Anaesthesia The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness by Kate Cole-Adams (2013). A review by John Cook

Anaesthesia

I am seldom as conflicted about a book as I was in reading this. As the title makes clear this is an investigation into the process of anaesthesia practice, past and present. Because that process involves loss of consciousness, it also necessitates looking at what we are when unconscious, the nature of that condition and whether we can have memories and remembered (experienced) pain while in that state. I, like most of my age have a history of being anaesthetised. First, while very young, by either chloroform or ether dripped onto a mask over my face (‘look for Mickey Mouse’ – nope – consequent loss of faith in people in white outfits) an unpleasant experience later duplicated by a dentist. Mid-life, I was dogged by being ill on recovery with blurred vision and often unable to either urinate or defecate (annoying). In more recent times, it has been a breeze with no problems and easy recovery. So, clearly there has been progress and, like the author I have plenty of curiosity as to what it is, what is used, how it progresses and what is the nature of the induced unconscious state?

The book supplied a great deal of material I found interesting, useful and often engaging in its transmission. The author has been working on this topic for ten years (off and on) and is a successful journalist. She has the perspective of a non-medical person yet has read and interviewed extensively both with patients and a range of professionals (doctors, nurses, anaesthetists, surgeons, psychiatrists, hypnotists, psychologists and psychiatrists).

This personal input is supplemented with interviews contained in research papers. I found these supplementary materials probably the most interesting touching on pain experienced during and after procedures, memory loss and recovery and possible connections with later anxiety and mental disturbance.

There is even a suggestion that some people who claim physical examination by extra-terrestrials may, in fact, be reliving an experience from their anesthetised unconscious! I enjoyed the discussion of possible interactions between the conscious and unconscious mind that could be related to the physical structure and organisation of the brain. There were no cut and dried answers supplied but a great deal of questioning and troubling information especially with regard to the nature of the relationship between the medical team and patient before, during and after an anesthetised procedure.

The book has a simultaneous strength and weakness in that it is built around the author’s personal (and familial) experiences with this phenomenon but tends to often wander rather far from the central issue – often well written and even humorous. This could have been a rather cold analytical review of the same evidence and speculations but has been made more readable through the personal component. I simply feel that this was, at times, somewhat overdone and tedious.

Oddly, the book itself hints at this problem itself. Early in the book, while talking to a psychiatrist, the following interchange is recorded (Cole-Adams is a detailed note-taker).

Was this helping? In a way, he (the psychiatrist) said, but it all sounded a bit of gobbledegook. He said this not unkindly, and I found myself agreeing. ‘And I’m not certain,’ he added, ‘whether you’re trying to sort yourself out, or whether you’re trying to sort out other things.’ “

Again, in the final chapter, as the author is about to have serious spinal surgery …

What was I to about to bring to my now inevitable surgery?

Well, much of what is in this book. Too much thinking, too much drinking, a submerged possibly self-inflicted melancholy, a certain stubborn stoicism. Fear, of course. Of death, of extinction, of separation – most particularly of separation from myself.’

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Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017). A review by John Cook

Tin Man

What an enjoyable read! – and in so many different ways. An old nit-picker and car lover like me enjoyed the (Morris) Cowley reference and this was true of so many locations that were lightly and skilfully limned.  This is a novel of love and relationships without a hint of mawkishness but with real depth of understanding and feeling in reality based contexts. Essentially, it is the story of two men who from youth onward briefly achieve a summer of communion that falls away unevenly under the weight of others’ expectations. Lives diverge and new relationships are forged, though, for a while, an amazing trinity of feeling is allowed to flower between Ellis, Michael and Anne. What was and what might have been are made clear as the reader is fed the two viewpoints of Ellis and Michael in strict sequence.

 

I was delighted by the economy of language and description in this story that is nevertheless rich in expression and feeling – quite a coup! There is a lot to consider in this work ranging from the ‘conventional’ in the back stories of both young men’s youths and particularly Ellis’ mother and her dealings with a wasteland marriage. Anne, the third wheel is likewise a remarkable character whose instinctive understanding is a joy. Then there is the landscapes of Oxford the university town and manufactory and that of Southern France encapsulated in  Dora’s sunflower picture – earned, retained, reminisced and projected as a kind of talisman for what is important in a life well lived.

