Friday, August 25, 2006

Book of Hours - the Hour to Ask

I haven't been blogging much, and much about work is on hold.

While on holiday, I discovered the wonderful work of painter Alfredo Castañeda, who in 2005 published his first book of poetry, each poem matched to beautiful paintings. Check out his Libro de Horas/Book of Hours, a book of 52 poems and paintings published in 2005, both in Spanish and in an artfully crafted English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. I couldn't recommend it more highly - I just loved it.

The poems are as wonderful as the art, all graceful, thoughtful, and short - never more than a page, typically featuring the artist himself, most often in a tophat and ZZ Top style beard. Each painting illustrates the accompanying poem in humorous, often surrealistic ways. (I suppose that's what the academics call "multidisciplinary.")

Opening it again after a not-so-great week I see the text of the first poem in the book, the "Hour To Ask," the larger illustration from which the cover art is taken. In full, it says:

And how do we find a way to get in?
we asked him.
Then he came up to us and, smiling,
pointed first to our hands
and then to our hearts.

How's that for a kick in the pants telling me to start writing? I really loved Castañeda's poetry, plus his obvious masterful artistry on the canvas, even the book's layout, paper choices, everything about his "Book of Hours." It's a delightful artistic work from seasoned artist and a wise man. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

History in the making

(Mexico, D.F.) For reasons I cannot explain, most of my trips to Mexico seem to run into highly politicized situations that are making national headlines, like hearing PRD presidential candidate Lopez Obrador's speech in Mexico City's zocalo our first day back this week. (See John Ross' account of the speech and a good analysis of what's going on with the elections.)

It hasn't always been that way. My first trip to Mexico on my own was at age 17 - some friends and I told our parents we were going hunting on a friend's deer lease around Llano and instead headed to the red light district in Nuevo Laredo for what used to be, for Texas men my age and older, a traditional, debaucherous rite of passage.

For the next few years norteño border towns were my main experience with Mexico until 1994, when Kathy and I took our first extended trip into the Mexican interior. Traveling on our way to the Yucatán, we found ourself in Chiapas on Columbus day (or Dia de la Raza, to most Mexicans) when 40,000 Indians, most of them speakers of native tongues like Tzeltal and Tzotzil with no more Spanish than I had, descended on the city of San Cristobal de las Casas to protest in support of the Zapatista armed resistance movement in that state. At the time I did a fair bit of freelance journalism, so I hired a translator to speak to folks and wrote a story on a rented manual typewriter that was faxed back to the Austin Chronicle and ran as a cover story.

A couple of years ago when Kathy and I were again traveling in southern Mexico, this time in Oaxaca, more or less the consummate tourist town outside of beach citadels like Cancún or Acapulco, we witnessed the beginning of a bitter teachers' strike that's still going on today. Hundreds of tents filled the downtown streets with teachers and their families demanding cost of living increases to match the damage done by the then-declining peso, a scene much like we're seeing in the streets of Mexico City today as part of protests staged by Lopez Obrador's supporters. The strike in Oaxaca is one of the most intense labor disputes this country has seen in many years. Since we've been in Mexico this time, the husband of one of the main teacher organizers was gunned down by thugs allegedly associated with the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico for 70 years after the Mexican Revolution and still controls state government in Oaxaca.

On this visit, all of Mexico seems to be blowing up. As the LA Weekly described it,

Mexico is now in a state of all-out political instability, and not just in the capital, where López Obrador supporters have taken over the Zócalo as well as Paseo de la Reforma, a major avenue. The dispute had been notably peaceful until Monday, when federal police battered activists and legislators who attempted to set up an encampment near the Congress’ lower House of Deputies.

To the south, in Oaxaca, a protracted and bloody labor dispute between the teachers union and the state government is worsening. To the north, there’s been little progress made in the spate of kidnappings and murders of women in Ciudad Juárez. And in cities across the country, harrowing drug trade–related executions remain gory staples of the daily news digest.

Rough stuff, and a sharp contrast to my soft, cushy tourist experiences described in the last few HR posts. So I thought I'd offer a few extranjero observations on what little politics I've seen and understood (given my limited español turistico) since we've been here.

