All my Antics, Mostly Reviews

Tag: non-fiction

Closeup of an eye in greens and turqoises

From Excess to Transport

A Review of Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Cover of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

I first read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat around January 2016, more than 4 years ago. I, recently, had started listening to the backlog of the podcast Radiolab and had learned to love the voice and insight of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. I read this book on my commute to university and back and loved the various case stories and how much they told me about my brain.

So when 2020 hit with its CoViD-19-related lockdowns, I first picked it for readings to dispel the quarantine boredom and loneliness. Its separate chapters lent themselves well to being read aloud in a voice call. And so, for a few weeks, I took an hour each evening to read one or two chapters of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. However, this didn’t continue indefinitely, and with the ongoing pandemic, demand and energy to continue these almost daily readings to my friends fizzled out.

This left me with around a quarter of the book unread. Only now, months later, I picked it up again to finish the last chapters on my own. I have to admit I forgot a lot of details about the first half of these accounts. But I remember it fondly, just like Sack’s other books I read, like On the Move, or Gratitude.

Now, I am in a very stressful time in my life. I’m working on my transition. I’m trying to cope with the fact, that I have ADHD which took more than 22 years to diagnose, and I’m dealing with the shit show that is higher education while being disabled and trans. All that is culminating at the moment, with me starting HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) just last week, so please bear with me, if this is becoming a review a lot less extensive than usual.

A Mental Landscape, green hills, a giant calendar sticking up, weather symbols streaking across the sky, musical notes as trees

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat has brought me a lot of joy and wonder in my world. I love the voice Oliver Sacks finds to tell the world about medicine and neurology, and I’m enthralled by the way he manages to lift up mere case studies int0 human stories with real connections.

I don’t have the experience to examine the influences on his case study writing, Sacks lists — among them Russian neuro-psychologist Alexander R. Luria — but I am content with appreciating this little blue paperback with its broad pages for what it is, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

drawing inspired by medieval illustrations in the manuscripts of Hildegard von Bingen

The only thing that mucked up the waters for me is my general discomfort around medical language, especially around cognitive disabilities. And while Oliver Sacks argues to view these disabilities not as mere lists of defects, but as part of a whole person with their own will, and thoughts, and ideas, I can’t separate that from the usage of words that are so intrinsically linked with medical and cognitive ableism.

First published in 1985, of course, this book carries the signs of its time, especially in the field of neurology and psychiatry, where changes in activism have moved a lot once immovable truths of life.

As a whole, this book just remains very enjoyable, informative and moving. And if you, like me, have an intense interest in how our brains work and interpret the world I could not recommend this book more highly, though you definitely have to be prepared to live with the medical ableism this book contains by virtue of its origins and time.

This book isn’t a systemic review or a case and argument for a certain method or clinical praxis, it is mostly just a view into the weird world of the brain. And so as it moves from the man who mistook his wife for a hat, to the autistic young adult who lights up at the chance to draw, you might catch the sense of wonder I did, even if that was again and again tarnished by the disregard for autonomy that is so inherent in mental health care.

Other books by Oliver Sacks I have reviewed so far:
Gratitude

My last book review was about the way less wonderous Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. My last fiction review was about the wonderful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Up next is probably Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing or East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

If you liked my review, you can, as always, support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

An Icebreaker moving through the edges of an iceshield

Where are the Maps?

A Review of Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography

This book was infuriating. And I’m glad I bought it only for half price at London Heathrow Airport. A sticker on its front cover still reminds me of that with the somewhat cryptic Buy 1 get 1 Half Price. The subtitle of this book, Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, promised greatness and so the thought, of what I’ll have to write about its maps in this review saddens me before I’ve even started to put pen to paper.

I also wanted this review to be a bit different than usual. I’ve been feeling a bit stifled by the strict format of my reviews lately. Multiple sections and subheadings are probably helpful if you want to see if you’d like a book, but to me, they also seemed like an obstruction to improving my writing. I wanted to try more wandering approaches to writing. I wanted to explore my thoughts around a book and its topics more than to be a straight-up guide if you should buy a book or not. Of course, this isn’t going to mean, that I won’t give my recommendation, but I don’t think I want to break down my opinions into clear bullet points, I check off with every review, anymore.

