Thursday, December 24, 2015

In the mind fields, Casey Schwartz

Science journalist Casey Schwartz's "In the Mind Fields" introduces us to a small group of mental health professionals who have made a compelling case that psychoanalysis and neurobiology should converge and support each other, maybe become one thing wherever possible. For them, Freud should not be relegated to a footnote. These critics acknowledge the value of brain research, but they also think that there is still a huge value in psychiatry. Just as 20th century Freudianism erred by being too brainless, they argue, 21st century neuroscience runs the risk of becoming too mindless.

I found this book fascinating for the most part. The concept is ambitious and surely sooner or later these two fields of study will converge, as ultimately their subject is the same: the human brain.

However, I do not think this book presents really strong examples, and I don't think it has a lot to offer in the practical sense.

First though, I have to say I am not fully in agreement with the author's basic premise. She is right in suggesting that neurobiology can often make the mistake of forgetting the person, the mind, the human being behind the neurons, the synapses, the proteins etc. and that the approach of psychoanalysis can sometimes help scientists get a more holistic approach to the patient. However, through her intense love for Sigmund Freud, she far overestimates the value of psychoanalysis per se, which is today - as it should be - dying a slow death.

It was during the 80's that Schwartz's protagonist, Mark Solms, began to feel dissatisfied with the field. In 1985, Solms headed the neurology department in Baragwanath Hospital in Cape Town, the largest hospital in the world at the time. Amid political chaos, language barriers and the after-effects of violent crimes, Solms underwent "an immersion education in human fragility," Schwartz writes. "One bump, one bullet, one burst blood vessel, and suddenly our identity is pulled out from beneath us, and we are someone else".

So he turned to psychotherapy. Thus began Solms's quest to integrate Freud's work into rehab. He founded neuropsychoanalysis and began preaching its benefits to all who would listen. In 2001, Solms organized a group of psychoanalysts who would meet in a small apartment on New York's Upper East Side to discuss their work with brain-damaged patients and seek advice, round-table style.

Schwartz travels to South Africa to attend Solms' sessions and to take copious notes about his life and work. Some of Solms' intuitions are powerful, but I didn't think there is enough "meat". In other words, neuropsychoanalysis is a great concept, but still very underdeveloped (because of our lack of neurobiological knowledge).

Here are my thoughts: Freud is not as important today as the author would like him to be. He had some great intuitions, yes, but without having any scientific instruments at his disposal, he jumped to conclusions that in many cases were wrong or even horribly wrong. A bit like those ancient people who said "the Earth looks flat, therefore it's flat". It wasn't their fault they were wrong. But they should not have jumped to conclusions.

For example, in "The interpretation of dreams", Freud went completely off a tangent and gave dreams a symbolic value they very rarely have. For the most part, dreams are just what they are: incoherent mental farts.

In my opinion, today psychology and psychoanalysis should not even be around anymore. We should get rid of them altogether, place them in a museum, next to the telegraph and the Commodore 64. After 100 years, there is still no proof that they can actually "cure" a patient, aside from the random successes that they can have, especially when the patient has a very specific and superficial issue (i.e. fear of blades, or fear of dogs).

Neurobiology is the present and the future of our understanding of the brain. Research instruments are getting more and more powerful, so give it another 10-20 years, and neurobiology will finally hammer that last nail into the coffin of psychoanalysis.

Therefore, I find the author's stance unbalanced when she sees psychoanalysis and neurobiology simply as two disciplines that find themselves on the same level, only with a communication issue. Yes, the mind is only one, and why have two separate fields trying to explain the same thing, but no, today the two fields are not equally valid or important. Psychoanalysis is almost a corpse, and it carries with itself so much engrained ignorance and prejudice, while neurobiology is a little kid buzzing with energy, opportunities, and most importantly, a fresh and open mind. Schwartz never really acknowledges this huge and fundamental difference.

Plus, why would you need Freud in order to have a more human approach to your patients and their minds? You just need to take a more human approach. That can come from anywhere, not only from Freud: literature, music, personal experience, religion, anything else. Why do you need Freud?

From the formal perspective, the book is very well written and you can often feel the author's passion coming through, but I have to say, the structure is messy.

This work contains something like 4 or 5 different books, all of them incomplete and cobbled together like random sticky notes. While the various chapters are all vaguely about the same topic, it seems like Schwartz couldn't make up her mind on what kind of book she was actually writing: a memoir, a travelogue, an essay, a series of short biographies? This book is all of these things patched together, and glued together by autobiographical notes that don't seem to matter for the book, or to go anywhere.