When we got back to Mexico City from Veracruz for the final week of our trip, the first evening we went down to the zocalo at the town center to find a sizable crowd amidst the tent-city of protesters listening to an array of speakers culminating with Lopez Obrador himself, known to his supporters by his initials AMLO and portrayed in countless political posters and cartoons as a cheerful buck-toothed presidential hope for the future. Obrador was mayor of Mexico City before running for president, and by all accounts and my own observations the city improved mightily for his efforts. Thus a lot of his base is right here in the world's largest city, and it shows from the array of protesters in the tent cities, bumper stickers on cars, taxis and street vendor stands and even signs in home windows declaring Voto por Voto - e.g., demanding a vote by vote nationwide recount. The national election commission is only doing a partial recount, and I've not spoken to anybody who believes the current ruling party, PAN, won't be declared the ultimate winner by that body.

The whole national election mess will remind every American of Florida in 2000, with a key difference: the three main national parties - the leftist PRD, the right wing PAN, and the former ruling PRI - split the vote with the top two voter-getters earning a little more than one third apiece and the PRI lagging at third. All three parties earned a respectable minority in Congress with no clear majority. Mexico is a three-party state.

PAN's presidential candidate supposedly received .58 percentage points more than the PRD on election day, said the initial results. The PRD, though, immediately began complaining of widespread election fraude, and it seems highly likely that occurred in some cases. To quote John Ross, who is one of the best English-speaking reporters on Mexican politics:
Inside the counting rooms, Mexico's 2006 presidential election, exalted by the U.S. State Department as a paragon of democracy, was not a pretty sight. Hundreds of ballot boxes warehoused under military guard had been broken into, their seals ripped open, and the contents contaminated. Sometimes the ballots were scattered on the floor of the warehouse, sometimes there were no ballots inside the boxes to verify what the tally sheets ("actas") affirmed. When AMLO's representatives grew apoplectic at the wholesale fraud, the judges ordered the military to expel them from the recount.

Jalisco, a PAN citadel, was the first state to report results on election night--there was a governor's race on the ballot as well as the presidential vote and the PAN seemed to have kicked ass, building up a 70 percent landslide. But the results seemed so out of whack with national numbers (Calderon was awarded a highly dubious .58 per cent victory by the IFE) that the judges ordered more than 1700 casillas in the state reopened.

The new count did not sustain Calderon's Election Day claims. In 15 ballot boxes in District 3 (Tepatitlan), the PANista had been awarded 2700 votes according to the tally sheets that could not be found in the ballot boxes. Lopez Obrador, meanwhile, picked up 250 votes in the district, about 12 per casilla--Calderon's disputed 243,000 "victory" breaks down to about 1.8 per casilla.
If Ross' estimates are close to accurate, Obrador probably did win the election. In response, AMLO has urged his followers to continue their protest encampments potentially for "years" if his PAN opponent is declared president, as nearly everyone believes he will be. At the speech we heard (about which I learned more from translating the newspaper with a dictionary the next morning than I understood at the time), Obrador told his followers to continue peaceful civil resistance, which so far has included shutting down the stock exchange and taking over highway toll booths to allow travelers to pass through without paying. On Monday police tear gassed protesters who tried to set up another encampment outside of the Mexican Congress.

At one point during Obrador's speech, somebody set of a skyrocket that burst with a loud pop, and for a moment I thought for sure we were witnessing an assassination attempt. An elderly lady next to me looked up with a nervous grin, crossing herself, and said "Por Dios," before wiping her forehead with relief- I suspect she thought the same thing. It seemed an ill-timed moment for such a display.

Obviously, I have no way to know whether vote fraud took place or how much, but you don't need to be an expert in Mexican politics to see that this is a very divided country. PAN is strong in the northern states, representing elements that in the US would be considered the religious right as well as the interests of American capital. PRD's base is the poorest of the poor, especially in southern Mexico and Mexico City. Meanwhile the PRI represent many old-guard unions and other middle class interests, in addition to remnants of the ruling coalition that dominated the country for most of the last century. Bottom line, there's little that unites them. While the PRI would love to oust the PAN candidate, their interests hardly coincide with Lopez Obrador, whose populist agenda would overturn many of the PRI's most prized neoliberal reforms, most prominently participation in NAFTA.