 

Given the time and place, there has to be mention of HIV-AIDS and Winman does not shrink from this. For me, this was just another example of how she can evoke feelings from one’s past that are deeply felt without being over stated. This was true of so many scenes and situations that must evoke memories for anyone who has experienced some of what she so beautifully and simply creates.

 

I have to say I preferred the first half of the book as being perhaps more gently yet intensely felt with considerable complexity. The second half (Michael’s) is almost as good though a little more uneven and with a slightly less successful grip.

 

This a truly beautiful, highly skilled, insightful read that I can recommend to all but the most deeply prejudiced and misanthropic – and perhaps even they might derive some pleasure and learn something from it.

 

 

 

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The Gilded Razor By Sam Lansky (2016). A review by John Cook

The Gilder Razor

I found this to be a troubling work. Yes, because it reveals the truly devastating passage of a teen addict, but also because it challenged me on an important respect – the thoroughly spoiled nature of the subject’s youth. Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A little Life’ (a much longer epic work) troubled me as I reacted to the apparent repeated failure of its main character Jude to cease self-harming.

 

This shorter ‘memoir’ covers a much briefer period (from age 11 to 19) of an intensifying addiction to drugs (illegal and prescription) alcohol, promiscuity and prostitution then Lansky’s eventual sobriety (he is now 27). While I found a lot of it instructive in how he progressed and those around him who were engaging in similar, but not as intense, behaviour, I remained fixated on how he was surrounded by so much opportunity yet remained so focussed on his miseries and using them to justify his behaviour. I may be deeply unfair and I offer a lengthy interview with this charming young man to help you think about it. Go to

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zC88fI1dBQ

 

It is enough to say that the book is a description of an amazing amount of substance abuse started at an early age (his mother slipped in a Cocaine test before he was fourteen) which continued to intensify with time, opportunity and what Lansky sees at benign parent neglect. Locale was no impediment as he obtained what he wanted in Oregon or while living and attending prep school in central Manhattan, in college and in and out or rehab. What is of great interest to me is how he developed a detailed interest in prescription pharmaceuticals which he believed enabled him to get what he wanted with parental acceptance, medical collusion and a carefree attitude. He also was skilled in finding fellow users (often female but not always) with whom he could share, trade and use. Incidentally, the title refers to a gilded razor pendant he regularly used to cut and prepare cocaine.

 

Lansky says he came out to his parents at 11 and received acceptance (indifference?) from his parents and again I confess to some wonderment at what I have to perceive as some degree of precocity. He develops a preference for older men (40’ish with some degree of wealth, a good apartment and readily available drugs) and, until very late in his story, continues this preference with relatively few exceptions. Once again, while he has his explanations for this drugs–sexual preference nexus, the reader is left to ponder. I certainly did.

 

I found the writing style very good. The delivery and vocabulary just a bit more developed than matter-of-fact with occasional small explosions of descriptive colour that work well. It is easy to see why he has become successful in meeting, interviewing and writing up current social trend, personalities and activities. There are also lots of wry and off-handed shafts of humour (sometimes whistling in the dark) that point to the nature of the man as someone with whom you might like to meet and have a few drinks and a meal.

 

I can only say that this is a genuinely instructive piece that will have you looking acutely at more very young people and wondering about some of the individuals in our world who are handed a prescription pad and let loose. Reminder – have a listen to that interview referred to above.

find out how.

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Our Young Man by Edmund White (2016). A review by John Cook

Our Young Man

 

I approached this read with some trepidation as a fellow group member reported that he didn’t like it at all. I took the precaution of checking the reviews currently available and it was clear there were plenty of negative reactions. However, as a long-term admirer of most of what White has written (his Francophilia has led to some less than wildly satisfying efforts) I completed the job

 

This is very much a White piece of work drawing, as he is often prone to do, on much of his background. He had extensive experience of New York bohemia and the fashion and art world (10 years of vogue), Fire Island living and his time in France. All of this is brought to bear in his spin on the Dorian Gray story line and its applicability to the gay scene and the fashion industry.

 

The central character, Guy, is a man who dedicates his life totally to maintaining an amazingly youthful appearance. While he does so remarkably effectively over a long time (a forty-odd year old presenting as a twenty-odd year old), it is clear that the apparently successful world of possessions he accumulates are not enough and the process of maintaining his appearance (perhaps more accurately a mode) is eating him away internally unlike the Dorian Gray picture in the attic.

