And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks

If you don’t come away from this book with adoration for this lovable weirdo, something’s wrong with you. I didn’t want to stop reading this, seriously considering throwing off all plans until the very last page reached. The Paris Review had a lovely excerpt from the book detailing Thom Gunn’s admiration of how Sacks had changed from the daredevil drug-chugging motorcycle leather daddy whose prose could be quite cruel into a more centered and empathetic writer. Weschler reveals that in the early 80s he planned to write a profile of Sacks for the New Yorker and spent several years gathering material before Sacks asked him not to publish it because he was deeply closeted and had been celibate for several years, not wanting his sexuality raked about in public. Sacks had a change of heart on his deathbed in 2015, and thus we get this delightful tome.

During WW2, most London parents sent their children to the countryside and the Sacks were no exception. It was here that Oliver experienced abuse that scarred him for life, perhaps seeping into all his relations and his manic personality. He goes on to become a doctor, then flees England before he’s drafted, landing in Canada then SF and LA before settling in NYC.

Despite claiming that women’s anatomy was a complete scotoma (one of Sacks’s favorite words, a pathological hole in your visual field), at the age of 20 he ghostwrote a book with his mother about menopause, Women of Forty: The Menopausal Syndrome by Muriel Elsie Landau. This was before, I think, he came out as gay to his parents, whereupon his mother released an hours-long Deuteronomy-driven harangue before lapsing into the silent treatment for days and then never mentioning it again.

Sacks’s drug use: his slogan was “Every dose an overdose” and was known for being greedy, sucking down as much LSD and amphetamines that he could find. He was also addicted to acceleration and speed, zooming to the Grand Canyon through the night on his motorcycle at more than 100mph.

“For all my failures and the suicide which will probably end it all, I do have a feeling of developing, though, of being different at fifty than I was at forty, at forty than at thirty. I don’t know how people who don’t develop bear it.”

What types of books captivated him as a child? “Moby-Dick. What can you say about Moby-Dick? There’s Shakespeare and there’s Moby-Dick and that’s that.” Also: “Early on an editor told me I was too florid, to be more spare, to be like Hemingway, which among other things prevented me from liking Hemingway.” And: “Dickens wasn’t Dickens: He was life.”

Describing his first year at Oxford: “something bizarre must have been going on in terms of reading and searching: I was insatiable. I read Western philosophy with a sort of desperation. It didn’t work. I didn’t get anything, I didn’t retain anything, the only value in retrospect having been that 20 years later, I knew where to look… I became learning-voracious, swallowing up enormous obsessive amounts… If one could dig out the record of the library from that year, one would see what kind of strange, futile frenzy it was.”

On one phone call, Oliver excitedly relates that after swimming he returned to shore only to find that the rock beneath his foot moved, the whole field of rocks a horde of horseshoe crabs beached for mating. “My people have come!” Oliver crowed.

His relationship with the truth was something he struggled with all the time: “its not that I invent the truth. Rather I intuit or imagine it.”

He begins to be recognized in the 1980s; one turning point seems to be the 1984 lecture he gave at the NYPL, introduced by Susan Sontag who cooed about his writing style. Weschler mentions being there in the audience: “Jasper Johns is seated behind me: it’s that sort of crowd.”

The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote To What Isn’t Working Today

I sneak up on this book and take little sips, hoping to prolong my pleasure. Hecht’s method is “happiness by historical perspective” and she looks at four issues as topics seen through the lens of history: drugs, money, bodies, celebration. There are three distinct kinds of happiness, not unrelated but not in harmony with each other:

A Good Day: filled with lots of mild pleasures, repeatable, forgettable, a tiny bit of rewarding effort

Euphoria: intense, memorable, involves risk or vulnerability

A Happy Life: lots of difficult work (studying, striving, nurturing, maintaining, negotiating, mourning) sometimes seriously cutting into time for a good day or euphoria.

Taking thousands of years of writing and thinking on the subject, there are four things in all happiness theory from wisdom literature, philosophy, psychology, and self-help:

  • Know yourself.
  • Control your desires.
  • Take what’s yours.
  • Remember death.

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero more accurately translated as “Pluck the day, never trust the next.”

Everyone is forgotten. Hecht uses a brutal example, asking readers to list the names of your grandparents’ mothers. From her quick survey only a tiny minority could name even two of their four great-grandmothers.

