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review 2017-01-25 20:36
Review: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin

Though I last read The Left Hand of Darkness some fifteen years ago, it had been on my mind frequently as my first North Dakota winter got underway. As the temperature plummeted to -20°F (feeling even colder with the wind rushing down from the icy north), as the snow piled up in feet, as a simple walk from my car to the grocery store became a race against frostbitten fingers, all I could think about was Genly Ai and Lord Estraven, trekking across the glacier in LeGuin’s most famous novel.

 

I had already been planning to focus on rereads in 2017. As my nation, as the world, veers drunkenly into ominous and uncharted new dimensions, I’ve been craving the comfort of reading stories whose endings are known, whose dangers have been mapped and rendered tame. But I had forgotten how The Left Hand of Darkness actually ends.

 

It begins in the capital city Erhenrang, in the nation Karhide, on a planet called Gethen or, more descriptively, Winter. Genly Ai, originally from Earth, has been sent with a mission to invite the Gethenians to join the Ekumen, a galactic alliance of human societies. He comes alone, as Ekumenical Envoys always do, so as not to frighten or antagonize his hosts (“One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion,” he explains.) But, as probably should be expected when inserting oneself into the political sphere of any human nation, Ai soon becomes a tool of multiple factions both within and without Karhide – and none, it seems, have much interest in prostrating themselves before some mythical League of Nations from beyond the stars.

 

When the Karhidish government, nominally a monarchy but actually a loose federation of diverse tribal groups, falls under the spell of a Trumpian demagogue with unity on his lips and war on his mind, Ai decides to leave Erhenrang and try his luck with Karhide’s major rival. The country of Orgoreyn runs a tight Soviet-style ship; their national motto is “papers please!”, and their secret police love nothing more than to send dissidents and deviants off to the Voluntary Farms, which aren’t exactly farms and certainly aren’t voluntary. It isn’t long before Ai finds himself on the wrong side of the wrong people, and throughout the second half of the book, must escape from a labor camp on foot, across a continent-wide glacier in the dead of winter on a planet so frigid it is named after the ice. His savior and only companion on this expedition is a person named Estraven, the disgraced former Prime Minister of Karhide, who had been exiled as a traitor. S/he is, perhaps, the only truly honorable person on Gethen – certainly the only one Ai ever meets (though, hanging around politicians, I suppose he’s lucky he met even one…)

 

The book, narrated primarily by Ai, refers to Estraven with male pronouns, but this is something I won’t do in my review. Because Estraven is neither man nor woman. Though “typical” humans in every other way, all Gethenians are androgynes, spending the majority of their lives in a sexless state. Once a month, they enter a period called “kemmer” (heat, rut, estrus), where they, upon finding a partner, take on the characteristics of one or the other sex. In this way, the same individual may be father to one child, mother to another. Genly’s permanent maleness is seen as a perversion by them – being always sexually responsive, how do his people ever get anything done?

 

It is the gender politics of Gethen – or, really, the lack thereof – that have made The Left Hand of Darkness a classic of feminist science fiction. To me, though, it feels odd to read a “feminist” book where every single character is referred to as “he”. One of things I remember about reading this the first time is how much this bothered me, the consistent use of masculine pronouns. The Ekumen’s (and LeGuin’s?) excuse for writing this way is as follows: “Lacking the Karhidish ‘human pronoun’ used for persons in somer [the sexually inactive state], I must say ‘he,’ for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine.” And to this I say: bullshit. Masculine pronouns are certainly “defined”, in that if you refer to a person as “he”, I will picture a man. It’s incredibly difficult to train the brain not to. The narrator even acknowledges this, saying: “But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.”

 

I am not quite sure what to make of LeGuin’s intent here. Although inventing or appropriating a gender-neutral pronoun could potentially be jarring or break the flow of narration, I think it should be a bit jarring to read about a civilization of complete neuters, where we as readers can’t automatically slot any character into one of the two most basic categories we understand: man or woman. In fact, I don’t think it’s even necessary to use a gender-neutral pronoun to do this, as Ann Leckie demonstrated ingeniously in her Ancillary Justice series, where everyone is referred to as “she”. There, though the characters aren’t androgynes, gender is considered irrelevant in the narrator’s culture, and the use of “she” forced me every time it was used to consider that the character in question may identify as male, or female, or neither, and the lack of confirmation was both jarring and refreshing. (It also led to some humorous reviews, where careless readers scoffed at this “society full of lesbians”…)

 

The first time I read The Left Hand of Darkness, I wrote this all off as LeGuin being unintentionally sexist. I figured, this book was written in the 60’s; maybe just the idea of an androgynous culture was considered radical, and who cared whether they were all called “he” – it was just language, after all. But rereading the book now, I think LeGuin was being subtler than that. The entire novel is infused with Genly Ai’s point of view – even when Gethenians are narrating, Ai is translating. And Ai is a man from Earth, a very 1960’s-ish Earth from what we can tell. It no longer seems to me that LeGuin couldn’t handle gender-neutrality well; rather, Genly Ai can’t.

