Oliver Sacks died yesterday at eighty-two.
I met Oliver Sacks at the Blue Mountain Center, an artist and writers residency in the Adirondacks, where we spent August of 2012. The room I was assigned had a pretty view out onto Eagle Lake, but it was tiny—there was no way I could pace in it, and I needed to pace, so I disappeared into the mountains several times a day. I walked and walked, got lost in the pouring rain and knocked on the cabin doors of strangers, hoping to be adopted, maybe. Instead I was given haphazard, passionless directions back to the colony. While I was feeling the dark of the woods pressing heavily on my shoulders, Oliver was writing to the sounds of the loons on the lake. He was seventy-nine then. Read More
Our contributor Ben Lerner turned me on to an astonishing new book, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, by Michael W. Clune. A graduate student in the English department at Johns Hopkins, Clune led a double life as a junkie that in the late nineties took him from the slums of Baltimore to a Chicago jail, and, eventually, into recovery. But White Out is more than a recovery memoir. It is a phenomenology of heroin addiction—the single best thing I have read about the drug—and a deep, often beautiful meditation on the nature of memory, pleasure, and time. “In the timeless space of dope I discovered that time is the great enemy of thought … The teacup I hold in my hand is a bullet shot out of a gun. It’s no wonder that it’s so impossibly hard to think in these conditions. It’s no wonder that maggots grow in fresh meat, that an electric bill is overdue as soon as you open it, that the first time you try something you’re already addicted.” —Lorin Stein
You may remember Samuel Delany from, among other things, our Spring 2011 issue. In that interview, he briefly mentions Dennis, his partner of more than twenty years. Among the photographs we considered to accompany the conversation were shots of Chip and Dennis on the couch in their Harlem apartment, and though they didn’t make the final cut, the images contained an intimacy that was, frankly, very touching. Little did I know that their relationship is the subject of its own book. First published twenty-five years ago and reissued this month by Fantagraphics, Bread and Wine is a graphic novella that gives their origin story, beginning when Dennis had been living on the streets in New York for six years. Loosely structured around Hölderlin’s elegy of the same name, the book is told from Delany’s point of view and is by turns realist and direct and revelatory and romantic. In the same way, Mia Wolff’s superb black-and-white art is alternately detailed and spare, drawing the most out of this honest and heartfelt tale. —Nicole Rudick
David Searcy’s essay “The Hudson River School,” in the latest issue of Granta, is about a lot of things: western Texas, Google Maps, coyotes, the Jared Coffin House, and flossing. And just like his previous essays in the Review (here and here) and his fiction, Searcy leaves it up to the reader to put together the pieces. I’ve always loved that in books. My favorite section is his take on the theater of Google Maps, when you click from one point to another, sweeping “away to the rear like smoke in a wind before things re-materialize around the next coordinate” and the smudges in the distance could be anything—a sheep, a crying child, or, simply, emptiness. —Justin Alvarez
I came across Oliver Sacks’s An Anthropologist on Mars on the bookshelf of the house where I’m staying. Sacks writes on the peculiarities of the human brain with both awe and humility; he trusted his patients’ accounts of rare achromatopsia, of reprieve from total blindness, and of anterograde amnesia when no other doctors would. The fact that it was published twenty years ago and still offers significant theories on neurology speaks to Sacks’s importance in the medical and literary worlds. —Ellen Duffer
The small coastal commune of Cassis, located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of Southern France, is a hub of tourism, boasting a coastline of stunning inlets (calanques) and an abundance of venues for consumption of moules-frites. While visiting last week, I was surprised to come upon a poetry shop, selling nothing but customized and framed poems and boasting “plus de 4000 poèmes à votre service pour ceux que vous aimez.” A refreshing change from overpriced bottled water! —Kate Rouhandeh
As Christmas approaches, the churches and concert halls of New York are filled with various renderings of Handel’s Messiah. But one Messiah, perhaps the most iconic of all, which filled the air last year and each year for the forty-five years before it, has gone.
David Randolph conducted his St. Cecilia Chorus’s version of the Messiah at Carnegie Hall every year since 1965. His own birthday was Christmas Eve, and last December 24, as he celebrated his ninety-fifth, he was as full of physical and creative energy as ever. He would bound to the podium with the spring of someone a quarter his age, take a bow, and then turn to the audience, speaking in his deep, melodious baritone, to introduce the singers, players, and their instruments, and the main themes of the Messiah. His passion for the every aspect of the music was evident. He often gave historical glosses on a particular instrument or musical theme, and he never omitted to say that Handel drew much of his most beloved “religious” music from the bawdy Italian love songs of his time. There was no such thing as “religious” music, Randolph felt, any more than there was “military” music or “love” music; there was only music put to different uses, in different contexts. This was a point which he brought out with great eloquence in his beautiful book, This Is Music: A Guide to the Pleasure of Listening, and he would often mention it before a performance of his annual Christmas Oratorio or the great Passions he conducted at Easter. He would mention it, too, when conducting his favorite Requiem Masses by Brahms, Verdi, or Berlioz—all of whom, he would remind the audience, were atheists (as he himself was). The religious imagination, he felt, was a most precious part of the human spirit, but he was convinced that it did not require particular religious beliefs, or indeed any religious belief. (Jonathan Miller, in directing his wonderful Matthew Passion at BAM, often makes the same point.)