Let us go back to that day in early 2019 at Heathrow waiting for my flight back home. I had held the German translation of this book in my hands many times when I was perusing the local bookstore in Freiburg. I had always been fascinated by its cover, the striking colours, the map, and well the title too. It promised a fascinating look into how geography, history and politics interacted, but in the end, I always opted to lay it back down, and pick another book or 10.

But there at Heathrow, I was in the mood for non-fiction, and since it was a “buy two, get one free”-type of deal, I picked this right after Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. I don’t think, I had even flipped through its pages. Nevertheless, I had convinced myself that this book would make for a few interesting hours of map-nerdery. After all, at that time, I was studying History and Geography at the University of Freiburg. This should have been right up my alley.

Topological Map of Germany
This was never meant as more than a nerdy joke.

Prisoner of Geography ticks a few boxes for me. Its style is gripping and direct. Its knowledgeable tone reminded me of reading Henry Kissinger’s On China when I was about 14 years old. But the air of knowledge this book surrounds itself with is more of a veil. Behind it, there are a lot of easy explanations for complicated problems and unchecked biases.

A historian would probably call this book’s approach to history teleological and therefore flawed. When they say teleological, they mean nothing else than putting the cart before the horse, i.e. explaining history by its result. There are good arguments for why Tibet is strategically important for China. But were Tibet not de-facto part of China, many of the geographic arguments, especially around Tibet’s inaccessibility, could run the exact opposite way.

And that’s at least one of the aspects that make this book disappointing. It fails to question the authors and the reader’s assumptions. It tells you nothing that keeping up with the news couldn’t have told you. And its point about resource distribution and the value of natural borders isn’t exactly a new or groundbreaking idea. Nevertheless, the book promises to break the ground for you while it fails to question why empire, why war, or how a certain government comes to power even.

Especially in its chapters on China and the US, Prisoners of Geography fails to consider path-dependencies and interdependencies in government beyond the geopolitical and well manages an inexplicable weird leap in characterising Mexico/US-Relations as solely defined by a notion of the illicit drug trade that foregoes any examination of why things come to be illegal or not.

A bear head, in front of a floating map of russia

And I get it. This book devotes a chapter to one continent or giant country at a time. There’s not much room to bring out the nuances; as such Marshall’s arguments remain a description of what is, without the imagination to think through the consequences of that weirdly gripping argumentation.

Frankly, I didn’t expect groundbreaking arguments from this book. That’s not what it sets out to do. It sets out to illustrate the world of geopolitics with eye-opening maps. That’s what the book’s subtitle promises, and something I’m willing to indulge in a lot. I spent hours watching the short weekly show Le Dessous des Cartes on the Franco-German television channel Arte when I was a kid. It always was a delightfully interesting view into maps and politics, just detailed enough to fill a 10 min tv show. Prisoners of Geography, however, misses that mark by leagues.

The maps in this book are disappointing. They are bog-standard political maps in black and white. Bearing only hints at topography and one detail each, that genuinely fails to impress. Drawing arrows to illustrate the Greenland-Iceland-UK-gap is just not even close to mapmaking that could open eyes.

Marshall didn’t even integrate these bare-bones maps into the text. There is no reference to them in writing. And it seems like this book was written with the maps as an afterthought, preserving the possibility to read it on text-only e-readers without trouble.

Summary

Potala Palace underneath a blue sky with scattered clouds.

In the end, this book fails to impress me. While Marshall manages to find a style that’s gripping to read and authoritative at once, this book falls down on multiple levels of actual content. The promised maps are bland and next to useless, and the argumentation contains little more nuance than the writing of a foreign-policy hawk who sees a military threat in anything. At least to some degree, I wish this book had kept the old idiom in mind: “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.

Would I recommend this book? I don’t think so. There are better ways to spend your time reading or learning about geopolitics. This book serves just enough information to satisfy those who agree with its political assumptions and don’t already know a lot about geography.

