In 2009, Sarah Gray, 35, and her husband Ross, were ecstatic to learn that she was pregnant with twins. The road to parenthood opened ahead of them. BIn 2009, Sarah Gray, 35, and her husband Ross, were ecstatic to learn that she was pregnant with twins. The road to parenthood opened ahead of them. But it was not long before Gray would be informed that one of her twins had a rare condition, anencephaly, a failure of the skull and brain to form properly, leaving the developing brain unprotected. The causes of this rare condition are not well understood. The diagnosis was grim. Thomas Ethan Gray’s life, if he got to have one at all, would be a very short one.
Sarah Gray - from Ted talks
Gray was not your garden variety horrified parent-to-be. She was working at the time at the National Institute for the Severely Disabled, where she had established the AbilityOne Speakers Bureau, helping secure speaking opportunities for disabled people of diverse sorts, and helping them craft their stories. Her mother was a nurse in Boston. She experienced the devastation anyone in her position would suffer. But Gray’s professional experience and connections, and access to medical intel from within her own family gave her a firmer base of knowledge from which to inform her response. When she realized that it would be possible for some of Thomas’s organs to be used to help others she set about making it happen, giving the loss she and her husband would experience and the short life her baby would know new meaning.
Gray’s case was unusual in that Thomas’s donations were used for research, not transplant. After a short period of time, she grew curious about how they were being put to use, so began tracking where they had gone. Once she identified the places, she started calling and asking to tour their facilities, a totally new thing for those labs. It is not unusual for the families of transplant donors to contact recipients, sometimes building lasting relationships, but it was pretty much unheard of for the families of organ donors to get in touch with research labs to see how the donations were being used.
Thomas Ethan Gray - from Radiolab
One thing Gray found on this quest was that the researchers were thrilled to hear from a donor’s family, heartily welcoming the interest. Unlike the transplant world, there is almost never a face or a name to put to a research donation. But lives are saved as a result of such gifts, particularly when there is an acute shortage of research material, which there often is.
There are several elements to A Life Everlasting. Sarah and Ross’s experience as expectant parents is beautifully told, and is as moving as one could hope for. There is enough stress entailed in having a first child. I know. But adding the harsh decisions that the couple had to face was truly a heavy burden. Thomas’s birth, short life, and passing are among the most moving passages I have ever read. Have a box of tissues at the ready.
Sarah with hubby, Ross, and son, Callum - from NBC News
But this is not, ultimately, a sad book. It is a hugely hopeful and uplifting one. And in Sarah Gray learning about what is possible, she educates us as well. She pushed the boundaries of what the families of donors could know, which will benefit not only those families, but everyone. When people are aware that their loved one’s remains might be able to help others, more are likely to choose donation instead of immediate burial. And researchers facing a shortage of needed materials will be better able to move ahead with their work if more people choose this option.
"The way I see it our son got into Harvard, Duke, and Penn. He has a job. He is relevant to the world. I only hope my life can be as relevant." - from the Philly.com article
Gray adds the stories of some other people, including parents of donors, and a beneficiary of research that advanced life-extending treatment as a result of having access to such donations. Each is moving in its own way, and together, they support the message that many more people need to be aware of the potential benefits to be had from donations of this sort. Losing a child is all too common. Unfortunate things happen, but there can still be some silver linings to even the darkest clouds.
The book touches on some closely related topics as well. There are some inherent conflicts between the demand for transplantable organs and the need for many of the same organs for research. Gray points out some of the advances that such research has produced, using donations like Thomas’s. She also notes in closing the emergence of new gene editing technology (CRISPR) that may offer science the ability to repair genetic damage before a child is born. Gray’s position is very much pro. "If you have the skills and the knowledge to fix these diseases," Gray said at a 2015 conference on gene-editing, "then freaking do it." But opinions vary as to the overall risks involved in such tampering. There is considerable controversy about how such tools might be applied. I included a link about this in EXTRA STUFF.
As a result of her quest and the ensuing attention she was paid by local and national media, Gray moved on to a new position. She is now Director of Communications for the American Association of Tissue Banks. She speaks regularly to professionals involved in organ donation. She has included in an appendix a long list of relevant links for those interested in learning more about organ/tissue donation.
You will be moved, learn a lot, and perhaps be inspired to consider becoming an organ donor yourself if you were not already. Sometimes even the smallest of donations, resulting from the saddest of circumstances, can reap huge benefits. A Life Everlasting is a gift to us all.
Science -----CDC link on anencephaly. There are more than a thousand a year in the USA. There is no known cure or standard treatment for anencephaly. Almost all babies born with anencephaly will die shortly after birth. -----On the new gene-editing tool CRISPR -----Here is another on CRISPR, brought to our attention by GR pal Jan - THE GENE HACKERS by Michael Specter - in the November 16, 2015 issue of The New Yorker
Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright. - from The Wo
Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright. - from The Wolf Man 1941
It’s hard out there for a wolf.
We’ve come a long way from the classic - from Vixens and Monster.tumblr.com
What did you want be? As children, we all have dreams of ourselves as adults. I started out, a West Bronx local in a very concrete world, wanting to be a forest ranger, later an astronaut, later still, an aeronautical engineer, with the usual adolescent rock star fantasy tossed in. I imagine most of us had dreams well within the range of reasonable human experience and fantasy, whether or not we ever saw them through to fruition. The narrator of Mongrels, being raised by his aunt Libby, uncle Darren and his grandfather, dreams of growing up to be like them. I guess many of us want to be like the adults who raise us. Libby, Darren and Grandpa, however, are werewolves.
werewolves, they’ve always been where it’s at for me. I remember being twelve, living way out in the country, and creeping up from my bed after lights out and pressing my forehead to the cold glass, so I could watch the darkness for werewolves. I had no doubt at all that they were running in these fast clockwise circles around our house. And that if I quit watching even for a blink, then they were coming in for us. So I’ve been thinking on the werewolf for a long time, now. I’ve been watching for them. What always interested me most about them, though, after the teeth and claws and transformations, it was the day to day difficulties of being a different, maligned species. How to explain why your pants keep being ripped up? Why does your friend’s dog run yelping away when you walk up? I spent a lot of my twelfth year trying to become a werewolf—maybe because I knew I could never beat them, so I might as well get out there and run with them. But nothing ever took. So, Mongrels, it’s as close as I can get, I suppose - from Muzzlepress interview
Mongrels is a magnificent imagining of what it might look like if werewolves were really padding around in the 21st century American South. No effete vampires here. This is very much a working class wolf world, bloody, desperate, fearful, primitive.
Stephen Graham Jones
Jones tells his story in eighteen chapters that wander in time and location. The narrator is a never-named boy (well, a teacher addresses him by a name, but we assume it to be a temporary, not a true one) we watch through his growth from age eight to sixteen, (although not in chronological order) the age by which those whose DNA is of the tooth and claw variety usually manifest their nature. He yearns for the change, even though there is no guarantee that it will happen for him.
Jones indulges in a bit of cuteness by referring to his narrator as the vampire in one chapter, the reporter in another, the biologist in a third, and so on. It’s pretty adorable, and works in a way to counterpoint delight and bloodiness. I was reminded of Joe Hill’s The Fireman, which employs a similar technique.
An American Werewolf in London raised the bar for cinematic ch-ch-changes
This is a peripatetic pack, more itinerant than territorial, always trying to keep one step ahead of suspicious neighbors and inquisitive law enforcement. They are very tough on the vehicles they somehow keep acquiring. And if you had the misfortune of renting a residence to them you will be making full use of the security deposit for cleanup after they leave.
Much of the fun in the book lies in the many specifics of werewolf existence. For example,
Werewolves are paranoid about having dog breath, are always brushing their teeth and chewing mints.
Some of the details are fascinating. Proper change attire is of great and surprising importance. Mating with a human does not bode well for a non-lycan woman who does not hew to the safety first mantra. Silver is considered. Education is primarily through TV game shows and family tales that may or may not have germs of truth. One thing it is not is at all glamorous. They encounter various sorts in their travels, WW wannabees, a stalker, an exploitive businessman who sees economic opportunity in milking a captive lycan to enhance his profit margins. While there may be no pentagrams, an angry mob with actual torches and pitchforks puts in an appearance that is part alarming, and part comedic.
Famous characters from American history are brought into the moonlight for a new look, and are guaranteed to make you bare your teeth, in a good way. The family banter gets hilarious on occasion (well, I thought it was pretty funny, anyway)
Just when I thought I’d figured out what made a girlfriend happy, what would make one stay, I would do something wrong again and that would be that. “Something wrong, like, I don’t know, like eating their pet goat?” Libby said, without looking over from the game show glowing all our faces light blue.
The initiative for writing this book came from an unusual source.
