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Sunday, Jun 3, 2007

Last month I bought a copy of Pliny’s Natural History at a library book sale. Now I know at least a dozen things that I hadn’t known before. For example, if I am having trouble with excess phlegm, I should kiss “only the little hairy muzzle of a mouse.” That will make the phlegm go away. If I am eating bread and a crumb gets lodged in my throat, I need to take two pieces from the same loaf and place them in my ears. That will dislodge the crumb. If I have the same trouble with fish, the cure is to take bones from the fish and put them on my head.


To give birth to a black-eyed child, eat a rat. To heal a cancerous sore of the gums, administer powdered sheep dags. The “black liquor” found in cuttlefish, if burned in a lamp, will “make all those in the room to look like blackamoors or Aethyopians.” Blackamoor isn’t Pliny’s word, of course. The Natural History I bought was a reprint of the 1601 translation by Philemon Holland, Doctor in Physic. A wonderful book. It cost 50 cents.


Our largest local library, a 20-minute walk away, has one of these book sales every month. The Friends of the Library lay out tables and boxes of books, they man the grey tin box in which money is kept, they offer help to people who are struggling with armloads. They can be frosty if crossed. All are named Joyce.


Normal prices range from 50 cents to a dollar. The larger books are set aside and individually priced: three dollars, five dollars, depending on the book. For two months running they had a special price, five paperbacks for a dollar. That’s Trainspotting, Women in Love, all four of Colette’s Claudine stories, A Spy in the House of Love, an autobiographical Michael Ondaatje, and so on, all for 20 cents each. They’re good for gloating, library book sales.


I hoover up stacks of books and retreat into a corner by the men’s toilets to sort them out into piles which I mentally label ‘Keep’ and ‘Put back.’  At least one person will come and hover wistfully over my pile. Occasionally they try to steal a book. “Sorry,” they say when I fix them with my glowering eye and frowning brow. (To darken the eyebrows rub them with ant eggs, writes Pliny.) “I didn’t realise that was yours.” I believe them; they didn’t. They’re so flustered. A middle-aged Chinese woman once trailed me around the room, lusting after my Bacon.


“He is a very good writer,” she said. “The book is a very good book. I wish I had found it.”


She was right, he is, but I wasn’t going to give him up. Is it strange to wonder why a Chinese woman with hesitant English should be so in love with to Bacon’s essays? Well, I once found a copy of Paradise Lost in a Japanese library with Japanese annotations hand-written in the margins from beginning to end—translations of words like “glozed” and “virtuosest”—so why shouldn’t she be? How many English-speaking readers finish Paradise Lost, never mind Japanese-speaking ones? Who wrote those annotations? And what were they doing in Mito, a middle-sized administrative town known for fermented beans and a dead aristocrat? Lord Misukuni Tokugawa was an author, though: he started a series of history books, the Dainishonshi. There is a copy of this series in the Mito City Museum, another wonderful place, dark inside, full of glass cases and stuffed animals and insects in dioramas. The museum in Melbourne used to be like that before they built a new one and rehoused the dusty animals (the tiger with its glazed and gleaming teeth; the native fauna staring glassily) in a series of well-lit, open spaces that stole away their mystery and made them seem tatty.


There’s territoriality at book sales. People shove. If confronted, they apologise in pale, blushing voices. They do not shout. The only person who raises his voice is a bearded man who comes along every month and declaims at the Joyces. In an ideal world he would be a Dickensian figure, a dotty Mr Dick, fixated but loved. In reality he is self-important and bossy and he irritates them. He never seems to notice. Pliny does not give a solution to the problem of deluded men with beards. But did you know that “malefactors or suspected persons” can be made to tell the truth if they consume the herb Achaemenis in wine? “For in the night following they shall be so haunted with spirits and tormented with sundry fancies that and horrible visions, that they shall be driven perforce to tell all”? Do the people at Guantanamo Bay know about this? It sounds a little quicker than the current system.


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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Benedict Shaw is my new kid-hero: eight years old and he’s managed to read more than 60 books for a library reading challenge. To score a gold medal in his school’s Monster Reading Challenge, Shaw need only have ticked off 24. He’s tripled that and more. Benedict’s mum told the Omskirk Advertiser that her son is a chronic reader, staying up long nights finishing chapter after chapter. Her other son, a chipper four year old, is, she notes, as keen on stories as his older brother.


This got me thinking; reminiscing really, about a reading challenge I participated in yearly when in primary school. I looked forward to the MS Read-a-thon like most kids looked forward to the swimming sports. The read-a-thon worked as a fundraiser for multiple sclerosis, with money raised through individual sponsorship. I’d get about a dollar for every book read, and only from my parents as I wasn’t prone to door-knocking for solicitations like some other kids I knew. For me, though, it was never about the money—I used it as a chance to show off my reading habits, which I thought were way awesome. This was the one time out of every year, you must understand, that reading books was suddenly cool. I filled out my “Books read” form with vigor, proud to record my re-readings of Ralph S. Mouse and The BFG next to the hordes of easy-peasy kiddie books I’d scan just to get the form entirely filled up.