 

Ai’s sexism is subtle, but it is definitely there, and as I read through the book this time, examples started to jump out at me. The powerful political leaders that Ai spends most of his time with are referred to as men exclusively, with little thought or cognitive dissonance. It is only when Ai begins to meet downtrodden Gethenians, such as the other inmates at the labor camp, that they begin to seem feminine to him – and always in a negative way. “Among my fellowprisoners I had for the first time on Winter a certain feeling of being a man among women, or among eunuchs. The prisoners had that same flabbiness and coarseness. They were hard to tell apart; their emotional tone seemed always low, their talk trivial.” He speaks later of their “gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.” When Gethenians lose power and prestige, when they lose their very freedom, suddenly they seem womanly to Ai. Later, when Estraven explains why, though s/he loves Karhide, s/he is not a patriot, Ai is again disgusted: “There was in this attitude something feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a submissiveness to the given, which rather displeased me.” Again and again, when Ai encounters any traits in a Gethenian that are not associated with virility, aggressiveness, or authority, he is suddenly reminded that the person before him is not a man, but something lesser, something a bit vulgar. Something feminine.

 

Ai is not really an unreliable narrator, in the sense of being a liar or a madman, but his biases are insidious, threaded throughout the novel and rarely drawing attention to themselves. It is not that Ai hates women; like many men, he has just not thought much about gender politics. When asked by Estraven, who has never met a woman, whether they are inferior to men, Ai has trouble responding. “No. Yes. No, of course not, not really. But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female.” He’s hardly a misogynist; it’s just that a gender studies class would probably do him good. As a character Ai is likable, but he is probably not the ideal individual to lead the reader on this anthropological journey through Gethen. And that is, I think, the point.

 

One of the themes in this book is cultural misunderstanding – how the same action or trait can be seen in contradictory ways by different civilizations. As this idea is a staple of virtually every first-contact or anthropological science fiction story, I tend to take it for granted by now, but I like how it’s handled here. On their trek across the ice, Estraven and Ai begin to understand each other in ways they never had before; they become friends, and even begin to love each other (in a strictly platonic way, Ai hastens to point out – sex with a Gethenian would just be too weird for him). But they also recognize the ways in which they are too different, too alien, to fully comprehend each other. And they leave it at that. I love Ai’s dawning understanding toward the end of the novel:

 

“I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou.”

 

This duality, between I and Thou, relates to the title of the novel, which comes from a Gethenian poem: “Light is the left hand of darkness / and darkness the right hand of light. / Two are one...” Ai thinks that Gethenians are obsessed with the unity of all things because they are sexually undivided; other humans, separated into men and women, are therefore obsessed with duality. But Estraven disagrees: “Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”

 

I’m not sure where to leave this review, other than at that. This book is a classic, and deservedly so. The ending broke my heart in a way I was completely not expecting – how could I remember so many specific plot points from reading this so long ago, but forget how shattering it is in the end? But I was a different person then, and the world was a different place.

 

Speaking of the world, maybe in the end I can take heart in the quick and absolute downfall of Tibe, the Karhidish Donald Trump. I can take heart in the prevention of total war between Karhide and Orgoreyn. I can take heart in people like Estraven, who love their homelands but are resolutely unpatriotic, who would be happy to serve a good government if they ever could identify one. Maybe there’s hope for us too. Maybe it won’t even require the intervention of a galactic civilization, to remind us how small we really are.

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review 2014-08-31 04:02
Review: Lapham's Quarterly: Comedy (Volume VII, Number 1)
Lapham’s Quarterly: Comedy - Lewis H. Lapham

Each issue of Lapham's Quarterly includes dozens of brief excerpts from historical literature on a particular topic.  Spanning time, geography, form, and theme, each edition provides an interesting look humanity's evolving conceptualization of various universals - such as animals, youth, death, lust, and politics.

