Tag Archives: Oliver Sacks

154. Books Bought & Read, March 2017…

154. Books Bought & Read, March 2017…

March 2017 saw me pad my early-season stats with a bingo-esque 44 books bought, 26 read.

I was almost neck-and-neck in my buying:reading ratio last month until, perhaps getting a little cocky, I visited my old friend Chris at the Central Park Strand Stand for the first time in weeks, (walking away eight books heavier, mainly the colourful edition of Vonnegut novels I have decided to re-collect all of his novels in), and found a small treasure trove of food-based books during my last shift at the Housing Works charity bookstore where I am now struggling to find time to volunteer.

The reason for both of these last facts, (kitchen reading and lack of time), is that I found myself accidentally getting a new job this month. This weekend I became a fully trained tour guide for the oldest (and the best!) food tasting tour company in NYC, the wonderful Foods of New York Tours. If you want to be led around Greenwich Village and fed by me, both literally and informationally, get in touch!


Until those tours, and a side project I have working at a small, plucky startup company called Apple kick in properly next month, I am reading as much as possible, from an advance copy on the science behind ‘Flavo(u)r’ (did you know foods can taste better depending on the colour or weight of the plate?) to the ever-informative Michael Pollan on how cooking makes us more human, (and apparently the Netflix series isn’t too bad, either).

I cleansed my palette with a surprisingly heavy diet of death…and comic books.

I found a two small collections of final thoughts from two perennial thought-provokers, (Oliver Sacks and Christopher Hitchens), and Neil Gaiman’s fun and fierce retelling of Norse Mythology kind of fit right in, as the gods go around killing whomsoever they want, (and often being killed themselves…for a while). It seems unfair that Neil Gaiman not only writes so wonderfully, but gets the most stunning covers: the 3D-feeling MjölnirHammer of Thor, making for a stunning image on the front of his latest collection of tales.



I was excited to finally read some James Baldwin, after seeing the wonderful documentary on him last month, and both Ted Talk books lived up to previous expectations, especially the one on architecture, but the surprise find of the month came from a sliver of a book which caught my eye due to its author, (not that Andy Kaufman, it turned out…)


‘All My Friends Are Superheroes’ was a wonderfully witty, wryly romantic, hipster-nerd romcom of a tale, and if you don’t feel like buying it you could probably read it in half an hour in the bookshop.

Just don’t tell them I sent you…

Books Bought, March 2017

The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin)

Peanuts: the art of charles m.schultz (ed.Chip Kidd)

Dig If You Will The Picture: funk, sex, god and genius in the music of prince (Ben Greenman) x2

Know This: today’s most interesting and important scientific ideas, discoveries, and developments (ed.John Brockman)

X: a highly specific, defiantly incomplete history of the early 21st century (Chuck Klosterman)

The Adventures Of John Blake: mystery of the ghost ship (Philip Pullman & Fred Fordham)

H Is For Hawk (Helen MacDonald)

When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)

The Schooldays Of Jesus (J.M.Coetzee)

Tears We Cannot Stop (Michael Eric Dyson)

Absolutely On Music (Haruki Murakami & Seiji Ozawa)

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide To The Midlife Crisis (Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris)

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide To The Hipster (Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris)

Not My Father’s Son (Alan Cumming)

McSweeney’s No.5

Flash Boys (Michael Lewis)

Go Tell It On The Mountains (James Baldwin)

All My Friends Are Superheroes (Andrew Kaufman)

How To Make Books (Esther K.Smith)

Make Trouble (John Waters)

Tales Of Ancient Egypt (Roger Lancelyn Green)

Universal: a guide to the cosmos (Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw)

The Global Novel: writing the world in the 21st century (Adam Kirsch)

Garlic And Sapphires: the secret life of a critic in disguise (Ruth Reichl)

Flavor: the science of our most neglected sense (Bob Holmes)

Selected Poems (Edna St.Vincent Millay)

Revolution For Dummies: laughing through the arab spring (Bassem Youssef)

The Village: 400 years of beats and bohemians, radicals and rogues, a history of greenwich village (John Strasbaugh)

The Last Unicorn (Peter S.Beagle)

How To Talk To Girls At Parties (Neil Gaiman, Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon)

The Essex Serpent (Sarah Perry)

The Food And Wine Of France: eating and drinking from champagne to provence (Edward Behr)

The Beats: a graphic history (Harvey Pekar et al)

In The Land Of Invented Languages: adventures in linguistic creativity, madness, and genius (Arika Okrent)

Home And Away: writing the beautiful game (Karl Ove Knausgaard & Fredrik Ekelund)