Still, with all that reading, I wouldn’t have come close to Benedict Shaw’s haul. I do secretly wonder, though, how many “Tom has a ball” books he’s flown through to grab those extra gold medals, but that’s the primary school competitor in me talking, who just knew the kids at my school weren’t reading half the books they said they were. I remember Lizzie Wyke, for instance, including Stephen King’s It on her form, but never once telling me in any detail exactly what the book was about. I know she mentioned snakes. Snakes? But I’ll take Benedict’s word for it—I’m not in competition with him, after all. Then again, perhaps I am. I’ve long been a recorder of books read, so I’m well aware 60 books takes me over a year to get through. Sure, there’s less time these days. And with my new full-time job, I’m anticipating less still. I dream about a life like Benedict’s—under the covers with a torch, turning those pages, not worrying about falling asleep in class the next day because those books were a proper education, free of written tests and recess (and swimming). There’s just no hiding in the back room at work to read, and barely enough time before bed to get that last chapter in. Ah—to be eight again.


As it happens, the MS Read-a-thon still exists. A Google search reveals the challenge going strong in Australia and in Canada. The fundraiser, turns out, is over 30 years in existence, and continues as a major event for the MS Foundation worldwide. I hope Benedict discovers it soon.


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Monday, May 21, 2007

I Tell Ye Sorr ...


Judged by any of the normal standards, William Hope Hodgeson was a bad writer. He had a tin ear for prose (he sounds most artful when he’s writing in a strange Ye Olde mix, doubtless inspired by the same current of social thought that led to Lord Dunsany’s stories, William Morris’ handiworks, and the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites) and his characterisation is thin to the brink of fatal anorexia. The people in his books are often little more than names (Tonnison, George, Monstruwacan) or accents (“I tell ye sorr, ‘tis no use at all at all thryin to reclaim ther castle. ‘Tis curst with innocent blood…”). It’s easier to remember them for what they go through (grim battles with Yellow Things; disorienting trips through time) than who they are.


But Hodgson the writer (I have no idea if this extended to Hodgson in everyday life) dwelt in a state of extraordinary and vivid terror, and it is this emotion that gives his stories their power. To read his books is to watch a man fighting to dig an elusive core of fear out of his mind and see it in daylight. He does not wallow in it, as a Stephen King does. He does not revel. When King describes a boy’s brains sounding like snot as they hit the wall in Needful Things, he seems to be standing aside and almost chuckling at the overdone grimness of it all. Hodgson didn’t have King’s facility with words; he never manages a throwaway tone; he is not funny. “I want you to try to understand,” his narrator cries urgently in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder as he describes the advent of the evil Hog. “I wonder if I make it clear to you,” he says. “Can you understand ... Do you understand at all?” Hodgson was serious about his monsters, as Lovecraft was serious about his Old Ones even when he was giving them ridiculous names.


The Hog is “a seemingly motionless, pallid swine-face rising upward out of the depth.” A page later it is “a pallid, floating swine-face” and then “the dreadful pallid head.” Like Lovecraft, Hodgson is trying to write about forces so alien to nature that they can’t be described with any accuracy. Our human language can only grope around them, throwing out the word “pallid” again and again in the frustrated hope that it will give the reader a faint idea as to the colour of this unearthly thing.


No wonder H.P. found him inspirational. “Despite,” he wrote, “a tendency toward conventionally sentimental conceptions of the universe, and of man’s relation to it and to his fellows, Mr. Hodgson is perhaps second only to Algernon Blackwood in his serious treatment of unreality. Few can equal him in adumbrating the nearness of nameless forces and monstrous besieging entities through casual hints and insignificant details, or in conveying feelings of the spectral and the abnormal.”


Hodgson died in 1918, which means that he is not around to complain about copyright and some helpful people have put large parts of his work on the internet. You can find him at Project Gutenberg, but I prefer the cleaner-looking site at Adelaide Uni. I’d recommend that you start with The House on the Borderland and move on to Carnacki the Ghost Finder, then The Night Land. After that, take the rest at your leisure.


(On a tangent, the Adelaide University site also has Virginia Woolf’s wonderful Two Parsons, which stays in my mind like no other book review I have ever read.)


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Saturday, May 19, 2007

When reading Dennis Cass’s Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins, 2007), it’s important to manage your expectations about genre.  The title might lead you to believe it’s going to be a work of science reportage, like Steven Johnson’s Mind Wide Open.  That’s not quite right.  The book jacket compares it to Supersize Me, which implies a sort of culture-jamming, quasi-political approach.  That’s not right, either.  And the blurb says it’s “touching,” which is always a little worrisome.  If you bracket those expectations, however, Head Case turns out to be quite interesting. 