 

Comedy is an interesting subject because it's so culturally dependent.  There isn't much that is universally funny, except for maybe poop and sex - which come up quite a bit in here.  So I didn't enjoy this issue as much as I have others, just because not much of it was particularly funny to me.  Even the modern stuff often wasn't to my taste - when the very first selection is Sarah Silverman trying to justify using the word "Chink" in a routine, it isn't a good sign.  Worst fucking comedian working today.

 

Still, there's a lot of variety in here, from modern comedy routines to bawdy Roman poetry, from Freud's psychoanalysis of humor itself to a fascinating biography of Charlie Chaplin.  There were enough pieces I enjoyed to outweigh the boring and awful ones.

 

Some snippets I liked:

 

 

In Florence, a young woman, somewhat of a simpleton, was on the point of being delivered.  She had long been enduring acute pain, and the midwife, candle in hand, inspected her private parts, in order to ascertain if the child was coming.  "Look also on the other side," said the poor creature.  "My husband has sometimes taken that road."

 

Buttsex!  Funny since at least 1452.

 

 

During the night a numbskull got into bed with his grandmother.  When his father beat him on account of this, he said, "You've been screwing my mother for a long time without any trouble from me, and now you're angry at finding me with your mother just once?"

 

Incest!  Funny since at least ancient Greece.

 

 

I'm a strange creature, for I satisfy women,

a service to the neighbors! No one suffers

at my hands except for my slayer.

I grow very tall, erect in a bed,

I'm hairy underneath.  From time to time

a beautiful girl, the brave daughter

of some churl dares to hold me,

grips my russet skin, robs me of my head,

and puts me in the pantry. At once that girl

with plaited hair who has confined me

remembers our meeting.  Her eye moistens.

 

English riddle, circa 975.  The answer, of course, is "onion".

 

 

Something which never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap.

 

The oldest known joke, from Sumeria, circa 2300-1900 BC.  I don't think it's held up very well.

 

 

(2014 #30)

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review 2014-08-30 07:29
Review: The Beginning Place, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Beginning Place - Ursula K. Le Guin

Awhile back, Slate published an article denigrating the phenomenon of adults reading YA fiction.  In my little black heart of hearts, I sort of agreed with it.  Which isn't to say that all YA fiction is bad, or that people shouldn't read whatever the fuck they like to read, but I just fundamentally don't grok the adult obsession with YA -- mostly because I hated being a teenager.  The thought of endlessly returning to that horribly awkward life stage via fiction makes me cringe, and I can't quite wrap my head around exclusively preferring a genre whose only defining characteristic is that the characters are teens... unless you are a teen.  But the article's scoldy tone was bullshit, and some of my friends were offended when I said I thought it made some interesting points.

 

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was being dumb.  Just like it's weird to me that some folks read only YA, it's equally weird that I'd despise the whole concept so much.  It's a very broad category encompassing all kinds of writers and all kinds of subject matter.  And I mean, The Hunger Games was awesome, right?  So, to prove myself wrong (and, partially, to appease my affronted friends), I picked this one up.  It's Le Guin, it's spec-fic, it's short enough to breeze through in an afternoon.  The perfect slap in the face I needed to remind myself that books aimed at teens could be wonderful.

 

But ooooohhhhh lordy, did I pick the wrong book.

 

 

The Beginning Place follows two city-dwelling teenagers, Hugh and Irene, and their adventures in an unnamed and thoroughly bog-standard magical land.  All of your typical bad fantasy clichés apply:  Pseudo-medieval setting?  Check.  Quest against evil?  Check.  Chosen One narrative?  Check.  Time spent in magic land taking up virtually no time in the real world?  Check.  Adventures in magic land as metaphor or catalyst for protagonists' coming-of-age and sexual awakening?  Check.

 

And the thing is, I don't really have a problem with any of those clichés per se - I'll get lost in Narnia or Middle-Earth as happily as the next nerd.  It's how shallowly and mechanically everything is slapped together here, with no sense of meaning or purpose or basic coherence.

 

 

The prose is the first problem.  It's choppy and bloodless, alternating between flat declaratives and run-on sentences of doom.  Here's one:

 

As if all the suburbs, the duplex development motorhome supermarket parking lot used cars carport swingset white rocks juniper imitation bacon bits special gum wrappers where in five different states he had lived the last seven years, as if all that was unimportant after all, not permanent, not the way life had to be, since just outside it, just past the edge of it, there was silence, loneliness, water running in twilight, the taste of mint.

