Thursday, April 28, 2016

Spain: The Centre Of The World 1519 - 1682

Robert Goodwin has written a history of imperial Spain that has an almost novelistic quality in its presentation. The book is divided into two parts. Part one, titled simply Gold, covers the era of expansion when Spaniards built one of the world’s largest overseas empires. Part two, titled Glitter, covers the era of decline when the Spanish empire, overstretched and bureaucratically encumbered, had to contend with a series of costly wars and an extraordinary currency inflation. It was in this glitter age, however, that the greatest of Spain’s artistic achievements were accomplishment.

I am noticing a trend with many of the historical non-fiction books that I read these days. They all begin with a prologue or introductory chapter that details a particularly dramatic scene from history. In Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682 the prologue describes the first treasure ships arriving at Seville from the new world. The ships carry large golden disks once the property of the Aztec emperor but now held in the hands of sweat and grime covered conquistadors whose heads are filled with dreams of land and titles, normally the preserve of nobility but up for grabs at the right price. These harquebus carrying warriors wait anxiously to present their emperor Charles V with this incredible gift. It is one of those moments in history when it seems the universe holds its breath. Charles V, whose eyes must have matched the circumference of those disks once he saw them, would have understood immediately the significance of this prize. The disks meant empire. The colonies could now be properly settled and managed, the wars abroad were now winnable, the issues domestically could now be resolved and all of it paid for by American gold and silver.

The rise of Spain was rapid. It began with the joining in marriage of the crowns of Castile and Aragon. This union was consolidated by the very capable Charles V who did much to expand and consolidate the early empire. His son Philip II brought the empire to its height before witnessing the beginnings of its slow but inevitable decline. Spain had produced some fantastic art during its rise but in its decline art reached a level of beauty and influence that has remained an impressive legacy. Names such as Cervantes, Velazquez and El Greco belong among the most illustrious in human artistic endeavour.

What I like about the book is that the author takes imaginative liberties with his historical materials. He provides the reader with a possible (all be it hypothetical) dialogue between notable historical figures. For example, there is a brief discussion about art between the Emperor Charles V and the painter Titian (who though born in Italy spent much of his productive life as Spanish royal court painter), and a spiritual tete-a-tete between St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. There is also an extended discussion of Cervantes’ famous work, Don Quixote. History with some literary criticism thrown in—wonderful. 

Goodwin has done justice to the dramatic story of the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. If you like reading about the histories of countries and/or kingdoms, and if you like your history to be entertaining, then this book will satisfy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Do No Harm: Stores of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Sometimes . . . I will pause for a while, rest my hands on the arm-rests, and look at the brain I am operating on. Are the thoughts that I am thinking as I look at this lump of fatty protein covered in blood vessels really made out of the same stuff? And the answer always comes back—they are—and the thought itself is too crazy, too incomprehensible, and I get on with the operation. (p. 67–68)

With Oliver Sacks’s death in 2015, the world lost a brilliant neurologist and a highly skilled science writer. Sacks’s accessible case studies of people with neurological disorders in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and several other bestselling books introduced me and millions of others to the fascinating mysteries of the brain. I never tire of reading neuroscience case studies, so I was happy to discover Dr. Henry Marsh’s recent contribution to the genre: Do No Harm: Stores of Life, Death and Brain Surgery.

Drawing from his decades of experience as a brain surgeon in London and in Ukraine, Marsh introduces readers to particular brain tumours or conditions—a different one in each chapter—and then goes on to detail his surgical interventions as well as his interactions with the patients he helps and the patients he cannot.

Marsh excels at describing the surgical approaches and tools he uses for each procedure, making readers feel as if they are in the operating theatre with him. I now understand, for example, how the tiny aneurysm clip works—or sometimes doesn’t—by gazing down the binocular operating microscope with Marsh and watching as he painstakingly clamps the six millimetre titanium life saver across an aneurysm’s fragile neck while wrestling with a faulty applicator.

While most of the stories in Do Not Harm end well, Marsh is frank about the ones that don’t. He discusses his mistakes and failures of judgment with candour, and challenges his patients and his readers to confront the uncertainty and risks inherent in any brain surgery. Marsh is honest about how he still agonizes over his choice of words when communicating with patients. He tries always to deliver just the right mix of optimism and realism for each situation, and he sometimes fails to do this well. 