Still, I'm not sure long-term civil disobedience will position the PRD well, especially if it continues, as per Obrador's urging, for years to come as it has now with teachers in Oaxaca. However you look at it, even if the PRD actually won a plurality, 2/3 of the country didn't want whichever candidate ultimately assumes the presidency. Civil disobedience might be a better option if the majority supported their candidate, but the longer it goes on, especially after a president has been formally declared, I would fear (if I were a PRD strategist) that recalcitrance would damage the party irrevocably in the long term. (UPDATE: John Ross says some of AMLO's middle class supporters are already criticizing him for worsening Mexico City's traffic.)

That said, claims that protests are harming the economy are laughable. Mexico City's center is as vibrant as ever. Our hotel was full when we arrived and we had to take a more expensive room. The streets covered with tents and tarps are filled with shoppers all day and evening, and the air smells cleaner for the lessened traffic. (From what I've seen, traffic in the center has been hindered more by significant roadwork being done near the center than by the two roads blocked off by demonstrations.) But shops and restaurants are bustling, the street stalls are doing land-office business, and nothing I've witnessed indicates commerce has been harmed in the least. Indeed, it's probably been helped by the influx of protesters camping in center of town.

High drama, from any perspective. God knows how it will turn out. But in any event, it's odd how, whenever Kathy and I come to Mexico we seem to walk into the middle of a political clusterfuck. Or, to look at it another way, history in the making.

A wet departure from the Gulf

"I hope somebody around here is building an ark," I told Kathy as we rode in a taxi traversing 2-foot deep waters from our hotel near zocalo to the bus station on our way out of town. The rain came up quickly about a an hour and a half before our bus was supposed to leave Veracruz for Mexico City, and the City of the True Cross quickly experienced what in Texas we call a "gullywasher." It came down in sheets for probably no more than 45 minutes, but we had no choice but to go ahead and get a taxi in the rain and risk the ride.

It was truly unbelievable how quickly the center of town flooded. Water on other vehicles foolish enough to make the journey were often up to the top of their rims in water. Some streets seemed to be on slightly higher ground or at least have better drainage, but we weren't on them for long. Whenever we'd head back into the flooded areas the taxi driver would put his hazards on, which I learned while driving in the southern part of Veracruz state is Mexican for "I'm about to do something really crazy in this vehicle."

In that short span of time, water was flooding over the curbs and into many neighborhood businesses and homes. At one spot where there was a grate in the road leading to the drainage system, water gushed up like a fountain above the flooding waters from the extreme pressure underground. "This must be what New Orleans looked like in those first minutes after the levees broke," I thought to myself.

What in the world must happen to that town when heavy rain persists longer 45 minutes, you have to wonder? Back home in Central Texas we have pretty serious flooding from time to time, but usually after its rained for two or three days straight. Veracruz reached a crisis state of flooding in the downtown area in an unbelievably short span of time.

We made it to the bus station just fine, though, obviously. The cabbie understandably asked for 15 pesos more than the fellow who had taken us from the bus station to the hotel in the first place, and to his apparent surprise I tipped him 15 pesos more. That brought the total for the harrowing ride - a trek I'd never have made in my own car under any circumstances, to a little less than five bucks.

By the time our bus pulled away from the station the rain had stopped, and not long after we left town the cloudy skies in front of us parted to reveal sunny blue ahead.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Good times in Veracruz

(VERACRUZ, MX) "Mangooooooooo, mango mango, mangooooooo," shouted the street vendor, and Kathy stopped to spend six pesos, a little less than 60 cents, for an enormous mango on a stick carved in the shape of a rose. By the time she finished it she was too full to eat dinner that evening.

As I mentioned in my last post, you don't come to Veracruz City for the beaches, but for a lot of reasons I sure love visiting Veracruz. We returned to this city Friday after spending a week in the southern lake district (which I'll write about soon, perhaps), and leave this evening for Mexico City on an overnight bus. The best time to visit this bustling town is on the weekends, when the Malécon (the equivalent of a boardwalk in an American coastal town) is filled with thousands of people of all ages.