Back in 2008 or so, I last-minute got asked to teach an open-topic Genre course. Like, the week before the semester. So I said sure—if I could teach zombies. Which I did for two or three or four years. Loved it. But then I wanted something different, so I proposed my heart’s true love, the werewolf. And it got approved, and I got some funds to buy up werewolf books and movies. So, cue the avalanche of texts here. It hit early in December of 2013, and I read about a werewolf book every two days, I imagine, and was watching movies deep into every night. My deadline was December 31st, too, so I shut down the course prep then. But my mind, it wouldn’t stop spinning with all this. So, on January 1st, my fingers twitching like they were going to pop claws, I sat down at the keyboard, started Mongrels, and had a solid draft of it down by the time the semester started. - from the Muzzlepress interview
If you have issues with violence, or with creatures small and not so small coming to bloody ends, Mongrels is definitely not the right kibble for you. There is a considerable body count, people and critters. If you are expecting a straight-up fright-fest, I suppose there are things in here that might make the fur hair on the back of your hands neck stand up. I lost no sleep after reading this, but I tend not to keep my head under the covers after reading a horror book most of the time anyway, so that doesn’t really say much. I have felt a lot more fear about the well-armed masses of the paranoid and twitchy who are locked and loaded across our great nation, and of blustering authoritarian wannabes than I ever will be of shape-shifting migrant workers driving crappy cars and watching too much tube. But therein lies the great value of Mongrels.
If you look past the tooth and claw you will pick up the scent of underlying content. As with the folks under the scope here, there are two levels. The wolfy thing, and then the irresistible portrayal of people, any people, on the fringes of society. I was reminded of Willy Vlautin, who also writes of working class people struggling to survive in a challenging world. There is even a Steinbeckian fragrance your enhanced olfactory sense will probably pick up. I am sure you have your own favorite authors who hunt in those woods.
How can you ever get ahead if you are always on the move? How can you get an education if you have to leave every school because the cops are starting to close in? How can you stay in one place, even without doing the changing thing, if it is only a matter of time before your true nature is revealed, and you are shunned or worse by polite society? Whether that shunning is because you are devouring the local livestock or because you are just, however proper your behavior, not considered the right sort of people. You can bet someone would love to build a wall to keep those people out.
The turf Jones writes of here is familiar, as he has personally traveled it a fair bit.
”We farmed, but we didn’t make our living off of farming,” he explains. “My mom ran daycare, or she would work at a tanning salon. Just all kinds of jobs. My different stepdads would work construction or in the oil fields. We always would come back to the same farming community in Greenwood, but that was just the place we’d bounce off of before going somewhere else. We always had a horse trailer that we’d pack bags and boxes in and go.” - from the Westword interview
So, bottom line is that we likee the lycans. Yeah, Mongrels may not be all that scary, but it is very smart, particularly in the imagining of WW-life details. It has something to say about class and society, and it is a lot of fun. It may not force you to shift your shape, even if you read it during a full moon, but Mongrels is delightful enough to warrant more than a few joyful howls, and if you get the urge to dine on a neighbor’s livestock after reading it, or even your neighbor, for that matter, at least you will know that you are probably not alone. Mongrels is a real treat.
Each week, sister Sonja said, Start at the beginning, her dark fingers bending around a small black notebook, pen poised. Many moments passed before
Each week, sister Sonja said, Start at the beginning, her dark fingers bending around a small black notebook, pen poised. Many moments passed before I opened my mouth to speak. Each week, I began with the words I was waiting for my mother…
A forest grows in Bushwick. At 35, August, a worldly anthropologist, back in New York City to bury her father, recalls her growing up years. In Tennessee, when she was eight, her mother, was unable to cope with news of her brother’s death in Viet Nam. She persisted in talking to her lost, beloved sibling as if he were still present. When dad finally replants August and her little brother in the county of Kings, his home town, a new life sprouts for them. We see through August’s eyes what life was like for a young black girl in 1970s Brooklyn. From white flight to the drug epidemic, from DJ parties in the park to dangerous sorts, interested in drugs and young girls, from blackouts and looting to the influence of the Nation of Islam, from innocence to awakening sexuality, from finding friends to seeing the world slowly opening to reveal diverse paths, many dangers, and some ways through. A core element of the story is August coming to grips with her absent, Godot-like mother. The bulk of her story, as it might for most of us, centers on her friends.
My brother had the faith my father brought him to, and for a long time, I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.
Time shifts back and forth. August is 8, then 15 then 11. Woodson uses front page touchstones to place us, and August, in time. Son of Sam, the blackout of 1977, Biafran starvelings, and popular entertainment.
On a different planet, we could have been Lois Lane or Jane or Mary Tyler Moore or Marlo Thomas. We could have thrown our hats up, twirled and smiled. We could have made it after all. We watched the shows. We knew the songs. We sang along when Mary was big-eyed and awed by Minneapolis. We dreamed with Marlo of someday hitting the big time. We took off with the Flying Nun.
The dreams the girls nurture come face to face with the roots from which they grow. Possibilities appear. And impediments. Can their friendship survive the winds that push and pull them in diverse directions as they branch out?
Maybe this is how it happened for everyone—adults promising us their own failed futures, I was bright enough to teach, my father said, even as my dream of stepping into Sylvia’s skin included one day being a lawyer. Angela’s mom had draped the dream of dancing over her. And Gigi, able to imitate every one of us, could step inside anyone she wanted to be, close her eyes, and be gone. Close her eyes and be anywhere.
Memory is a refrain here, a blues chorus. Not sure I agree with Woodson’s take, or is it August‘s take on where tragedy lies, (I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It’s the memory.) but it is an interesting take nonetheless.
Jacqueline Woodson - from NPR
References to how other cultures deal with death pepper the narrative, a way of illuminating how August, her family and friends cope with loss. It is moving and effective. There is a lyricism, a musicality to Woodson’s writing, her language flowing and floating, rhythmic, poetic, reading like it was meant to be read aloud. Stunning lines wait around every bend, insightful, beautiful, polished to a fine gleam.
Her books for young audiences have gained her considerable acclaim. Brown Girl Dreaming won Woodson a 2014 National Book Award. She has received a lifetime achievement award for her YA writing. She won a Coretta Scott King award in 2001 for Miracle’s Boys, and several Newbery awards. I would not be at all surprised to see this book as well up for a slew of awards. While Another Brooklyn is definitely intended for adult readers, her YA writing DNA manifests in the physical structure, the short sentences, with big space between them. And the size. Another Brooklyn is not a long book. On the one hand, you will rip through it in no time, the first time, a drive through. You may take a bit longer the second time, recognizing that this is a treat to be savored, and linger a while, maybe wander through on a bike. It will turn out the same, but you may notice more store windows as you pedal down these streets, or living things, a beech here, a maple there. City-like, there is a lot compressed into a small space. You might even stroll through for a third look-see, picking up some bits and pieces unseen on previous readings. Not sayin’ ya have to, but if you get the urge I would go with it.
There are some tough life experiences on display here, but we know that August makes it through. An important element of the story is hope. Talent may not always shine a light to a better future but sometimes it can. Intelligence may not always be seen, appreciated or nurtured. But sometimes it is. Hard times and personal loss are definitely painful, but maybe they are part of the compost of our lives. While the streets of her world may have been named for trees of a long gone sylvan past, Linden, Palmetto, Evergreen…Woodbine, (the name Bushwick, by the way, comes from Boswijck, which means “little town in the woods”), lives still grow there, tall and strong. August is a mighty oak. Her story of growing is lyrical, poetic, and moving. Another Brooklyn may not take much time to read, once, twice, or even more times. But as little time as it will take you to let this one in, it will plant a seed in your memory, another in your heart and grow there for a very long time.
In the short-short story Cologne, Allie Brosh offers a fun turn with paranoia, but the punch line was not really credible. (view spoiler)[ Really, theIn the short-short story Cologne, Allie Brosh offers a fun turn with paranoia, but the punch line was not really credible. (view spoiler)[ Really, the narrator would not have felt the presence of someone there? Nope, but a nice lead up. (hide spoiler)] A for effort though.
They're watching, and you know it
You can read it for yourself here, but take special care not to let your eyes inadvertently skip down to the bottom, and spoil the ending. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Once upon a time a writer sat in a large room and looked around. The words and papers that he had dreamed into existence had begun to clog the space.Once upon a time a writer sat in a large room and looked around. The words and papers that he had dreamed into existence had begun to clog the space. To get from his magic writing place to the world outside he had to push his way past words on stacks of paper that had grown so high that he was no longer able to see over the top to the door. Sometimes the lanes they had formed led him not to a door, but into a wall and he had to find his way back to the desk where he made the words, and start over. He began to wonder if the words had started shifting their locations while his back was turned, if they intended to keep him in his writing place, making more and more words and stories to keep them all company. One day a doll with button eyes that he kept on his desk stood up and told him that he really should do something about the growing menace if he wanted to be able to leave the room ever again. The writer was suitably terrified, and vowed to get right on it, concerned about the possibility that he was losing his shit.
