Monday, January 11, 2016

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas

I didn’t grow up with a television and too far north to be affected by the SEC and college football.  I just never understood the appeal, even when my mother started becoming a fan.  Then I met a man who loves the sport and I promised him that I would give football a try.  For two years I followed the sport, was sitting in front of the television on Sundays, even chose my favorite team.  I studied the game, learned the rules, rooted for my team all the way to the Super Bowl the first year.  The following year, even though my team didn’t go all the way, I was able to root for the Giants.  I am from New York, after all, so why not?

Then, after two years, Rob said it is okay for me not to watch anymore because I simply wasn’t enjoying the game.  I would get very distressed any time I saw one of the players get hurt.  Rob would reassure me by pointing out when a hurt player returned to the field and tried to do the same when they did not, when an injury would keep them from playing for a week or more.  We argued about these things.  He would say they get paid a lot of money.  I’d argue that these young men could not understand the risks of what they were doing.  He would say they know they can get hurt.  I would insist that kids in high school and college think they are invincible, that “it” can’t happen to them. 

We never did reach a détente and I just ignore the game now altogether.  And after reading this book, I’ll have to really bite my tongue.  Here is the review I shared on amazon.

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas looks at the work of Dr Bennet Omalu, the forensic neuropathologist who took the commonly understood idea of boxing’s “punch drunk” into other fields of full-contact sports, the National Football League, in particular.  His discovery of what he called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) continues to have repercussions in sports. 

After writing an article for GQ magazine, Laskas was encouraged to write a book length version of her exposé.  There are times when her book reads more like journalism than narrative nonfiction.  There are, however, other times when the author humanizes her story.  She does start the book in media res with Dr Omalu appearing as a witness in court, testifying against his former mentor, before backtracking to the doctor’s childhood in Nigeria, education, and how he ended up in America, studying the brains of corpses.  While this is a dramatic way to start the book, Dr Wecht’s appearance in court has nothing to do with Omalu’s research or the NFL.  But you don’t find that out until the twelfth chapter.

Of course, by then the reader is invested in Omalu’s story.  For me, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the Big Business of the NFL and the ways they manipulated the public, using their tax-exempt millions to control research, and gradually admitting Omalu more and more.  His struggles with depression and desire to not merely discover the truth but to disseminate it, ensuring that those who need to know will know the truth and full implications of what he has discovered.  He is both humble and determined, willing to take a back seat and let others speak out. 

For all the occasions when Laskas' journalism style distance the reader from the events on the page, there are moments that are emotionally surprising, especially the final chapter which serves as the perfect denouement to a fascinating story. I would love to believe that football fans would read this book and invest their time and energy into other less brutal forms of entertainment.  I’d love to believe parents would find the slim chance at fame is not worth the physical risk to their children.  I’d love to believe that this book, which will soon be a movie, would make a significant difference. Maybe it didn’t change my opinion of football but maybe it will change someone’s opinion.  I have to believe that even small ripples of change will have larger, far-reaching effects.  Effects that will result in people redefining what they define as entertaining and not merely in new developments in protective sports gear.

I really wish this book and the movie will make people rethink how much they love this so-called sport.  Will Smith plays Dr Bennet Omalu. Certainly that will inspire more people to go see the movie and maybe learn from it.  Unfortunately, I suspect that most football fans will not care because they don’t want to spoil their fun.  After all, who cares if young men are being hurt, possibly irremediably?   After all, if we can’t waste hours staring at the television, cheering on strangers to win the game at any cost, every Sunday . . . and Monday night . . . and Thursday night, whatever will we do with ourselves and our time?

What did I do when I stopped watching football?  I spent my Sundays reading, writing, drawing, listening to music, and eating some wonderful meals.  And waiting for the season to be over so my husband and I could get back to watching movies together.