An Abbreviated Life (Ariel Leve)

Bluebeard (Kurt Vonnegut)

Mother Night (Kurt Vonnegut)

Sirens Of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut)

David Boring (Daniel Clowes)

The Last Interview (Lou Reed)

The New York Stories (John O’Hara)

You, Too, Could Write A Poem (David Orr)

111 Shops In New York That You Must Not Miss: unique finds and local treasures (Susan Lusk & Mark Gabor)


Books Read, March 2017 (Recommended books in bold)

Moving To Higher Ground: how jazz can change your life (Wynton Marsalis)

The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: century – 1969 (Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill)

Why We Work (Barry Schwartz)

Patience (Daniel Clowes)

The Art Of Stillness: adventures in going nowhere (Pico Iyer)

Gratitude (Oliver Sacks)

Mortality (Christopher Hitchens)

Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman)

Peanuts: the art of charles m.schultz (ed.Chip Kidd)

The Adventures Of John Blake: mystery of the ghost ship (Philip Pullman & Fred Fordham)

Museum Legs: fatigue and hope in the face of art (Amy Whitaker)

Bat-Manga! the secret history of batman in japan (ed.Chip Kidd)

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide To The Midlife Crisis (Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris)

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide To The Hipster (Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris)

The Future Of Architecture In 100 Buildings (Mark Kushner)

All My Friends Are Superheroes (Andrew Kaufman)

Islam: a short history (Karen Armstrong)

The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin)

Cooked: a natural history of transformation (Michael Pollan)

A Grief Observed (C.S.Lewis)

Make Trouble (John Waters)

The Global Novel: writing the world in the 21st century (Adam Kirsch)

Flavor: the science of our most neglected sense (Bob Holmes)

How To Talk To Girls At Parties (Neil Gaiman, Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon)

Garlic And Sapphires: the secret life of a critic in disguise (Ruth Reichl)

The Beats: a graphic history (Harvey Pekar et al)


Posted by on April 4, 2017 in BOOKS


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151. Books Bought & Read, December 2016…

151. Books Bought & Read, December 2016…

38 bought and 18 read on the final month of the year.

That seems about average (for me, not for a sane person), and also explains why the brand new, beckoningly empty Billy bookcase which seemed like it would never be filled when we bought it three months ago is already double-stacked and features books precariously arrayed on top of it.

My next blog will be the traditional review of the year, which I’m sure you’re all awaiting with baited breath, (why do we call it that? Doesn’t that conjure up an image of a tongue laced with a single maggot?!)

For now, you’ll have to make do with some recommendations from last month, starting with the amazing ‘Last Interview’ series from Melville House Publishing, currently standing at 18 subjects and still growing.

If, like me, you read to learn about things you know nothing about, this set of short interview collections can educate you on everything from race relations to city-planning via the Holocaust and, (mainly), literature by delving into the minds of some of the greatest thinkers, writers and creators of the 20th century.

My New York history binge continues to chug along, the highlight this month being the story of the ridiculously named punk-and-pizza-fanatic Colin Atrophy Hagendorf who wrote a surprisingly informative memoir on experiencing Manhattan by eating a slice of pizza from every pizza parlour on the island.


My father-in-law gave me a timely nudge towards the workplace with (among many, many other things) Jenny Blake’s ‘Pivot’ appearing in my stocking this year, a motivational guide on how to harness your qualities, (and, mainly, your network of professional friends, which she seems to presume everyone already has), in order to pivot into your ideal career, which I will be working on over the coming months, (who knew you needed a job to live in New York?!).

(In fact, in an upcoming blog I will be putting some of her advice into action, and you can find out how to get your hands on some of my favourite books whilst helping me explore my entrepreneurial side. Stay tuned!)

This was just one of two vector-based book titles read this month, with the fairly fascinating ‘Swerve‘ teaching me how the Renaissance emerged, in part, due to the efforts of 15th century book-hunters (what a job title!) rescuing Roman essays and manuscripts from damp monastery cellars, and covering everything from Epicureanism to the discovery of the atom. Right up my street.


Finally, I ticked off a couple of those ever-present ‘Award-winning,‘ ‘National Bestseller,’ ‘Book of The Year‘-stickered  novels which I had passed over on previous bookshelf-dives due to them being either too thick or too serious looking, and I am glad I did.

Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’ was the perfect book to read whilst wandering around Manhattan, but Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer winning ‘The Sympathizer‘ was a stunning reflection on the Vietnam War from a nuanced perspective we rarely get to experience.