 

He passes through a number of phases in his close personal and love life with a relative few making it through to close contact. He originates from a gloomy industrial town in France and retains a supporting contact with his Mother but retains little else except a lingering nostalgia for values he sees as superior. The book is peppered with constant references to the linguistic problems of acquiring conversational skill in a second language which White himself experienced in the reverse and he has previously mused over. Whether these are always necessary or helpful is debatable.

 

His manager Pierre-Georges is a constant influence always pulling him back to a sterile existence subservient to the demands of fashion and Mammon. He acquires from two older men (the Baron and Fred) who share the common key characteristic of pursuing their sexual needs, one an utterly selfish lifelong S&M devotee, the other a late-bloomer who ends with AIDS and is used by White to illustrate the problem of a gay death, families and wills.

 

He eventually finds a latin lover with whom he achieves previously unexperienced sexual satisfaction and the possibility of love. This lover is so deeply involved he foolishly engages in criminal behaviour as what seems a valid consequence to him. While in jail, Guy refocuses on one of a pair of Minnesotan twins (Chris and Kevin) who represent a kind of waif-like perfection. Once again, this leads to sexual and emotional developments and an eventual choice situation which leads to the not entirely satisfactory denouement.

 

The earlier part of the book is curiously flat in tone and I think this may put off a lot of people while the latter half is curiously fragmented in tone and direction. This book could be taken simply as a somewhat eccentric erotic love novel (there is plenty of sex most quite well presented) but I prefer to enjoy the good writing and the regular flashes of humour and wit that keep on popping up throughout.

 

White has been interviewed about this book and other matters and I recommend it for reading and understanding especially in the light of the claims that his heart attack may have had something to do with its formation

 

Go to http://gawker.com/talking-with-edmund-white-his-new-novel-gay-looksism-1769013744

 

Easy to read but not easy to appreciate.

 

 

 

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Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond By William Dalrymple and Anita Anand (2016). A review by John Cook

Queen Victoria, 1856 (oil on canvas)

 

I am a fan of William Dalrymple having read In Xanadu (1989), From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1997) White Mughals (2002) The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (2006) and Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan (2012) with more to go. His early focus on the Midde East and the Western end of the Silk Route has shifted firmly to India (historical and Modern) where he now lives. No one better then to write the first half of this book on a well-known topic, the Koh–I-Noor diamond – not the greatest and largest of its kind but with a checkered history like the Hope Diamond (women are safe from its ire, men not so). The tale emerges from a misty past and passes through the hands of the Mughal court (think peacock throne and an arm amulet) to Persian Shahs then back to India in the hands of Punjabis and Sikhs almost always accompanied by blood, envy and devastation.

Dalrymple is very good at drawing together exotic historical materials and weaving them into a fascinating, colourful (sometimes chilling) always insightful story. Return of a King was an engrossing example of his craft at work linking the distant past and present tribulations of Afghanistan brilliantly. I learned a great deal from it as I did from his earlier work on the Middle East. This book utilises material from his past works and focuses onto the pathway of this gem, sometimes almost mythical, sometimes detailed and historical, often shadowy. He does not spare the reader from unpleasant details which act as a counterpoint to the courtly glories of so many of its possessors. While there are conspiracies, murders and battles aplenty (battles on a scale difficult to comprehend), his presentation of the practice of sati from eyewitness accounts was most moving. It helped fix in this reader’s mind some of the nature of the clashes of culture and social life that have so marked that part of the world and continue to this day and hour.

The book is a little unusual in that it has two compartmented authors. Dalrymple wrote the first half covering the long history of the diamond while Anita Anand covers the story from its inheritance by the boy King Duleep Singh and his sad tale at the hands of the British Raj and the court of Queen Victoria. One stand out of this latter section of the book is Anand’s presentation of the life of his mother Rani Jinian. I always enjoy a story where a woman from a non-establishment background brings colour and strength to a flagging and dissipated line. She is a magnificent example of such womanhood.

The book closes with a quick overview of the continuing debate over the stone’s ownership. This is very much along the Elgin marbles theme with two compounding influences. There is the nature of the treaties and agreements forged between decaying and defeated Indian states and the British invaders and their current employment and the fact that this item has been incorporated into the British royal family’s jewel set – good luck with that one!

Readers may have familiarity with the Koh-I-Noor but I would recommend this as a succinct, colourful (mostly Dalrymple’s section) and informative view that matches scholarly research with high readability.

