Tuesday, August 01, 2006

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.

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