Everything has to be learned twice. “In childhood we have ignorant happiness, and we must lose this happiness if we are ever to get beyond it. Repression is not the same as transcendence. Between these states of calm ignorance and calm knowing, there has to be some half-wise screaming. Some few people actually grow wise by acting wise, but most grow wise by acting foolish, by accruing a variety of experiences, by taking chances, and by making errors.”

Your worst barrier against happiness is you: “You cannot see yourself or much about the world you live in. You are ruled by desire and emotion. You will not take your place or rise to your role. You are alternately oblivious to death and terrified of it.” If you master these issues, you can be happy, but it’s not easy; it must be constantly worked at and never completely works.

Car culture makes us prize clearheadedness. “What makes opium a bad drug and Zoloft a good one has a lot to do with fogginess.” The degree of gauzelike inebriation is the difference between a bad drug and a good one. Car culture is also bananas because “if we rejected cars, we would have to walk, and our exercise problem would be over” (along with our fuel problem and pollution problem).

Drugs like cocaine and opium were actually useful in the 19th century for their medicinal properties. “While cocaine is great for allergies and toothaches, opium has a more important medicinal punch: it stops coughs and diarrhea.” Which in the era of epidemics of tuberculosis and dysentery was a blessing: heath AND happiness in a bottle.

Happiness maintenance work is “creating things to look forward to on a daily basis; arranging some peak experiences for yourself occasionally; and making sure the overall story of your life has some feeling of progress and growth.”

Money has stolen away our sense of community, “consumerism has become the central opportunity for public performance; for being someone; and for eating and feeding, rather than being eaten.” We shop to have good interactions and get stuff, we watch TV to bond with others.

Exercise is something that we’ve invented because machines have made life easy. “The only labor available is purposeless.” And also a drain on resources because you have to plug that treadmill in. When we fill our town centers with gyms, we’re combining 2 American traditions: the pride of the upper class not having to do work so doing sport instead, and religious identity distinguishing virtue through self-limitation. Hecht says we’d be better off if we only did unproductive exercise for pleasure…. walk somewhere you have to go anyway, take the stairs, chop some wood. “Forget the gym unless you love it or need a change of habit.”

She recommends creating a list of things we do that contribute to all 3 prongs of happiness: Good-Day Happiness (what makes a good day for you?), Euphoria (How do you get euphoria), A Happy Life (What do you need to have or be working toward, in order to like your life)

The Maltese Falcon

The only entertainment gained from reading this “classic” from Dashiell Hammett is following along the SF streets as he zips around Sutter, Kearny, Post, Geary, 9th Avenue. He’s credited with inventing the whole genre of hard-boiled detective fiction, by which I guess means tough guys who snarl at ladies who are swooningly in love with them. One particularly laughable moment in the Falcon comes when all the characters are penned up in Sam Spade’s apartment and he nonchalantly gets the woman, Brigid, to rustle up some coffee and food for his “guests.” I’m obviously not a fan of Hammett’s writing, preferring the higher skills of Raymond Chandler any day of the week. However, after living in SF for 20 years, I felt obligated to knock this off my list.

Meditations in an Emergency

Frankie soothes me with his 1957 book of poems. Gems include For Grace, After a Party (Grace Hartigan) and the eponymous Meditations in an Emergency.

For Grace:

You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t interest / me, it was love for you that set me / afire, / and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of / strangers my most tender feelings /
writhe and / bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand, / isn’t there
an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside / the bed? And someone you love enters the room / and says wouldn’t / you like the eggs a little / different today? / And when they arrive they are / just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather / is holding.

The Bookshop

Whew– I’d been beginning to think there was something wrong with me, that I had become allergic to books for some reason, rejecting most of the ones I’ve been reading lately. But this gem from Penelope Fitzgerald has restored my senses, cleansed my palate. A widowed 40-something-year-old woman (Florence Green) determines to open a bookstore in her village, proceeding against the powers that be (Mrs. Gamart) who want to use the ancient dilapidated building she’s taken over as an Arts Center instead. She isn’t greatly invested in the books themselves, preferring to get recommendations from other people as to what to stock, but she gambles correctly on 250 copies of Lolita after securing the recommendation from the village recluse, Mr. Brundish. At that meeting he wonders why she asked for his opinion, not a woman’s. “I don’t know that men are better judges than women,” said Florence, ” but they spend much less time regretting their decisions.”

