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Wednesday 27 January 2010

The Man Who Peers Into Your Brain!

Oliver Sacks seems to know everything; honestly, he’d make you sick with envy and a feeling of terrible inadequacy! But then, at least he’s qualified enough to explain the inner workings of the mind in such a way that you’d feel understood and fascinated, both at the same time. Sacks the author is also a physician and professor of Neurology & Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. The first time he and I crossed paths was when I discovered Martin (my erstwhile other half) reading Awakenings, a mind-blowing account of Sacks’ work with survivors of the 1918 sleeping-sickness epidemic when hundreds slipped into a bizarre paralysis, only occasionally able to move or communication, institutionalised for life. When Sacks went to work with these patients in the 60s, L-DOPA was having dramatic results on these lifeless souls who started to move, and talk after nearly 50 years of rigid silence and in this book he brings these forgotten people alive. Amazing!

A Leg to Stand On recounts Sacks’ experience as a patient when he was hospitalised after a climbing accident in which he badly damaged his leg. He describes what it’s like to be the one in the bed instead of the one looking down from a great height; the loss of personal control, the one in pyjamas being told what to do by the one in a business suit, an insight that many a doc could do with experiencing in my opinion! He also talked about the body’s rejection of a limb that has become obsolete - however briefly - and how he woke himself up trying to kick his leg out of bed on more than one occasion. Weird, but definitely fascinating.

In An Anthropologist on Mars and also in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks uses case studies to illustrate the myriad ways in which neurological conditions have affected how his patients relate to the world around them. His writing is scientific but also compassionate and he brings the lives of some astounding human beings to life under his sharply honed pen: the colour-blind painter who had to learn to live in a black and white but mostly grey world; the surgeon who is beleaguered by obsessive tics – except, that is, when he is in the operating theatre. I want to end every sentence with an exclamation mark to demonstrate my sense of awe at how these unusual and wonderful people cope with life and I swear I will never again complain about anything.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain was made into a television documentary that I recorded and watched over and over, each time being freshly amazed at how music seems to reach the parts of the brain that nothing else can. A surgeon who after a car accident decides to take up the piano obsessively, writing compositions, giving recitals and excelling at this totally new gift that seems to have come from out of the blue. The drummer whose sense of rhythm beats the demons out of his head and calms his world down. The young man with sight loss, who can hardly carry even the most basic conversation, locked in his autistic world and yet is unbelievable on a piano.

With Seeing Voices we are guided into a silent world where he explores, with passion and insight, the world of the deaf. Migraine is yet another revelatory exploration in which he discusses the similarities between the visual hallucinations and/or auras preceding a migraine and those that are induced by hallucinogenic drugs or deliria.

The man is a wonder (and I am his biggest fan) and yet when he wrote, Uncle Tungsten, a memoir about growing up in a London Jewish family, the child of two doctors, I was left with a feeling of absence, as if he had not been there at all. He was sent to a brutal boarding school during the war where he was most unhappy so perhaps that coloured his reflections and his memories. That, and a brother who was mentally ill, sent him on a career path that would take him to the USA where, through his writing, he would eventually open a window on the hitherto secret world of the neurologist.


Sunday 24 January 2010

Book Clubs: Part 3

What on earth will we read?

When it’s your turn to choose the book club book do you dash into the nearest bookshop, have a quick rummage, and grab something off the shelf because it looks good? If so, you need to go back to your club and spend some time deciding exactly what kind of book you all want to spend your hard earned money and limited amount of time on reading.

The main thing is that you should stretch yourselves, improve and challenge your reading habits, move out of your comfort zone and for goodness sake resist choosing something that everyone will simply enjoy. What on earth would you talk about? Oh, I loved it! So did I! Me too! Anyone for coffee? Reading for sheer pleasure is what most of us do anyway so if you’re going to leave your comfortable home on a dark and wintry evening there’s got to be a challenge, an enthusiasm, and a zest for exploration with like minded literary lovers.

Oisin and Stella (aka my nephew and niece-in-law) are setting up their own book club in sunny Albuquerque. First off they discussed the project with like-minded friends to see what kind of group they would form; then they emailed Aunty Mary for a comprehensive guide on how to set about the business and then they sat down and planned exactly what they wanted to read. They have come up with an ingenious plan and a list of excellent books that should see them well on their way for the year ahead. Everyone is on board, everyone has the list, and all the books can be bought second hand or borrowed from the library. Oh I’d love to be a fly on the wall at their first meeting. I’m sure we’ll hear more from this innovative book club.

