Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks)

The title The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat first came to my attention in an advertisement for an opera, which was, unbeknownst to me, inspired by the book. I was offput. It was nonsensical, and I dislike nonsense. I did not buy the opera tickets, and then I forgot about it until I heard a discussion of agnosia on a podcast. This book was a key component of that discussion, and I realized that it was not nonsense, but medical science. The author, Oliver Sacks, is a neurologist, and the book is a collection of his case studies.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was originally published in 1970 and had a second run in the mid-1980s with followups on the patients and information from newer studies on similar cases. Obviously, medical and social advancements have occurred since then, and some of Sacks’ terminology, such as “moron,” “imbecile,” and “retarded,” is downright cringe-worthy now, but used without a hint of insult here. Sacks’ empathy for his patients is obvious, and he has a gift with words uncommon among medical professionals. When you read his stories, you’ll realize that these conditions could happen to you, or to someone you love, at any time, for no reason. It’s sobering. But Sacks’ attitude is optimistic and encouraging, and his viewpoint is fascinating.

A scene from the 
Indianapolis Opera production
(from http://jayharveyupstage.
The book is divided into four sections: Losses, Excesses, Transports, and World of the Simple. Each section features case studies of patients in that category. For example, Losses describes patients with a neurological loss or deficiency, including the man in the title, who loses his ability to recognize objects and people by sight. It also tells the story of a “disembodied” young lady who had a devastating response to a drug and can no longer sense the position of her body. In contrast to Losses, the Excesses section includes cases where a neurological function is overactive, for example Tourette's patients who have too much nervous energy, and a case of Cupid’s Disease, where exaggerated libido is triggered by previously latent syphilis. Transports describes people who experience fantastic visions and auditory phenomena, as well as incredible recollections. Finally, World of the Simple describes patients with intellectual disabilities ‒ and their surprising gifts and skills.

Oliver Sacks, Brooklyn Book Festival, 2009
(© Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons)
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is neatly structured and easy to follow. Sacks has a formal, florid writing style, and there’s a fair amount of medical terminology, but don’t be intimidated. The book is accessible. Just have your dictionary app handy. You’ll want it every now and then. I hope that, someday soon, more postscripts will be added to address medical advancements since the last publication. Even so, you’ll put this book down with new empathy for the ill, new awe for the human brain, and if you’re neurologically healthy, gratitude for your wellness.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Burr (Gore Vidal)

You probably remember Aaron Burr as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. To be honest (and humble) (and ashamed of my history education), before I read Gore Vidal’s Burr, I didn’t even know that. But Vidal’s novel will tell you much more about this infamous man and maybe even convince you that he’s not such a villain. He’s flawed, yes, but he’s also principled, and he bucks a corrupt system.

The people in this novel (except the narrator) are real, researched historical characterseveryone from the presidents to the prostitutesand all events (with three exceptions which Vidal notes) are also established history. Of course, detailed dialogue is necessarily construed, but it supports the official events. So even though this book falls under “fiction” in my lineup, don’t consider it a fabrication. “Historical novel” is the genre the author ascribes.

The story begins when Burr is old but still spry and newly married to a wealthy French widow. The narrator, Charlie Schuyler, is Burr’s young law clerk, but he prefers his side gig as a newspaper writer. Burr asks Charlie to write his biography and gives him drafts of his history from the time he was a young soldier in the Revolutionary War, throughout his political careerincluding details of the fateful dueluntil his fall from society’s graces. During their meetings, Charlie grows to love Burr, but he has also been tasked by a powerful newspaperman to secretly discover whether a scandalous rumor is true: Is Burr is the biological father of Martin Van Buren?

Even though Charlie is the narrator of the novel, the bulk of the book is Burr’s narrative via his own biographical notes. Naturally, Burr comes off as a herocharming and witty, a masterful soldier and military strategist, a balanced politician. But he’s occasionally self-deprecating and admits that he’s a lousy master of his money and his libido. 

The glaring takeaway from this book is that politics has always been a nasty business. The pages are filled with sex scandals, bribes, hot tempers, lies, secrets, irrational egos, and mercenary military plots. There’s great dirt on Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. After reading Burr, you’ll have no rose-colored views of your favorite founding fathers.