Neil Gaiman - from maskable
I know nothing of Neil Gaiman’s living situation, of course. He may be the neatest person alive, a place for everything and everything in its place. Black shirt here, black pants there, black jacket over there. Another black shirt here, another black shirt here...While it is likely that his words are all nicely tucked away on hard drives, in clouds, on servers and disks of various ages and sorts, I envision stacks of paper hither and yon festooned with buzzing colonies of paper mites. Maybe his wife gives him the stink-eye about the piles, urging him to take some time and deal with the mess. So he bites the bullet one Saturday morning when the creative urge is at low ebb. He gathers a stack from here, a sheaf from there, and as I imagine anyone who writes might do, he reads some of the things he has written, some of them decades old. Not half bad, he might think, and he would be right. But in gathering all the material together, and now admiring the still dusty but paper free sections of floor that have become newly visible, and considering tying up all the paper for inclusion in the recycling bin, it occurs that they might be worthy of another form of recycling. Thus, newly energized, he begins to pore through the materials a second time, and in this pass, he makes three piles, keeper, on the fence, and toss, ties up the toss pile, and off to the bin it goes. Somehow the keeper and on–the-fence piles seem to magically move closer to each other until they are indistinguishable. The result is The View From the Cheap Seats, a compendium of mostly small bits from Gaiman’s large body of small non-fiction writings.
They are divided into ten sections, but the fences bordering each are easily and frequently scaled. The largest element in the collection consists of introductions Gaiman has written for other writer’s books. They are all heartfelt, sometimes moving, and are infused with his personal experience of those writers, whether purely through their work, or, in many cases, through his relationships with them in the real world. I was reminded of Bill Clinton’s memoir, My Life, in which it seemed as if everyone he met had a huge and lasting impact on him. I am sure Gaiman means all the glowing things he says about the people he writes of here, but it does seem a bit much at times. Who didn’t impact your life?
There are many speeches he has delivered, at commencements, at professional conferences, at award ceremonies. A fair bit of autobiography is tucked into the works, not enough to fill out a true version but enough to whet your appetite for more. He includes considerable advice on writing, both doing the actual writing, and coping with the external realities of writing professionally.
I quite enjoy Neil Gaiman’s work (see linked reviews at bottom). He is a bright, articulate, thoughtful and creative sort. He has things to say and says them persuasively. But I have to concede that I enjoy Neil Gaiman the writer of fiction a fair bit more than I do Neil Gaiman, the writer of book intros, album liner notes, deliverer of commencement addresses and speechifier at sundry professional events. It is not that particular items included in this considerable compilation (I counted 84 individual pieces, but I could be off by a few) are not good. Most were at least somewhat interesting and a bunch were very interesting. Ok. A few were boring. There seems a redundancy to much of the material. I got the feeling one has on occasion after having listened to a song you really like about twenty times too many. The collection seemed too large, and would have been improved by some intelligent culling, down from over 500 to maybe 400 or even 350 pages. Gaiman is a prolific producer of product, very much like Stephen King (there is a nice interview with King in here) or Isaac Asimov (although he has nothing like Asimov’s range, not that anyone else does either). So even with such a large volume, odds are that there is material lying about to fill several more.
So what are the upsides? Ok, you already know the guy is a pretty solid writer, so the quality of the writing is fine. Even though he is out of his power genre, he was a journalist and can crank out non-fic, no problem. He shares plenty of insights, particularly when making the case for the value of fantasy, although they sometimes sounded a bit emo:
We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.
He writes about works that and writers who have influenced him, whether those influences were TV Programs (Dr Who), writers of comics (Will Eisner), or of books (Harlan Ellison, and many others), of children’s or adult fiction. I enjoyed his observations of the writing experience. There are details in this collection that will definitely enhance your appreciation for how some of his well-known creations came to be, the what-ifs that sparked the process.
I write to find out what I think about something. I wrote American Gods because I had lived in America for almost a decade and felt it was time that I learned what I thought about it. I wrote Coraline because, when I was a child, I used to wonder what would happen if I went home and my parents had moved away without telling me.
He offers insights into some other works of his, for instance Sandman and The Ocean of the End of the Lane.
I quite enjoyed his tale of attending the Oscars when Coraline was nominated, and had exactly no chance of winning. Gaiman, a pretty well-known sort, was relegated to the relatively cheap seats, even though Coraline had received a nomination. Another tale, of his work on the film Mirrormask and then attending the opening at the Sundance festival, had a lovely stranger-in-a-strange-land feel. He includes some interaction with musicians, notably Lou Reed. And one of the two pieces about his now wife Amanda Palmer was quite interesting for it’s look at the strains of coping with the together-all-the-time relationships inherent in going on the road. I enjoyed his straight-up autobio pieces, including his childhood reading experiences and fondness for comics.
You will come away from Cheap Seats with a nice list of authors you may want to check out, the product of the laudatory intros Gaiman wrote for books by or about them. I guarantee that, despite the considerable stack of household names, some of the writers he notes here will be new to you. There is enough good and very good material in the collection to justify checking it out. Even if you find yourself in a piece that might dull the senses, the next piece is only a couple of pages away and could be quite good.
Neil Gaiman has done pretty well for himself and deservedly so. So one must take with a grain of salt a view from such a successful guy that purports to be from the cheap seats. Gaiman is a top notch author and if he is looking at the world from the cheap seats any place but at the Oscars he is probably slumming. You will definitely enjoy much of what is included in this large collection. But there is enough that seems duplicative, in tone if not always in content, that it keeps the collection from being quite first class.
On December 5, 2008, the front page of the New York Times included an unusual item: H. M., Whose Loss of Memory Made Him Unforgettable, Dies. It was hardly the first time that an obit piece had appeared on the front page, but it is unlikely that many with quite so little public recognition had ever appeared there. The “H.M.” in question was one Henry Gustave Molaison. He has been the inspiration for many books, at least one play and a major motion picture. Mostly, though, while he had never studied medicine, or practiced in any medical field, Molaison had made a huge contribution to our understanding of the human brain.
Luke Dittrich -From PRHSpeakers.com
Young Henry was seriously concussed in a biking accident when he was a kid. As a teenager he began having grand mal seizures. His symptoms increased and seriously affected his ability to function in the world. Drug treatments had proved unsuccessful. It was a new thing for such a procedure to be done for someone who was not considered mentally ill, but in 1953, when he was 27 years old, Henry was given a lobotomy. From that day on, he would no longer be able to form new memories. He would also be unable to fend for himself. But he was perfectly lucid, and able to have a life, albeit a restricted one. Because of his unusual condition, Henry became the primary neurological test subject of his time. He was examined, interviewed, and studied by untold numbers of researchers until his death. He was the subject of countless professional papers, in which he was always referred to in professional literature by his initials, in order to protect his privacy. Anyone working in the field would know well the initials HM. William Beecher Scoville was the doctor who had performed the risky surgery. He was Luke Dittrich’s grandfather.
Dr William Beecher - from Dittrich’s Esquire article
Patient H.M is both a medical and personal history, as Dittrich looks at the scientific advances that took place over a 60 year period, the history of his grandfather, and the life of Henry. It is perfectly accessible for the average reader, with a minimum of technical jargon. You will definitely learn some things, like the difference between episodic and semantic memory.
Memory scientists often speak of the important difference between knowing that a certain fact is true and knowing how you came to learn it. For example, here’s a simple question: What’s the capital of France? The answer probably leapt to your mind in an instant. Now, here’s another question: When did you learn that Paris is the capital of France? If you’re like most people, you have no idea. That particular fact twinkles in your mind amid an enormous constellation of other facts, most of them forever disconnected from the moment they first sprang to life. The store of mostly disconnected facts is known as your semantic memory.
Your semantic memory is contrasted with your episodic memory, which is your memory of fleshed-out narratives rather than merely facts. When you engage your episodic memory, you engage in a form of mental time travel, bringing yourself back to a particular place and time, reimagining a scene you’ve already lived. When you engage your semantic memory you are doing the mental equivalent of flipping through an encyclopedia or photo album, plucking out bits of information whose origins might be unclear.
This gives you a taste of how fluidly Dittrich writes of a subject that, in lesser hands, could easily have become dense.
Gramps was not exactly mister nice guy. He had a reputation for fast living and was very successful and ambitious, maybe to the point of excessive risk-taking. The state of mental health understanding and care in the 1950s is fascinating, and the stuff of nightmares. Nurse Ratched would have been right at home. Part of this tale is the fumbling from step to step that took place in trying to understand how the brain works. It makes one very thankful that we have technology today that can look at the brain with non-invasive machines instead of scalpels. It was news, for instance, that there were at least two kinds of memory, as noted above, and that they might reside in different parts of the brain. We learn how Henry came to be afflicted in his special way, how he lived, and how he was treated, both as a human being and a test subject.