 

As if all the arbitrary nouns repetitive clauses floating adjectives commaless flatulence purple monkey dishwasher added up to anything readable.

 

 

And then there's the dialog.  Here's an exchange between Hugh and his mother:

 

"I'm going to miss the beginning of that movie on Channel Six, you watch it for me till I get home."

"O.K."

"Bye bye then."

"Bye."

"Hugh?"

"Yes."

"What kept you so late?"

"Walked home a different way."

"You sound so cross."

"I don't know."

"Take some aspirin. And a cold shower. It's so hot. That's what I'd like. But I won't be late. Take care now. You're not going out, are you?"

"No."

 

This is not a conversation between two human beings.  When I hear this in my head, it is in the voices of Beldar and Prymaat.

 

Or, my favorite utterance from Irene:

 

"What shall I do?" she whimpered aloud.

 

If there's one thing modern American teens whimper when they're under stress, it's the word "shall".

 

 

It's not just the writing style that I hate, though.  The plot is hollow and capricious, full of events that obey no logic or consistency.  Hugh and Irene discover that something is preventing the denizens of the magical land from traveling; whenever they try to leave their town, they are struck by a paralyzing, indefinable fear.  Thus, no trade can occur and people are beginning to starve.  Despite never having seen it, they seem to instinctively know that this problem is being caused by a monster that lives on the mountain, and that only Hugh is capable of killing it.  Why Hugh?  Because as a non-native, he isn't subject to the fear.  Why Hugh and not Irene, even though she is smart and strong, actually speaks the native language, and knows her way around the land far better than Hugh?  Well, who knows.  I guess hero-questing isn't a job for girls.

 

But what is this monster anyway?  Where does it come from?  Why is it so scaaaary?  None of this is ever explained.  I guess it's just supposed to be a metaphor for Hugh and Irene's fears out in the real world, and once they kill it (or, Hugh kills it, and Irene fawningly tends to his masculine wounds - and yes, sex is part of this tending), they can go back to the real world and be empowered to be like, fuck you crazy mom, fuck you rapey stepdad, I'm moving across town to live with this person I've known for three days.

 

None of the plot developments make any sense, and the reader is practically mocked for wanting it to be otherwise.  Now, granted, I am a sci-fi girl much more than a fantasy one, because I like things to have explanations.  If some weird shit happens, I want some wacky pseudoscientific expounding on how it functions.  But in fantasy it tends to boil down to "a wizard did it".  And that's not my style.

 

But still, Hugh and Irene's complete lack of curiosity about how and why they've ended up in Middle-Earth-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off is so grating.

 

Here's Hugh: "Either he was crazy or there was something unexplainable going on, some kind of monkeying with time, the kind of thing his mother and her occultist friend were interested in and he was not interested in and had no use for."

 

Cool story, bro.  Your lack of interest or sense of wonder or even mild surprise at THE STOPPAGE OF TIME is so welcome and refreshing!  Please, tell us more about all the shits you don't give about THE LAWS OF PHYSICS AS WE KNOW THEM breaking down and ceasing to function!

 

"Maybe it did not stop, maybe it ran very slowly there, time was different there, entering the glade you entered a different time, a slower time.  That was nonsense, not worth thinking about."

 

Yeah, I mean, who cares.  I'm so glad we have you as our intrepid guide on this magical mystery tour.

 

And Irene's no better.  She's been coming to this place for years, and is basically like, meh.  "Always outside the benign hearth-center lay the twilight and the silence, the unexplained, the unexplored.  She had been content that it was so."  Such a sense of adventure on this one too!

 

 

Meanwhile, much of the story is spent explicating all the ways Hugh and Irene just can't fucking stand each other.  Not in that obnoxious cute rom-com way, either -- there's no spark or chemistry between them, it's just bitchy Irene and sullen Hugh spitting bile and hating each other's face.

 

Instead, pages are devoted to Irene's worshipful love for this dude, the Master.

 

 

Well, no.  "The Master was a spare, swarthy man with a hawk nose and dark eyes... A harsh man, a dark man."

 

So more like

 

 

Anyway, the Master is the mysterious mayor of the magic municipality (AUGH I COULDN'T HELP MYSELF), and Irene wants it rill bad.