Gore Vidal, Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, 2008
Photo by Mark Coggins from San Francisco
 - Gore Vidal, CC BY 2.0,
Gore Vidal is a prolific author, but this is my first reading of his work. He’s eloquent and sharp. He constructs vivid settings. I love his depiction of historical New York City, but especially intriguing is nascent Washington, D.C., while the White House is under construction, and the city is so dank that people hate going there. My only criticism reflects my deficiency, not Vidal’s. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I’m meh on politics, and some of the detail in this book was beyond my scope of interest. But the great writing and history made it more than worthwhile. I recommend Burr the book for its broader perspective on Burr the man, and also on our founding fathers. Vidal helped me see that modern politics is really just politics as usual, since the very beginning of our country.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (Michael Lewis)

Moneyball is the story of how the Oakland Athletics in 2002, under general manager Billy Beane, became one of the most successful major league baseball teams on one of the lowest budgets. But Moneyball isn’t just a feel-good story of an underdog baseball team. It’s also a detailed explanation of the methodology Beane applied, including hard data science and magical wheeling and dealing. The book balances plain information with personal stories to create a surprisingly engaging educational experience. You’ll learn about economics and statistics and data analytics, but also about key players, managers, and trainers ‒ the hot-shots who flamed out in a hurry, the cool-heads who just kept doing their thing, and the longshots who surprised everyone (except sabermetrician Paul DePodesta) with their game-winning performance.

I have a personal history of pronounced indifference to team sports, baseball included. But I’ve always loved money, and I’m totally into tips and tricks for managing it wisely. So it’s the Money, not the Ball, that attracted me to Moneyball. But the book had a different plan for me. The economic strategy ‒ in a nutshell, finding players who are undervalued due to some perceived but largely irrelevant flaw ‒ sucked me in and kept me there.

Chad Bradford with the Baltimore Orioles,
pitcher originally undervalued for his
unorthodox throwing style
Then, as I went along, the personalities and the stories got me interested in the game. Unexpectedly, by the time I was three-fourths through, I found myself yearning to sit in a stadium with my fists full of Cracker Jacks, sweating alongside thousands of other humans, and booing and cheering the action that I was now beginning to understand.

And that, my friends, is the magic of Lewis’s writing. It feels simultaneously journalistic and dramatic. He gives us the facts ‒ lots of them. Sometimes the stats were unduly heavy for my preferences, but he bejewels the numbers with lovely philosophy, smooth wit, and anticipation. He weaves a story like Walt Disney, dangles suspense like Stephen King, and then, like Aesop, brings it back home with the lesson learned.

Michael Lewis
Photo credit: Justin Hoch at -
_MG_2932, CC BY 2.0,
When I finish blogging about a book, people often ask, “Did you watch the movie?” Usually, the answer is no, but on this rare occasion, I can say yes. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the movie couldn’t hope to cover in such lively detail all that Lewis offers in the pages of his book. If I had only seen the movie without reading the book, I would not have been nearly as educated on the brilliant economic strategy, nor would I have been as entertained, nor as delighted by the author’s literary gifts. If you’ve only watched the movie, you’ve bunted. Do yourself a favor. Buy the book and read it. You’ll have a better game at life having done so.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe)

Sherman McCoy is a wealthy Wall Street trader at his peak, with an opulent home, a beautiful wife, an adorable daughter, and a hell-hot mistress. Although Sherman basks in his success, he’s not just an egoistic snob. He’s frustrated by his wife’s limitless extravagances. He’s disdainful of the superficiality he’s surrounded with. He works hard, he respects his superiors, and he cherishes his little girl. But when he and his mistress inadvertently drive his Mercedes off their planned course and into the Bronx, Sherman’s perfectly aligned world is tipped off its axis by a run-in with two young black men, setting off a slow spin that gains frightening momentum page by page. Sherman is flung into a universe that he was previously untouched by  protesters, press hounds, detectives, thugs, corrupt clergy, hardened attorneys, and a walloping media frenzy.

Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy
(photo from
I don’t remember how The Bonfire of the Vanities found its way onto my bookshelf, but based on the author, I knew I had to read it. (And as usual, no, I haven’t seen the movie.) It’s a pop-culture hit from the 1980s, so it feels a little dated, but if you were awake during that time, you’ll love how accurately Wolfe captures the zeitgeist. He titillates your schadenfreude as Wall Street Whitey topples from his pinnacle, but he nurtures your empathy as Sherman is humanized by his struggles. You’ll likely find yourself rooting for Sherman, especially given the distastefulness of most of his foes, whose ego-driven motives are arguably more shameful than his own.

The novel is rife with casual racism and sexism. To me, it seems exaggerated for the era, but I was, admittedly, sheltered, so maybe the attitudes aren’t inaccurate. If you offend easily, you’ll be challenged. Approach it as an education.