While researching the material for a non-fiction book, many authors travel, interview specialists, talk with professionals in a specific field. But then what they do in the book is they provide the results of that research, not the actual description of their work of researching. Why would the readers care about that, unless the writer is an eye-witness to moments of great historic importance?

Unfortunately, for the most part of the book, that is what the author decided to do, and in my opinion this does not work well, because: 1) it slows down the book; 2) it adds little or nothing to the subject matter - which is the only reason why you are reading the book, and 3) it gives you the idea that some greatly important epiphany or discovery is going to come out of that conversation or that piece of research, while in fact nothing much really happens, only a few examples of patients whose problems were helped by analysts who were open minded and cared for the human side.

Finally, the last few chapters follow a specific case that - again - is presented as truly important for the subject matter, but while reading it you realize that it doesn't really add much, despite the author spent a lot of time on it. 

Overall, a work of great ambition and an important concept. At best, it might be too soon for a book like this. At worst, this is a messy book that over-reaches and ends up with not much to offer.

Everything that rises must converge, Flannery O'Connor

I wonder why so many people keep calling Flannery O'Connor a genius. She was a good writer, maybe, from the point of view of the craft. But boy, there is something seriously wrong with these stories.

What exactly is wrong?

Well, let's start with the fact that they are sermons, parables: O'Connor has no interest in telling you a story for the sake of narration. She is out to preach from her typewriter. Her readers need to be taught how to accept the grace of God in their life, and O'Connor believed that writing her type of weird, grotesque stories was the best way to do exactly that.

But do these stories achieve their goal to make your soul stir and open up to God?  Hell, no. Not for one second. They do not resonate with me and they did not resonate with many other readers whose reviews I've gone through. As a catholic myself, I could find not even a pale reflection of my spirituality in these stories.

Why? Because the preaching is aggressive, bitter and enraged. These stories emanate a really, really bad energy. And I don't mean the bad energy that the author consciously created as a personality trait of her doomed characters (especially the "young ungrateful intellectual male", who is everywhere in this book), no, I have no problem with dark stories or characters. I'm actually talking about the deep, underlying energy of these stories, the raw emotional energy of old Flannery herself. You know that feeling you get when as a reader you touch the soul of the writer? I felt Flannery's soul was seriously tormented. And angry. That feeling her soul was emanating, whatever she thought she was doing with her stories, had nothing positive about it.

Nothing forgiving, nothing joyous, nothing constructive about the soul that she infused in her stories. Through her writing, she just emanates bad vibes, she gives out whiffs of unhappiness, of frustration (personal issues, maybe?). She judges her non-redeemed characters mercilessly, she hates them with a passion, she tortures them until things inevitably end up in disaster for them. How is this supposed to dispose me, as a reader, in an open listening mode at all? What brand of Christianity is this? Maybe one that was popular in the 13th century? Even if it came from a priest in church, as opposed to a writer, I would find this type of preaching bigoted and, frankly, revolting.

Perhaps most importantly, I found myself in complete disagreement with the author's "moral of the story" every single time.

Her goal was to portray characters who did not allow the grace of God in their lives, and to show how badly that works out for them (as she said in an interview). And even worse, she does that by constantly siding with the wrong characters, and by condoning any type of nasty, anti-social behavior as long as a character is adhering to some superficial aspect of Catholicism.


1) One can be an insane, violent criminal (like the old guy in her novel "Wise blood"), but as long as he is driven by the obsession to baptize his kid, he wins and he gets the moral high ground in O'Connor's world.

2) "The enduring chill": One can be a loud, annoying, disrespectful and aggressive priest who barges into your room while you're actually dying and you don't want anyone around, but as long as he says that you need to open up to the Holy Spirit, he is the real hero of the story. You are wrong and he is right.

3) "Greenleaf": One can be a poor single mother who had to work hard all her life to raise two sons, but if she doesn't accept God in her life, she gets the Wrath of Flannery. There is a gigantic bull ruining her property, and all the poor woman wants is to get the fucking bull out of her loan, but no. She is wrong. Her employees, who are responsible for the bull, are lazy and totally unreliable. However, because they are somehow open to God, they get to win first prize: they have happy children, wealth, and serenity. While the poor woman is the baddie of the story.

I could go on and on, but I hope this is clear enough.

On the other hand, there are vignettes that deserve mention, like the little girl and her grandpa in the second story: their dialogue makes for vibrant, original comedy. But even with that story, things go south very soon, and rather than feeling that you should accept the grace of God, you feel like you have no clue what the story you just read actually meant.

Tastes are different, but let's at least use the word "genius" with extra care around this author.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Edge of tomorrow, Ken Follett

This is the third and final - and worst - installation of the "Century Trilogy" by Ken Follett. I listened to the audiobook, read with too much pomp and too little warmth by the actor, as if he was reading the news.

