An absolutely lovely memoir by Oliver Sacks' boyfriend, a love story about Sacks and New York City: each equal objects of Hayes' affections.

Hayes, a writer and photographer, moves to New York City after the unexpected death of his partner. A lifelong insomniac, he wanders the city by day and night, sometimes striking up conversations with New Yorkers and asking if he can take their picture, sometimes simply observing. As a lover of cities and being a stranger in a new city, I found this to be one of the very best books I've read for capturing this state of mind. It also made me really miss New York, which I have not visited in many years.

The other part of the book is Hayes' account of how he met Oliver Sacks (when Sacks wrote him a fan letter), how they fell in love, how they stayed in love, and how Sacks died. It's heartbreaking but a lot more about life and love than it is about death. Love stories, even true ones, often feel generic: the emotions are real but not individual. This one makes both Sacks and Hayes and the particulars of their relationship come to life. Oliver Sacks is exactly as charmingly odd in love as one might expect from reading his books; Bill Hayes is a very different type of person (and an extremely different type of writer) but they share a wholehearted delight in observation, in other people's perceptions and experiences, and in the small details of life that make it an endless source of fascination and joy.

I recommend getting this book in hardcover. It's a very beautiful physical object, with the dustcover cut away to show snippets of the image below, as if peering through apartment windows. It also contains photographs which may not show up well in e-book.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

Thanks to Rydra Wong for the rec!
A book on hallucinations which are not caused by schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. (It also doesn’t deal much with culturally normal hallucinations, which is too bad.) Hallucinations – sensory perceptions which occur during waking and are not based on consensus reality - are surprisingly common, and include many experiences which probably most people don’t think to define as hallucinatory.

While drifting off to sleep, with my eyes closed, I often see kaleidoscope-like geometric patterns, faces (often grotesque or witch-like), and occasionally swarming insects. They are not dreams, are not perceived as being part of reality or projected into the real visual field, and do not have emotional connotations. I always assumed they were caused by going from visual perception to blank darkness while drifting toward sleep: a sort of meditative optical illusion/visual imagination.

They are called hypnogogic hallucinations and are extremely common, and the particular things I see are commonly seen, along with other stereotyped visuals. (“Stereotyped” as in common to people who experience the phenomenon, as opposed to “unique.”) They are caused, in simple terms, by the visual centers of the brain “idling” before sleep.

Hypnopompic hallucinations are less common, and are more vivid, often briefly perceived as real, often frightening illusions which occur upon waking from sleep. I've had those too, thankfully only a few times; mine were quite unpleasant, full-sensory illusions of being entombed in stone. They were not nightmares, though; I could also see my real surroundings. Once someone in the room with me verified that I had my eyes wide open and could track movement and respond to voices.

I have also sometimes, while wide awake, heard my name being called, when no one is there or when nobody called it. This is also extremely common. People in dangerous situations often hear voices giving helpful commands or suggestions; grieving people often see or hear their loved ones. These phenomena are common and “normal.”

I wish Sacks had analyzed those situations more in neurological terms, because I find that fascinating. The main theory he suggests, regarding auditory hallucinations in general, is that they’re a glitch caused by the brain failing to recognize its own thoughts. Another possibility is that people become consciously aware of the non-verbal stream of consciousness beneath their articulated thoughts, and perceive it as coming from the outside.

Sacks covers a number of hallucinatory experiences caused by neurological conditions, such as Charles Bonnet Syndrome, in which blind people hallucinate certain types of sights. Also, in a fairly funny chapter, his own youthful drug use.

The non-psychotic hallucinations are typically either never experienced as “real,” or are easily believed to be unreal once someone explains that they aren’t real, or are understood to not be real once they’re over. This is quite different from psychotic disorder-type hallucinations, which are often believed to be real, even when they end. (A person with PTSD may hallucinate, but they typically either always know the hallucination isn’t real, or, as in the case with flashbacks, figure it out in retrospect.) Regarding culturally normal hallucinations like ghosts, people may believe that they did literally see a spirit, but they also regard it as a spirit – a visitor from another realm. That’s a different experience from literally believing that Abraham Lincoln is living in your guest bedroom. (To avoid wank, let’s assume that I am only discussing those perceptions of spirits, God, etc, when they really are hallucinated and not objectively real.)

Hallucinations without accompanying delusions don’t usually cause major life problems for people. They are not “crazy,” though they might worry that they are. Delusions seem to be what cause the life problems.

The book is well-written and intriguing, as one would expect from Sacks, but more descriptive than analytical. Some types of hallucinations, particularly visual ones with a clear-cut neurological basis such as migraine auras, are explained in neurological terms, but others are simply described. The descriptions are quite evocative and the material is fascinating, but I would have liked more neurological speculation, especially on why certain situations or conditions create certain types of hallucinations, like fever deliriums causing distorted perceptions of size, which are almost invariably perceived as unpleasant or threatening.

I also wish he’d covered auditory hallucinations in more depth. At times he speculated on historical figures who might have heard voices. The problem is, many people write about the simple perception of their own thoughts in voice-like terms, so it’s very hard to tell whether someone literally meant they heard a voice, or only that their thoughts were so vivid that they seemed voice-like. It seems entirely possible, too, that two different people might have a neurologically identical experience, but one might attribute it to an outside voice and one to distinctive inner thoughts.

Please discuss your own experiences of and theories on hallucinations, if you wish.

Due to extreme busyness, I not only failed to write up most of what I read, I also failed to write down most of what it was. I know I read more than this in a month, however busy. Oh well.

Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks. If you like Sacks, you will like this; if not, you won't. I do like Sacks. Case studies involving patients with conditions involving or relieved by music, including several variants on Hell's own earworm; musings on the meaning, power, and neurological effects of music. Several of the most touching and powerful stories involve the nostalgia of music heard in childhood -- a nostalgia which is not always positive.

Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders, by Lawrence Weschler. Nonfiction (or is it) about the world's strangest museum, or perhaps an art installation on the theme of museums (and truth, and legend, and belief), Culver City's own Museum of Jurassic Technology. Amazingly, it does not dispell the spell of the museum itself; at one point I began to seriously wonder if Weschler had completely invented a large portion of his seemingly irrelevant but bizarrely fascinating research. Absolutely in the spirit of its subject.

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service # 1, manga by Eiji Ohtsuka and Housui Yamazaki. Gruesome but very funny manga about a crew of misfits, some psychic, some possibly just crazy, who deliver corpses, solve mysteries, and lay the souls of the restless dead. One guy either channels an alien via a hand puppet, or is a psychic who is also a crazy person with an alternate alien personality, or maybe just a very consistent prankster. Some of the best dialogue I've read in a manga; should appeal to fans of Kazuya Minekura and Brian K. Vaughn, if they can take the gruesome corpse drawings, which are sometimes nude for extra creepiness.

A Companion To Wolves, by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. Gay Vikings, violent man-on-man (and wolf-on-wolf) gangbangs of dubious consent, man-wolf bonding, and trolls -- if this sounds good, I promise you will enjoy it. I especially liked the last third, which delves fascinatingly into the underpinnings of the world. The supporting characters could have used more development, especially the hero's sexual partners other than his first (who was great and could have used more pagetime.) Loved the trolls.

The Myriad, by R. M. Meluch. Marines and Romans in spaaaaaace! Loved the main Roman character; unfortunately, was completely allergic to the prose and dialogue (except the dialogue by the main Roman character.) Darn.


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