Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History is a personal exploration by a certified grand worrier of how worry feels and how it is described in literature. I loved his description of worry as a loop, inescapable it seems, and only amplified rather than stopped by factual knowledge. He also points out that worry is a consequence of freedom of choice, as we worry that we did not choose the best alternative. Therefore, worriers do best as advisers, letting others make decisions.
Contrary to what one might expect, this is not a depressing book at all. Indeed, the author carefully delineates the border of worrying and depression: worry can be put into words; depression cannot.
Much better know for his Sherlock Holmes series, Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote historical novels, of which he was apparently very proud. The Refugees is one of them, and it ambitiously traces the picaresque adventures of a young American who travels to France, helps his Protestant friend survive many perils in procuring a priest for the secret marriage of Louis XV and Madame de Maintenon, and swiftly retreats to North America with friend, friend’s wife, and friend’s father upon the banishing of Huguenots from France. The French adventures are far-fetched — but what happens on the way back (iceberg, Indian attacks) seems utterly unbelievable. Add to that the totally helpless wife who cannot even see the fauna and flora of Canada without them being pointed out to her by her menfolk, and it becomes clear why Sherlock Holmes remains Conan Doyle’s legacy.
My Father, The Pornographer is a tough memoir to read, of the author’s sifting through his father’s prodigious output as a writer of science fiction, and, mostly pornography. While he labors, he reminisces about a difficult man, an always neglectful and often cruel father, and tells outlandish true stories about tagging along with his parents to science fiction conventions, only to be left to his own devices, or, worse, in charge of his marginally younger siblings.
After such a childhood, I’m not sure I would have lugged the (literally) tons of books left in his father’s study to my own house, let alone inventoried them, or read the private papers that showed his dad’s darker side. But the author writes powerfully about both his growing up and the experience of sorting through his father’s estate.
Fates and Furies shows us both sides of an apparently successful marriage. The first, told from the perspective of the husband, a successful playwright who wanted to be an actor, relates his triumphs in stultifying details. The second, much more interesting because devilishly twisted, shows the perspective of the apparently devoted wife. The author manages to cram a rich heir, forgery, a forced baby’s abandonment, and two undetected homicides into the story, which seems a bit much. She also gets details wrong. Walking from Stanford University to San Francisco is not possible in an afternoon (and BART does not reach Stanford, sadly). And cassoulet in Brittany is as unlikely as public transportation in Silicon Valley. Altogether a rather mediocre experience for me, although critics loved the book.
Full of entertaining examples, Simple Rules: How To Thrive In A Complex World is an enjoyable book that proclaims that complex enterprises all benefit from simple rules, and certainly the examples show that the approach can work in many different arenas. That said, the all-important issue of what the rules should be, or how to tell whether they are indeed insightful or true is set to the side.
Still, I found it very useful to be reminded that simplicity does not necessarily hobble progress in complex fields.
The Fugitives starts brilliantly, with a ruminating writer, once famous, married, and living in New York, and now living in a small Michigan town after an ill-advised affair and a troubling case of writer’s block. He is joined by a journalist investigating a theft at a nearby Native American casino and a story-teller at the local library’s children’s hour, who may not be quite whom he says he is. The journalist also has an interesting personal story, but the plot does not seem to move much and becomes choked with too much self-dialog and pointless sex acts, until the final chapters where there are too many gunshots. Too bad the clear-headedness of the beginning does not last.
The Man Who Was Not There: Investigations Into The Strange New Science Of The Self is an enjoyable whirlwind through neuroscience, looking at strange syndromes and disorders through many portraits of unfortunate patients who are not quite sure who they are. It’s a little depressing to see how little we know about what causes all of these woes…