The book is good until about half way through, but the second part turns into a YA novel and it doesn't work as well.

Be warned: there is no real, 360 degrees history here. Most of it is over-simplified, cartoonish history, as seen through left-leaning eyes.

Yes, I enjoyed flashing through the Cold War period, while following the descendants of the five families that readers have been following since the first book, Fall of Giants, set against the background of WWI. Geographies included are, again, mainly the US, Russia, Germany and the UK.

But ... this is definitely NOT a book I would recommend. It was ok to listen to, and it kept me company in my walks or car trips. But, unlike the first and second book, this third one has some very, very big issues.

THE ONLY GOOD THING: the plot is constantly gripping, and it drives you forward. Ken Follett is a master at that. He is a plot-driven writer. It's not that he doesn't write well, it's that he cares mostly about the story. His language is only a tool. He said that he wants his language to be like a "glass pane", that you can clearly see through to the story, while when a writer uses a richer or flowery language, the glass pane is distracting the reader from the story. His favorite writers are Ian Fleming, Stephen King and the likes. In short, writers of fast-paced, action-packed stories. In fact, action scenes are where Follett really excels.

BAD: the history is accurate, but it is reported with an awfully simplistic, politically charged, stereotypical approach. What are the stereotypes about the Cuba crisis? Here you find them all. What are the stereotypes about the Watergate scandal? Here you find them all. Did Kennedy sleep around and was gossiped to love rubber ducks in his bathtub? Check and check, sleeping around and rubber ducks.

(in line with being stereotypical, Follett never mentions the heavy womanizing of Martin Luther King. Because, you know, that's something you just don't do).

Not only Follett puts his own political agenda in the novel (especially in the second part of the book), he also does it so superficially, with the same high-school level of historic depth you would get from a drunk in a pub, telling you how Reagan was just a murderer and Nixon was nothing but a crook.

Trust me, you will find much more historical insight in the movie Forrest Gump.

Everything is explained with the childishness of a cartoon. Even worse, it sounds like Follett's opinions are actually built on this type of cartoonish reconstruction of the events.

The WORST thing of Edge of Eternity is that, while typically good historic fiction helps you get in the skin of the people who really lived in a specific time, in this book the characters are there to make only high-school history come alive. They are not real people, they are puppets in the hands of a writer (and his many ghost writers) who seems to base his political opinions on a slim book of "World History".

Real history is the real victim of this book. It is completely forgotten.

BAD: Republicans and conservatives in general have zero positive traits. They are literally the baddies in this book. Aside from the other left-leaning narratives that Follett fully embraces, he reaches his peak when he presents the end of Communism purely as a spontaneous combustion, while explicitly describing the US and CIA foreign policy efforts during the Cold War as completely useless, as having no effect whatsoever on the fall of Communism. Therefore, every US foreign policy operation was totally stupid and worthless. Ugh!! *pukes* Is it too much to ask for some middle ground where someone sees things in a more balanced way? The problem is that many teenagers will read Follett's own lefty narrative as if it was the only way to interpret the facts of the 20th century.

BAD: every character is driven by ideals, and almost no one by self interest. Obviously, that takes a lot away from the sense of realism. Let's just say the characters never become real, not once. They are all symbols or tools Follett uses to make his own points, or at best they are the embodiments of wikipedia bullet points about the Cold War period.

He also seems to have a real soft spot for female characters who are self-righteous and aggressively moralizing.

BAD: every single scene ends up in graphic, meticulously described sex. One moment a character is discussing the positives and negatives of the Polish unions, one second later he turns into a porn actor, performing acts of libido on a female journalist as if there was no tomorrow. This is such a killer to the elegance of the overall work. Clearly a commercial decision, to sell to the lusty teens who enjoy that crap, but hey, Follett, did you forget that this really lowers the level of the book to the YA level? No, worse: it's like having the band Kiss jump on stage every 15 minutes while you're seeing a serious well-played drama, and having them sing one of their loud songs, red tongues sticking out and all. Real trash.

Mr Follett, you are part of the 1% as you are already worth 45 million dollars, do you seriously need to use these trashy tricks at the expense of the book's style and elegance? Your name is today a 35 people company ... did none of these 35 ask you: "Are you sure you want to ruin this book with all those graphic sex scenes?". The only reason I can think of is, more sales, more money. I find it really sad.

But most of all, I wish you had had more respect for history, and not made it into a cartoon, parroting out the lefty version of the Cold War era

The Anchor book of new american short stories, edited by Ben Marcus

This book is the literary equivalent of a wine tasting experience. Some wines I found myself spitting all over the wall, but others are incredibly good ones, and make the whole experience worth it.