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Insomniac City by Bill Hayes (2017). A review by John Cook

Insomniac City

 

This work can be seen as a companion to Oliver Sack’s last biographical work ‘On the Move: A Life’ (completed under threat of terminal illness in 2015) and Sacks is certainly a well-known name for his writing, therapy and writing about his experiences as a therapist. He almost certainly experienced a degree of Asperger’s with phenomenal powers of concentration and dedication to knowing and understanding his patients. He sidelined his sexual life for many (35) years after realizing his orientation in his late teens and being on the receiving of total dismissal – “I wish you had never been born”. Up to the point of his decision he seems to have had a conventional enjoyment of sexual freedom before ceasing altogether for those years.

 

He eventually met Bill Hayes at 75 (in 2005) who has something of a West Coast Hippy background (it show particularly in his poetry as post-Ferlinghetti) and who had suffered the sudden and tragic loss of what he had presumed would be his life-long partner, Steve. Hayes came to New York from dispersing Steve’s ashes in London in order to find himself anew and he developed great affection both for its people and the environment. He is a hopelessly dedicated people-watcher who also likes to talk to all kinds of chance encounters in all sorts of situations and develops many mini- and long-term relationships, most notably with a local tobacco store worker (the Muslim Ali) and others he meets in his day and night peregrinations (insomnia). He is a gifted photographer and the book is peppered with photos of places but more so the people he encounters. You might care to check-out his personal website which has many more examples of his fine quality black and white work.

 

The book is rather uneven, I found the verse unremarkable while his notebook entries are probably what they should be with occasional flashes of thoughtful insight. His more extended passages about his life in his local setting and his emotional love life with Sacks are far more interesting. His memorialising of Sack’s final days and hours were very fine indeed. The two had an interesting relationship pattern (living apart) which is not as unusual as some might think. I am familiar with a 23 year relationship where the pair live together for one week a month only with other shared time for holidays. I believe that gay men have traditionally had an advantage in inventing and maintaining the form of their relationships to suit.

 

There are moments of wonderful interactions between the two with Hayes’ constantly wandering interests contrasting with Sack’s encyclopaedic knowledge and always questioning the less obvious. The two had one common bond that they found enjoyable to share and which was healthy exercise – a love of swimming together which reflected the emotional intensity of their relationship.

 

This is reasonably brief read with more than average reward.

 

 

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sàenz (2017). A review by John Cook

Aristotle and Dante

 

My thanks to whoever selected this book. It was somewhat underwhelmingly sold as a YA fiction – which it clearly is. However, it is so much more and full of reader interest and enjoyment for all ages. What was remarkable for me was the tone of the writing. This is supposed to be the musings of a 15-17 year old – a breed who are usually notoriously taciturn and not particularly verbal in public. The author has managed beautifully to present a tone that is entirely believable yet capable of great emotional feeling and intensity. – the brevity of many of the passages helped greatly in this respect. This is also writing of great beauty about great beauty. I have spent time in an arid location with occasional brief wild storms and Sàenz taps into that environment with great feeling. The other memory I hold dear of that period of my life (Kynuna, if you need to know – look it up) was the night sky. I had/have no learning of astronomy but just spending time looking up into it remains a fond memory for me to this day.

 

The story is set in the Tex-Mex environment of SW USA with all the implications for issues of race and history that implies and the two main characters with their odd names have those issues to deal with along with the conventional issues of family, school and developing personal and sexual identity. There are also the two required sets of parents who occupy quite different spaces with one being academic and the other more typically local but with an overlay of war-induced stress. A third strand is represented by the absent brother of Ari who is in prison and not discussed in the family as he grows up though there is a mysterious brown envelope which is a physical reminder. Ari’s desire for male emotional contact turns from his somewhat remote father toward his absent brother as he also worries whether he has within himself the seeds of behaviour that could drive him in the same criminal  direction.

 

It is Dante who reaches out to Ari (it is in his nature) and so commences a moving journey of self and other discovery as these young men move through expected good and bad times, close and remote. There are wonderful moments of almost silent discovery especially as they spend time gazing up at the stars in the back of Ari’s ute (see that cover). Issues of sex are raised and well handled often with an element of the comic.

 

There is enough narrative here to keep interest alive but for a gay man, there is the constant interest of where this friendship/relationship is going and I will not spoil that for a reader.

 

A surprising and thoroughly enjoyable read. I can only hope that it is absorbed and accepted by that vast YA audience out there.

 

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