Head Case is actually several different books in one: Cass does subject himself to a battery of neurological tests, even self-medicating with Adderall, and he attends several neuroscientific conferences and has read a lot in the journals, and so to that extent it is a work of science reporting.  But thinking about minds and brains leads him, inevitably, into thoughts of his stepfather’s brain, tormented by addiction and manic depression, and of his first child’s rapidly forming brain.  Triangulating with wry humor among these three stories, Cass unpacks the discomfort many feel about thinking too closely about the brain. 


Thinking about the brain is so uncomfortable that at one point, while looking at functional MRI image of his brain, Cass “didn’t believe this brain was mine.  I found this disturbing.  Even though not feeling your brain is a perfectly healthy and normal thing, I thought that there was something sinister in how my brain denied its own existence.”  More darkly, he “went back over the Brain Logs, my diary of all the bad TV and fast food, and cringed.  I thought I was watching Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines with ironic detachment, but in reality the crap I was feeding my head meant something.  The brain was always on.  There was no work time and leisure time.”


Although Cass was raised by two drug addicts, one of whom ultimately suffered a psychotic break (and his natural father probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder), his stories of his childhood are not sentimental tales of victimization.  Instead, given the discussions of children’s theory of mind, the influence of childhood experiences, and so forth, Cass’s childhood emerges as a blackly comic source of potential psychopathology. 


Head Case is thoughtful, funny, and very accessible—I read it while proctoring an exam, and would vouch for it as summer reading.  An index and list of sources would be helpful; their absence serves as a cue that this book is less about understanding the brain and more about living, for better and for worse, with one’s mind.



Cass graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Head Case this week:


Head Case‘s distinguishing feature is its mix of science writing with two slightly different (though related) personal stories—your unforgettable relationship with your stepfather, and your slightly more standard-issue anxieties about fatherhood.  How/when did you realize that the book needed to open with your stepfather sprinting down Amsterdam Avenue?


When I started this project I had no intention of writing about my family. Yes my childhood was awful, but was it memoir awful? But then about halfway through my research I realized that in order for this story to make sense I would need to deal with my stepfather’s grandiose idea of conquering 80s New York. Then it became a technical matter. I wrote dozens of different opens, but having a prologue type thing about my stepfather’s psychotic break seemed like the best way to start. 


What interested me about Head Case‘s mixing of narratives is that it seems implicitly to contrast the two most culturally pervasive theories of mind in the past century: psychoanalysis and neuroscience.  (Implicit because you nowhere mention Freud or psychoanalysis, but that cultural mythology is so much about fathers and sons that it’s hard not to read it in.)  Was that deliberate?  If so, to what end? 


I wish I could take more credit for exploring thoughtful dichotomies, but in truth writing this book was an exercise in survival. Every day I got up and tried to make it good and every day the subject matter (neuroscience), the story (weaving together personal narrative, participatory journalism and memoir) and the tone (it’s supposed to be funny) kicked my living ass. But when it works (and it doesn’t always work) I think there is a lot of room for the reader to make these kinds of larger connections. This is a book that invites you to talk about it behind its back. 


A follow-on about psychoanalysis: In the 20s and 30s, many artists turned their back on psychoanalysis, not so much on scientific or medical grounds but on epistemological/aesthetic/ontological ones: They didn’t want to unravel the source of their art.  You voice similar doubts throughout Head Case.  Is this just part and parcel of thinking about the mind or brain? 


I don’t think this resistance is limited to artists or writers. Imagine that you and your friends are at a bar getting deliciously drunk. Nothing ruins the moment more than someway exclaiming, “We’re so wasted!”


After your experience with Adderall, which I recognize is colored to some extent by your experience of your parents’ drug abuse, how do you view the increasing use of, or acceptance of, such cognitive enhancers by college students and others?  Will our children see Adderall much like coffee? 


My problem with any kind of drug is that there is always a price. And I mean that physiologically, not morally. Because it’s time-released Adderall has lower side effects than traditional amphetamines, but still: after up time it’s down time. Which is too bad, because you can really read on that stuff. 


Near the book’s end, you’re not just skeptical about neuroscience’s ability to decode the brain, but instead see neuroscience as treating you abjectly.  (I’m thinking of the moment where you describe yourself as “covered in science cum,” even though you were “not having a good time.”)  Do you have ethical reservations about neuroscientific research, or is your recoil more idiosyncratic?


I think it’s a little of both. I think we’re probably going to discover something about the brain that we’ll regret discovering. That is no fault of science; it’s more a matter of the law of unintended consequences. Other than perhaps outright curing a disease like polio it’s hard to find any human endeavor where there weren’t unintended negative consequences. But mostly in that moment I just felt like a jerk. 