~Posted by Mary

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Wednesday 20 January 2010

Book Clubs: Part 2

The Long and the Short of it

You may think I’m completely bonkers but I have come to the conclusion that there is a perfect length for a book club novel and it’s 300 pages, give or take!

I have just conducted a scientific survey by going to my own bookshelves, picking out many of the titles used in book clubs, flicking to the back and finding that the range was not less than 280 pages and not more than 350. QED!

Having said that, I know many club that have tackled The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver which comes in at a whopping 614 pages, every one a gem. And there’s many clubs that have loved The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett who manages to tell a wonderfully imaginative and succinct tale over a mere 128 pages.

A long book is too much for most busy people to get through in the time available (usually a month) and a short book does not always have enough meat for an entire evening’s discussion. Having said that, The Trial by Franz Kafka, coming in at a crisp 197 pages (depending on the translation) inspired such a thought provoking discussion with my gang that I cannot recommend it highly enough.

On a practical level, book club members will get to the end of a novel that is a reasonable length, even if it’s not something they’re particularly enjoying. And if everyone has read the book, everyone can fully take part in the discussion.

So, before you choose a novel for your book club, give a thought to its size and then proceed to the next stage in the process of trying to please some of the people some of the time because take it from me, you won’t please all of the people all of the time!

~Posted by Mary

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Friday 15 January 2010

Book Clubs: Part 1

So, you want to start a book club and you haven’t a clue how to set about getting one up and running: Well, look no further, help is at hand from the Queen of Book Club Land.

There are clubs within clubs (golf clubs, yacht clubs), there are all male, and all female, and better still, mixed clubs, husbands and wives (that doesn’t translate easily into Partners & Partners but you know what I mean) who get together to socialise and discuss, work mates, book shop clubs, library sponsored clubs, friends from way back who went to school together clubs. There are neighbourhood clubs, long distance clubs - Skype means you can attend from anywhere in the world - and television and radio clubs. I’m sure there are clubs for retired zoo keepers, for call girls when they are not on call, for disillusioned dentists and resting actors – any possible mix of people who want to share their love of books can get together and create their own unique club.

If you are setting up your own book club then you get to decide who is going to be in your gang, and whether it will be a set number or expand and contract as time goes on. But do remember that your club will probably take on a life of its own and you may not be in charge for long!

It’s impossible to kick someone, who proves to be impossibly irritating, out of your club especially if they are neighbours and/or friends so think hard before you issue that invitation. Many a club has gone to the wall because of one person who thinks that their opinions are the only ones that matter; there are others who interrupt, violently disagree, talk about their children at the drop of a hat, relate every incident in a book to some event in their own lives which they then proceed to tell you about at great length. But, of course, you may only find out these grating habits when they have chosen their favourite easy chair in your front room from which there’s no dislodging this comfortable cuckoo.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver proved such a contentious book that members of one club nearly came to blows. There was a healthy mix of those who loved it, those who hated it, and those who said they wouldn’t dream of reading such a ghastly novel. "But how", some said, "can you make assertions about a book you haven’t even read?" Everyone enjoyed the heated discussion, well those who’d bothered to read the chosen title did, but two grim faced ladies sat on the sidelines, lips pursed, nothing to add to the evening except their contempt for something about which they had only assumptions. Seemingly, they never returned!

~Posted by Mary

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Monday 11 January 2010

Enough is Enough!

I'm sick of housework! Now that I've fulfilled the motherly duties that are expected of me at this time of year (open house for my nearest and dearest, endless supplies of laundered sheets and towels, cupboards bursting with food etc.), I'm thinking of shutting up shop and putting the closed sign over the door. I have, after all, a life outside the confines of these four walls. I have New Year's Resolutions to make (I only do positive ones so I shall be starting something new rather than giving something up), old friends to reconnect with, and holidays to plan.

While I'm waiting for my twenty-ten life to get into gear I intend reading some wonderful books that have been sitting on my bedside table begging for attention. I think I'll start with, The Drinker by Hans Fallada. I lent it to Sara first who thought it was brilliant but utterly depressing so I will gird my loins and get stuck in. This novel was discovered after the death of the author and is most likely based on personal experience. It was originally written in an encrypted notebook and found in the Nazi insane asylum in which Fallada was incarcerated. It does sound dreadfully gloomy but having read Alone in Berlin, also by this author, I know that it will be well worth the effort.

