Monthly Archives: September 2013

50% done with The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’m surprised how much like an Edgar Allan Poe story this book is at times. There’s obviously the painting, but more subtly is the creeping paranoia Dorian has of his servant.

Again we get the dramatic events happening off stage but Dorian’s reaction to the news is handled really well by Wilde; I feel like he’s finally a real character.

The homoerotic stuff is funny but makes sense; Dorian is Helen and Paris.

35% done with The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’m a little let down that Wilde isn’t a better novelist. This novel would be much better if I actually cared about characters that were more real and I’d feel more engaged if so many events took place ‘on stage’.

However, and again I’m going to compare with Waugh, Wilde is much more interested in exploring ideas and is wise to use flat characters; strong ones would get in the way.

Anyway, the painting is cool

20% done with The Picture of Dorian Gray

In our own day we bemoan the loss of any sort of culture; Oscar Wilde, 100 years ago, complains about having too much of it.

We’re never going to be happy in our own time. Much like youth, we waste it when we have it and long for it when it’s impossible to get back.

Unlike Brideshead Revisited whose characters are just awful and dreadful, Wilde uses humor to make them worth knowing. And the book is very funny.

10% done with The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’ve been guilty of tending to assume that modern notions of society, such as debauched youth like in this novel, are new concepts and that we’re the first generation to suffer this malady.

However, this is nothing new under the sun.

I wonder what Wilde would think of 21st century society? Would he revel in it or would he nod gravely and say, “I told you so.”

This book is also much funnier since I’m “old”.

The Medieval Shepherd: Read from September 14 to 27, 2013

I don’t remember exactly how I ever came across this book, but I’m so glad I did; reading this was a pleasure.

The book is a translation from French from the 17th century because the original 14th manuscript no longer survives. However, the fact that a copy did persist speaks to the quality of the information and authority Jean de Brie writes with. The book is straight-forward in its approach, and Jean de Brie has very logically divided the book up into the months of the year and how the ewes and lambs and rams should be cared for through each time of the year. He explains what the sheep should avoid eating, how to cure them of various ailments, when to sheer them, and how a shepherd should behave.

And behavior is the subtext through the entire book. Looking past the how-to knowledge of what to do with the flock, we get an insight into what kind of person Jean de Brie was. He was quite obviously a very patient man, but sure in his knowledge and I doubt he ever suffered a fool gladly. He was a loner (again, no surprise at all given his profession), but he was a very effective communicator and incredibly observant. His attention to avian behavior and how that predicts the weather to the exact ingredients needed to concoct a remedy for, say, mange, is that of someone highly intelligent and competent – the sort of person who would have been greatly valued by his employers and probably feared (either from jealousy or being intimidated by) by his fellow shepherds.

His sense of order, more than anything is what probably made him so good at his job. From explaining the mittens woven into an orderly checkered pattern, to making sure the shepherd’s dog crosses his paws when laying down speaks to a man who very much knew how to be in command and control of everything around him. I would imagine his mind being very much at rest and ease when he would look out over his well ordered flock.

Jean de Brie was born to do the job and reminded me of Mr. Stevens from Remains of the Day: a person wholly devoted to his duty and in supreme command of everything he is charged with no matter the circumstances. And while there is no mention of his personal life, we do get glimpses of how he feels men in general should behave. At one point he speaks about how the sheep will get into the blackberry bushes and their wool will get caught in the leaves because they were greedy for the delicious berries. He compares that greedy, carefree behavior to that of a man who spends all day drinking at the bar and neglecting all his other duties. In short, he seemed very pious and I can imagine he might have been a bit of a bore at parties.

Yet he was the consummate professional and was willing and able to sacrifice himself in any way for his flock. One could imagine some large company making its employees read this book during a seminar as an allusion to how the perfect employee should act and react. And it would be just as easy to feel like you could never achieve his level of competence and maybe grow to resent him a little as a real company brown-noser.

And maybe that’s why a person like him desires to be left alone on the heath: they know other people don’t really like him, but that’s just fine with him, too.

Awakenings: Read from September 11 to 24, 2013

Not until I got the the very end of the book (the chapter dealing with stage/film/radio adaptations) did I became aware of the nearly ‘Klein bottle’ structure Dr. Sacks writes with and tries to explore in his patients here. The book, and the patients, begin with the outbreak of encephalitis lethargica, they survive, however, become severely Parkinsonian and are prisoners in their own bodies, yet to a person still retain their own uniqueness and can’t actually be defined by their disease. When they are ‘awakened’, each person is effected differently and often profoundly, sometimes uniquely each time they are given L-Dopa, and some even get better. Then the strange happens when the actors who portray these people, especially Robert DeNiro, almost become Parkinsonian themselves, to the point that Sacks can’t actually tell what’s going on. Just like many of the patients could almost ‘choose’ to get better or not, so too could the actors choose their own methods and the levels of profundity.

