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Monday, August 22, 2016

The Writer's Life 8/22 - Mars & Earth

Born in 1933, Oliver Sacks earned a degree from Oxford and dedicated his life to medicine. He has written 15 works of non-fiction on his experiences. I just completed his sixth, An Anthropologist on Mars, published in 1996. It features seven long pieces on fascinating cases: an artist who, after a car accident, sees only in black and white; a young man who loses a sizable portion of his brain to cancer; a gifted surgeon who suffers from Tourette's Syndrome; a man, blind since early childhood, who in his 40's recovers sight through surgery; an immigrant artist who, after an illness, has non-stop visions of his home town, which the Nazis started on the road to extinction; an autistic child with an uncanny gift for art; and an autistic PhD who teaches college courses and has been an innovator in farming techniques and machinery. Each section is about the adjustments and adapting the subjects must do, and the psychological rigor of coping. The artist begins drawing in black and white. The young man with brain cancer has total recall of the music of his beloved Grateful Dead prior to his operation, but is unable to remember any of the band's new songs just minutes after hearing them. The surgeon's affliction shuts down completely while he's operating. It is astounding that someone with Tourette's is even allowed in the field. He is held in universal high regard. In movies, a blind person who gains sight is seen as immediately functional. In truth, it requires a long, difficult process to learn how to use vision. The immigrant is obsessed with capturing his home town, keeping it alive, in his art. The autistic artist is able to reproduce complex structures and natural wonders and has had several books of his works published. A comment by the PhD lends the title, which describes the difficulty she has in relating to other humans and the front, the facade she has learned to put on in order to assimilate. She likens herself to Mr. Data, the android on Star Trek: Next Generation, who struggles with understanding the complexity of human beings. Like a machine, she focuses totally on her work. In the penultimate paragraph she is quoted as saying: "...I don't want my thoughts to die with me...I want to have done something... I want to leave something behind. I want to make a positive contribution--know that my life has meaning..." That pretty much describes a large portion of humanity, not just the ten percent of autistics who have special gifts, or those who are able to live independently. The affliction is still, in large part, a mystery to the best and brightest. 138 readers have rated the book at Amazon, forging to a consensus of 4.7 of five. As a layman frequently baffled by scientific terms and intellectual vocabulary, I can't go that high. I say 3.75. The writing is solid, eminently readable. I thought two of the pieces, the latter ones on the artists, were far too long. I found the many footnotes roughly 50% useful. Eleven years after its publication, An Anthropologist on Mars is rated #3 in sales in its genre. Sacks has been honored with many awards. In the book he comes off as an exemplary human being.

As far as life on earth is concerned -- it was a quiet day at the floating book shop. My thanks to Monsey, who bought Anna Quindlen's A Short Guide to a Happy Life, which gave her something to read on her bus trip to see her grandkids.
Vic's Short Works:
Vic's 5th Novel:'s 4th novel:
Vic's 3rd Novel:
Vic's Short Story on Kindle:
Vic's Short Story Collection:
Vic's 2nd Novel: Kindle:
Vic's 1st Novel:

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