The Contenders

As I mentioned in my email, we’ll vote on two of the texts we’ll read this semester–one novel and one memoir.

The Memoirs

The-Diving-bell-and-the-Butterfly-Bauby-9780007139842Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Vintage 1997, 131 pages)
Two days after this remarkable book was published in France to great acclaim, its author died of heart failure. What caused such a stir was the method Bauby used to write it. For in December 1995, the 44-year-old former editor-in-chief of the French Elle magazine had suffered a severe stroke that left his body paralyzed but his mind intact, a condition known as “locked-in syndrome.” Able to communicate only by blinking his left eyelid, he dictated this book letter by letter to an assistant who recited to him a special alphabet. The result is a marvelous, compelling account of Bauby’s life as a “vegetable,” full of humor and devoid of self-pity. Although he was trapped in the diving bell of his body, Bauby’s imagination “takes flight like a butterflyy….You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.” His celebration of life against all odds is highly recommended. (Wilda Williams, Library Journal)

13547180Susannah Callahan, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (Free Press 2012, 264 pages)
“Brain on Fire” is at its most captivating when describing the torturous process of how doctors arrived at that diagnosis — an extremely rare autoimmune disease almost undocumented in medical literature. The illness presented itself in malevolent fashion, with symptoms of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which are often indistinguishable from each other in their early stages: grandiosity, paranoia, bouts of irrational rage, incomprehensible utterances and flat catatonic-like affect. There were also seizures, with “blood and foam” spurting out of Cahalan’s mouth, that suggested not mental illness but a neurological disorder. (Michael Greenberg, The New York Times)

ThinkingInPicturesNewTemple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism (Vintage 1996/2010, 304 pages)
In an issue of The New Yorker that appeared in late December 1993, the neurologist Oliver Sacks profiled an astonishing woman with autism who not only lived on her own but earned a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. Reading about Temple Grandin, the parents of autistic children must have felt both wonder and relief. Full disclosure: when I picked up Sacks’s essay, ”An Anthropologist on Mars,” I was worried about my 2-year-old son’s behavior. After I finished it, I knew he was autistic. So I’ve always felt indebted to Grandin, and not just for letting Sacks observe her so closely. . . . When ”Thinking in Pictures,” Grandin’s second book, appeared in 1995, experts were less shocked by her accomplishments. By then, they’d learned that autism was a spectrum disorder; in other words, its triad of difficulties — social problems, behavioral problems, obsessiveness — hobbled some people more than others. But the habit of discounting the talents of autistic people prevailed. . . . Temple Grandin put the lie to many assumptions about autism. Of course, she wrote, autistic people have to learn social rules — in a methodical, structured way — but their obsessions may not be handicaps; they may even provide certain advantages. After all, Grandin herself had channeled her fixations and sensory differences into a successful career designing livestock equipment. Admittedly, this message was more useful for autistic people with less severe symptoms, but it was inspiring all the same. It was exactly what normal kids get to hear: follow your bliss. (Polly Morrice, The New York Times)

tumblr_m7rpw0CDvZ1qd9a66o1_400Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind (Vintage 1997, 224 pages)
This incredibly insightful work chronicles the life of a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University who suffers from manic depression. Jamison began experiencing mood swings during adolescence but, despite her education and training, did not seek help until she had completed her doctorate and began teaching at UCLA. Like so many others suffering from manic depression, she felt initially that the depressions were only passing phases she’d have to work out herself. She experienced the manic phases as great periods of creativity and accomplishment and feared they would be deadened by using medication. (In an earlier book, Touched with Fire, LJ 2/15/93, Jamison explored the relationship between manic depression and creativity.) Jamison finally comes to grips with her illness and recognizes the importance of medication used in conjunction with psychotherapy. This combination of treatment controls her illness and has enabled her to succeed. Her story and writing style are both inspirational and educational. Highly recommended for all libraries. (Jennifer Amador, Library Journal)

To_love_what_is-210-expAlix Kates Shulman, To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux 2009, 192 pages)
To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed is novelist Alix Kates Shulman‘s sharp and moving account of living with her husband Scott after a brain injury that left his memory severely impaired, but other aspects of his self intact. Shulman’s book dissects the difference between memory and identity more thoroughly and sensitively than any other I’ve read. Shulman is a feminist activist and writer well known in particular for her novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom QueenShe is also a master of building both stories and sentences. Her spare prose oozes intimacy and philosophy as she unfolds a tale about confronting the physiology of her marriage. Of course, the physiology of self is thrown into relief when the body is injured. Shulman’s story tells a less well understood story. Scott’s accident left him with a brain that wouldn’t let her forget that marriage is an arrangement between two organsims whose bodies are fundamental to the bargain. (Jason Tougaw, californica)

