In Memoriam: Oliver Sacks

When I was young, probably a freshman in high school, I happened to pick up a magazine sitting around the house and started reading an article about a doctor who had worked with patients suffering from sleeping sickness. He had used a drug called L-DOPA, considered a radical treatment at the time, to very good effect.

I graduated college years later with an English degree, and began a career working in restaurants. I spent about ten years as a cook and kitchen manager before I took my first job in a library. One day I happened to see a book with a most curious title: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It was written by Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, and told of a number of remarkable, even mind-boggling mental conditions he had diagnosed and treated. I soon found that he had also written the book Awakenings, which told the longer story of his work using L-DOPA on sleeping sickness. Realizing this was the basis of the article I had read years before, I backtracked and read that book too. It was later made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro, with Robin Williams as Dr. Sacks.

As an English major, I had read almost exclusively fiction in college. I had always read fiction. But Dr. Sacks’ books were so interesting and so compelling that I continued to read them. I read his Musicophilia and The Mind’s Eye. The last book of his I read was Hallucinations, in which, among other things, he described his own avid use of mind-altering drugs in his younger years. He is one of the handful of authors responsible for the fact that to this day I read as much non-fiction as fiction. I number people like David McCullough and Mark Kurlansky on that short list.

Most recently I heard an interview with Dr. Sacks on NPR, in which he talked about some of the difficulties he had experienced in life due to his homosexuality—something I hadn’t known about him, and which he spoke of with humor and pathos. Today I heard the news that Oliver Sacks has died at age 82. He was a brilliant, complex person, a compassionate doctor, and a wonderful author. If you have not read any of his books, you are missing a truly great reading experience.

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The Iraq War and Fiction

For most wars in our history there has been great literature produced. We can all name one or two definitive novels of wars past, such as The Red Badge of Courage for the Civil War, All Quiet on the Western Front for World War I, War and Remembrance or The Naked and the Dead for World War II, and The Things They Carried for the Vietnam War.

For a few years now we have been seeing fiction about the Iraq War experience. The question is, have we yet found the definitive novel? What do we look for in defining a war’s experience? Stories of the war? Stories about the people who fought that war? Stories of what it is like to come home, having fought such a war? In the case of the Irag war, we are offered a variety of fiction from which to choose.

Fives and Twenty-fives, by Michael Pitre, tells the story of three soldiers from a construction battalion that spent its time filling potholes in the roads in Iraq. The title is based on the technique used to ensure you keep your distance from the bombs that may be lurking in those potholes. A New York Times notable book for 2012, it was cited for its careful character studies, especially of an Iraqi soldier working for the Americans and his somewhat divided loyalties.

Fobbit, by David Abrams, tells the story of soldiers who spend all of their time in the relative comfort and safety of a forward operating base (FOB), rather than the front lines of the war. His unusual, but likely realistic interpretation, is that not everyone in uniform is a hero. More darkly humorous than most of the current books on the Iraq war, some have compared its satire to the formidable Catch-22.

The novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, offers yet another view of the war. Fountain takes the country as a whole to task for its all-too-easy celebration of the war’s heroes (walking them out at the halftimes of football games), while having little at stake in the war. Only one half of one-percent of Americans ever served.

One of the best Iraq War novels so far has been The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. It is the  beautifully written story of two very young soldiers who become friends during their first deployment in Iraq, and the tragedies that ensue. A story that moves back and forth almost jarringly between scenes of horrifying and ill-defined battles in Iraq and moments spent back home, it leaves the reader with a deep sense of how hard it is to shake the war experience and just go on living.

Finally there is Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. While the writing does not perhaps rise to the level of The Yellow Birds, the stories are nonetheless grittier, and filled with an even deeper sense of the war’s—of any war’s—horrors and effects on its participants.

Doubtless there will be much more fiction produced about the Iraq War. What have you read? What do you think are the best works so far, the ones you would recommend?