This Week’s Hot Reads: November 6, 2012

From Oliver Sacks’s hallucinations to Alice Munro’s stories. By Mythili Rao.

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

The neurologist peels back the poetry and terror of hallucinations.

“Bliss can coincide with terror,” Oliver Sacks observes in one of his patient’s sleep-paralysis induced hallucinations. It’s an observation that seems to apply broadly to hallucinatory experience, which Sacks calls an essential part of the human condition. From the baroque visions of patients with Charles Bonnet Syndrome (they see handsome gentlemen, overly ornate floating rows of sheet music, battlements and bridges, or fanciful strangers in “Eastern dress”) to the kaleidoscopic patterns that visit migraine sufferers, no style or manner of hallucination is too fanciful or obscure for Sacks’ attention. Whether describing unwelcomed hallucinations (the “prisoners cinema” of sensory deprivation and the hallucinations of the bereaved) or deliberately-sought drug-induced altered states, Sacks writes, as usual, with a sharp mix of clinical precision, curiosity and compassion. His real talent lies in combining literary and historical medical accounts with his own experiences as a doctor and, at times, as a patient. There’s no better example of this than Sacks’s account of the amphetamine-fueled weekend he spent as a young man reading the 1873 volume On Megrim, Sick-Headache, and Some Allied Disorders: A Contribution to the Pathology of Nerve Storms in a state of “catatonic concentration” in a New York medical library. “At the height of this ecstasy, I saw migraine shining like an archipelago of stars in the neurological heavens,” Sacks writes. The experience convinced him to write his own book—and to never take amphetamines again. It’s an understated lesson in the powers of hallucinations: to illuminate the mysterious circuitry of the human mind, one must be willing to get lost inside it first.

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories features postwar Canadians reaching for normalcy.

Canadian master Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, her 13th, finds her at the height of her craft. Postwar men and women reaching for normalcy parade across the pages of Dear Life. An editorial note points out that in this collection, Munro has taken the unusual step of revising the endings of stories that have been previously published. Still, the collection betrays no real shift from the Canadian writer’s signature style. Her protagonists are tight-lipped and their worlds are sharply-observed. Their emotional lives loom larger than their fates and are frequently tragic, especially when Munro turns her attention to the mind’s shortcomings. “In Sight of the Lake” watches an elderly woman try to make her way to a doctor’s appointment; she has arranged to see a specialist because she suspects her memory is failing. Munro cuts off her search for the doctor’s office with an eerie abruptness that seems to confirm the reader’s worst fears. The title story, “Dear Life,” is a similarly melancholy remembrance of a childhood in rural Canada. Abandoning conventional plot structures (“this is not a story, only a life”), the narrative takes the shape of a lyrical essay. But the narrator’s detailed memories of her house, neighbors, school, and the land, it turns out, present only an incomplete picture of the past. In the end, the distinction between a story and a life might not be so great, after all. As one Munro protagonist puts it, “good use can be made of everything, if you are willing.”

Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer

A son sets off towards Pakistan in search of answers about his father’s faith and identity.

Aatish Taseer’s mother, a prominent Indian journalist, met his father, a Pakistani politician, while on assignment, and they began an affair. But the relationship ended early in Taseer’s childhood, and he grew up without knowing much of anything about his father’s country and religion. He was raised by secular Sikhs, attended a Christian school, and, as a youth, dabbled in Hinduism. Part travelogue, part coming-of-age memoir, and part cultural history, Stranger to History, follows Taseer as he goes in search of answers about his father’s faith. Taseer’s tour of Islam—from Turkey to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan—speeds by quickly. There are comical moments (when Taseer’s fellow pilgrims in Mecca puzzle over the Shiva tattoo he acquired on a drunken teenage visit to Goa or when he stumbles upon a Muslims-only McDonald’s) and dark ones too (“To be a Muslim is to be above history,” one believer tells Taseer, ominously). It’s a journey that’s especially relevant in the shadow of the Arab spring, but more gripping than Taseer’s political observations are his emotional discoveries. The book was first published in 2009, but only issued for the first time in the US now, in a new foreword Taseer reflects on how dramatically the story had changed with the assassination of his father, Salman Taseer, by one of his own bodyguards last year for defending a Christian woman against charges of blasphemy. Stranger to History was referenced in the subsequent trial, which became as much about his father's faith as about the guilt of his murderer. Despite this wrenching twist of history, he stands by his work: “I cannot say I regret writing it; I don’t.”

Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson The author of The Psychopath Test goes looking for universal truths in odd places.

Initially, it seems that oddities are what British journalist Jon Ronson is after in this charming menagerie of essays. He signs up for a course that guarantees to convert nonbelievers into confirmed Christians. He hangs around with the supposedly psychic Indigo Children who inspired The Last Airbender. He talks about magnets with members of the Insane Clown Posse. Ronson himself—inquiring, droll, more than a bit nerdy—is the self-deprecating guide and hero of these adventures. When he rents an Aston Martin to write about re-enacting James Bond’s drive from London to Geneva, he’s impressed that its speedometer goes to 220 mph, but even more excited about another detail: “And there’s the connection for the iPod! I’m going to really catch up on podcasts on this journey, I think.” One night Ronson gets drunk, then nauseous and finally constipated from recreating Bond’s dinner: two oeufs en cocotte à la crème, a large sole meunière, an “adequate” Camembert, a pint of rosé, a Three-Star Hennessy, and coffee. The next morning: “I eat a Twix and begin to hate James Bond.” While interviewing robots programmed to have personalities, though, he lets slip something of a bigger mission: “I wasn’t sure what would qualify as transcendent when having a conversation with a robot, but I figured I’d know when it happened.” Lost at Sea is more than a series of highbrow gags. Whether Ronson is meeting UFO abductees in the Nevada desert with pop star Robbie Williams or visiting to the tiny Alaskan town of North Pole (where Christmas decorations stay up all year and where six 13-year-olds plotted a Columbine-style attack against their classmates), he’s actually really just trying to understand the irrational hopes and desires that drive us all.

A Man of Misconceptions by John Glassie

The rise and fall of an eccentric priest and scholar.

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Athanasius Kircher was a Jesuit priest and polymath, a man of unusual talents. John Glassie’s biography, which is based largely on Kircher’s own account of his life, brings into stark relief the pressures of the intellectual climate he lived in—a climate informed by the middle years of the Thirty Years War (with its accompanying pillaging and famines), a time when witch trials flourished, prevailing logic said bees spontaneously generated from dung, and when it was widely believed that something called the vegetable lamb plant of Tartary produced actual sheep as its fruit. Still, Kircher’s studies in philosophy, mathematics, Biblical languages, astronomy and physics thrived; some of his early discoveries about magnets opened the door to the modern field of electromagnetism. Many stories involve Kircher’s absent-minded professorial tendencies. He winds up nearly stuck in a waterwheel, stranded on the crumbling ice of a frozen river, and nearly hanged by robbers. Among his many other skills is a knack for self-mythologizing. In other words, “Kircher never ruined a good story with facts.”