Street performers and vendors shout out to the passersby, offering everything from chamoyadas (snow cones with natural fruit flavoring) and diabolitas (the same with a dash of hot chili) to amazing meat pies and every kind of taco, picada (tortillas quick-fried with frijoles, cheese and rojo or verde sauce on top), sandwiches and any other food you can think of suitable for eating while walking around.

On weekends after dusk in central Veracruz, there's a carnival atmosphere. Clowns, mimes, dancers, musicians, and yesterday trick-bicycle experts perform for tips. Meanwhile, others sell t-shirts, caps and other tourist-wear, not to mention everything you can think of made out of sea shells, from images of the Virgin, Barbie-dolls made up as mermaids, knick-knacks, purses, belts, and even soap and facial cream. Indian gals sell hand-made shirts, belts, scarves and purses, while elderly men sell leather goods and cigars made locally or in Cuba. For kids there are toys of all description, including hundreds of colorful balloons, pull-toys, kites (hugely popular on the malécon where there are no impeding trees to interfere with coastal winds) and lots of kids (and their parents) blowing soap bubbles that frequently fill the air (and are almost irrestistable to reach out and pop with your finger).

On weekend evenings there's always live music in the main zocalo, or town square, and typically chairs are arranged in an enormous triangle to leave plenty of room for salsa dancing, an activity engaged in by young and old alike (see my description of a similar scene in Xalapa). If you get there by about six p.m. you can get a seat, but there are plenty of planters, benches, and mostly bars with many dozens of tables arranged café style out in the square where you can sit and eat or drink, though prices there are a lot higher than at the perfectly wonderful restaurants in the fish market and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

And let's speak for a moment longer of food. For starters, if anyone ever offers you Mojarra con mojo de ajo (a commonly served fish cooked in a sauce with two cloves worth of garlic still in its skins melting together on top), jump at the chance. Just scrape off the garlic and start peeling the fish away from the bone. Ditto for any Veracruzano serving sopa de marisco, or seafood soup. At a restaurant in the fish market I spent 65 pesos, maybe $6, for a soup that included a whole fish, two whole crabs, plus eight good-sized shrimp and eight clams in a tomato-flavored fish broth. As Grandpa and Junior Samples used to say on Hee Haw, "Yuuuum, yum."

But if you really want to eat cheaply and well in Veracruz, or for that matter anywhere in Mexico, you basically need to know two words: comida corrida. It translates as fast food, but it's really much more- a complete meal typically with a soup course, rice (sometimes served with a fried egg on top), a meat dish of chicken or beef, and usually an agua fresca, which is a fruit juice, water and sugar concoction that's essentially lemonade, but made with any fruit you can name instead of just lemons. That usually runs about 25-35 pesos, or $2.50 - $3.30 American, at current rates. Once we had comida corrida with fried Mojarra, and the price went up to a whopping 38 pesos. If such a meal doesn't come with a drink, I've been ordering agua de horchata, which is a rice-based drink flavored with locally grown vanilla. Most Mexicans who dine out do so at a mid-morning breakfast or a late lunch much more often than dinner, and comida corrida meals are often only available in the afternoons. So if you want to eat cheaply in Mexico, eat like the Mexicans do - a large, late lunch and a snack for dinner.

Nearly anywhere you go in downtown Veracruz you'll find live music. Last night we listened to a family playing for tips on the malécon whose roughly 12-year old son pounded away like an experienced pro on an electric piano, interspersing the ever-present Caribbean riffs with wonderful jazz-infused flights of fancy that would be impressive to hear from any seasoned performer back home. The kid was a bit undisciplined, sometimes letting his obvious skills and penchant for rapid playing overcome and overshadow the rest of the band who were average by comparison (though to be fair, his roughly 8-year old brother's enthusiastic drum renditions, too, had a lot of promise). But you couldn't have asked for better, basically free entertainment. In America, playing with amplified music in a public park like that would get you a ticket to the hoosegow.