 

"She came here because her love was here.  Her love, her master.  No one would ever know that, no one would ever understand it, that center and secret of her life, that silence.  In his age, in his mastery, in his strangeness, in his hardness even, in all that divided them, in the distance that held them apart, there was room for desire without terror, there was room and time for love without effect, without penalty or pain..."

 

Remember what I said above about the run-on sentences of doom?

 

MEANWHILE, Hugh is lusting after the blonde daughter of the Lord

 

 

... sure, let's go with that.

 

Anyway, he's known her for about three minutes and doesn't speak her language, but that doesn't stop him from rhapsodizing for FOUR FREAKING PAGES about his deep and abiding love.

 

"It was as if he had been blind and she had come to him, and his eyes had cleared to see her... Each act and object had its meaning, now, for when she had touched him her touch had taught him the language of life..."

 

And so on and so on.  FOUR PAGES of that, my friends.

 

But then, as soon as Irene and Hugh (who HATE each other, remember) are sent out on their quest, it's only a few days before they're fucking and deciding they're married.  Not a single mention of the Master or Blondie ever again.  Ho-kay.  I get that their previous passions were silly crushes, but I don't understand why the book treats their sudden proximity infatuations with each other as so much more emotionally mature.  But by this point the book was mercifully almost over, so whatever, woo-hoo, those crazy kids finally got together, can I stop reading this yet??

 

 

I tend to think of YA fiction as being fluffy and theatrical, full of hooks and cliffhangers and character drama, but light on depth and literary quality.  So it's ironic that I picked this book as a YA standard-bearer, when it has none of the striking characters, dramatic plot twists, snappy dialogue, or crackling romance that characterize the best books in the category.  Instead, it's stale and impenetrable, boring and dark.  There are no emotional or conceptual hooks, no sympathetic or interesting characters.  It's like YA fiction from some grey alternate universe, where there is no joy in storytelling, where magic and romance and questing and valor are so desperately tedious and sad.

 

You have failed me, Ursula Le Guin.

 

(2014, #29)

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review 2014-07-23 07:45
Review: The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
The Little Stranger - Sarah Waters
The first half of the 20th Century dealt a death blow to Britain's landed gentry.  A long-established way of life that had endured for centuries fell apart under the social and economic upheavals of two World Wars, as well as political transitions that had been percolating for decades - the enfranchisement of the lower classes, increased taxation on the large estates, fewer people willing or constrained to work as servants or tenant farmers.  The past century saw well over 1,000 English manor houses demolished, with others donated, repurposed, or sold to wealthy foreigners.  You've wallowed in this era if you've read The Remains of the Day, or watched Downton Abbey.
 
 
In The Little Stranger, the crumbling Warwickshire mansion Hundreds Hall represents its occupants' epochal decline.  It is a haunted house, but not necessarily in the traditional sense of ghosts and poltergeists.  What lurks in its sagging corridors and decrepit chambers could be the apparition of a dead little girl... or it could be something vaster, deeper, more starved and putrescent than any wandering corpse.
 
This is a terrifying story.

The narrator of The Little Stranger is Dr. Faraday, the local physician, who begins the story with a childhood memory.  It is 1919, and the Ayres family have opened the grounds of the resplendent Hundreds Hall to the county for an Empire Day fete.  Faraday's parents had met at the Hall, when his mother was a nursery maid and his father a grocer's delivery boy.  Though the house's interior is closed off to guests, his mother sneaks young Faraday down to the kitchen to visit with her former associates.  When one of the maids takes him with her up to the main house, beyond the green baize door, the boy is utterly enchanted with what he sees.  He develops a fascination with the house that stays with him for decades, even as the Ayreses and the building itself begin to fall apart.
 

In the post-WWII days where the story picks up, Faraday is called out to Hundreds to attend to a sick maid.  He finds siblings Caroline and Roderick Ayres frayed and beaten down - Rod by his war injuries, and Caroline with household chores.  The massive house now employs just one maid and a part-time cook, and the siblings have taken over much of the cleaning, gardening, and repair work on their own.  The only other living Ayres, their frail mother, seems content to live in the moribund mansion as well as she can, as if times have not changed.  The estate has sold off much of its land to pay the bills, but its debts continue to mount.  While anyone can see that Hundreds will not survive much longer (either as an institution or as a physical building), Faraday remains enraptured by its decaying opulence.  That old desire he'd had since childhood, to possess this magnificent house and everything it represents, comes rushing back.

