Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks

The Island of the Colorblind
by Oliver Sacks
Alfred A Knopf, 1997
298 pages

There is something about the way that Oliver Sacks writes that I find both enchanting and vaguely uncomfortable. His narrative is always intensely personal in a way that can be delightful -- accessible, charming, and incredibly smart -- but also slightly uncomfortable, because, as he admits himself, he can be querulous and anxiety-prone, and the reader can't help but pick up on that sometimes. His writing reveals a rather intimate portrait. It's not annoying, but it's the sort of thing that we're conditioned to politely look away from, I think? But Sacks always lays it all out there on the line, without drawing undue attention to his neuroses. I suspect, being a neurologist, he's more aware than most of his own tendencies.

Island of the Colorblind is a travel journal, more like Oaxaca Journal than The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which is rather the opposite of what I was expecting. Unlike Oaxaca Journal, though, the purpose of Sacks' travel in this case was based in his job as a neurologist. It's split into two parts, the first being a chronicle of his journey to the titular island, a tiny atoll called Pingelap, and the second being a chronicle of his unrelated journey to Guam. The thread holding the two together is very thin indeed, but could be identified as his interest in islands and the biological consequences of isolation. In both cases, he made his journey to investigate a neurological phenomenon present in abnormally high numbers on their respective islands: on Pingelap, achromatopia, a complete colourblindness; on Guam, lytico-bodig, a serious and extremely complicated neurodegenerative disease showing remarkable likenesses to his post-encephalitic patients back in New York. However, don't let the fact that he's there as a neurologist fool you; Oliver Sacks is in love with plants, so we get plenty of information and exposure to the botanical life on the islands as well. Overall, it's a fascinating melding of neuroscience, botany, history, and culture that makes for really interesting reading.

Interesting, but not always comfortable. The first chapter, "Island Hopping," sounds like it might be a relatively pleasant way to start the book, but it was easily the most depressing chapter. It's not Sacks' fault, as he's working with the material he's given: specifically, a rather arduous airplane journey through the Marshall Islands before they get to Pingelap, in the Carolines. These were inhabited at one point, many of them, pre-American nuclear testing. Some of the experiences Sacks has on his way to tiny Pingelap are harrowing (from a damaged plane to an enforced landing on a brutally military island) and the brief notes he makes about some of the islands are extremely unsettling. Throughout the book there are often small hints of bleakness; discussing the diet of the islanders and its reliance on Spam, melancholy notes about environmental degradation, comments on the historical treatment of the island cultures by various colonial powers.

And when I say notes, I also mean endnotes; some of the bleakest stuff has been relegated to the [wonderfully eclectic and comprehensive] endnotes. I usually prefer footnotes, but some of these are so long as to be completely unmanageable. I tended to read the full chapter, then read the notes for the chapter second; they were almost a full chapter in themselves. None of them are, by definition, integral to the narrative or the understanding of the book, but they make the reading a richer experience.

Interesting to think that this was published nearly twenty years ago now, with the trips themselves being earlier; many of the people Sacks met are likely dead or retired, and many of the environments he saw are likely changed beyond recognition; one wonders, for example, if Pingelap can survive a sea-level rise? A sobering thought amongst several sobering thoughts brought to light by this book.

Sacks is especially good when he gets talking about his passions. The entire last chapter of the book, "Rota," is basically about cycads. Along with ferns, these are a particular passion and fascination of Sacks', and in this chapter he is both whimsical and whip-smart, so incredibly learned that he talks well above this reader's head, but I didn't mind. His enthusiasm carried me along. He takes much knowledge on the reader's part for granted, without making one feel stupid if one didn't follow exactly what he was talking about. In fact, it got this reader more excited about looking things up than frustrated with my lack of knowledge. I'm more excited than ever, too, about reading Darwin, which I have been meaning to do for ages. Leading a reader to want to learn more, in a passionate and immediate way, is a special gift that some nonfiction writers have, and some don't. Sacks has it in spades.

Not just for the topics, either, but also for words themselves. Sacks has a remarkable vocabulary and he's not afraid to use it. My favourite word from the book, favourite enough that it has entered my functional vocabulary, is "horripilation" -- synonymous with, but so much more delicious and specific than, goose bumps, and obscure enough that I haven't found a spellchecker familiar with it yet.

"At one point," he added, "people wondered if the lytico might be caused by some similar kind of fish poisoning -- but we've never found any evidence of this."
Thinking of the delectable sushi I had looked forward to all day, I was conscious of a horripilation rippling up my spine. "I'll have chicken teriyaki, maybe an avocado roll -- no fish today," I said.

It is interesting to me that overall the sections on botany and culture made far more of an impression on me than the neuroscience parts of the book did. I think the second part, set on Guam, is a stronger piece overall than the first, set on Pingelap; the first seemed a bit more rambling and less focused, and also one gets the faint impression that Sacks, while he enjoyed himself, wasn't quite as engaged. On Guam, however, he unfolds the mystery of lytico-bodig disease for the reader with careful precision, making connections and sharing his admiration for his host. And the final chapter, as mentioned above, deals with lytico-bodig not at all, but with cycads, which Sacks clearly loves and thinks are utterly worthy of everyone's attention, interest, and respect.

