Sunday, January 20, 2008

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia. I love Oliver Sacks. What I love most about his books is the boundless curiosity that spreads out from topic to topic, and I also appreciate the respect and obvious love he has for his patients. He has a passion for music himself, and so the exploration of the neurology of music was captivating, and more personal than some of his other books. This book also had a little less natural structure and tightness than some of his other collections. Lots of stories about memory loss and brain injury that alter musical experience, and summaries of interesting research and case studies related to music and the brain. I'm not a very musical person myself, but as I read this I did think about the place music has in my head, about the memories and emotions it can evoke -and I also thought about other more musical people I know, and how large a portion of their lives is wrapped up in playing and listening to music. Matt is like that, and it baffles me. I think my involvement with books is just as mysterious to him as his musical focus is to me.

Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George, The Cobweb

Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George, The Cobweb. If I were Stephenson and George I would have kept this under the pseudonym "Stephen Bury" - or better yet I would have buried it. I doubt it was the fault of George, but collaboration seems to have amplified every flaw in Stephenson's style and narrative and to have eviscerated the ornate plots and baroque flourishes that he can pull off with such cohesion. Put gently, this book was terrible. Think a John Grisham novel, but with a weaker plot and flatter characters (ok, maybe not flatter, but the plot definitely lacks conviction and seems mechanical). For one thing, the main character is a strong silent type, which is hard to pull off, even in a thriller. The botulin toxin plot (which could have been fantastic) was dull and forced, as well as unbelievable. But the insurmountable flaw was the horrible purple prose. Let me reproduce a sentence here (from page four) that should win some sort of award:
"Clyde had attended the same junior high school as Desiree, and he could still remember sitting behind her in algebra, tracing the construction of her French braids- straight dark hair pulled in on itself, stretched to explosive tension like the strings of a piano - and getting woozy over the lace that draped around her tanned neck like a ring of Ivory soap suds."
(!)I thought at first that sentence was satire, but I gave up that hope after a few hundred pages. Now, Neal Stephenson's never been phenomenal at romantic tension or writing female characters in general, but that usually doesn't stop me from loving his books. I suppose everyone is entitled to a few failed experiments. This one is best forgotten.