Henry as a young man - from The Telegraph
There are significant human rights issues here. Henry was and remained a human being, yet he was regarded by some researchers in a very proprietary way, in one instance being referred to in a legal document as “An MIT research project entitled “The Amnesic Patient H.M.” Not exactly warm and fuzzy. Academic turf-guarding comes in for a look. One researcher, in particular, goes so far as to destroy original data that might have jeopardized her career-long published findings. Access to Henry was guarded as energetically as the formula for real Coke, and not always for the purpose of looking after Henry’s best interests. Dittrich raises ethical issues, noting similarities between what was considered respectable medicine in the 20th century and barbaric behavior of the then recent past in how people had been used as test subjects for medical research.
And there is a particularly existential question that comes into play. If we are our memories, who and what are we if we can no longer make any? And it makes one wonder about new science that may offer us a way to erase traumatic memories, in the vein of the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Dittrich had an in, of course, but sometimes the family connection gets in the way. He tends to wax nostalgic about his grandfather, and wanders off topic for stretches. Some may enjoy these, and they were ok, I guess, but I found myself getting irritated at what seemed an excessive levels of detail, particularly in imagined scenarios. Thankfully, the eye-rolling portions of the book do not detract too much from the rest.
Suzanne Corkin doggedly guarded her access to HM
There are clear similarities to be found between this book and two others that deal with medical history. The obvious comparison is to Rebecca Skloot’s best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In that one cells that had been taken from a patient, and found to have remarkable qualities, were subsequently used, without permission, to support vast amounts of research. Ethical considerations raised in the book are considerable. But the much less well known Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont, by Jason Karlawish, is the book that seems the most directly comparable. In that one, Dr. Beaumont of the title takes advantage of an unusual medical condition to keep a patient available for his research for a prolonged period. It raises similar ethical issues to the ones raised in Patient H.M..
Bottom line is that Luke Dittrich has given us a fascinating look at an obscure figure, bringing to life what medical progress actually looks like, and how much like sausage-making it really can be. He raises some very important ethical concerns not only about how Henry was treated as a person, but how access to Henry was handled, and how the information gleaned by researchers was guarded, and in at least one instance, destroyed. If you are at all interested in the brain and in the history of advances in medical knowledge, and do not take a look at Patient H.M. you should probably have your head examined.
I have had a life. I married twice, was in the room when two of my three entered the world. I helped them grow through infancy and childhood into beauI have had a life. I married twice, was in the room when two of my three entered the world. I helped them grow through infancy and childhood into beautiful, talented, bright and loving adults. I have lost both parents and a sister, and in-laws as well.
There are two kinds of people in the world, those who are older and those would like to be. Ashton Applewhite’s book, This Chair Rocks, shines a bright light on a labeling system that affects everyone on earth. Whether we are called addled, senior citizens, golden agers, coots, old farts, old fucks, old bitches or a host of other derogatories, we are separated from the rest of humanity when such labels are applied, separated from the presumed (younger) norm. We become outsiders. Just as black athlete is somehow a separate species, a woman president is presumed to be less capable, and an Islamic terrorist more unspeakable than a garden-variety terrorist, we can be cast into the soylent sphere by labels. And such casting harms not only those being tossed but those doing the tossing.
Ashton Applewhite - from Seniorplanet.org
I have had a life. I cheered for Mets and Jets since their birth, and wept more times than not. I played on championship teams in my youth and led youth teams as an adult to both glory and painful defeat. I have hit for the cycle and swung and missed.
Applewhite covers a wide array of subjects while considering things like how ageist attitudes legitimize maltreatment of olders, the impact of internalizing false notions of aging, and how the world pathologizes getting on in years. She looks at the language of ageism, the realities of aging and mental acuity (there are some surprises there), and how this impacts health care, physical and mental. She looks at the stigmatization of disability, at sexuality for olders, retirement and self-esteem.
I have had a life. In the 1950s, I watched a black and white from our living room floor, saw it change color, go big, go flat, go small, go cabled, go tubeless and go wireless. I listened to radio dramas on our kitchen radio, saw the arrival of transistors, and now hear bedtime podcasts on a charging iPad. I saw phones go from rotary to digital and watched them cede their wires to the past, and even go all Dick Tracy.
Applewhite goes into considerable detail in showing how the bias towards older people (she uses the term olders, so I am going with that here) that pervades this and many other societies, is based largely on falsehoods, and causes real harm,
Condescension actually shortens lives. What professionals call “elderspeak”—the belittling “sweeties” and “dearies” that people use to address older people—does more than rankle. It reinforces stereotypes of incapacity and incompetence, which leads to poorer health, including shorter lifespans. People with positive perceptions of aging actually live longer–a whopping 7.5 years longer on average—in large part because they’re motivated to take better care of themselves.
She includes several sections titled PUSH BACK, in which she offers suggestions for actions we can take to resist ageism when we encounter it, and things we can do to keep ourselves healthy.
I have had a life. I saw as much 50s sci-fi as I could, saw 2001 when it was new, and still in the future, and Star Wars and Star Trek from the start.
Lengthening lifetimes is one of the ways we measure human progress, and by that measure, we have done quite nicely. We live ten years longer than our grandparents. In the USA, in the 20th century, life spans increased a jaw-dropping 30 years. But our culture has not yet caught up with the facts. There are many things in here that will surprise you. Applewhite has separated the bull from the...um…poo, and pointed out many of the inaccuracies in what passes for common wisdom.
We reinforce the association with constant nervous reference to forgetfulness and “senior moments.” I used to think those quips were self-deprecatingly cute, until it dawned on me that when I lost the car keys in high school, I didn’t call it a “junior moment.” Any prophecy about debility, whether or not it comes true, dampens our aspirations and damages our sense of self—especially when it comes to brain power. The damage is magnified by the glum and widespread assumption that, somewhere down the line, dementia is inevitable.
I have had a life, but sometimes it is difficult to remember all of it. Of course this is not because of my age, in particular. I began keeping a diary when I was 15 because I could not remember all the New Years Eves of my short existence. I recently mislaid my glasses, and was never able to find them. But then, when I was ten years old, I lost my treasured baseball glove. I never found that either. Some traits seem to follow us through the years, however many there may be.
Applewhite points out that there are plenty of ways for labeled groups to move forward together. Social Security is in no danger of going bankrupt or of devastating the nation’s economy. It can be sustained by marginally increasing the range of salary that is subject to Social Security tax. Medicare could fare a lot better if the rules that forbade it from exercising its market power were relaxed. Really, Medicare is not even allowed to try to get the best prices from drug manufacturers? Whose interests are served by that particular form of insanity?
I have had a life. I’ve been Everly’d, Diddly’d, and Valens’d, and Darin’d. Been Elvis’d and Berry’d, and Buddy’d, and Ray’d. I sat in the mud with the hundreds of thousands, alone in the mass as the heavenly played. Near the stage at the Bitter End for Ronstadt and others, and loudly at Max’s KC for the Dolls. There just was so much music, I caught a few notes, but wished there was some way to go hear it all. I’ve been 4-Seasoned, 4-Topped, Beach Boy’d, Supremed. Been ELP’d at Wembley, and at the Garden, I got Creamed. Saw Towshend at the Round House, stood for Tina at the beach. Saw Zeppelin rock in Flushing. And I wish that each and every band I’ve seen up close could keep on playing. Some are gone, but I’m just saying. I’ve been Peter, Paul and Mary’d. I’ve been Dylan’d and been Seeger’d, and seen a stage or two where all the players looked beleaguered. I’ve been Yessed, and been Pink Floyded. I been Bowied and been Banded. I’ve been Beatled, Stoned and Dave Clark Fived, and I’ve been hotly Canneded. I dared to breathe at the Filmore East when the ever Grateful Dead made it seem that life and youth were qualities that we would never shed. I’ve been Ike’d and I’ve been Nixoned, JFK’d and LBJ’d. I’ve been Reaganed, Bushed and Bushed again, and I’ve been MLK’d. I’ve been Cartered and been Clintoned, been Obama’d. It may be that by the time you read this I will have been HRC’d.
Applewhite looks at many of the canards that prevail, like olders taking jobs from youngers, the old benefiting at the expense of the young, the relative flow of resources, the inevitability of cognitive decline. As for the senior boom, that we have so many more older people than we once did should be seen as a benefit not a problem. Older people have experience that can and should be employed to help solve old, new, and ongoing societal problems. Not all old people are wise, any more than all younger people are energetic, but we have a considerable base of been-there-done-that from which to draw. Enough of us have valuable and relevant experience and skills that could be put to good use.