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Thursday 7 January 2010


"But I'm not depressed", I said in protest to my grumpy doctor as he scribbled a script for valium. Without lifting his head he said coldly, "I didn't say you were depressed, I said you had Depression".

I left the surgery feeling worse - if that were possible- than when I went in. My symptoms were odd: I couldn't easily push the pram, my legs buckled when I tried to stand up, I went through the motions like a robot with sluggish batteries. I found it very confusing; my feelings were all over the place and I had no idea what it meant to have Depression. Two valium later my left eye started to twitch. No way, I thought, I'm not having this so I flushed the rest of the bottle down the loo.

I slowly returned to the whole of my health with some better understanding of what had happened to me but when it returned, in another form with different symptoms, I, once again, had no idea what it was. My new doctor (one who believed that there were alternatives) did not put a label on what I was feeling; he merely handed me some small white homeopathic tablets with the instructions: "take as on the label and go easy on yourself". Blessed relief, it worked.

With a few more years clocked up I now know what rocks my boat, what sends me under as if to drown the life out of me, and the ability to remember that it will pass, in its own good time. And when it does, I once more get out my reading glasses and get stuck in to the delicious retreat that a good book provides. Today, the book that has me in its thrall is The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie by Agota Kristof, an intriguing tale of which I will tell you nothing so as to encourage you to find out for yourself. It's fascinating so far and I'm only on page 55!

I tell you, dear reader, of my occasional dealings with the dreaded "Depression"; it comes, it goes, its grip as relentless and unyielding as a straightjacket, its wake a trail of devastation – but luckily I have a very short memory. I tell you not so as to elicit your sympathy but simply to tell those of you who occasionally succumb to this debilitating illness, that you are not alone.

Posted by Mary

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Monday 4 January 2010

The Lenten Read - An Intro

The sacrifice of giving up something for Lent has perhaps lessened in appeal in times when many are giving up little luxuries on a daily basis as a means of survival rather than as a way of spiritually or physically detoxing. Last year, rather than choosing to temporarily eradicate some minor evil from my life, I choose a more positive approach and decided that I would commit to reading forty pages for forty days. Each morning I would tweet my progress (or lack thereof) from the previous day and with one or two hiccups completed my Lenten Read successfully. I intend to do it again this year, with a bit more preparation and thought into what I'll read, and suggest others keep it in mind as New Year Reading Resolutions fly around the interweb. Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) is February 17th this year and before then I'll post which tomes I'll attempt to tackle. This isn't, by the way, rooted in religious discipline despite the use of Lent - February and March are literally and metaphorically dark months and a good time to positively exercise the imagination.



Saturday 2 January 2010

Ayn Rand

I don't believe in coincidences; I'm convinced there's an underlying reason why concurrent events seem to occur without apparent causal connection. For instance, on Thursday I noticed that Sara has got stuck into yet another blockbusting classic novel. It was lodged on the corner of the kitchen table, as big as a brick but far more interesting with an arresting cover that caught my eye: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Hmmm... I sat down, cup of green tea in hand and started reading. My allotted fifteen minutes passed far too quickly and I reluctantly returned the tome to its resting place before returning myself to my workstation.

Last night, as the world outside my window was blanketed in a white duvet, I dived into my pre-heated bed to watch another episode of Mad Men (set in the glamorous world of a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 60s – it's excellent), the series that Santa so kindly left at my request. I was deep in episode eight when advertising exec, Donald Draper, was handed a cheque for $2,500 by his boss who pointed to a large book on his shelf and asked: "Have you read her? Rand, Atlas Shrugged. That’s the one." He looked meaningfully at his employee and advised him to take $1.99 and buy himself a copy! It was obviously a sign, aimed at the reader in me to go out and get myself a copy post-haste.

Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum was born in Russia (1905 – 1982). She studied, at the University of Petrograd, in the department of social pedagogy, majoring in history and was an ardent student of Aristotle, Pluto and Nietzsche. On her emigration to the US in 1926, she decided on Ayn Rand as a professional name for her writing and began her career as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Rand embraced philosophical realism and objectivism the essence of which she described as, "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Of all her writing, she is best remembered for two of her novels: The Fountainhead, written in 1943, a slim volume that concentrates on the life of architect Howard Roark who struggles in obscurity rather than compromise his personal and artistic vision. And also Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, that tells of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world - and did. When the character Francisco d’Anconia is asked what sort of advice someone would give Atlas, he replied that he’d tell him "to shrug". Well, I for one, am intrigued!

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