When these actors mirror back what Sacks studied, we get a strange picture of illness and health, of a sound mind and a hallucinatory mind, of the reality that the patients invented to survive and the imaginary the actors invented to achieve a great performance. I almost felt like Sacks wanted to hook up the actors to lab equipment and run a battery of tests on them to see if what some of his patients went through would mirror the test results of what the actors put themselves through.

And at the heart of all this is identity. Most profoundly, and the point Sacks truly wanted to make (and still makes) is that patients are, in fact, human beings who are not defined by a disease but are wholly just human beings who need the treatment from a doctor who treats them as a human being.

This is where the controversy comes in, too. Medical science is supposed to deal in cold, hard facts. A doctor does not get emotionally involved in their patients lives because that would destroy the objectivity of the professional. Or so they would say. I, like Sacks, disagrees. The WHOLE person must be treated and the person cannot be defined by what ‘ails’ them, but only by who they actually are: a person who needs to feel better.

Sacks shows how even among a small sample size of patients all suffering from the same basic root disease, post-encephalitis lethargica, they each present in completely different ways, revive in different ways (and sometimes not even at all) and each presented a totally unique set of medical circumstances. Up until Sacks these people had basically been wasting away in a ward in an old hospital in New York – a group of profoundly disabled, Parkinsonian patients with no hope for anything better. But after Sacks, they were at least given a chance to be seen as human beings, even if they didn’t actually get better.

And that couldn’t be more clear than in the case of Leonard who, at the very end, cursed his awakening as a cruel joke. How much more human could that be? Sure, we may dream up a more romantic, a more stoic role for ourselves if we imagined being in his place, but honestly Leonard was almost more than human in his imperfections and passions. He wasn’t just a man suffering from total disability; you can’t ‘define’ him that way because he was a complex human being with as many faults as pluses.

So finally what Sacks is getting at is the notion that we need to recognize the basic humanity in each of us, and especially the stranger to us. It is no wonder that the disease that Sacks wrote about first began claiming victims around the time of the WW1, a terrible war that brought the world together to kill itself. This disease was, sort of, a remnant of that terrible time, a reminder that to treat each other with un-humanity that we could suffer the same living-hell fate of having our own humanity taken away by doctors and loved ones while we rot in a useless body but with an almost perfect mind.

85% done with Awakenings

I’ll admit that I was much more interested in the case studies than I am in the deeper philosophizing that Sacks has ventured into, however, he does draw some very insightful conclusions that while maybe not therapeutic in a medicinal sense, are hugely important for all physicians to understand: and that is that the doctor is not a dispensary of physic but must treat the WHOLE patient and that all patients are unique

page 105 of 234 of The Medieval Shepherd

A studded collar for a dog comes from the shepherd protecting his dog from wolves who always go for the throat. A dog with a nail studded collar might better survive such an attack.

I like how Brie says a shepherd should make his own mittens and that they should be colorful with a checkered pattern being the ‘prettiest’. I think that says a lot about what kind of person he was and how he liked simple order.

59% done with Awakenings

Through the numerous case studies up to this point in the book, it’s apparent that postencephalitic parkinsonism manifests itself uniquely in each person. Not only that, but many patients before going on L-Dopa (or going back on it), seem to intuit what will happen to them – and each time are proven, sadly, correct.

Sacks is very keep to bridge the gap between disease and patient and never separates the two.

42% done with Awakenings

If I had invented ‘Big Bertha’ for a story, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Tolstoy, and Joyce would have risen from the grave, come to my home, and taken turns beating the hell out of me for making up such a preposterous character. Not even the writers of Futurama would have accepted her.

That what makes her so amazing and unforgettable, just the sheer fact she really did exist.

35% done with Awakenings

Rolando’s story, for me, has been the most intensely personal. He’s someone who despite his sickness from such a young age, gave life a shot when he got L-Dopa. And he seemed so very human in a flawed and passionate way – his desires, his depressions and the way he died, like something from a novel. His story really touched me because of its rawness.

And to follow him with Miss H., it’s almost too much to believe

page 51 of 234 of The Medieval Shepherd

There is so much ‘story’ going on that isn’t told that I find fascinating: at 8 he was given charge of a flock of geese, then 6 months later given charge of pigs for a year, which he hated. At around 10 he was injured by a horse and again later by a cow before finally given a flock of sheep at age 11.

This was his job, his livelihood, and he was just a little kid, but still, he knew his job well and was honest.

24% done with Awakenings

The second case study is Miss R., and here we learn first hand the horror of what it might be like to be so trapped in a body that no longer cooperates. Yet her mechanism of defense was of the most extreme apathy yet she never lost some innate sense of happiness when, after the L-Dopa, she ‘awakened’ and was able to deal with life again.

The end of her story is so literary, that it almost feels like fiction.

18% done with Awakenings

The first study is Mrs. B and Sacks’ decision to introduce her to us first is inspired because, as he puts it, though she was never a star patient, she is in many ways the best of us and for anyone who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the best, plausible hope to be optimistic for.