Which brings up another point. For all of Americans' pridefulness about our "freedom," Mexicans enjoy a lot of day to day freedoms that simply aren't tolerated in more the so-much bourgeois United States. There is a substantial Mexican middle class - sitting in at a popular local restaurant this morning at breakfast, Kathy commented that the Mexican middle class looks like a combination of the American and Italian middle classes: basically the same, but more fashionably dressed and with more sunglasses. But there doesn't seem to be the same disdain you see in America for the poor. Street vendors of all types and even musicians are allowed to circulate in restaurants to hawk their wares, where in the US they'd be chased away or even have the police called to arrest them. Lone musicians or even whole bands featuring marimbas or large, formal harps will play at your table for a minimal fee, and the restauranteurs not only don't discourage it, it's part of why people come. Sometimes, when several performers will be going at once in the same bar and amplified music fills the zocalo, it can be a bit cacophonous, but overall it's both a lot of fun and allows folks to earn a living, some of whom might otherwise be reduced to beggardom.

Similarly, street vendors may not have a business permit or operate health-department approved kitchens, but the free market mostly seems to weed out the bad eggs. Because, as with any business enterprise, return customers make or break such folks given their small margins, most street food I've had has been above reproach and the goods purchased on the street are of similar quality to those in stores with lower prices. If you've got goods to sell, whether it's hand-sewn clothing or home-made ice cream, you can spread out a blanket on the ground or load it up on a three-wheeled cart and go around town looking for customers. That kind of economic freedom has vanished in the United States outside a few places like downtown New York.

The United States invaded Veracruz twice - once as part of the Mexican-American war over Texas' statehood in 1846, and again under Woodrow Wilson in 1914. (Actually everybody who invades Mexico seems to begin at Veracruz, from the the Spaniards under Hernán Cortés to the French under Napolean III.) From what I've seen, given everything this state has to offer, I'd be amazed if Americans don't invade again, but this time as mobs of tourists or baby boomer retirees. Veracruz the city is a little hot and humid, maybe, for norteamericano tastes, but much of the rest of the state is moutainous and temperate year-round, and a short bus trip from Veracruz for a weekend party.

When I get a chance next I'll try to post on our trip down to Lake Catemaco - we rented a car to get a chance to see a lot of relatively obscure, less touristed areas that really made the whole trip worthwhile. But for now this morning rains have ended, the sun just peaked out 20 minutes or so ago, and I'm headed out with Kathy to enjoy our last afternoon in Veracruz.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Veracruz: What's the big draw?

When traveling, one pleasure I enjoy that also really helps hone one's minimalist language skills is reading the local newspaper with a dictionary. On Sunday the Diario de Xalapa ran a front-page article announcing the Veracruz Ministry of Tourism's new program to promote the state as a travel destination. Basing their approach largely, I think, on cliche, the government officials seem to think their beaches should be promoted as the state's biggest attraction. From a marketing perspective, I pretty strongly feel they're taking the wrong approach, so I wrote a letter to the editor and yesterday spent a delightful hour translating it as best I could into Spanish before shooting it to them via email. I offer here the original English version, pre-translation:

To the editors of El Diario:

As an American tourist visiting Veracruz for the second time, I think your tourism ministry has failed to identify the best way to market your wonderful state.

Veracruz beaches are NOT the best draw for foreign tourists. I love beaches, but there are simply better ones on the Pacific and in the Yucatan -- the Veracruz coast is too industrial and will never compete. Instead, you should market history and culture first, not beaches that would disappoint anyone who has been to Tulum or Acapulco. As the oldest indigenous society, the Olmec heritage here gives you a truly unique pitch -- birthplace of Mexican history and culture, in essence, with El Tajin and the Totonacs providing a modern connection to pre-Columbian Mexico. Veracruz's food and music are unique -- the seafood on the coast is among the best I've had in the world. Your coffee is the best in Mexico. The colonial architecture in the highlands offers Americans a taste of Europe without crossing an ocean.

These are the reasons I came back, and I promise that if they were marketed, they'd draw a lot more people to visit. If you market the beaches, those who come will return home with stories of disappointment. Market the things that make Veracruz special, different from the rest of Mexico, and every visitor will leave with dozens of reasons why all their friends should come here too.

Scott Henson
Austin, TX, USA

Books I'm reading on the road

I'm on my own today - yesterday I had an unfortunate incident after eating in a market stall in Coatepec, and decided to forego a strenuous hike to a waterfall outside Xico we had planned with a couple of US retirees, Dennis and Ellen, who we met our second night here. The offending food was a jalpeño relleno, a jalapeño pepper stuffed with chicken, wrapped in Mexican white cheese then breaded and deep fried. It was spicy and tasty, but for a 5 peso food item (< 50 cents) it sure wasn't worth the grief it brought. On the other hand, you pay to play -- I wouldn't have missed the excellent food I've eaten from such vendors over the years, so I guess that's just the cost of doing business.