In the end, the evil Mrs. Gamart has her nephew pass a bill in Parliament that allows her to take over the building. Brundish struggles through the fog to Gamart’s doorstep to protest, dying on his way back home. Florence is evicted, ending up defeated on a train to London.

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion

I’m fed up with the swirl of publicity for the books churned out of the NYC publishing elite (see also: Taffy Brodesser-Akner). The circus of praise surrounding them leads you to expect a quality that turns out to be lacking. Tolentino’s book is no exception, a baggy, wordy, bloated exploration of thoughts that are better written about elsewhere. Her essay Pure Heroines reads like a book report and a poorly Xeroxed copy of Kate Zambreno’s sublime book, Heroines. Cult of the Difficult Woman reads like a poor-woman’s Trainwreck (by Sady Doyle). Most egregious of all is the reliance of Wikipedia-esque research to create filler for the book (“In 1844, ‘optimize’ was used as a verb for the first time…”); that’s one of my personal pet peeves, exploring word history in a desultory way that implies you’ve done real research but most likely not. The only worthwhile part was her essay detailing her teenage participation in a reality show, Girls v Boys: Puerto Rico, mostly interesting because it was the only content in the book that couldn’t have been written by anyone else (or looked like a gussied up version of what someone else has written about).

Mildred Pierce

I love this movie so finally broke down and read the original book by James Cain, only to have Joan Crawford’s and Ann Blyth’s faces loom up at me from the pages. Veda is as horrible in the book as in the movie, and it was interesting to see what bits were moved and mangled and mashed up to create the screenplay. Things that needed to be visually appealing were inflated by the film, obviously (like Veda’s lounge singing was very visual in the film but simply a radio show in the book). Cain taps into pure gold with the friction between mother and daughter.

The Sugar House

I think I’ve choked down the last of these Laura Lippman mysteries. She’s a decent writer but this Tess Monaghan series is so formulaic and bland that they become a chore to read. In this one, a dead girl turns out to be the daughter of a billionaire who had been recuperating at an eating disorder clinic. There’s some weird connection to a local politician that I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to. Her usual gang surrounds her, Crow, Whitney, the wheelchair lawyer, her family. At the end, she’s evicted from her aunt’s building and buys a home. Yawn.

Big Sky

I thought this was a sort of parody of detective stories by the excellent writer Kate Atkinson, but after finishing I see that Jackson Brodie is actually a recurring character for her. She milks her audience well, with a chaotic first few pages pulling you into the story of a sex trafficking ring run on the coast of England by three old pals. Coincidences pile on top of coincidences, which is why I thought this was extreme parody, but it ends up an entertaining read. Unfortunately, the wrapping up phase at the end is too tidy and monotonous. Endings are hard to get right.

Four Friends: Promising Lives Cut Short

Mostly I’m in awe that people have been recommending this book. How is it possible to bungle first-person reporting so much? The author, Cohan, looks around and sees that 4 guys from his years at Phillips Academy (premiere prep school for the elites) are dead from various horrendous circumstances, decides to write a tediously boring book about it thinking that just by including JFK Jr. as one of the 4 that people will be interested? Dull dull dull. I hung around to skim through the blather due to curiosity around how they died. One guy was killed in the 101 California mass shooting in 1993 (SF’s worst mass shooting still remains unmemorialized on the building), one guy was hit by a cab, one guy mysteriously found drowned with two of his daughters, and JFK Jr piloted his plane into the Atlantic. Another book that did not need to be written or published.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

There were 3 distinct sections of this book: the strange murders swirling around Reverend Miller, who seemed to take out life insurance policies on everyone in his family and they ended up dead; the subsequent trial of the man who murdered Reverend Miller at the funeral home mourning his latest victim; Harper Lee’s involvement as a last gasp effort to produce a book in the 1970s and 80s. The first and last sections were the most interesting, with delving into Lee’s life providing the most meat for the story. Lee grew up next door to Truman Capote who whisked away to NYC where she eventually migrated. She had put the finishing touches on Mockingbird (after being granted a year off to write by the largess of friends) and was wondering what to do when Capote asked for her help researching the killings that became In Cold Blood. Her help in Kansas was enormous, detailed notes that later propped up his book, plus people much more likely to speak to a pleasant polite Southern woman than flamboyant Capote who met some people at his hotel door wearing pink lingerie.