Both books contained some fantastic wordplay and musings on race relations, Nguyen especially nonchalantly throwing out ingenious linguistic constructions such as Vietnam having suffered a “century of avuncular French molestation,” describing a country where daughters were “frantic to squeeze into the elevator of social mobility,” and whose history he often tried to forget despite “my thoughts, devious cabdrivers that took me where I did not want to go.”

Happy new year everyone, and keep reading!


Books Bought, December 2017

The Death Ray (Daniel Clowes)

Work:1986-1006, Book One (Chip Kidd)

Animals (Ingela P.Arrhenius)

Titan: the life of john.d.rockefeller, sr (Ron Chernow)

White Noise (Don DeLillo)

The Broom Of The System (David Foster Wallace)

Confessions Of The Lioness (Mia Couto)

The Upright Thinker (Leonard Mlodinow)

The Pattern Of The Stone: the simple ideas that make computers work (W.Daniel Hillis)

Eternity’s Sunrise: the imaginative world of william blake (Leo Damrosch)

The Tales Of Ise (unknown)

The Song Machine: inside the hit factory (John Seabrook)

Shrinks: the untold story of psychiatry (Jeffrey Lieberman)

A Journey To The End Of The Russian Empire (Anton Chekov)

The Customs Of The Kingdoms Of India (Marco Polo)

Adventures In The Rocky Mountains (Isabella Bird)

Jaguars And Electric Eels (Alexander von Humboldt)

Escape From The Antarctic (Ernest Shackleton)

Can-Cans, Cash And Cities Of Ash (Mark Twain)

Portlandia: a guide for visitors (Fred Armisen & Carrie Brownstein)

The Crane Wife (Patrick Ness)

Snow White (Donald Barthelme)

Double Indemnity (James M.Cain)

The Shell Collector (Anthony Doerr)

The End Of The Story (Lydia Davis)

The Last Interview: David Bowie

The Last Interview: J.D.Salinger

The Last Interview: Oliver Sacks

Hallucinations (Oliver Sacks)

The Sellout (Paul Beatty)

Fate, Time And Language: an essay on free will (David Foster Wallace)

The Name Of The World (Denis Johnson)

Titanic: first accounts (ed.Tim Martin)

McSweeney’s No.11

The Magic Of Reality: how we know what’s really true (Richard Dawkins & Dave McKean)

Armageddon In Retrospect (Kurt Vonnegut)

Thunder And Lightning: past, present and future (Lauren Redniss)

The Art Of Travel (Alain de Botton)


Books Read, December 2017

Decoded (Mai Jia)

The Swerve: how the world became modern (Stephen Greenblatt)

Made In America (Bill Bryson)

Buddha (Karen Armstrong)

New York, Then And Now (Marcia Reiss & Evan Joseph)

The Death Ray (Daniel Clowes)

Portlandia: a guide for visitors (Fred Armisen & Carrie Brownstein)

Animals (Ingela P.Arrhenius)

Muhammad (Karen Armstrong)

Slice Harvester: a memoir in pizza (Colin Atrophy Hagendorph)

Oliver Sacks: The Last Interview and other conversations

The Island Of The Colorblind (Oliver Sacks)

J.D.Salinger: The Last Interview and other conversations

Open City (Teju Cole)

The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen)

Pivot: the only move that matters is your next one (Jenny Blake)

The Real Madrid Way: how values created the most successful sports team on the planet (Steven G.Mandis)

David Bowie: The Last Interview and other conversations


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Posted by on January 12, 2017 in BOOKS


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60. ‘Musicophilia,’ Oliver Sacks…

60. ‘Musicophilia,’ Oliver Sacks…

Musicophilia,’ Oliver Sacks

For much of my life, I ‘suffered’ what could easily be called an addiction to music. Especially during my teenage years, like many my age I spent most of my earnings on CD’s, (in the days when you actually had to pay for music, just after the days of spending all your money on cassettes and quite a lot after the days of getting floppy vinyl free on kids’ magazines, and before the brief and regrettable faze of converting all of my CDs to Minidisc and then selling them); I fell asleep to the radio, and woke up to it still playing after having saved all of my pocket money for 6months in order to buy a tape-to-tape dubbing boombox with four-band radio, (four bands?! After AM and FM, I’m not even sure I can name the other two, and I’m fairly certain I never listened to them!); and everywhere I went I was accompanied by a Walkman, or a Discman, or eventually, of course, an iPod.