In many ways reading this study is like stepping back in time to the 19th century when dr’s cared for the person, not just the body

8% done with Awakenings

I’ve been a huge fan of Oliver Sacks for years ever since I first discovered the great radio program on NPR, Radiolab, on which, over the years, he has been a frequent contributor and guest.

What interested me in Dr. Sacks was his deep well of humanity, an overflowing reservoir of empathy for the dispossessed and uniquely afflicted. He’s a champion for the unusual, an unusual that is common to us all, in a way.

A Storm of Swords: Read from August 12 to September 10, 2013

For all the ‘great books’ that have been written, for all the stuffy tomes that everyone lies about having read, for every recommendation by Harold Bloom, there are a lot more genre works floating around the bookstore. Oh, sure, we know what we should be reading, what we’re told since grade school are the ‘proper’ books for ‘proper’ little minds, but how many people read those books? How many people really care to read those thick, dense, intellectual, impenetrable, novels by dead white men?

Books like Martin’s, however, are fun and exciting and full of twists and deaths, and everyone is reading them and so it’s also fun to keep up with your friends so you can keep up at parties when people talk about Game of Thrones.

Yet is this distinction fair? Can Martin’s book(s) never be considered a great book? What makes a great book? Some college professor might say a great book is one that opens your eyes to the vast human experience in such a way as you have never experienced it before, or has plumbed the depths of human psychology so deftly, and so realistically that it nearly transcends art itself.

But who is to speak up for a well told story? What about Homer, for example? Oh, for sure, we all think of the Iliad and the Odyssey as great works of high art, but when they were fresh and new and poets were shouting those stories over the sound of crashing wine dark Aegean waves along a white rocky Athenian coast on hot, summer festival days, they were just grand stories that entertained the crowds. They were, gasp, popular!

And what ‘great art’ is ever popular? How hard are Don DeLillo book signing tickets to come by? Ever scalped your season pass to the Kafka museum to the highest bidder so that you might afford a once in a lifetimes ‘Night With Richard Ford’?

Of course, it’s unfair (and also plain wrong) to claim that because something is popular it is somehow a metric of quality or because something is obscure and has the word ‘aesthetics’ in the title it is somehow automatically good.

Yet I don’t think it’s so simple either.

Why can’t something that is good also find a wide audience? I sometimes wonder if artists too often stick their heads up their own asses in an effort to shun popular society. There does seem to be a disdain for ‘the unwashed masses’ by the hipster set who only qualify the unknown with a seal of approval. In fact, Martin’s book here gets upturned noses from the ‘arty’ crowd because they’re ‘just silly kids books’.

But are they?

How many other serious novelists are exploring the world we really live in, a world that actually is a little dangerous and full of manipulative people who are quick to take advantage of another person’s weakness? I mean, look at politics (any era in history), it’s full of the very people Martin is writing about and he’s practically giving us a field-guide to understanding and observing your everyday nefarious evil-doers.

Martin is, at the heart of it all, writing about the sad reality of the world we live in where most of us have very little influence on the world around us, are at the mercy of powers much greater than us, where a lot of our lives are filled with mind-numbing sameness and struggle and sacrifice and when we think about it realize that there’s not much we’ll ever be able to do about any of it.

Yeah, that sounds pretty depressing, but it’s just reality. We do the best we can with what we have, we find our happiness where we can because life is tough and we don’t want to be bothered with a bunch of highbrow ass-talking nonsense; we just want to come home from work everyday, kiss someone we love, and relax for awhile and hope someone can tell us a great story about people just like ourselves but who also have the advantage of a few dragons, a needle, a hound, a wit, and a few fantasies we don’t so that we can live a little vicariously through a more interesting person’s life.

We also need to be careful and recognize that art that is the product of its time might one day be considered great art in a later time; not in the snooty sense of (textbook definition) great art, but in the Shakespeare, Homer sort of way – art that speaks to the people because it doesn’t lie to them while also entertaining them too.

A great artist can speak to the truth and speak to the people at the same time. More artists, both serious and pop should take note.

Anyway, the book fucking rocks.

89% done with A Storm of Swords

In the 5th Harry Potter book, Order of the Phoenix, Rowling had figured out what it was readers liked best about the stories and kept turning the expectations on their head. Nothing Harry could do worked right, the school was not a safe, comfortable place, and Dolores Umbridge became that series’ best villan.

Martin does the same here, and in spades. I’ve given up trying to figure things out; I’m just on the ride

76% done with A Storm of Swords

The relationship between the Hound and Arya is one of the most oddly touching in the entire book. She’s becoming a bit of a monster herself, what with ripping the stuffing out of that girl’s doll (though her motivation was pretty obvious).

I would like to see a bit more from Davos, however. He’s a cool character, but a bit flat and too honorable and predictable; nobody is that duty-bound (except maybe the wench).