Head Case is preoccupied with its own writing—you take on several different roles during the narrative; you spend some time talking about the nature of insight, and so forth.  Has your writing process changed much since working on this book?


I often write myself into my stories and I do it for a lot of reasons. First, it’s fun. I can tell jokes and make observations that are more personal and idiosyncratic than if I were writing from a distance. Plus, I can serve as the through line, which lets me juggle a lot of different elements. I also feel that it’s more honest. If I’m there talking to someone or witnessing something, why pretend like I’m not? 


What bit of brain knowledge is either your favorite or something that haunts your dreams?  For myself, I could have done without learning that an “unpreserved brain would spread like pudding.”


Yes: the physical brain is pretty gross. But I think the most haunting thing is the idea that the 10% myth is just that: a myth. There is no secret door behind which lay wonders or a hidden switch that activates cognitive afterburners. We are using all of our brains all the time and this is what we get. This is your life. This is the world we have made for ourselves. Bon chance.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Over the weekend, Scott Horton published at Harper’s this withering indictment of Alberto Gonzales, considered from the point of view of honor (via The Daily Dish).  Horton develops his argument on the basis of his reading of Anthony Trollope, the humiliatingly prolific Victorian novelist, focusing particularly on Plantagenet Palliser.


Horton’s argument is worth reading in full for its take on contemporary American politics; however, I’m more interested in his opener:


Anthony Trollope was a very great novelist, a man who in a sense is a far better surveyor of English society in the Victorian Age than Charles Dickens. His works are filled with humor and wisdom and importantly, they never tire the reader. I hardly embark on a long trip without a volume of Trollope in my carry-on bag, and while his works are entertainments, they go far beyond that.


If “surveyor of English society in the Victorian age” means “provider of a comprehensive view of all social classes, in something like an appropriate perspective,” then, no, Trollope is not better than Dickens.  But, if “society” is taken in its more limited sense—the upper crust of the social order—then Horton’s absolutely right: Dickens is famously bad at sketching gentlemen, and his lords and ladies are the stuff of farce.  Trollope, by contrast, is brilliant at capturing the nuances of this social milieu.  And this milieu is worth representing accurately, since it undergoes a remarkable transformation in the 19thC, from a landed aristocracy to a class much more dependent on the complex shifts of capital and democracy.  It’s great stuff.


One of the things that’s interesting about Trollope is that he seems to be more widely read outside American universities—i.e., by general readers—than he is in, say, Victorian novel classes.  Partly this is because some of his best novels belong to series, and most draw on a dense cultural context that’s hard to pull off in a semester.  Part of it is that, given what undergraduates are able to read these days, plus the length of canonical Victorian novels, there’s a pig-ugly attrition: You’ve got to teach at least one Brontë (and maybe 2), at least one Dickens, and Eliot.  If the Dickens is, say, Bleak House or David Copperfield and the Eliot is Middlemarch, then there just isn’t that much semester left.  Who else makes it in?


Like Horton, I have found that Trollope makes splendid vacation reading.  In fact, each of the past 5 summers and winter breaks, I have read at least one Trollope novel.  He has been good for cross-country flights, for bouts of the flu, Connecticut blizzards, trips to the parents, and much else besides.  Of the major Victorian novelists, Trollope’s sensibility is probably the brightest.  His novels’ darkest moments are usually pretty carefully quarantined, allowing the social order to reconstitute itself more readily at the end.  (Compare The Way We Live Now with Little Dorrit, for example.)  These are fine distinctions, of course, but I’m pretty sure people will grant me that Trollope is the Victorian novelist least likely to have a character vengefully ripped to pieces.


At any rate, because we’ve now cleared Mother’s Day, and opportunities for summer reading are starting to beckon, here are three Trollope novels that are first-rate introductions to his work:


  • He Knew He Was Right: A man’s jealousy—or, perhaps more precisely, his overliteral insistence on Victorian social mores and their enforcement—leads to the downfall of his marriage. 
  • The Eustace Diamonds: Does the widowed gold-digger get to keep the family jewels, or not?
  • The Way We Live Now: Very Enron: An impossibly wealthy man buys his way into society, even though no one can quite figure out where his money comes from.  David Brooks wrote an introduction to the Modern Library edition, which seems just about right.

All three novels are perfect beach reading, and, for the city-bound, will keep you safely off of this list (via Unfogged). 


A special note: If you see The Warden at the bookstore, you may well be tempted to buy it.  It’s 300-ish pages shorter than any other Trollope novel, and it kicks off the Barchester series, and so seems like a natural beginning point.  And, really, it is a fine little novel.  It does require a bit more familiarity with the Church of England hierarchy than the concept of “beach reading” strictly requires, however. 


 


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