Monday, June 23, 2014

The Mind's Eye

I'm not a ditz - my brain is miswired!

We see with our minds, not really our eyes.  The eyes are just receivers, not interpreters.  That's the basis of Oliver Sacks's The Mind's Eye.  People with apparently normal eyes who do not see (or stop seeing) the world as the rest of us do.  A concert pianist suddenly becomes unable to sight-read music during a concert, a man's morning newspaper appears to be written in a foreign alphabet - neurological oddities appearing through vision and changing the lives of the patients.  Sacks doesn't explain how these oddities happen (there is no explanation), but describes how the two, and a woman left aphasic by a stroke, compensate for their defects with varying degrees of success.  They demonstrate the plasticity of the brain.  

Stereo Sue's story is odder.  We're used to people losing an ability and then coping, but Sue grew up with no depth perception.  In her 50s, she began to see depth - not well or consistently at first, but eventually she developed consistent stereo vision.  You don't miss what you never knew, and Sue had been satisfied with the flattened universe in which she lived.  Seeing bioluminescent plankton in 3-D for the first time, though, she realized what she'd missed.

I've read most of Sacks's books, and they've become more personal in the last decade.  One long chapter detailed his treatment for optical cancer and the related complications - a chapter which I skimmed, thanks to my extreme squeamishness about anything to do with the eye.  He also discusses his prosopagnosia - face blindness.  It's severe enough that he doesn't always recognize reflections of himself, but until a discussion with his brother (also face blind), it was his "normal" and not something he missed.  Sacks then discussed his total lack of a sense of direction, and hypothesized that the two might be related.  

That's when I stopped feeling like a ditz.  My sense of direction is legendarily bad.  Friends joked about it two years before I was even old enough to drive - and my mom jokes that even watching The Amazing Race on TV could be dangerous for me.  I get lost in office buildings and disoriented in malls that bend.  When I went to a friend's mother's funeral (coincidentally the day before I started reading The Mind's Eye), my mother got up at 6 am on a Sunday to act as my navigator, because otherwise I wouldn't find Long Island let alone the funeral parlor.  I'm also not very good putting names to faces - I recognize people by their gait or voice, but when a fellow commuter greets me in the supermarket, it takes me a bit to realize I know them.  I've spent decades thinking I'm inattentive or just an airhead, but instead, I'm probably miswired.  In an odd way, it's comforting to know that, and it even allowed me to relax a bit on my latest road trip - with my mom, of course, as navigator.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Body Work

I guess it's easy to take long-running series for granted.  I used to buy Sara Paretsky's books (and Sue Grafton's and Marcia Muller's) the moment they were available in paperback.  I've never put them on probation and always look forward to their books, but a combination of a busier life, more series to read, and a drift towards non-fiction has led me to fall behind.  Body Work came out in paperback three years ago, but I bought it at The Book Corner this past March.  Paretsky's previous book, Hardball, was her best in at least a decade so I'm surprised it took me so long.

Hardball wasn't linear, and neither is Body Work, although the timeline isn't quite as twisted.  Vic is at the hot new club where a performance artist who invites audience members to draw on her naked body is the usual headliner.  Most nights, a young woman paints the embellished face of another woman on the Body Artist's back, until one night she draws the attention and ire of a young veteran.  After the performance, someone shoots the young woman and she dies in Vic's arms.  The veteran, a young man who enlisted out of patriotism and left the army with PTSD, is a natural suspect and he's found near death from an overdose.  Did he kill her - and why?  Or was he framed?

Well, it would be a very short novel if Chad Vishneski were the killer, so it's not a spoiler to say he's just another victim.  Chad's parents hire Vic to find out if he did kill Nadia Guzman, and she begins to investigate both the victim and the accused.  The link between the two turns out to be Nadia's older sister Alexandra, a civilian contractor who'd died in Iraq and whose time in Baghdad overlapped with Chad's.  This leads Vic to a mix of corporate corruption, money laundering, and drug dealing which eventually ends in the Body Artist's final performance.

Paretsky has put perhaps a bit too much plot into this installment, but she ties it up well.  She's also brought back Vic's cousin Petra, who again acts as the catalyst for Vic's involvement in the case but is otherwise a bit of an annoying brat.  It's a better-than-average installment in a good series, but maybe a bit of a letdown after Hardball.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Murder at the Vicarage

I first read The Murder at the Vicarage 30 or so years ago, but I don't think I've read it since.  It's been 28 years since I saw a high school production of the play.  As with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I remembered only bits of the story but the memories that came back were more personal than plot related.  I remember the pink blood on the "victim's" white shirt and joking with my friends Michelle and Vicky (the stage managers for the show) afterwards, even what I was wearing.  I don't remember the plot.

Maybe it's because the plot is more mechanical than distinctive.  Someone calls vicar Leonard Clement away on a fake call for last rites; he returns home to find Colonel Protheroe dead in the vicarage study.  There are half a dozen or so likely suspects (including the vicar who'd tactlessly expressed how little his overbearing parishioner would be missed after death), and of course those with the strongest motives have the strongest alibis.  Those alibis are no match for Miss Marple's logic, though.  She's actually a minor character (the book is written from the vicar's POV), the most self-aware of a Greek chorus of gossipy old ladies who annoy the vicar's much younger wife.  In her first outing, she's not quite the sweet natured old lady who sees parallels between every crime, big or small, and a long-ago event in St. Mary Mead.  She's a bit cattier, and rather than solving the mystery on her own, she directs the vicar towards the solution.  I recently read Christie's autobiography and she claims that The Murder at the Vicarage had "too much plot."  She's right, but it's still a worthy introduction for the iconic character.