 

The class divide in Britain is one of the major themes of the novel.  Faraday's parents had been very poor, and he had to work very hard to put himself through medical school.  Now he's a doctor and starting to make a decent living, but he still resents the society that would look down on him for his humble beginnings.  And Caroline and Rod have their own struggles with the ramifications of their social standing - he, buckling under the weight of Hundreds' failure on his shoulders; she, forced to give up a liberating nursing career to help manage the estate and care for her injured brother.  And Mrs. Ayres has her own concerns - the sale of neighboring estates to boorish nouveau-riche, the accompanying pressure on her to abandon her home and her once-esteemed position in the community.

 

With all of this turmoil festering in Hundreds Hall, it's not surprising that it all begins to erupt in terrifying ways.  Vicious animal attacks, objects that move of their own accord, ghostly writing appearing on walls, shrieking whistles emanating from abandoned nurseries.  Footsteps traipsing across empty corridors, doors that slam and lock spontaneously, strange burn marks appearing across ceilings and walls while the occupants sleep.  Sarah Waters is so skillful at building tension that the smallest spectral anomaly takes on paralyzing weight - I could not read this at night, and even in broad daylight it gave me shivers.  This hulking, treacherous house and its unknown malevolent presence.

 

But is it so unknown?

 

Whenever something dies -- a person, a legacy, an ambition, a way of life -- it leaves a phantom behind.  What is haunting Hundreds Hall?  The last gasps of the British aristocracy?  The resentful memory of a family's deferred hopes and dreams?  The simmering jealousy of a man who feels wronged by an entire social structure?  Or just a dead little girl -- little Sukey Ayres, sister of Rod and Caroline, dead before her seventh birthday?

 

Wouldn't it be so much simpler to blame it all on a child's ghost?  This seething, greedy, thwarted thing, welling up out of the past and infecting the present -- this unearthly force, this little stranger?

 

(2014, #28)

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review 2014-07-07 01:59
Review: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean
The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: And Other True Stories of Trauma, Madness, Affliction, and Recovery That Reveal the Surprising History of the Human Brain - Sam Kean

When I went to Town Hall last month to hear a lecture on scientifically important case studies of brain damage, I had no idea that the speaker would be the author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist's Thumb, two of my recent favorite pop-science books.  It was a pleasant surprise not only to hear Sam Kean speak, but to get ahold of his latest book, The Dueling Neurosurgeons ("The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery").

 

I was expecting this to follow in the footsteps of Oliver Sacks, albeit from a lay writer's perspective and featuring Kean's entertaining, conversational style.  And I really wasn't wrong, but I still left the book feeling vaguely disappointed.  It took me awhile to figure out why.

 

There is this trend in modern non-fiction to strain out all the boring parts like context and details in favor of wacky or funny stories.  Certainly, there is plenty in science and history that is wacky and funny, and for subjects I don't know much about and/or am not too terribly interested in, this kind of book is an entertaining way to glean some new information.  For instance, I find chemistry pretty dry, so The Disappearing Spoon was perfect for me.  I am interested in genetics, but am hardly an expert, so The Violinist's Thumb sat fine with me, though I wished it had been meatier.  

 

But I'm very interested in neuroscience and have been reading about it in some detail for many years.  So the superficial focus of The Dueling Neurosurgeons grated on me a bit.  It's not that none of the information was new to me - many of the case studies were unfamiliar, and others I'd known about but not in any detail - but for subjects I actually care about, I'd prefer a book be scientific first and wacky/funny second.  In other words, I'd like an informative framework that gives me a deep understanding of the subject, with the fun stuff sprinkled in.  I don't like a framework of weird stories, with some theory thrown in to back them up.  If Kean couldn't find a weird story to illustrate a point, the point didn't get made.  And that kind of shit annoys me.

 

Still, who doesn't like a weird story?  Like the girl who lost her amygdala and so became incapable of feeling fear - it was interesting to read about how she reacted to things that would terrify an average person.  Or the horrifying story of kuru - colonialism, cannibalism, pedophilia, horrific brain damage, and lethal laughing fits - all wrapped up into one appalling whole.

 

So this book scratches that itch I sometimes get for "beach-read nonfiction".  I truly did enjoy it, but it was like licking off the frosting and leaving the cake untouched.  Frosting is wonderful, you know, but it's so much better with some tasty cake to give it structure.

 

(2014 #27)

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