I’m less addicted nowadays, (books having replaced music in my obsessions), but this was a chance for me to combine my past and present loves in this scientific collection of musical related conditions from Oliver Sacks, best known for his two previous titles ‘Awakenings‘ (mentioned in a recent blog as the source for the De Niro/Robin Williams film of the same name), and ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

Sacks divides the various mental musical conditions into various categories, and as in most of his other works gives case studies of the various patients he has studied over the years, corresponded with or, often, himself and his family and friends, to illustrate the conditions. However, as someone fascinated by the workings of the human brain, after a few chapters I began to find the style a little dry, and lacking in depth: this was in stark contrast to a book I read a few years ago, and which understandably loomed large in my mind whilst reading ‘Musciophilia‘: the stunning ‘This Is Your Brain On Music: understanding a human obsession‘ by Daniel.J.Levitin, a book bursting with music and fascination, from its gorgeous front cover to the science of musical comprehension in the brain, via its potential importance evolutionarily to the human species.


Still, it is interesting to see how music and its deficiencies/over-abundances can affect (read: completely alter/destroy) our lives, and many of the case studies are intriguing. Sacks is himself from a highly musical family, and naturally draws a lot of material from the classical music about which he is so passionate, (compare this to a sample of the music discussed in Levitin’s book: The Beatles, Depeche Mode, The Monkees, Sesame Street, as well as Prokofiev, Miles Davis and The Star Spangled Banner), and there was plenty to keep me interested, (and to quote from for you).

Sacks on his father, (a prescient taste of the latest offering from slacker hero Beck, whose most recent ‘album’ Song Reader is only available as sheet music, to be performed or, if you are Sacks Sr, merely listened to on paper…and bizarrely, ‘released’ by my beloved McSweeney’s):

“He always had two or three miniature orchestral scores stuffed in his pockets, and between seeing patients he might pull out a score and have a little internal concert…”

On Mrs.C. in a chapter on ‘Musical Hallucinations,’ presenting an interesting alternative take on the urban myth that people who lose a sense gain heightened other senses: in fact, it turns out people who lose a sense often gain a heightened phantom feeling of the sense they have lost:

“Given her deafness, the auditory part of the brain, deprived of its usual input, had started to generate a spontaneous activity of its own, and this took the form of musical hallucinations, mostly musical memories from her earlier life. The brain needed to stay incessantly alive, and if it was not getting its usual stimulation, whether auditory or visual, it would create its own stimulation in the form of hallucinations…”

How can neuroscientists know so much about music and the brain?

“Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation…”

Sacks was probably almost as startled as I was to see quoted a book, (the only one I bought in my first six weeks in Guatemala), which was sitting on my shelf waiting to be read next, (and, incidentally, finished moments before I started writing this blog):

“I was startled to find the following passage in Nabakov‘s autobiography, Speak, Memory:

‘Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds’…”

(I also learned the fascinating fact that Nabakov, one of my all-time favourite authors, is a synesthete, as well as his mother, his wife, and his son too!)


Vladimir Nabokov

The best moments were the descriptions of the truly bizarre eccentricities certain patients, or people in general, exhibited:

“I had met the French neurologist François Lhermitte, who once told me that when he heard music, he could say only that it was ‘The Marseillaise’ or that it was not…”

“The Finnish entomologist Olavi Sotavalta, an expert on the sounds of insects in flight, was greatly assisted in his studies by having absolute pitch – for the sound of an insect in flight is produced by the frequency of its wingbeats…The sound pitch made by the moth Plusia gamma approximates a low F-sharp, but Sotavalta could estimate it more precisely as having a frequency of 46 cycles per second…”

Quoting ‘The Oxford Companion to Music‘ on the ‘diminished seventh chord’:

“The chord is indeed the most Protean in all harmony. In England the nickname has been given it of ‘The Clapham Junction of Harmony’ – from a railway station in London where so many lines join that once arrived there one can take a train for almost anywhere else…”

Back to one of my favourite topics, and conditions – synesthesia:

“Patrick Ehlen is a psychologist and songwriter who has very extensive synesthesia…He remembers how his first-grade teacher, seeing him staring into space, asked what he was looking at. He replied that he was ‘counting the colors till Friday’…”

How useful has music been in history? Beside its theoretical importance to culture, language development and a host of other areas, it has played at least one crucial role in science, in Galileo’s experiments to time the descent of objects down inclined planes:

“Having no accurate watches or clocks to go by, he timed each trial by humming tunes to himself, and this allowed him to get results with an accuracy far beyond that of the timepieces of his era…”

I leave the final word on music, and its importance, to Sacks himself, epitomising the old saying: ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’:

“Music is part of being human, and there is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed. Its very ubiquity may cause it to be trivialized in daily life: we switch on a radio, switch it off, hum a tune, tap our feet, find the words of an old song going through our minds, and think nothing of it. But to those who are lost in dementia, the situation is different…”


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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in BOOKS


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