Especially in the emotional realm, older brains are more resilient. As we turn eighty, brain imaging shows frontal lobe changes that improve our ability to deal with negative emotions like anger, envy, and fear. Olders experience less social anxiety, and fewer social phobias. Even as its discrete processing skills degrade, the normal aging brain enables greater emotional maturity, adaptability to change, and levels of well-being.
I have had a life. I’ve gone to college and grad school. I have studied abroad, and had a broad or two study me. (sorry). Been hired, laid off, fired, went back to school and started over, back at the bottom. Been laid off again. I have toiled in several lines of work over the decades. Drove a cab, went postal, was a planner of health systems and a systems analyst for employers large and small, a guard and a dispatcher, and a few things beside. In 2001, I was laid off from my job as a systems analyst, after spending thirteen years at the firm, and over twenty in the field. I was not only never able to get another job in my chosen profession, I was never able to get an interview. It’s not like I was God’s gift to computer programming. But I was certainly competent enough to have been kept on by one of the largest financial institutions on the planet for over a decade. It’s not that I was priced out. I would have accepted pretty much anything. I was essentially kicked out of my field because of my age. AT 47!!!! All that experience not put to use by some business because they could not see past the age label. What a waste.
We all know, or should know, that Republicans are particularly gifted at the old game of divide and conquer. It worked great in the UK recently, when right wing-xenophobes persuaded working people, yet again, to vote against their own interests by stoking fear of the other. It has worked pretty well in the USA too. It is what’s the matter with Kansas. Faced with electing people who would work to bolster union rights and voting for people who promise to keep those damned immigrants and minorities in their place, far too many working people seem more than ready to vote to enslave themselves further. We are as addicted to labels as the residents of a crack house are to their pipe. Fear-mongering is being used today for the same purpose it has always served, as a way to gain working and middle class support for policies that are anti labor, policies that pad the wallets of the already rich. Bush the junior tried his best to persuade the nation that privatizing Social Security would prevent the elderly from taking unfair advantage of the young. Labels are used as a way of manipulating people. They can do real damage, even if they sometimes fail to accomplish their mission.
I have had a life. I saw Rocky in the West End before it crossed the pond and Sweeney Todd and Lovett’s first repast. Sondheim’s a god. Saw Shakespeare in the park, Hair, and Oh, Calcutta, Cats, Les Miz, The Phantom, Cabaret, and more, but really that’s not nearly enough, off Broadway or on. Saw my kids in all their school shows, and survived some of my own.
Homo sap is a species that revels in labels. Us/them, Commie/Nazi, Winner/Loser, Black/White, the more dichotomous the better. And we seem to have more of the negative sort than the positive. Labeling offers shorthand, a macro reference, one word, maybe two, that allows us to redirect our brains away from the difficult and energy consuming task of considering and examining whole lives, freeing them up for the more satisfying activity of indulging our desires and impulses. How many are doomed to invisibility beneath labels? We are labeled because it makes things easier, and we are a species that values simplicity.
I have had a life. I walked London streets in almost Victorian twilight as the energy crisis dimmed English streetlamps. I hitchhiked in the USA, in Britain and the continent. Saw sunset from Ullapool, played guitar and sang in a club in Copenhagen, had the best breakfast of my life in Rotterdam, saw the most beautiful city ever, in Paris, twice. I lived a while in Saint John’s Wood. I have seen a fair portion of North America and visited a decent sample of Europe. I have taken photographs of an active volcano from a helicopter with no doors. I have seen some of the most stunning landscapes on Earth. I’ve been to Coney Island, Hershey Park, and Disney World and Land, and Freedomland, Six Flags and Universal, Palisades and Rye and a World’s Fair or two that raised my spirit high. Seen the sights that one can see in NY, Boston, and DC. There is so much history, in Philly, Baltimore and Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, as much to learn as you could ever want.
There are many who, if they spotted me sitting or standing in a subway car, or walking down the street would see the color of my hair, note its retreat from my forehead, spot the lines that brace my eyes, and the forward tilt of my spine and see one thing only, age. All the rest would remain forever hidden beneath the large sticky-backed label that fits so nicely over another human being.
I have had a life. My hair has been military short and long enough for a real pony. I have smoked and toked, popped and snorted, but stopped before I self-aborted. I am tall, although not as tall as I once was. I am a little bit fat and my body has less speed and strength than it once possessed. Maybe the additional mass is because I am a storehouse of the history of my time, a sculptor of my experience into an image of my era. I have read thousands of books, tens of thousands of newspapers and magazines, and untold on-line articles. I have participated in a vast number of discussions, attended god-knows-how-many lectures, and watched a gazillion hours of documentary and news on TV. I know a thing or two.
I have had a life. I have been mugged, been in fistfights, and suffered a near catastrophic injury in an industrial accident. I have protested war and inhumanity and been struck with billy clubs for daring to speak. I have seen a thug slam a boy’s head into a brick wall.
There is a wealth of information in this relatively short volume. The chapters are divided up into many short sub-sections, so you can take it in a bit at a time if you like. I found some of the sections repetitive, and found one famous quote misattributed (it was from Anatole France, not Voltaire). There is a significant shortage of humor here, but, then, this is not a particularly funny subject. It is rich with surprising facts, which is one of the great strengths of the book. For example, older people suffer from depression less than younger people.
I have had a life. I was chilled by Sputnik’s beep, and was warmed as I watched, along with all humanity, an ageless dream realized with a single step. I have seen my city burn, flood, and go dark. I stood in the wind-blown unspeakable snow when my city was ravaged, and saw a new tower sprout on the memory of the lost.
I have read quite a lot in my time, and it was inevitable that some of the material here would be old news, but I still found many new things to be learned in This Chair Rocks. I found, also, that Applewhite’s manifesto caused me to reconsider some attitudes and behaviors that I had thoughtlessly indulged. Consciousness raised. Check. It will make you more aware, too, of many things you had not noticed before. I cannot thank Ashton Applewhite enough for writing This Chair Rocks. It most certainly does.
I have had a life. It is diverse and rich with experience, memory, history and emotion. But listen up. I am STILL having a life and intend to for as long as I possibly can. Do not dismiss me because of my white hair. My white hair kicks ass. Do not dismiss me because of my wrinkles. They are the evidence of a lifetime of laughter. Do not dismiss me because I am slightly bent. I can and will straighten up if I need to throw a punch or block a blow. I am a smarter person than I have ever been. I am a more knowledgeable person than I have ever been. I am probably a wiser person than I have ever been. I am a better writer, photographer, and I would say a better person than I have ever been. I have loved and I have hated, and wept until the tears abated. Jimi Hendrix said “I’ll die when it’s my time to die.” I will certainly do that. I may not be wealthy; I may not be important, I may not be particularly athletic; I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed; and I may not be beautiful. But I am somebody, and I have worth. I may be older but I will be here a while yet and I have plenty to offer, a lot left to experience, and a lot still to accomplish. I realize that I may not have had the best of all possible lives. There is much I have not done, much I have not seen, much I have not experienced. But I do not need an angel named Clarence to tell me that it’s been a wonderful life. I may or may not be having the time of my life, but I have definitely had a life of my times. Do not bury me under a label. Do not make me invisible behind a number. I’m still here, much more in store. I am older. Watch me SOAR!!!!
Now get the hell off my lawn, you goddam kids, before I call the cops.
Review Posted – July 29, 2016
Published – May 23, 2016
Applewhite sent me the book in return for an honest review.
Rather than add in a bunch of links here, I suggest you check out Ashton’s site. There are links aplenty there.
Applewhite got her start in an unusual way, writing joke books. Not just any joke books. She wrote Truly Tasteless Jokes One, as Blanche Knott (my kinda woman), had four of these things on the NY Times best seller list at once. But she began writing with a bit more seriousness. In 1997 her book Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well , landed her on Phyliss Schlafly’s shit list, a signal achievement for anyone with a brain and a heart. In October, 2016 she is delivering the keynote address at the UN for the 36th International Day of Older Persons. No joke.
Struggling with an unspecified illness, (I’d lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately) a mother on Spring-break vacation with herStruggling with an unspecified illness, (I’d lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately) a mother on Spring-break vacation with her family at a remote (no internet, land-line, or accessible cell signal, and hubs has the car) Florida hunting lodge has a concussive fall while her husband is away for work. She must cope with keeping herself alert enough to be a mother to her two boys until her husband returns in two days. Motherhood is a challenge for her, even before a major head injury (And while it’s true that my children were endlessly fascinating…being a mother never had been). A reported panther sighting presents as the manifestation of existential threat. (Safety was twenty miles away and there was a panther between us and there, but also possibly terrible men, sinkholes, alligators, the end of the world. ) She pines for the strong mother she had had as a kid (a person who had blocked out the sun. ) Her boys enjoy a nature show and tell her about the layers of water, the deepest being the midnight zone where the fish are blind. Extant light diminishes (The batteries of one lantern went out and the light from the remaining lantern was sparse and thwarted. I could hardly see my hand or the shadow it made on the wall when I held it up… The lantern flicked itself out and the dark poured in. ) Is she dying?