Tom Wolfe at the White House Salute to American Authors,
March 2004 (photo credit Susan Sterner)
I’ve been in love with Wolfe since I read The Right Stuff over a decade ago. The Bonfire of the Vanities also delivers in his characteristic sharp, masculine, high-energy style. The setting is old-pop, but the writing prevails. It’s true literature, the kind of stuff that makes Americans proud of our great authors, and Tom Wolfe is one of them.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Liar's Club: A Memoir (Mary Karr)

If your family is normal, or even quasi-normal, then The Liar’s Club will showcase a whole new cultural experience for you. Mary Karr’s memoir describes her 1960s childhood with her sister Lecia in hilarious, horrific detail. For our reading entertainment, the profoundly dysfunctional Karr family takes the proverbial stage in "Leechfield," Texas (a pseudonym for the Port Arthur area). Leechfield is a lower-middle class town where the land and the air, and a lot of the people, smell like oil.

Per Mary’s telling, her mother (whom she simply calls Mother) is a tortured artist, full of inner grandeur, and stifled by the bounds of poverty. She’s philosophical, passionate, and brilliant in her own ways, but she’s immobilized by mental illness and alcoholism. Her artistic flamboyance is so out of place in Leechfield, no one knows what to make of her, and the community writes her off as lunatic. But their assessment doesn’t seem unfair. Mother’s wildly destructive behaviors are the primary thrill factor of the book. Only the glowering, disapproving grandmother can subdue her, to the astonishment and disappointment of young Mary.

Mary’s father (Daddy) is the saner parent. He’s an alcoholic too, but since he’s unplagued by mental illness, he isn't ostracized. He holds a job in the oil refinery, feeds his family, and dotes on his little girls. Daddy is famous in Leechfield for his masterful telling of tall tales among friends (inspiring the title The Liars’ Club).

Although Mother and Daddy do love Mary and Lecia, Mother’s illness overshadows every aspect of their lives with insanity. Mary and Lecia have few boundaries. While Lecia assumes the responsibility that her mother shirks, Mary grows sassy and wild.

Motiva Oil Refinery, Port Arthur, Texas
(photo from
When Mother comes into some money, they all move from oil-permeated Leechfield to an idyllic ranch in Colorado, where the girls roam the wild countryside on horseback in mountain-fresh air under wide open skies. But as it has been said, no matter where you go, there you are. Addiction and illness follow them. Mother and Daddy divorce soon thereafter, and the children are abandoned to themselves and tossed around with fantastical carelessness.

To conclude the memoir, Mary skips to her young adulthood. Mother’s new money has been squandered, Mother and Daddy have reconciled, they’ve returned to Leechfield, Daddy is bedridden, and a great family secret is disclosed. Suddenly, the insanity makes sense. But don’t read ahead. You need the blindness to appreciate Mary’s bewildering, focusless upbringing.

Throughout the book, Mary hints that she and Lecia have grown into contributing, productive humans, but as she describes her childhood, you may wonder how that outcome is possible. Maybe this is what saves the girls: Despite all the chaos, a thread of love is evident. The girls are not rejected by either parent, nor by each other. They learn attachment.

Mary Karr
Karr’s narrative is a mashup of childish perspective and grown-up introspection. Her lexicon is deliberate and selective. She crafts each sentence like a poet (which she also is). In her writing, you’ll see glimpses of the good genes she’s inherited. She’s an artist, like her mother, and a taleweaver, like her father. Enjoy The Liar’s Club like wine: Some of it is unsavory. Some of it is exquisite. All of it will alter your outlook.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Eden (Yael Hedaya)

Eden is one of several novels that my cousin Michal gave me to introduce me to Israeli literature, and it is a grand introduction, a shadowy exposé of lifestyles in a gentrified moshav. The moshav, Eden, is unlike the humble, workaday neighborhood described in Mier Shalev’s My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner. Instead, it’s a genteel outlying haven of older remodeled homes with price tags now beyond the reach of Joe Schmoe and his ilk. It’s the type of place you drive past and think, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” And what Hedaya posits here is that maybe Eden isn’t so nice.

Hedaya has structured the book so that each chapter is narrated by alternating characters, all residents of Eden, in their own stream-of-consciousness. Some of the characters are related or acquainted, others are not, and some will cross paths as the story proceeds. Not much real time elapses in its 486 pages, but as the characters spend considerable energy dwelling on past events, a strong sense of personal and relational history is constructed. 

