Paul's Reviews > An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales

An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
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's review
Apr 21, 13

bookshelves: science
Recommended for: voyeurs

Confession time ! I must admit - friends, judge not lest ye be judged - that I boohooed my way through the last part of Awakenings The Movie, with all those frozen people coming back to life and catching tennis balls and (spoiler alerts) then living life to the FULL for one brief shining moment, and doing the hoochy coochy, which is the only dance they could remember from the 1920s which is when they all froze up, and then Mr De Niro doing the herky jerk dance which was one of his own invention, and then reverting back to catatonia (the condition not the band) and to cap it all Robin Williams not asking out that hot nurse. I mean, boo hoo hoo! You had to have a heart made of the purest cabbage not to.

Anyway, Oliver Sachs makes me queasy with a capital Q. He's peddling a modern freak show, in the politest possible way. As you probably know this book contains seven tales of psychological weirdness and it's all very further reaches of the human brain and yet the indomitable human spirit conquering all and isn't life wonderful. Feel-good autism with haemorrhages. I get the feeling someone calls up Dr Sachs and says "I found a good one for you, over in Montana, twin 70 year old sisters who all talk backwards and live in a house they made out of Herman's Hermits albums" and Dr Sachs is out of the door already, flagging down the nearest taxi, his laptop aquivering.

It may be I'm being a trifle unfair here.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Paul It's true. Guilty as charged. Same can be said for two other freak show books about America, "Songs in the Key of Z" and "America's Back Yard", the former of which I reviewed equally ambivalently and the latter I trashed.

Manny I see you belong to the man-who-mistook-his-patients-for-his-bestseller-material school :) And I do think you're being unfair... I found his farewell scene with Temple Grandin quite touching!

Paul Yes, I read your review, which was a very personal one. I don't doubt this guy's ethics, and the first time I saw Awakenings I was astonished and overwhelmed, but but but....

Manny Well... I read the ending of his Temple Grandin piece to mean that he suddenly wondered whether he wasn't a bit autistic himself. It would indeed explain a good deal.

message 5: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy You are so cynical! But that is allowed ;). I still love me some Sacks. He does love the freak cases, but at least you can tell that he really does care and think deeply about each and every case; I don't get a sense of exploitation from his writings.

David Cerruti Paul writes: ”… and Dr Sachs is out of the door already, flagging down the nearest taxi …”

He hasn’t moved that fast in many years. He still walks with a cane. At the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival he was visibly bothered by his leg, the result of a most improbable accident. He fell on a mountain in Norway while running from a bull.

In addition, his hearing is affected by tinnitus, and he is blind in his right eye. I’m amazed that he seems so cheerful.

Roberta Barrocas There's nothing unethical about Oliver Sacks publishing his case studies as long as he asks the patient or his/her family for permission to do so, which I'm quite sure he did. Case studies are a well accepted and valid form of research communication. It's not this guy's fault that he's brilliant enough to make them into best-seller material! I find his case reports to be delightful tales about the mysteries of brain functioning and how it affects our behavior and cognition.

David Cerruti ”He hasn’t moved that fast in many years.”

Sacks turns 80 this year. Judging by his frail arthritic appearance, one wouldn’t guess that he was a competitive weightlifter in the 1960’s. He set a record in California with a 600 pound squat lift.

Paul I did not know that.

message 10: by Cecily (last edited Apr 22, 2013 07:50AM) (new)

Cecily I understand your concerns about reading Sacks' freak show... and yet, he is so charming (on film as well as on paper), insightful and informative, that on balance, it seems OK. Without books like this (and his much earlier The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales), all sorts of psychological conditions would be less well-known by the general public. Maybe the ends justify the means?

message 11: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Yes, I entirely take your point there.

message 12: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice I like Sacks and just don't have that same point of view you do, although I wore out on reading his books (and never could make it all the way through that one on migraines). It's so wonderful that a physician would care and would listen long enough to solve these medical puzzles his patients present. How many physicians would even take that time nowadays--or maybe it's different across the pond.

Still, if everybody liked the same kind of books, the world wouldn't keep spinning round...

I found the movie overly dramatic and didn't think it represented the book well although I've forgotten the details.

message 13: by Katherine (new) - added it

Katherine Coble I'm chronically ill. I spend a lot of time with doctors. I also have Aspergers or whatever we're calling it now. So I spend a lot of time with people who see the world different to the way I do.

I don't see Sachs as exploitative at all. He rather reminds me of the best professors I've had. You know the writing maxim "show, don't tell"? Sachs is showing how disease affects life and how life affects disease. A doctor or professor can lecture for days on end about how something works. But everyone learns best by seeing how something has broken. And that's what Sachs does. In so doing he educates the world about the humanity of those affected by disease and disorder. That's pretty much the opposite of exploitative.

message 14: by Paul (new) - rated it 3 stars

Paul Hi Katherine - yes, if you look at the previous comments you see I agree I'm being unfair, but I though Manny's phrase was rather pertinent - the man-who-mistook-his-patients-for-his-bestseller-material - you know I say all this with affection, I'm glad these books were written.

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