The Novels

curious-incidentMark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Vintage 2004, 226 pages)
The fifteen-year-old narrator of this ostensible murder mystery is even more emotionally remote than the typical crime-fiction shamus: he is autistic, prone to fall silent for weeks at a time and unable to imagine the interior lives of others. This might seem a serious handicap for a detective, but when Christopher stumbles on the dead body of his neighbor’s poodle, impaled by a pitchfork, he decides to investigate. Christopher understands dogs, whose moods are as circumscribed as his own (“happy, sad, cross and concentrating”), but he’s deaf to the nuances of people, and doesn’t realize until too late that the clues point toward his own house and a more devastating mystery. This original and affecting novel is a triumph of empathy; whether describing Christopher’s favorite dream (of a virus depopulating the planet) or his vision of the universe collapsing in a thunder of stars, the author makes his hero’s severely limited world a thrilling place to be. (The New Yorker)

motherlessbrooklynJonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage 200, 311 pages)
A brilliantly imagined riff on the classic detective tale: the fifth high-energy novel in five years from the rapidly maturing prodigy whose bizarre black-comic fiction includes, most recently, Girl in Landscape (1998). Lethem’s delirious yarn about crime, pursuit, and punishment, is narrated in a unique voice by its embattled protagonist, Brooklynite (and orphan) Lionel Essrog, a.k.a. “Freakshow.” Lionel’s moniker denotes the Tourette’s syndrome that twists his speech into weird aslant approximations (his own name, for example, is apt to come out “Larval Pushbug” or “Unreliable Chessgrub”) and induces a tendency to compulsive behavior (“reaching, tapping, grabbing and kissing urges”) that makes him useful putty in the hands of Frank Minna, an enterprising hood who recruits teenagers (like Lionel) from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys, to move stolen goods and otherwise function as apprentice-criminal “Minna Men.” The daft plotwhich disappears for a while somewhere around the middle of the novelconcerns Minna’s murder and Lionel’s crazily courageous search for the killer, an odyssey that brings him into increasingly dangerous contact with two elderly Italian men (“The Clients”) who have previously employed the Minna Men and now pointedly advise Lionel to abandon his quest; Frank’s not-quite-bereaved widow Julia (a tough-talking dame who seems to have dropped in from a Raymond Chandler novel) at the Zendo, a dilapidated commune where meditation and other Buddhist techniques are taught; a menacing “Polish giant”; and, on Maine’s Muscongus Island, a lobster pound and Japanese restaurant that front for a sinister Oriental conglomerate. The resulting complications are hilariously enhanced by Lionel’s “verbal Tourette’s flowering”a barrage of sheer rhetorical invention that has tour de force written all over it; it’s an amazing stunt, and, just when you think the well is running dry, Lethem keeps on topping himself. Another terrific entertainment from Lethem, one of contemporary fiction’s most inspired risk-takers. Don’t miss this one. (Kirkus Reviews)

echo-makerRichard Powers, The Echo Maker  (Picador 2007, 451 pages)
This novel, a finalist for the National Book Award, addresses the question of how we know who we really are. Mark, who repairs machinery at a meat-processing plant, suffers a head injury that prevents him from recognizing his sister Karin; he believes that she is a look-alike sent to spy on him. Karin, who has spent her life trying to escape their small Nebraska town, returns to old lovers and habits she thought she’d renounced. Stung by Mark’s rejection, she sends a desperate plea to an Oliver Sacks-like neurologist whose popular books have suddenly come under critical attack, causing fissures in his public persona and his seemingly perfect marriage. Powers’s smooth coincidences and cute patter can be unconvincing and leaden, and he has a tendency to lapse into distracting repetitions. Yet his philosophical musings have the energy of a thriller, and he gives lyrical, haunting life to the landscape of the Great Plains. (The New Yorker)

6a00d8341cc8d453ef011168933978970c-800wiJohn Wray, Lowboy (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux 2008, 272 pages)
. . . John Wray’s third novel, “Lowboy” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $25) [is] an account of one climactic day in the life of Will Heller, known as Lowboy, a sixteen-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, who has gone off his medication, eluded the staff at the clinic that was looking after him, and is riding the subway trains, convinced that the “world’s going to die in ten hours.” Lowboy’s chiliasm is obscurely meshed with fears of global warming. He wants to stop what he calls “the temperature games,” and thinks he may be able to cool the world down by cooling down his and other bodies. He leaves a letter in code for his mother, whom he calls Violet. Decoded by the police, it runs, in part, “i want to open like a flower violet. like a flower does in poetry. i think that might help as the world is inside of me and that will / might help to cool the world. possibly. bodies will have to get cold now violet.” Neither Will’s mother nor Detective Ali Lateef, both of whom are trying to track him down, has much of an idea what this might involve, but Lateef fears violence, since Will was committed to the Bellavista Clinic, a year and a half ago, for pushing his girlfriend, Emily, off a subway platform. (James Wood, The New Yorker)

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