You will find an interview with Dr Bennet Omalu here.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Darkness Visible by William Styron

Darkness Visible:  A Memoir of Madness by William Styron is a slender, yet profound, exploration of one man’s struggle with depression.  While in Paris to receive a prestigious award, the author becomes increasingly aware of how deeply his depression has rooted itself in his psyche and decides to get help once and for all.  His candor in describing his complicated journey towards wellness lends this a strength few memoirs offer.

Styron is best known for his novels, Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner possibly most of all.  I was curious to see how Styron would describe his personal experience, mostly because I am dealing with several people who seem to be struggling with depression.   It is easy to forget that, even though in our society we talk more openly about mental health issues, there is still a strong stigma attached to a diagnosis of depression. 

Most remarkable for me, was reading Styron’s honest subjectivity.  He never projects his personal experience onto others. He concedes that what worked for him may not be the solution for others, reinforcing the idea that each person’s experience is unique.  It would be easy for a reader to assume that what’s true for the author is true for everyone who has depression but he never allows this false idea to take root. 

I suppose this is what I appreciate most about this book and why I want to recommend it to anyone who knows someone with depression.  While it may not give you insight into the specifics of why the person you know is suffering, it will give you a better understanding, maybe even some compassion, about why this is such a struggle.  If nothing else, perhaps the insight on the pages will build some patience in your heart and, even where you may not be able to fully understand the profound struggle, you can find room to listen to the person living with depression.  At least, I hope that this is what is happening for me, anyway.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson

Bats of the Republic:  An Illuminated Novel by Zachary Thomas Dodson is a cleverly told story that takes place in an America that is both familiar and unique and moves in and through time.  Filled with illustrations from documents, drawings supposedly made by the characters themselves, there is so much creativity used to tell the parallel stories of Zeke Thomas and his ancestor Zadoch Thomas.  The blurb itself suggests a further connection—Zadoch Thomas has been given the responsibility to deliver a secret letter and, three centuries later, Zeke is given that letter when his own grandfather dies.  Things begin to spiral out of control when the letter goes missing.

That’s all in the blurb and it takes over 100 pages for the letter to go missing.  And the cloud of bats, also mentioned in the blurb, don’t appear until after page 300.  Until then, you are supposed to become so enchanted with the men’s stories, and the stories of the women, Eliza and Elswyth, that you can’t help but read on in spite of the constant shifts in story from one narrator to another, into the novel within this novel and all the transcripts and documents that are provided.

It is truly a well-crafted novel and I can’t help but think that the author got caught up in How he wanted to tell the story and What he wanted the reader to take away from the story that he forgot two very important things:  characters and plot.  The characters here are all two-dimensional and nobody has a clear change of heart.  In other words, the bad guys stay bad and the good guys remain boring page after page after page.  Even when the characters were most in peril, I had no problem putting the book down and picking up another book.

Seriously, when reading a memoir about depression and suicidal ideation is more entertaining than a novel, something is wrong.

The plot is thin, at best. There really is no narrative arch whatsoever. I desperately hoped that the conclusion would brilliantly tie everything together but it didn’t.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love novels that have ambiguous endings and/or don’t fall into the neat little package of a happy ending.  I didn’t want something concrete. I just wanted . . . something.  And this novel offered nothing but a few fragments of interesting images and mostly tedious to read text.  (Don’t even get me started on the white font on black paper, which was bad enough without there being grey font on black paper.  FYI, there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of websites that use grey font on a black screen and you’d think someone would have figured out a still clever but more legible way to translate the author’s creative intent accordingly.)

