive response by an experienced historian and teacher.
Q: What practical information have we learned from this national upheaval?
A: Lots and lots. As yet, much of it is still amorphous, ambiguous, and/or contentious. Here’s one point that strikes me as significant, which I posted on Facebook the morning after the election:
One key revelation from Trump’s victory is that we live in a post-literate era. What does it mean that American schools literally don’t teach writing anymore? The high-school student working at my local polling station yesterday couldn’t find most people’s names in the roster unless they showed her an ID; yet she’s college-bound, & spent her breaks thumb-typing on her phone. People who rely chiefly on audio & video info, who rarely read or write anything longer than a social-media post, don’t expect or seek or value the kinds of logically constructed arguments, or even sequences of cause & effect, that we book-&-newspaper types rely on. How can Trump’s fans not care if he promises all things to all people and fails to back up any of his promises with plans? The answer lies (in both senses) in the very structure of what we might call disposable vs. durable thought.
This is an observation, not a value judgment, except in the sense that I value an awareness of cause-and-effect sequences and an appreciation of logic, along with critical thinking, as essential tools for living which should not be shunted aside as passe in the Internet age. Quite the contrary: they underpin the Net and all the other technology that saturates 21st-century existence.
I hope my country can find more and more ways to encourage more and more young people to take pride in utilizing their individual talents, intelligence, and skills as part of the socioeconomic web. We ARE stronger together! I fear the encroachment of neo-feudalism, in which work is a stick, bread-and-circuses a carrot, and status lies in attachment to celebrity = authority = security. Reopening coal mines and assembly lines is not only unrealistic in the present economy, but patronizing. The U.S. doesn’t need more jobs for human robots; we need more paths to success for makers and shakers.
Last night, while my noisy next-door neighbor was out, I enjoyed the rare luxury of a peaceful evening. Instead of insulating myself from his TV (explosions, gunfire, car crashes, fistfights, screaming) withRead More…
Kudos to Rex Stout for grappling with the Poirot Problem: What do you do when your series detective, to whom you whimsically gave an exotic foreign background, becomes so popular that fans demand to know about his past? Agatha Christie created Ariadne Oliver to vent. Stout tops her by killing off Nero Wolfe’s oldest friend, forcing the sedentary sleuth not just out of his house but onto a plane to Montenegro.
This has to be the oddest book in the Wolfe/Goodwin series. Nero Wolfe, the legendary couch potato, transformed to a mountain goat? Archie — posing as his son — carries the luggage along with the narrative, which he’s reconstructed after the fact from Wolfe’s translations. I learned more than I could absorb about the geography and politics of that volatile region, which would soon explode into larger wars than the one our sleuths must navigate. The story is action-packed, full of disguises, deceptions, betrayals, and violence, suspenseful all the way back to New York.
So, more of a thriller than a Golden Age mystery. No women, except for the occasional glimpsed-from-afar wife or daughter. I enjoyed The Black Mountain, and I’d love to ask Rex Stout how he came to write it, but I’ll be happy to rejoin Wolfe and Goodwin in Manhattan.