While not necessarily the most emotionally grabbing tale, it is, nonetheless, a fascinating read that rewards close reading.
The story can be found at the New Yorker site here. In a related item in the same issue of The New Yorker item, Groff is interviewed by Cressida Leyshon about the story here. ...more
It isn’t what you do that makes you lose people, she reminded herself. It’s what they think you’ve done.
What they think 17-year-old Kelly Michelle
It isn’t what you do that makes you lose people, she reminded herself. It’s what they think you’ve done.
What they think 17-year-old Kelly Michelle Lund did was shoot famed Hollywood director John McFadden dead. And they thought it strongly enough that she would spend the next 25 years of her life in prison. Kelly became a cause célèbre of the wrong sort when the paparazzi caught her in what they called a “Mona Lisa Death Smile,” putting her on par, at least in public perception, with sociopathic murderers like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. But when, five years after she served her time, a-list movie star, and Kelly’s father-in-law, Sterling Marshall, turns belly up with some lead-generated aeration, all eyes look her way again. Did she or didn’t she?
inspiration came from several news stories where the press created a persona because the accused didn’t act according to some prescribed script. The trial of Amanda Knox comes to mind. That story inspired me. If your exterior isn’t viewed as likable, or if you don’t seem as contrite as people think you ought to be, a narrative builds up around you, and you become a ‘monster.’ - from the Mark Rubinstein interview in Huff-Po
Be careful how you smile. Not all publicity is good publicity, even in Tinsel Town.
Allison Gaylin - from her Myspace pages
You might want to fasten your seat belts for this one. There are hairpin turns, and changes of direction that will put you at risk of whiplash. But that happens mostly at the back end. The ride up the coaster is somewhat more deliberate. There are two narrative lines. We follow Kelly in 2010 as she contends with fresh accusations. And Gaylin shows us how Kelly was drawn into the glitterati world of A-listers and their families in 1980. We follow her through her friendship and adventures with several Hollywood kids, the kind her mother had warned her to stay away from, the kind her glitzier sister Catherine couldn’t resist, and maybe the kind that drove Catherine to suicide.
I am an only child and because of that I keep writing about sisters. Maybe I always wanted a sister. By having Kelly a twin, I was able to have a strong part of Kelly’s life where she feels loss. I thought what better than a fraternal twin whose shadow Kelly lived in, since she was more glamorous. - from the Crimespree interview
Gaylin may live in Woodstock these days, but she started out on the other coast.
I’ve always been fascinated by pop culture and crime. My mom was very interested in pop culture, and was a huge reader, followed all the stars and celebrities in Hollywood Reporter, Variety, People,” says Gaylin of growing up in Los Angeles. And, while no one in her family was in the movie business, its allure took hold of her, too. “When I was seven years old, I was reading Army Archerd’s column. My parents weren’t policing my reading so, at 10 years old, I read Helter Skelter. I thought it was about The Beatles, but it was so fascinating to look under that rock. I’ve been a big fan of true crime ever since then.” - from the Woodstock Times article
Gaylin adds a bit of true crime feel by tossing in occasional faux news pieces.
So, we have a woman who may or may not have committed a murder thirty years ago, just trying to live her life now, when she gets dragged back into some old miseries, and finds herself in the spotlight again. This makes her pretty bloody sympathetic. This is one maybe-killer you really can root for, without making her all innocent and gooey.
The supporting cast is pretty interesting. Kelly’s pals from adolescence cover a range, from total tool, to surprisingly interesting. Kelly is pretty clearly an innocent (well, relatively) among wolves. Seeing how she gets caught up in the madness is fascinating. There is a chainsaw sculptor, some commune-dwellers, an exposee writer, a cop with a fixation on Kelly’s original case and enough extras to keep the moving parts lubricated.
Gaylin will keep you guessing. About identity, for example. Could this person in 2010 have been that person in 1980? People cannot be relied on to tell the truth, making then unreliable witnesses if not necessarily unreliable narrators. And she offers you a talisman to follow through the tale in the form of a necklace of mysterious origin and significance.
Gripes? Few. I would have liked at least something about Kelly’s life in prison. I am not 100% convinced that Kelly would have held on to the secret she kept all those years. It takes at least a hop of faith to accept that the shifting identities would have gone undetected for so long. And there is just no accounting for such poor aim. None of these are close to deal-breakers.
What Remains of Me is not just a page-turner of a thriller, it has things to say. Sniping at corruption among the A-listers is pretty low-hanging fruit, but there are more serious considerations in play. Gaylin’s take on the impact of flashbulb media on public perception of guilt is spot on, and her look at how good writers can impact how criminals or the accused are perceived is also astute.
I have always been fascinated with pop culture and having crimes tried in the media. I even wrote into the plot the journalistic character Sebastian Todd’s interview with the killer, Kelly Lund. It is based on an interview I read that Truman Capote did with Bobby Beausoleil, a former associate of Charles Manson, at San Quentin Prison. Beausoleil came across as very articulate. It seemed quite clear to me that Capote took poetic license to say and phrase things for this thug. What I wanted to get across is how an esteemed writer can put words in the killer’s mouth - from the Crimespree interview
She looks at how secrets can define one’s life, something we can probably all relate to, although hopefully to a lesser extent than the characters here.
Gustave Flaubert may have been right when he wrote “There is no truth. There is only perception.” Whether the world’s perception of Kelly Lund turns out to be of the keen or mis variety, it is very easy to perceive, quite accurately, that What Remains of Me is an outstanding thriller of a read. Alison Gaylin is ready for her close-up now.
Published – February 23, 2016 Review posted – May 27, 2016
Actually, Gaylin has had a few close-ups already. Her first novel, Hide Your Eyes, was nominated for an Edgar award. And her Brenna Spector series has landed her on the best-seller lists both in the USA and abroad. What Remains of Me is her 9th book.
Just in case you have not already had your fill of The Martian, there is a short prequel out there, Diary of an AssCan: A Mark Watney Short Story, by Andy Weir of course. In this one, Watney learns that he has been selected, applies some very PG profanity, then goes on to some of the prep. It is adorable, and somewhat interesting. The sheer brevity keeps it from achieving escape velocity, but it will lift you off the pad a safe distance, definitely worth a few minutes of your time if you enjoyed its larger sibling. And there is a nice slice of irony as Watney considers the journey ahead.
I came across a story from this collection via GR friend Tadiana. While I have not read the entire set of stories, (available here), I did skip througI came across a story from this collection via GR friend Tadiana. While I have not read the entire set of stories, (available here), I did skip through a sampling.
One of my favorites was The Hen, about a delicious bit of trickery foisted on an unwanted guest.
Saki - from Biography.com
Saki is, of course, the nom de plume of Scottish writer Hector Hugh Munro, born in 1870, but soon bereft of parents, and placed under the care of aunts the evil stepmother sort. He is known for his devilish twists, and dark satiric humor. Have a look at the collection. There are plenty more of this sort in the book, sure to make you smile....more
Carol Anne Freeling was certainly right when she said, “They’re hee-ur,” well maybe not enraged spirits, but there are certainly pYou’ve got company.
Carol Anne Freeling was certainly right when she said, “They’re hee-ur,” well maybe not enraged spirits, but there are certainly plenty of entities present to which we have paid insufficient attention. Maybe Regan MacNeil was closer to the mark in proclaiming “We are legion.”
When Orson Welles said “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone”, he was mistaken. Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis—a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonized by microbes while they are still unfertilized eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right—a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collection. An entire world.
When we try to map what it is to be a physical human being, in something like the Human Genome Project, we are faced with a daunting task. OK, let’s add to the challenge. Our genes tell only part of our story, like a novel with a beginning and ending but no middle. That middle is taken up here by the vast array of other life that exists within our bodies. While the guests we harbor may not necessarily be in league with Satan, they are a mixed lot. They mean us no harm, particularly, and we have evolved very workable symbiotic relationships with them, but they are not necessarily our friends either. They have taken up residence for their own benefit and will stick around and provide benefits to us only as long as we provide what they need, like that girl/boy friend you remember with gritted teeth.