Then Mockingbird came out and was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, making Capote jealous, making Lee fearful of earning any extra money since her income bracket was already being taxed at 70%. This immediate success made it possible for her never to work again and some say that it cursed her from future writing projects. The author of this book does float the idea that it was possible that Lee “had decided to write for her own satisfaction or for posterity, not her peers, and the feelings of incompletion and failure were incongruous with her own experience.” I say, why not? If she got pleasure out of writing for herself (and her many letters seem to be delightful), then why not leave it at that?

Overall the book was strangely sewn together, stitches large and unwieldy. The editors of which Cep writes so lovingly as having positively influenced Lee’s writing were sorely lacking here. But alas, this is the current state of publishing.

Side note to myself that Melville is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a place Lee made a pilgrimage to.

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives

One of my favorite librarians pressed this into my hands today after we were discussing how teenagers today can be absolutely obliterated by their dumb mistakes unlike what we experienced growing up. This book tracks the devastating impact of a few moments on an Oakland bus in November 2013 when Richard, a 16-year-old, was showing off and goofing around with his friends and lit the skirt that Sasha, a genderqueer teen, was wearing on fire. The fire burned Sasha severely, another passenger threw them to the ground to put out the flames but they had to have skin grafts and live with the fear of infection for months after. Which seems actually tame compared to what happened to Richard, the young black male captured on bus video and later telling the police that he was homophobic (after ignoring the right to remain silent). Richard gets tried as an adult (yikes) and sentenced to 7 years, later reduced to 5 years. As Sasha heads off to MIT and the wonders of Boston, Richard shuffles behind bars. Not too much of a stretch to wonder what would have happened if Richard had not been a young black male.

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

What began as a quaint insider look at the 1969 season of the short-lived Seattle Pilots turned into a bloated windbag filled with Bouton’s ramblings. Unfortunately I recommended this one to my dear old dad before I got too far in and realized how much misogynistic shit is spackled all over the book. The ballplayers go “beaver shooting” which means they try to look up ladies’ skirts or into lit windows at night or spy on their roommates in the hotel room. Lots and lots of erection talk and about broads. If you can get past that, there is a thin layer of interesting talk about the craft of pitching, but pray to god you’re reading one of the earlier versions which doesn’t tack on an additional 100+ pages of old windbag blathering into his tape recorder about what happened next (spoiler: he divorced his wife as did many of the other ballplayers, ended up marrying some other “magical” woman). This came highly praised but the only value I see is that it was the first tell-all book that laid it all out about how much players made and negotiated and were docked for being late, etc.

Three Women

I’m stunned by some of these sentences. I had to take a break, only a handful of pages in, to float over here and capture the essence before I end up dogearing every page. This is a non-fiction book that contains bursts of perfect prose.

“It’s not as if the prosecutors have your back. They have your shadow, is more like it.”

“Hoy also asks about a site that he doesn’t even know how to spell. You go, What’s that, and he goes, I don’t know, but have you ever been on it, and you go, No, I don’t know what it is. And you are thinking, Neither do you, you prick. But his formality makes you afraid to contradict him. You bet his wife and children have learned to lie to him regularly, to escape the kind of needling criticism that can wreck a soul.”

“They get the drunk munchies and drive out to Perkins, which looks like a soup kitchen. It’s wan and the customers have red faces and the waitresses have cigarette coughs but when you’re young and buzzed it’s good for a late-night snack. When you’re young you can do almost anything and it won’t be sad.”

The book captures layers of a taboo subject—female desire—in the stories of three women. Lina, raped by 3 boys as a young girl, eventually leaves her stable husband because she wants to be carried away by the fantasy of the affair she’s having with her teenage crush, hurried sex in trucks and motels, thankful for 30 minutes she gets with him occasionally. Maggie is a twenty-something recovering from an inappropriate relationship she had with her teacher her senior year of high school. Sloane is a successful restaurant owner whose husband makes her have sex with other men while he watches.

In Big Trouble

Another of Laura Lippman’s mysteries, this one sends Tess to Austin and San Antonio to find her ex-boyfriend Crow, who’s mixed up in a double murder with more bodies ready to fall on the sidelines. A bit of a yawn but still entertaining.