The primary characters hail from two households. Daphna and Eli are a childless couple trying desperately to conceive. Alona and Mark are separated but friendly spouses with a troubled teenage daughter, Roni. When Roni embarks on an affair with Eli, their secret threatens to dismantle any remnant of happiness their families may be currently clinging to.

A home in a modern moshav
Eden’s narrative is cerebral. Some characters are oppressively, even self-destructively, analytical. Like a soap opera, the story grows dark and explicit and becomes highly entangled. Eden isn’t all sex and sentiment though. It also addresses the modern political tensions from both liberal and conservative perspectives. But the political ideals prove as illusory as the idyllic moshav lifestyle.

The book I read is a translation from Hebrew, so I can’t authoritatively discuss Hedaya’s narrative style. The English-language version, translated by Jessica Cohen, maintains the Israeli feel that I’m starting to recognize ‒ declarative, opinionated, direct. The text is rich in literal and figurative content. The characterization is distinct, with a clear shift in voice from narrator to narrator. You’ll get a strong grasp of each person, and you’ll have strong opinions about them too. Hedaya also incorporates a book-within-a-book construction which, upon some analysis, can turn up discussion-worthy correlations with the primary plot.

Yael Hedaya
The moshav Eden appears lovely, but sordid secrets lurk there. The book Eden is also full of beauty and darkness. The ending is grim but hopeful, as I like to think of the spirit of Israel ‒ resilient despite the country’s turmoil. Eden is a tumultuous but insightful story, and I’m glad to be among its community of readers.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)

Neil Gaiman’s epic American Gods would be a great subject for a master’s-level analytical essay. But since my humble blog promises to keep reviews short and informal, this post will barely address the intricacies of the masterpiece. Still, I hope the cursory glance I provide here will tempt you enough to savor the novel for yourself.

But before you do, you should know that it starts kind of befuddlingly and stays that way for a while. Let me clarify. Gaiman doesn’t write the ungraspable stream-of-consciousness gobbledeegook that we’re force-fed in Modern Lit courses. You’ll follow his every word and sentiment. What I mean is this: The story can feel plotless. It meanders down seemingly random threads to dangling ends. But KEEP READING! All of those threads are actually hot wires that will connect and detonate in a fantastical conclusive bang.

The story centers on Shadow, a lovable convict who practices coin tricks and misses his wife. Despite Shadow’s resolve to avoid trouble after his release, he’s inexplicably suckered into working for Mr. Wednesday, a prolific rule breaker, who also turns out to be Odin, the “All-Father” of Norse mythology. Shadow and Wednesday travel the country to recruit other old, forgotten gods for a great battle against the insipid contemporary deities.

Odin the Wanderer (1869)
by Georg von Rosen
Along the way, you’ll meet a motley cast of historical and present-day people, ancient supernatural beings, and also the modern gods who try to compel Shadow away from Wednesday’s service. In his loyalty to Wednesday, Shadow gets caught in some brutal physical encounters and several supernatural events.

For at least half of the novel, it’s unclear why Wednesday has chosen Shadow and why the contemporary gods are bent on his elimination. But chapter by chapter, the picture sharpens, and the brilliance of the story will emerge. Sex and love, intrigue and betrayal, con jobs and killings, all culminate in a great oblation, and finally, absolution.

I’m not a student of mythology, so I’m certain (and disappointed) that I missed a lot of beautiful nuances and allusions. But with my background in Christian studies, I can confirm that Gaiman incorporates several biblical references  shadows, if you will. Don’t get hung up on them. The author knows his stuff, but American Gods is not an allegory.

The edition I read is the “Author’s Preferred Text.” I don’t know how it differs from other editions, but in the appendix, Gaiman includes a passage that he omitted from the body of the novel. It’s where Shadow meets Jesus. I liked it. I think it would have been good in context. But based on the commentary, I understand why he kept it out, and why he couldn’t quite entirely keep it out.

Neil Gaiman
The only other Gaiman book I’ve read (so far) is the Graveyard Book, an excellent juvenile fiction. Based on these two reads, I can tell you that Gaiman has a leaning toward the macabre. His work is far from horror though. It’s just a step into a fantasy world that can be dark, maybe a little dangerous, but mostly an alluring adventure. His objective is not to frighten, but to present a new angle on things you might have otherwise considered scary. He writes for the masses, but this is no pulp thriller. He tells a great redemption story, but it’s not a religious text either. American Gods is lavish and complex and, honestly, deserves a second reading for full appreciation. I hope to have that second reading before long, but even more, I hope you pick up the book and get at least one great ride with it.