Since I've got some down time, I thought I'd do a bit more blogging and in particular write up the books I've been reading during our travels. Between the long bus ride to Xalapa and my longstanding habit of getting up quite a bit before Kathy every day, I've gotten a lot of reading done. Today is our ninth day and I finished reading my third book last night in between. So far I've plowed through a 500 page novel and two books on neurology and the human brain, all of them well worth the time spent. I rarely have this reading time at home, and it's always a real treat when I get to really focus on a book, much less several in a row.

The three books so far were Crossing California, a novel by Adam Langer, Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber by Richard Restak, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Here area few thoughts on each:

Crossing California, 2004

This 2004 debut novel by Adam Langer is set in Chicago, and the "California" in the title refers not to the state but to California Bouleverd which in the late '70s divided two mostly Jewish neighborhoods, one wealthy and one working class. My friend Tracey Hays brought the book over the day before we left and suggested it for our travels, and I couldn't have been more delighted with it. (Thank you Tracey!)

The story follows three families during the period of the Iranian hostage crisis, particularly their kids, the youngest of whom would be about my age. As such, all the cultural references were not just familiar but for the most part (with the exception of the explicitly Jewish references) straight out of my own childhood.

I imagine most of us who grew up in that era consider the period a bit of historical flotsam, miles wide and an inch deep with little to recommend it, frankly, historically, culturally, politically or otherwise. But Langer has done something amazing - he has taken the trivialities of the era and woven them into a significant, moving, (dare I even say it?) an important story. I told Kathy it was though he'd fashioned a weight-bearing structure from soda straws that supported the weight of an elephant.

The novel is all character development, with each chapter focusing on the interwoven stories of a single family and usually one family member. At times hilarious, one character, a teenage boy who wants to start his own eponymous rock band, writes Jewish-themed rock songs with goddawful titles (Exodus: Movement of Jew People) and even worse lyrics ("I like your button; now it's time for me to press it/Meet me in the back of the Beth Ha'knesset"). But the main story line involves a 12-year old working class Jewish girl, Jill, and her relationship with a half-Jewish mulatto boy named Muley whose mother cleans the house of the rich family in the story (the parents of the Jewish rocker).

Langer is a gifted writer and this was one of the best novels I've read so far written in the 21st century - an ambitious debut, and well executed. Watching the plot unfold was like watching a master painter approach a blank canvas with a few brushstrokes, then observing as it's filled with a wondrously vibrant, compelling and moving picture before your eyes. Blurbs on the cover compare Langer to Saul Bellow, but honestly I liked it more than most of Bellow's work I've read -- Bellow starts out each book intending to address grand themes, while Langer lets them bubble up almost organically, effortlessly, from everyday characters whom he endows with great depth and humanity. I admire fiction authors because, though I consider myself a not-untalented writer, the best fiction writers like Langer are performing on a level I can only admire but never replicate.

Poe's Heart and the Mountain Climber, 2004

Dr. Richard Restak's book explores "the effect of anxiety on our brains and our culture," and in essence reads like a piece of high-end journalism, despite his M.D.'s credentials. Drawing on the tremendous amount of neurological research done over the last decade and a half, Restak explores the state of current scientific thinking on the sources of anxiety in our brains and what these new revelations mean for individuals and society at large.

Restak portrays our brains as working at times at cross purpsoes, with the "amygdallae" controlling our emotional state - especially the fight or flight reflex - while the frontal lobes engage in abstract or "higher" thought processes. When we react to emotional stimulus, our response, says Restak, depends largely on whether we process the information directly (and more quickly) through the amygdallae, or through the frontal lobes where we take longer to process the information but inevitably endow it with greater (or at least more diverse, complex) meaning.