I won’t say this book will blow your mind, but this is your brain
And it’s not even Mardi Gras – from the Brain Association of Mississippi
This is your brain after reading this book
Shame about that haircut
[In the interest of full disclosure, it should be known that every day when my wife was reading this book, she would walk in the door and tell me of yet another thing she had read that had totally blown her mind. Not that my mind didn't go Ka-Boom when I read it. It certainly it. But hers was blown first. I only steal from the best. ]
I Contain Multitudes will change how you understand not only the human body, but all the biota on the planet, hell, the universe. It will help you understand how it can happen that diseases like the flu can adapt so quickly to our latest attempts to stamp them out. It will help you understand why coral reefs are dying. It will give you some new words that help keep the new knowledge manageable. (My favorite is dysbiosis which is what it sounds like, a biological parallel to dystopia, with a hint of enforced disorganization.) It will expand your appreciation for how microbial biology works within people and in the world. It will offer you hope that there can be a future in which many of our maladies will not only be diagnosable, but will be treatable with the introduction of the right, specific probiotic. It will do your dishes and massage your feet. Well, ok, not the last two, but KABOOM, big new look-at-the-world stuff. Ok, you biologist types, pre-med, med, post med, anti-med, wearers of white lab coats, whatever the length, you know this stuff, at least I hope you do. But for most of the rest of us it is indeed a big change, a new layer of reality, well maybe not entirely new, but new enough to go KABOOM!
Our intro to the world of which Yong writes, antibiotics, is probably akin to the one WW II bombadiers had through their bombsites. Amazing invention/discovery, antibiotics. They do a great job of wiping out pathogens, the nasties that make us ill, well some of them anyway. Other harmful microbial types, the viral ones, roll their eyes at incoming antibiotics and keep on with what they are up to. However, as with items dropped from passing aircraft, the use of antibiotics entails considerable collateral damage, as the human body is a container for a vast array of microbial life. One might well envision millions of non-pathogenic residents shaking their fists as the incomings not only wipe out the harmful bugs, but vast numbers of the helpful ones as well. Ed Yong offers a more on-the-ground look, filling us in on what is actually going on inside, and how this part of what’s inside relates to that other part.
If these folks can have an entire civilization inside a locker, just imagine what might develop in your liver or large intestine.
If you don’t know who Ed Yong is, it’s a good bet that you will before too long. Yong is a popular science guy, a Neal DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Mary Roach, Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough, Carl Sagan sort, a person who can take the wild, wonderful and fascinating things that are going on in the world of science and distill them all down for public consumption without making viewers’ or readers’ eyes glaze over, or listeners’ ears suddenly clog, without making you feel like an ill-educated dolt, and he accomplishes this with enough humor to produce a fair number of smiles and an occasional LOL. (Not in Mary Roach’s league for humor, but hey, who is?) He is an award-winning science writer at The Atlantic, whose work has appeared in a wide range of publications, from The New York Times to Nature, from The Guardian to Wired, from Slate to Scientific American, and on and on. He splits his time between London and DC, and I would not be at all surprised if he dashes back and forth in a TARDIS. I have provided links in EXTRA STUFF that will lead you down rabbit holes of fun material from Yong that may take you a while to leave.
Ed Yong - From Speakerpedia
Among the many surprises you will encounter here are a squid with its own high-beams, the microbial advantage of vaginal birth, the impact of gut microbes on mood, why a third of human milk is set aside for our guests (protection payments?), the relationship between the US Navy and mucus, why no man may be an island, but we may be archipelagos, and vats more.
There is serious consideration given to how our relationships with this invisible world evolved:
…animals emerged in a world that had already been teeming with microbes for billions of years. They were the rulers of the planet long before we arrived. And when we did arrive, of course we evolved ways of interacting with the microbes around us. It would be absurd not to, like moving into a new city wearing a blindfold, earplugs, and a muzzle. Besides, microbes weren’t just unavoidable: they were useful. They fed the pioneering animals. Their presence also provided valuable cues to areas rich in nutrients, to temperatures conducive to life, or flat surfaces upon which to settle. By sensing these cues, pioneering animals gained valuable information about the world around them…hints of those ancient interactions still abound today.
“It all depends.” As is life wasn’t complicated enough. Don’t you just love it when you are looking for help and the person you are asking responds with “It all depends.” And it really does, and it really will. What will be different, though, will be that your caregiver will have a much better idea than most caregivers can possibly have today. They will be able to look at a profile from a type of blood test and match potential solutions to the bacteria living in your gut, or wherever else in your two-legged bacteria condo might pertain. This knowledge is still in its infancy – at least a broad knowledge, but it is coming, and has the potential to make meaningful improvements in our health.
As microbiologist Patrice Cani told me, “The future will be a la carte.” And in this a la carte future, we won’t have to stop at picking the right bacteria for the job. Some scientists are picking the right genes for the job, and combining them into artisanal bacteria. Rather than just recruiting species with the right abilities, they are tinkering with the microbes themselves to endow them with new skills.
Balance – from Explainxkcd.com
This raises some concerns, although they do not get a lot of attention here. If scientists can develop designer probiota to ameliorate suffering, there will always be evil-doers eager to use new technology to make designer biota intended to act as pathogens. In fact that is pretty much my sole gripe about this book. I wish more space had been devoted to the potential dangers of this advancing treatment modality. Just ask yourself, What would ISIS do?
The title of Ed Yong’s book may not be up there with The Selfish Gene, Silent Spring, or Guns, Germs and Steel but what it lacks in snappy-ness it more than makes up for in content. This is a smart, readable explanation of one of the major ongoing scientific revolutions of our time. If you look deep inside yourself you will know that this is absolutely must-read material.
When Bert Cousins saw Beverly Keating it was love at first sight. Never mind that they met at the christening party for her second child. Never mind tWhen Bert Cousins saw Beverly Keating it was love at first sight. Never mind that they met at the christening party for her second child. Never mind that Bert had a wife and several progeny of his own. He wanted this incredibly beautiful woman. This was the start of his life. It was also the end of two marriages, beginning a ripple that would continue spreading its impact over the next half century.
Jump all those fifty years, more or less. Beverly’s ex, Fix Keating, the one she had left for Bert, is battling cancer. His daughter, Franny, the baby being christened in chapter one, is there to help out. Jump back to Bert and Beverly moving to Virginia in the 1960s, her two kids in tow and his four arriving for the summer. Jump to Franny working at a Chicago bar after dropping out of law school, and meeting a literary icon. The large jumps mean that we get only small fragments of entire lifetimes. It may be the writer’s impulse, as it is for many visual artists, to pare a story down to essentials, significant moments that define the substance of the tale being told. This happened then, and the rest followed from that. The notion being, I expect, that you don’t really need all that in-between material to see the path. If we see cause (pebble in the pond) we don’t need to see every single ripple, or the spaces between them, to understand that the ripples we do see arrived as a result of the initial stone.
Ann Patchett - from The Guardian
Commonwealth, another strong addition to Ann Patchett’s body of work, should be sold with springs in the binding for the considerable chronological leaps Patchett takes in giving us a portrait of people and families that emerge from the marital mixer. Given how many folks these days lived, live or will live in blended families, Patchett among them us, there should be plenty of resonance for large portions of the reading public. The Keating kids move with their mother from California to Virginia when Beverly remarries. This echoes the author’s history, as she had made a similar move as a kid when her mother remarried, leaving LA for Tennessee. Her stepfather’s four kids stayed in California, as Bert’s kids do in the novel. The commonwealth of kids in both Patchett’s actual life and in her novel comes in at a half dozen, so she knows of what she writes. Her father, like Fix Keating had career in the LAPD. Patchett made good use of her work as a waitress to inform her description of Franny working at a bar in Chicago. There is plenty more of Ann Pachett’s life sewn into her story.
There are two major events in the book from which much of the repercussion spreads. Beverly leaving her husband to marry someone else and move a continent away, and a tragic death that take place when the six kids are all together in the east.
In The Getaway Car, a memoir-ish piece she wrote about writing (included in her non-fic collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), Patchett notes
...I’ve always been grateful (and somewhat amazed) that I read The Magic Mountain in my high school English class. That novel’s basic plot—a group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a society in confinement—became the story line for just about everything I’ve ever written.
That would certainly fit here as the six step-sibs form their own community of sorts, one in which they may not have absolute power, but one in which they exercise as much group autonomy as possible. The circumstance in which they find themselves and the relationships that are formed there will affect the rest of their lives.
Maybe the point is that we are all in it together, for better or worse, for ups and downs, for dislocation and for stasis, for jumps and for landings. Maybe it is just Patchett telling the story of her family. You could take it either way, or both ways. Neither interpretation would require a leap.
There is a lot here on parenting. Much of it reflecting the attitudes of different eras. It is not so strange, for example, that a 1960s lawyer would leave most of the parenting to his homemaker wife, or wives, as the case may be. That reflected the pre-Lib ethos that ruled at the time. But Bert is definitely presented as an absentee parent. His ex, coping as a single mother with four kids, is stretched to the limit,
The speed at which their mother ran from work to school to the grocery store to home had doubled. She was always arriving, always leaving, never there.
but there is definitely a question as to how attentive a mother she would have been under any circumstances. Patchett plays the cheaper-by-the-half-dozen set up for a bit of light humor.