I don't think this is the best Sacks I've ever read, but it was thoroughly enjoyable, and I'm very glad I read it. Chewy without being intimidating, and very very readable, as Sacks always is. Recommended for popular science junkies, people with an interest in islands, armchair travelers, and anyone who is open to learning something new.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Duke Classics, 2012 (originally published as a serial in 1912)
195 pages

I love that my adult book club asked to read this book. True, it was more "I heard that John Carter [the Disney movie] was based on some books, wasn't it? Can we read that?" but still. They're game for anything and I really appreciate it. Not least because I get to fill in some gaps in my reading I otherwise might not.

This is very much a pulp adventure story, and contains science fiction elements and close attention to detail that would go on to become standard in the genre. I love reading books that are foundational to genres I enjoy, and so reading A Princess of Mars, despite its (copious) flaws, was a fun and maybe even enriching experience. But flaws, yes, and so in some ways my experience was mixed. And it wasn't just the typical historically-based flaws one might expect to encounter: some flawed science, and pretty egregious racism and sexism. There were also a couple of internal inconsistencies of character that bugged me, particularly in relation to the end of the book.

Okay, so for those who, like me, have managed to stay pretty much ignorant of the storyline of this tale: John Carter is a veteran Confederate soldier who escapes from a band of Apaches into a strange cave that turns out, somehow, to be a portal to Mars. Once he lands (naked!) he discovers that, in Mars' lesser gravity and less dense atmosphere, he has incredible strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, which is pretty lucky because he almost immediately is set upon by a group of warlike, enormous, mean green bug-like brutes. Happily for John Carter, the green men are exceedingly impressed by his physical prowess, and so rather than shooting him, they take him as an honoured captive. From there, he continues to have several preposterous adventures, finds himself attached to a guard "dog" named Woola, a surprisingly sympathetic green female named Sola, and finally the titular princess enters the picture (naked!), a captive of the green martians, conveniently beautiful and human-like and in need of a super-human sort of rescue. More completely preposterous adventures ensue. And unlike what the cover above might have you believe, the adventures all take place without any clothes on. This is less sexy than one might hope.

I probably should have disliked this book, is the thing. The phrase "feminine reasoning" enters the picture shortly after Dejah Thoris, the princess, does, and you can probably imagine how well that flew with this reader. So the question here is how was I able to get past the embedded racism and sexism? The answer, I think, is world-building. And maybe a bit of understanding, if not forgiveness, due to the time period, and the audience Burroughs was writing for. And the fact that Dejah Thoris is indeed a limp fish, but not quite as much of a limp fish as I expected, which was a pleasant surprise. But mostly world-building.

The first chunk of the book, and other parts throughout, read almost like an anthropological study. Which again, I am not sure why this works so well, but it really does. For an adventure novel that packs a lot of plot, there is an incredible amount of exposition. In other books I would be tempted to call it one long infodump, but something about the narrative voice (John Carter, in first person) precludes that, and we build up a relatively deep understanding of the culture of Mars (or Barsoom, as the locals call it), its history, and its environment. The detail is astonishing in some cases, and equally astonishing is that my eyes didn't glaze over, nor did I start skipping descriptions of how things worked or how societies were structured. What comes out the other end is a very thorough understanding of the environment in which John Carter is operating, and a huge respect for Edgar Rice Burroughs' creativity.

I loved the detail. I loved the differences between our world as John Carter knew it and Barsoom. I loved the images and the intricacies of the cultures of the green martians and the red martians, the idea of the long-lost great civilization, the post-post-apocalyptic feel of the Barsoom John Carter finds himself on. Actually, I really loved that the societies of Mars were the way they were due to a long decline, not some single huge catastrophic event.

I loved that the green martians, the Tharks, weren't entirely villains, though they very easily could have been; I loved that some of the complexity of their culture was shown, and that John Carter displayed a willingness to work within it and even attempted to befriend some of the strange creatures he found.

I kind of loved that I spent a lot of time wondering how people -- men, in particular -- rode their thoats comfortably without any clothes on.

I didn't love the inconsistencies in John Carter's character. He is a great character, almost too great, really. He's quite likable.  He's got this super-human strength, but then he's also super-humanly dutiful and brave and good and smart and tolerant, too. EXCEPT for when he's not, which is when Edgar Rice Burroughs needs him not to be for the sake of the plot. There are two specific instances that bothered me, both towards the end of the book. Both are pretty outright cruel or stupid, neither of which things John Carter has ever appeared to be earlier in the text, and were so out of character that they threw me out of the book in a way that even the most unbelievable coincidences and preposterous feats of agility/strength/daring/intelligence didn't.

So the verdict for me on this book is ... it's kind of recommended? I'm really glad I read it, because as I say, the world-building was magnificent and incredibly creative and really interesting. But it also has the kind of appallingly casual racism and sexism that one might expect of a pulp adventure novel of the era, and that's grating. And while some of the writing is really quite excellent, which is why I think this book has lasted so long in the public imagination and the classic science fiction canon, some of it is inexcusably bad, with the characters and events contorting painfully to get to the place where Burroughs wants to go. I don't know that I'll ever go out of my way to read the second or third or following books in the series, but I won't rule it out either.