“I found a book called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly written by a Frenchman named Jean-Dominique Bauby. The man was healthy, married with children, and had a good job. One day, out of the blue, he had some type of stroke in his brain stem. The man literally woke up a few weeks later in the hospital completely paralyzed. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t even swallow. His only form of communication was blinking letters and having someone transcribe his words.
I couldn’t help comparing his prison with mine. We both lost our freedom and human independence. Neither of us deserved our condition, although I brought mine on myself and he was just struck down seemingly at random. Our walls are different, but walls just the same.”
Note: We watched the movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly the other night and it was excellent.
If you visited me last week and watched the funniest YouTube video on book promotion of all time, you’ve gotten an introduction to Dennis Cass. I read Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain after reading a comment he left at Editorial Ass last month. After reading his blog, I was curious enough about the book to give it a read. It's primarily a memoir with a fair amount of educational information about neuroscience woven throughout. The biggest question I had as I was reading was, how did he ever pitch this? It’s a very unusual format, but it works.
When Dennis was nineteen, his stepfather suffered a psychotic break. Fifteen years later, after Dennis had married and become a successful writer, he decided to immerse himself in the science of the brain to try to understand what had happened to his stepfather. His research included subjecting himself to a number of medical and psychological tests, which became pretty weird pretty fast. Reading his thoughts about his own brain and about the tests and what they meant was like being right there in his head with him. If you’ve watched the video, you know that Dennis is very funny and very smart. His story is both of those things, but it’s also very poignant and there are parts that are heartbreaking. My total enjoyment of this book was magnified even more because he is simply a wonderful writer.
“Later, when I talked to Sue Carter about my experiences as a new father, she called a newborn baby ‘an endocrine manipulation.’ (This was not entirely out of character. In her paper ‘The Neurobiology of Love’ she describes physical closeness as ‘the maintenance of proximity or voluntary contact with an attachment object.’) While this sounded a tad clinical, I also understood what she meant. Even if I hadn’t been studying the brain, there was a distinctly chemical feeling to the flood of love I felt for this boy.
I could see where the idea for Jesus came from. James Leckman, in his paper ‘Early Parental Preoccupations and Behaviors and their Possible Relationship to the Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,’ notes that 73 percent of mothers and 66 percent of fathers say that at three months their child is ‘perfect.’ There was that moment in the hospital when I looked at Owen and thought, He’s the son of God. There was no way to look at him and not feel that he had been sent to this Earth by a supreme being to right the world. This was what Joseph and Mary had experienced; no one had bothered to tell them this was how most new parents felt.
This feeling of the perfection of the universe extended to Liz as well. I had never felt more love for her, or more of a sense that we were meant to be together and start a family. But the joy soon manifested itself in unsettling ways, too. During those first days in the hospital it was very important that everyone agreed that my son was cute. And not only did they have to agree that he was cute, but in my newfound effort to be scientific about my life, they had to agree that their high appraisal of his beauty was an ‘objective measure.’
‘Cutest baby in the room,’ said the pediatrician who was on rounds.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘But, really. You’re a doctor. Don’t’ you think he’s the cutest? I mean, objectively?’
‘Cutest baby in the room,’ he said.”
Thanks to The Early Reviewer Program at LibraryThing, I was lucky enough to get an advance reader's edition of America America, by Ethan Canin. The book will be on sale June 24th.
Corey Sifter is the editor of a small newspaper in upstate
At sixteen, Corey is hired to work on the grounds of the elegant Metarey estate. Liam Metarey is the son of a Scottish immigrant, who came to
As Corey becomes more educated and sophisticated, he grows away from his working class parents. They want the best for him, so they support his choices, despite their unspoken pain at losing him. Not long after starting preparatory school, Corey begins working for Liam Metarey every weekend. Metarey has taken on the role of campaign manager for Senator Henry Bonwiller’s bid for the Presidency in the 1972 election. Bonwiller is a liberal Democrat that the local townspeople consider to be “the best friend a working man’s ever had.”
Corey is exposed to, but isn’t quite savvy enough to understand the machinations of old school politics and back room deal making. Metarey involves Corey peripherally in the cover up of a scandal, although Corey isn’t able to piece the entire story together until many years later.
The primaries get interesting after Senator Edmund Muskie weeps on national television, and it looks as if Senator Bonwiller has a good chance to secure the nomination and the Presidency. The descriptions of power struggle between all of the Democratic candidates in this story and the hints at pre-Watergate subterfuge from the Nixon campaign made me think about what's happened since.
“The forgotten of this country have a consistent history of turning on their champions, and I suppose the way working men and women have forsaken the very politicians who could help them most speaks of the primacy of emotion in politics. Perhaps the great decline of FDR’s party, which was beginning in Henry Bonwiller’s time, didn’t come about because Democrats favored a logical argument over a moral one, but simply because they clung to the idea that either one mattered at all.”
The story climaxes when a number of individual plot threads and tragedies converge and in the present day, Corey is able to see the truth of what happened through his own journalistic lens and gain clarity and perspective on his relationships with his children and his parents.
“It doesn’t take many years of fatherhood to think you finally understand your own parents, and I’ve long since arrived at that point with mine. And like most everyone else, I’ve grown more grateful for the things they gave me and more respectful of what must have been admirable courage as they watched me go – in my case, to a life utterly different from their own. And as I’ve watched our own girls move away now, too – first to sleepovers, then to summer camps, then to college and boyfriends, then to jobs and husbands – as I’ve watched them one by one walk their own ways, I can only hope that they too arrive at this same juncture, that they too come to see us for what we’ve always tried to do for them, even if it’s not always what we’ve succeeded at. Maybe this is nothing but vanity. But I wonder how we’ve fared with them. I wonder which of our idle words have wounded them and which, years later and a thousand miles away, have buoyed them; which of our hopes have lifted them over the daunting obstacles in their lives and which have pressed back against their own ideas of themselves. I think I know my children, know all three of them, yet I’m certain from my own childhood that of course I don’t.”
Ethan Canin is a masterful narrative stylist. Once I started reading, I tore through the book, unable to put it down. Since I finished, I find myself still thinking about it. Themes of loyalty and love, power and morality, and fathers and children all contribute to a satisfying, well written story.
Once again, I credit Head Butler and Jesse Kornbluth’s spot on recommendations for The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield is a best selling author and screenwriter and best known for The Legend of Bagger Vance. The book is short and it’s simple, but it’s powerful and the forward, by Robert McKee provides a good prelude:
“To begin Book One, Pressfield labels the enemy of creativity Resistance, his all-encompassing term for what Freud called the Death Wish – that destructive force inside human nature that rises whenever we consider a tough, long-term course of action that might do for us or others something that’s actually good. He then presents a rogue’s gallery of the many manifestations of Resistance. You will recognize each and every one, for this force lives within us all – self-sabotage, self-deception, self-corruption. We writers know it as ‘block’, a paralysis whose symptoms can bring on appalling behavior.”
The book ends on a note that I hadn't considered, but it’s well worth pondering:
“It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself, you hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path to God.
Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
How about that?
I didn't read nearly as much in May as I did in April, but I'm moving forward on The Foundling Wheel again and I'm pretty happy about that. In fact, I can't seem to stop writing. I'm overwriting at this point and I know I'm overwriting, but as long as it's coming easily, I don't mind if it will help me find the rest of the story and get to the end. If I have to cut out 90% of what's coming now, it won't bother me at all.
This phenomenon is new to me. Has it ever happened to any of you?
How about reading? What good books have you read lately?