Sea Oak by George Saunders. 5 stars. Just out-of-this-world wonderful story. Great balance of humor, social commentary and a sprinkle of magic. But mostly humor.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
. 4 stars. Vikings feeling the blues. Without the attention-grabbing "blood eagle", I'm not sure this story would be as popular as it is.

Do Not Disturb by A.M. Homes
. 3/4 stars. Well crafted but SO brutal in its depiction of a failing marriage.

Gentleman's agreement
by Mark Richard. 4 stars.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
. 1 star. Almost total nonsense. We get a "bunch of subconscious feelings and metaphors about a story", but we don't get the story. Too many elements are either obscure or left to the reader's interpretation (i.e. the two mice, the ending and the title's meaning). So why shouldn't the reader open a phone directory and find his own interpretation of that instead?

The Caretaker by Anthony Doerr.
5 stars. Phenomenal. It inspired me with delight and pleasure. It drew me in completely and made me care for the main character. Also loved the shift of location from Liberia to Oregon.

I'm slavering by Sam Lipsyte
. 1 star. Another "WTF" story that some people may say they like in order to feel special about themselves.

The Old Dictionary by Lydia Davis
. 4 stars.

The Father’s Blessing by Mary Caponegro
3 stars. Makes you really uneasy with its weirdness, and there is a "Whoa!" moment where magic realism comes in, but at least in this story you are allowed to understand what's going on.

The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders by Aleksandar Hemon
. 1 star. I don't care what thinking went into this biography-by-list of an imaginary person, the story is just bullshit with a cherry on top. I remember writing exactly that type of nonsense (and funnier, too) with a friend of mine at school when we were 12.

The paperhanger by William Gay
. 5 stars. Unbelievable, electric raw-power mystery in the "southern gothic" style. What intensity.

People Shouldn’t Have to be the Ones to Tell You by Gary Lutz
. 1 star. All form, zero substance. I need someone to build a house and here comes this guy who loves bricks, every single one of them, but doesn't care about the house.

Histories of the Undead by Kate Braverman
2 stars. Beautiful writing, absolutely uninteresting content (a mentally ill woman's thoughts)

You drive by Christine Schutt.
1 star. A delicious piece about a father and a daughter having sex in a car. The topic itself is not the main problem (although it would be for me, as in "not interesting, thank you"), the problem is that, in the style of much of this "modern literature", the reader is called to create meaning and interpret things, because all is left unclear. Isn't that cheating? When did writers stop having the responsibility to actually write a story?

When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine by Jhumpa Lahiri.
5 stars. Elegantly written, this story is the only one in the anthology (aside from The Caretaker) that acknowledges the existence of something else outside of America. Yes, it is called "American short stories", but given that fiction is open to anything, I would have liked some more internationally-minded authors.

Down the Road by Stephen Dixon
. 1 star. Crazy dude walking in the night with a woman who is probably dead, and with whom he probably has sexual intercourse. Yeah. Really.

Two brothers by Brian Evenson
. 2 stars. Far too much horror and gore. Not my taste.

All American by Diane Williams
. 3 stars. Sounds like a page taken from a psychopath's diary.
X Number of Possibilities by Joanna Scott. 5 stars. Yes. This is a truly compelling story. Some weird elements but it drew me in in its originality and uniqueness.

Tiny, Smiling Daddy by Mary Gaitskill
. 4 stars. Clever story, father doesn't understand how bigot and disrespectful he's being to his lesbian daughter.

Someone to talk to by Deborah Eisenberg
. 3 stars. Very well written, clever, not pleasant but interesting. Someone said this is the "spiritual core" of this anthology! I scoff with arrogance and move on.

Where I work by Ann Cummins
. 4 stars. Nice little story with no ending.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
. 2 stars. I found it uninteresting. The mental ramblings reminded me of the other story in the anthology, "Down the road". I don't think pointless mental ramblings make for very good stories.

The Sound Gun by Matthew Derby
. 3 stars. Surreal war and surreal soldiers.

Short Talks by Anne Carson.
1 star. Angry garbage.

Up the old goat road by Dawn Raffel
. 2 stars. Very unclear. One of those "to be read slowly" maybe, but still very unclear.

Field Events by Rick Bass
. 2 stars. Fairy-tale-like story full of fit male bodies and male nakedness. Next!

Scarliotti and the Sinkhole by Padgett Powell
3 stars - Good, but I found it a bit too experimental, trying to convey the world of someone with some sort of mental issues. Still worth a read.