My last book review about the beautiful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The Blue of Distance was my last non-fiction review, and up next is Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

Realistic Expectations

A Review of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?

This is a first for these book reviews. This time I’m reviewing a work of non-fiction instead of a fictional story. Of course, this doesn’t fit into my usual structure of book reviews, so please excuse if this get’s established as it goes and is maybe a bit rougher around the edges than usual. But let us get started: This is a very short book. It only contains roughly 80 densely packed pages, but these are ram-packed with insightful information and thought-provoking ideas. It describes our reality through an interesting philosophical lense and examines the influence capitalism has on the perspective and framing with which we view our world, our lives and our surroundings.

I first found this book through somewhat unusual circumstances. Well maybe, these circumstances aren’t too weird in a modern globally-connected world. I found them through a YouTube video by PhilosophyTube. Namely Olly’s first video on mental health and suicide, I put below. [Content Warning: light flashes, talk about suicide, self-harm and mental health]

But back to the book, which itself talks about mental health in a different light as Olly Thorne does.

Physical Book

This book is an exceedingly short book, it’s almost more of a collection of continued essays or maybe a lengthened scientific article. For my 2009 Zero Books paperback edition that comes packaged as a very thin book with wide pages more resembling the ways scientific articles are printed than how books in fiction are presented. As it’s thin it’s pretty flimsy but doesn’t suffer from the troubles of thick paperbacks with strong backs.

The Argument

The main argument within this book is that there is a worldview, which Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism, that permeates society in late-stage capitalism and hinders efforts to leave capitalism behind by creating the illusion that there is indeed no alternative to capitalism.

Fisher generally sees one way to break down this veil behind which capital is hiding. Namely, he thinks. we need to find the real that destroys our preconceived capitalist reality. He sees a few big contenders for general topics that could manage to rip the curtain of capitalist realism down: the ecological crisis caused by capitalism and so inherently unsolvable by capital, for example, climate change, mental health and education.

There’s one particular point about the interface between education and mental health Fisher draws that almost made me stop reading this book. My gripe essentially is that while yes, I can see an inadequate blaming of mental health issues on individuals, I also think this book ignored the very real troubles of mental illness that would still persist even within a society where the systemic causes or external stressors of our current society were removed. Especially, his mention of ADHD, from which I personally “suffer”, elicited that reaction in me, because I genuinely feel problems arising from my mental health that are not caused or even exacerbated by society, but just are part of how my brain works.

The Writing & Style

Fisher draws upon tons of sources, especially Slavoj Žižek and finds a ton of analogies in pop culture, especially movies and books. His style is one I found very typical for philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Somewhere between academic and free-flowing essay. What makes this book hard to read are its presumptions of prior knowledge. The expectation that you are familiar with the thoughts of a broad range of philosophers and jargon of anti-capitalism.

There’s at least to some extent a thread running through this book that kept me on line with reading it, but I struggle to put into words what that thread was. Maybe it was just the idea of having finished a book quickly soon. It was short enough to do that, even if the ableism around page 24 irked me enough to slather a “Fuck You” into this book.

Summary

In the end, I wonder why so often I’m drawn to books on philosophy when reading them so often leaves me dissatisfied or angry, and exhausted at the lengthy sentences.

I don’t think I really would recommend this book to a general audience. A broad and deep knowledge of philosophy, which I do not possess, is probably required to get the full extent of insight this short book provides. It draws references to other philosophers and pop culture again and again, and it does a disservice to not understand those references.

For a general audience, this book remains too conceptual to be of much value, and it stays too much in the description of the de facto world we live in instead of actually pointing to a liveable alternative except in the last few pages where Fisher points to actionable strategies in the fight against capital, but those are somewhat removed from the main thesis of this book.

Now I would cringe at the idea that a book needs to be actionable to be of value, but I think together with this and the hints of ableism and anxiety about change dispersed within, this book isn’t ready to be read by a general audience, it is more a working paper, for others to expand upon. Being well versed in anti-capitalist theory definitely improves this read.

My last book review was Sickening Love of Privilege? about Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. Up next a review of the German book Qube by Tom Hillenbrand: Qubism.
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