It becomes clear throughout Do No Harm that Marsh has little patience for bureaucracy and inefficiency in the public health care system—England’s National Health Service, in his case. He is bitingly critical of his hospital’s bed management policies and surgery scheduling practices, and offers a particularly potent example of how digital health records can get in the way of timely patient care. While Marsh’s criticisms are coloured by bitterness and even a touch of arrogance at times, there is much value in seeing how public health care and hospital administration can look from a surgeon’s perspective. 

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Marsh’s premise that “neuroscience tells us it is highly improbable that we have souls” (p. 378), you will appreciate the expanded sense of wonder and mystery that Do No Harm will stimulate. As Marsh summarizes mid-way through his book:

Our sense of self, our feelings and our thoughts, our love for others, our hopes and ambitions, our hates and fears all die when our brains die. Many people deeply resent this view of things, which not only deprives us of life after death but also seems to downgrade thought to mere electrochemistry and reduces us to mere automata, to machines. Such people are profoundly mistaken, since what it really does is upgrade matter into something infinitely mysterious that we do not understand. There are one hundred billion nerve cells in our brains. Does each one have a fragment of consciousness within it? How many nerve cells do we require to be conscious or to feel pain? Or does consciousness and thought reside in the electrochemical impulses that join these billions of cells together? Is a snail aware? Does it feel pain when you crush it underfoot? Nobody knows. (p. 378)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender

I'm a big fan of The Pretenders, but more than that, I'm a Chrissie Hynde fan. To me, she has always been the epitome of the female rock frontman. She's the whole package - guitar player, singer, songwriter, commanding stage presence, pure rock image, and smoldering, tough-girl beauty. I was naturally interested reading her memoirs, even more so when I learned she wrote the book herself, without a professional writer.

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender is aptly titled. Hynde's story is one of rash decisions, massive drinking and drug use, and a sizeable amount of danger. It's also a story of following your heart more than your head (often disregarding your head altogether), about loving music and the rock ethic so intensely, that only that life will do.

Hynde was ready and willing to live a nomadic, stripped-down life, without regard to commercial success, and often without material comfort at all, because comfort and success and everything that goes with it didn't matter. Only music and the rock life - and the true connections that she felt through those - mattered.

So while this review in The New York Times reads Reckless as a cautionary tale, I do not. To me it is simply an honest account without judgment. There's no doubt that Hynde's choices sometimes led to pain and suffering, but there's also no doubt they led her to her most authentic and fulfilled life. She's clearly not advocating a life of drug use and reckless decisions. She's just telling us that's what she did, for better or worse.

The book's subtitle - My Life as a Pretender - is apt, too, as Hynde often saw herself as an impostor, and maybe still does to some extent. Throughout the book, she is self-deprecating about her own talents. It isn't false modesty. It's her an honest self-appraisal from someone who has lived "on nerves and feelings" (as someone Hynde and I mutually adore once wrote) and can't quite understand how her crazy life led her, at least sometimes, to success.

In Reckless, Hynde spends a long time recounting her young years, growing up in Akron, Ohio - her constant sense of alienation, her electric discovery of her musical soul, the scary and dangerous and occasionally fun situations she found herself in. Her pilgrimage to Europe - first London, then Paris, then, after a disastrous attempt to live in the US again, settling in to live in London permanently - is also documented in quite a bit of detail.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, The Pretenders still have not formed. The formation of the band, their early writing and recording, and the deaths of two members of the original lineup, all happen very quickly at the end of the book. I was left with a lot of questions.

The writing itself is very uneven, veering from moving and lyrical, and often humourous, to clunky and ridiculous. The book is sometimes extremely raw and revealing, and sometimes hazy and guarded. Some particularly rough times that Hynde survived - the subject of many book reviews - are recounted only cryptically.

Overall, though, it's a fascinating read. If you've ever fantasized about the rock-and-roll life - ever wondered how a misfit girl from the American midwest ends up leading a bunch of British men in an iconic rock band - and especially if, like me, you love Chrissie Hynde - this book is very entertaining. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]