After slogging through the hundreds of pages of disjointed content, the story ends and Dodson inserts a photograph of a bat suffering from White-Nose Syndrome and explains that the bat population is at huge risk because of this fungus.  He shares a link to the BatCon organization.  If you simply must part with your money or merely want to learn more about bats, I urge you to google Bat Conservation International and donate the money you would spend on this book directly to them.  You’ll save yourself a lot of frustration and tedium and still have the pleasure of learning more about bats.  And it’s great to want to draw attention to the plight of bats.  Too bad an author with as much inspiration but more talent couldn’t have bene the one to do it.  Unfortunately, the ones I think best equipped to have done this more effectively are not alive (David Foster Wallace, Terry Pratchett) or have other things to write (Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates).  In the hands of an author who could make how the story is told as important as the story itself, perhaps the bat population would stand a chance.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan is the first novel in the massive Wheel of Time books.  I began reading these back in 2005 or 2006 but realized I was reading them faster than the author was publishing them and, since I loathe waiting for The Next Book, I stopped reading, planning to read the entire series once all thirteen books were published.  And now that all fourteen books are not only in publication but have been so for a while, I am finally getting around to reading them all. 

In this first novel, we are introduced to Rand al’Thor, his best friends Matrim (Mat) and Perrin, plus the village girl on whom he has a crush, Egwene al’Vere, and Nynaeve, the village Wisdom who is training Egwene to follow in her footsteps.  Other important characters include Moiraine and Lan, whom some readers may have met in New Spring.  Following in the tradition of James Campbell’s hero cycle, Thor and the others are forced to flee their homes.  Along the way, they make more friends (Thom Merrilin—a Gleeman, Loial—an Ogier) and enemies.  At first, the young travelers see everything as a fun adventure but the danger to them all increases and the urgency of their quest forces them to take greater risks. 

Each of the characters is motivated by something different.  Rand, forced from his home, at first only wishes to return but soon realizes that the danger that he faces is following him so returning to his village would only endanger everyone and everything he holds dear.  Mat and Perrin initially go for the adventure but both are, like Rand, changed.  Egwene wishes to follow Moiraine to the White Tower to become an Aes Sedai.  Nynaeve, determined to bring them all home, initially follows them to protect her neighbors but finds other reasons to continue in the journey. 

In the end, each character, having been changed, is forced to make a difficult decision.  Although they are all still together, it is clear that they must go their separate ways if they are to not only fulfill their destiny but do what they each believe they must.  The reader is left gratified but also curious to know what will happen next. 

Unlike George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, this series is not especially dark, following more along the lines of the High Fantasy tradition of J R R Tolkien, without sounding quite as mythic.  And Robert Jordan creates a complex world, with layers of details that don’t always seem significant but come into play later, sometimes not until a later book.  This is why so many people choose to read and reread these books.  I’m glad I’m finally getting around to finishing the series because I have wanted to know for a long time what happens with Rand and the others.  I have my suspicions but I believe Jordan, and eventually Brandon Sanderson (who was hired to finish writing the series when Jordan was diagnosed with an incurable disease), are sure to surprise me.  If not, I’ll know in thirteen more books. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is another brilliant novel from a woman who knows how to craft a story that reads like a classic but has all of the modern psychological depth of a contemporary novel.  I loved her book, Tipping the Velvet, so my expectations were pretty high, going into this book.  Isn’t it lovely when you finish a book you hoped you’d really enjoy and find yourself having fallen in love?

The story sounds like something straight out of Dickens. Sue Trinder is an orphan living in Victorian London with a family of thieves.  When a member of the family comes with a scheme to cheat an heiress of her wealth, Sue is enlisted to help, tightening the loose threads of her fate, even as the ties herself more firmly to the loyalty she feels for her family. 

The novel is told in the first person from two point-of-views, in the past and present tense, depending on the narrator.  This two-point perspective manipulates the reader even as the characters manipulate one another, creating sympathy for some and more disdain for others.  And just when you think you know what is going to happen, or believe you couldn’t like a character (or perhaps hate one more), Waters masterfully twists things yet again. 

Can you tell I loved this novel?  I became delightfully lost in the story and had to force myself to put it down when life insisted I stop reading.  Brilliant novel for anyone who loves Dickens or the Victorian Era but wants something more modern, more provocative, yet equally gratifying to read.

I would love to see the BBC production someday.
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