Restak catalogues the major anxiety disorders -- post-traumatic stress, panic, general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder -- and walks through the state of assesment and treatment approaches currently favored. I especially appreciated his distinctions between anxiety and "fear" or "stress," and I liked that he views anxiety not as an inherently negative trait but as a self-protection mechanism that we need and rely upon. Too often we hear people talk about anxiety as though it's merely a nuisance, something to be dispelled whenever it arises. That's too facile an approach, to be sure, and his discussions in that regard were, to me, some of the best parts of the book.

But at times Poe's Heart seems a bit too much like a catalogue, more like a series of lists instead of explanations. He's filled out the text with a variety of cultural references -- the title refers to an Edgar Allan Poe story where the main character confesses to a murder not because he has been caught but because his own internal anxiety compels him to do so -- but I found myself wanting more. The topics addressed by Restak raise questions for which we as yet have few answers -- that's okay, but sometimes I felt Restak avoided raising these questions merely BECAUSE right now there is no answer, and frankly that's not a very good reason.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, 1985

Oliver Sacks' collection of 20 clinical case studies does for neurology what Langer's novel does for Jewish Chicago -- it addresses big-picture themes through the narrow lens of personal narrative. While the author is awfully full of himself (the book is full of name dropping and self-aggrandizing references), he is a brilliant writer and, unlike Restak, unafraid to pose and discuss questions for which no one has any final solution.

Sacks harks back to 19th century scientists before the era of specialization, back when neurology and psychology were still viewed as a single, seamless whole, not separate disciplines which rarely meet. He asks the fundamental question, with Nietzche, "As for sickness: are we not tempted to ask whether we could get along without it?" Especially for diseases and damages to the brain, this question reaches the heart of many of Sacks' stories -- are the retarded person, the autist, the Tourrette's patient, epilectics and the like really "sick," or do they simply live in a world that won't fit into the narrow categories demanded of them by "normals"? Is the answer to make them more like the rest of us, or to provide support that lets them make the best and highest use of their own capacities?

Sacks is especially interested in the area where the physical and psychic worlds meet -- the "soul," he calls it, and why not? We already have a perfectly good word for that concept, after all, so why invent a new one? There is something beyond the physical, beyond the psychological, that makes each individual unique, separate unto themselves -- something beyond the physical and the psychic that unifies the two and makes us human, something more than a machine or a pile of chemical-driven emotions and thoughts.

One of the most interesting parts, for me, was Sacks' portrayal of retarded people, or the "simple," to use his word. With higher, abstract thought disabled, the simple instead focus on the concrete, on narrative instead of interpretation. Sacks thinks normals operate on both levels -- the narrative and the abstract -- but that our culture values the latter more than the former. However, we all begin life with a greater ability to interpret narrative than abstractions. To use Sacks example, a child may understand the stories of the Bible and their meaning before she may understand Euclid. For the simple, that narrative is all there is, and Sacks' clinical tales show how that singular focus does not mean the simple don't or can't lead a rich and full life, at least if society can get past its prejudgments to allow them to do so.

Citing Dostoyevsky and the 12th century nun Hildegard, whose drawings from her visions Sacks interprets as stemming from intensely debilitating migraines, Sacks shows how occasionally in history such differences have been interpreted spiritually, not just medically as sickness. Unlike other writers, though, the fact that a medically identified source may have caused such visions don't inherently discredit them. What if Dostoyevsky's epilepsy and Hildegard's migraines were not false interpetations, but their conditions actually accorded them a real path to the spiritual that's unavailable to the rest of us? Sacks accounts suggest that thought may deserve more than passing consideration -- that stories of neurological illness may not always be tragedies but, under the right circumstance, transform into a window on the soul, if we are bold enough to look and see.

His story of twins with an uncanny ability to identify prime numbers and "see" instead of count large figures makes just this point. After intense observation, Sacks came to believe the twins see numbers as "not just numbers, but significances, signifiers whose significand is the world." The twins "seem to employ a direct cognition, like angels. they see, directly, a universe and heaven of numbers. And this, however singular, however bizarre -- but what right have we to call it 'pathological'? -- provides a singular self-sufficiency and serenity to their lives." What an awesome thought. It's proof, Sacks thinks awaits a time when neurology and pschiatry re-merge, when science uproots its moorings and enters the world of art.

I liked Sacks' book a lot and intend to read others he's written when I return to the States.