Their mother made everyone line up in the kitchen according to age and come to the stove with their plate instead of putting the food on the table in dishes as she did every other night of the year. In the summers they wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scenes of Oliver Twist.
And there is one particular bit involving the youngest of the crew, six-year-old Albie and some inappropriate music, that is howlingly funny. But there are events in the half-dozen’s time together that are as serious as a heart attack. And those secrets threaten to come to light when Franny’s literary fling absorbs the family tale from her and reproduces it as an original novel, titled Commonwealth. And then, worse, a movie.
The big time shifts in Commonwealth were both jarring and refreshing. Definitely makes the reader heat up those gray cells and get them sparking. I did wish, however that there had been more material about several of the characters. And some more indication of why they were the way they were. Why, for example, was Bev so open to moving on from her first marriage? The structure holds with only a few supporting pillars, but I wanted more rebar, closer together. I was reminded of Jennifer Haigh’s novel, Baker Towers, which was pretty good. But the author later wrote News From Heaven, a story collection that fleshed out the Baker Towers stories some more. I have no idea if Patchett has more material in store for these characters, but it would not be a bad idea if she did.
Patchett’s writing here is closer to home than in some of her well-known novels. Her birthplace, Los Angeles, instead of Bel Canto’s unspecified Somewhere, South America, Virginia (standing in for Tennessee when she grew up and where she still lives) instead of the remote Amazon of State of Wonder. The characters and situations, clearly drawn from Patchett’s life, resonate with a palpable reality, even though no one of them holds the stage long enough. Connections are made between events and their consequences, supported by a swath of vignette and sharp observation. You are unlikely to relate to all the commonwealth members or their outer circle, but there are bound to be some characters who trip your connection switches, and others whose circumstances, and maybe ways of being you will recognize.
A society of people will not rise, fall or sustain, as a result of reading Commonwealth, but it would definitely be in their collective self-interest to do so. It is a fascinating look at how change can affect our lives, and how we might find some sustenance by facing the world with the help and support of those with whom we have been thrown together.
Antarctica. The first sunset of the year. Darkness will increase 20 minutes a day. Róisín, an Irish astrophysicist, and François, a French chef, bothAntarctica. The first sunset of the year. Darkness will increase 20 minutes a day. Róisín, an Irish astrophysicist, and François, a French chef, both working at a research station, are becoming involved. They share a wanderlust and a deep attachment to people and places continents away, she to her beloved cousin, Liam, he to his unusual mother, Severine. But each feels a connection to the other that seems to have been written in the stars. The Comet Seekers traces their paths through time and geography to show how they found themselves and each other at this time in this forbidding but magical place at the end of the Earth.
Helen Sedgwick - from her site
Róisín always had her eyes on the sky. Even as a child she would drag her closest friend, her cousin Liam, out at night to look at the heavens, in rural Ireland, particularly when there was a comet to be seen. Liam is very much earth-based, expecting to spend his life working his family's farm. Róisín always knew that she wanted to see the world, and study the worlds beyond. The tension in Róisín's relationship with Liam is as palpable as their deep love for each other. They talk about their respective worlds, the earth and the sky, the ground under his feet and the planets over her head.
Comet West - from LearnAstronomyHQ.com
François was an only child, raised in the Normandy town of Bayeux, seven miles from the English Channel, home to the world famous Bayeux Tapestry, but more on that later. It is François' mother, Severine, we follow on most of the track-back of François' journey. Severine is an unusual sort. Faulkner may have famously noted that The past is never dead. It's not even the past. Maybe this is more true for some than for others. After her grandmother passed away, Severine began receiving frequent visits from her relatives, her...um...late relatives. She had humored her beloved grandmother when she had seen her, frequently, talking to people no one else could see, and who Severine presumed were not there. Turns out, she has inherited her Granny's ability, and becomes hostess to frequent visitations. Much more garden party than spook house, as she gets to meet, in addition to beloved Granny, ancestors from ages past. There is one, though, whose ghostliness is decidedly ghastly. Brigitte haunts Severine in a more usual way, with displays of the horror that had ended her life. The mystery of this ghost, and why she remains, herself, haunted, is a large motivator for Severine.
Comet McNaught - from LearnAstronomyHQ.com
François, as had been true for his mother before him when she was young, does not see the ghosts. He thinks his mother is mad, and is mortified when she chats with the unseen while any other living souls are present. But they remained close, despite her oddity, and his disbelief. But Severine contributed more to her son than a store of discomfiting tales. It is the cooking she does with him that leads him to a life in fine cuisine. And she passes on to François her passion for exploring the world, however homeward she may have turned her own adventure.
Donati's Comet - from Wikimedia
A central notion of The Comet Seekers is that not only are there ghosts, but these spirits are most visible when there is a comet in the sky. Like hand-crank radios, comets seem to provide temporary power to spirits, enabling them to visit their earth-bound descendants, at least the ones with the capacity to see. Once the comet fades from sight, so do the visitors. Her granny says the ghosts will only stay for as long as she can see it in the sky. The brighter it is, the more they have to say. And there are other conditions. The ghosts are somehow rooted to an earthly location. Yes, they can make the odd visit elsewhere, but the cost in battery power is considerable. If you want to hang with the haunts you really have to stay close to home. You have to want to see the visitors in order to get to see them, and you must have lost someone.
Comet Hyakatuke -from the University of Oregon
The spirit-power issue embodies the home-heart, stay-wander conflict for Severine. For François, while he is not in on the ghostly vision thing, he is very attached to Severine, which keeps him from wandering too much, even though Maman encourages him to see the world. For Róisín, the attachment is Liam, (As a young man, he wanted to be just like his father. It is heartbreaking, he thinks, the things people believe they want when they are young.) but the pull of her curiosity is so overpowering that she breaks out of the gravity of home and sees as much of the world, and the universe, as she can.
When she walks across the field she opens her arms wide and imagines a world so big, so full of people, she would never tire of exploring it, her eyes fixed on the sky above until she slips on some sheep droppings, only just managing to catch her fall. Liam ís always telling her the ground is just as important as the sky.
The book is organized around the arrival of major comets. Each chapter includes the name of the comet and the year in which it appeared, from contemporary, well, a little ahead of when this was posted, (2017) to medieval (1066) times. Each chapter is populated by ancestors. The selection of Bayeux as a base location is no coincidence. The Bayeux Tapestry (on display in Bayeux, but most likely made in England), an impressively lengthy work of art, at over two hundred twenty feet by a foot and a half tall, not only tells the historical tale of events leading up to the Norman Conquest and ending with the Battle of Hastings, it is also the first reference in human history to Halley's Comet, which appeared in 1066. Sedgwick weaves the tapestry into her tale, shows us a bit of it's making, and it's display in a local museum. She uses images from the tapestry as inspiration for elements of her story.
A small piece of the tapestry, with Halley's comet - from Britain's Reading museum
At first blush one might make the mistake of thinking this is a romance. I did not react to it as such. Sure, there are certainly romantic elements in the connection of this person to that, and that one to another, but The Comet Seekers has it's eyes cast upward on grander visions. There is a certain force we experience with people and places, an attraction, a pull, a connection, however invisible it might be, and so we circle, maybe connect, possibly even crash, even if, in the case of things like comets, or hearts, the ovoid route may be a particularly long one. In a way, one might see Róisín-Liam and François-Severine as two binary star systems, locked in a gravitational dance with each other, whatever the physical distance there may be between. In addition to the draw of home, there is much tugging between the past and present, the attraction of and even need for adventure vs the gravity of warmth and home, the appeal of the wide open universe vs the draw of terra firma.
Comet Hale-Bopp - from Wikimedia
The plot line may involve connecting Róisín and François, who encounter each other like two heavenly bodies with intersecting orbits, but that is a mechanism, not the essence. There is so much going on here it could fill a planetarium dome. But it would all result in a gray cloudy view if the characters Sedgwick created did not have some starlight in them. I found things I could relate to in a range of characters, male and female. Yearning knows no gender. Feeling stuck is neither male nor female. Having to make excruciating choices is a human condition not a male or female one, as are joy and disappointment. Losing loved ones hurts on both sides of the gender fence. There are tears to be found here. Keep those tissues at the ready. But there is joy as well, in the humanity of Sedgwick's characters, the daring of her approach, and the magic she has dreamt up to illuminate her tale. The Comet Seekers is a masterful and brilliant book, smart, emotionally engaging and wholly entertaining, a celebration not only of our capacity for connection to each other but of taking strength, hope and inspiration from the connections we have to our past. This is a book that is sure to blaze a bright trail across the publishing universe, one you will not want to miss. The Comet Seekers is nothing less than heaven on earth.