Friday, October 13, 2017

A Year of Literary Trepanations

In 2016, I read six different books that mentioned trepanation. So far in 2017, I have read none. So, I am looking back on 2016 as my Year of Literary Trepanations.

Venomous by Christie Wilcox

Fascinating information about deadly poisons and how people can benefit from them. Did you know that a handful of botulism toxins is enough to kill everyone on the planet, if divided equally among them? Yet you can safely inject minuscule amounts of it into the forehead of someone who is overly concerned about their wrinkles. I learned about bee sting therapy and the recreational use of snake bites and all kinds of other cool stuff. Wilcox mentions trepanation in a tangental way:

"... dubious antique medical practices like trepanation: drilling a hole into one's skull to let out evil spirits"

Patient H.M.: Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

The subtitle says it all. Much of what we know about memory is thanks to Henry Molaison, a patient with epilepsy who received a botched lobotomy. It sometimes felt like a thriller, with unexpected twists even towards the end. The audiobook has a great narrator, George Newbern, but I'm too squeamish for play-by-play details of brain surgery, so I had to fast-forward through those parts. Engrossing true subject matter.

"My grandfather, like most lobotomists, performed a disproportionate number of psychosurgeries on women. The known clinical effects of lobotomy, including tractability, passivity and docility, overlapped nicely with what many men at the time considered to be ideal feminine traits."

"Freeman believed he could train any reasonably competent psychiatrist how to perform an ice pick lobotomy in an afternoon."

"August 25, 1953. Henry lies on his back on an operating table in the Hartford Hospital neurosurgery suite. At the head of the table, flanked by scrub nurses and assistants, my grandfather leans over Henry with a trepan in his hand. Henry has been sedated and given a local anesthetic, and the flesh has been peeled down from his forehead, but he is conscious. A trepan is a sort of wide-mouthed serrated drill."

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie

Warmth, wackiness and squirrels. Lessons about being true to yourself. I loved this satirical feel-good novel. One of the characters is a young guy who has invented the "versatile Pneumatic TURBO Skull Punch," a trepanning device "well suited to a range of hole punching operations," and both the pharmaceutical and defence industries are excited about its possibilities, calling it "the greatest contribution to warfighter injuries in years." Trepanations everywhere!

"I pledge allegiance to the marketplace of the United States of America TM and to the conglomerates, for which we shill, one nation, under Exxon-Mobil/Halliburton/Boeing/Walmart, nonrefundable, with litter and junk mail for all."

"Art is despair with dignity."

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

A poignant, insightful novel with an ensemble cast of immigrants from various Latin American countries, who live in the same cinderblock apartment building in Delaware. One of the central characters is a Mexican teen with severe head trauma.

"So now what we need to do - what I need your permission to do - is remove a small piece of her skull to make room for the swelling and to keep the pressure from building too much." He stopped and looked at us again. "If it builds too much, she could die. And the longer we wait to relieve it, the more damage she'll likely experience."

"We're the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they've been told they're supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we're not that bad, made even that we're a lot like them. And who would they hate then?"

Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki

Monty is an endearing 16-year-old coping with mean girls and rude boys, making mistakes and finding forgiveness. Her parents are caring and in the forefront (a rarity in YA, where parental absence allows the protagonists more freedom to act) and Monty's parents are also lesbians (a rarity in any novel).

"a link to the craziest thing I have ever seen on the Internet, a site about people who actually drill holes into the tops of their skulls to increase brain blood flow. To improve psychic powers. That's what trepanation is!"

I resisted the temptation to actually search for this sort of thing on YouTube. It makes me shudder just thinking about it.

The Fireman by Joe Hill

Post-apocalyptic thriller with a plague that causes people to burst into flames. Harper Grayson, a conscientious nurse, is one of the central characters in this fast-paced story. Kate Mulgrew performs a fantastic narration for the audiobook, which is over 22 hours long.

"[Harper] told him about trepanning Father Storey's skull with a power drill and disinfecting it with port."

"She had treated John Rookwood's mauled arm with a weak dose of good intentions."

"The hens are clucking. Harper thought it would be a toss-up, which term for women she hated more: bitch or hen. A hen was something you kept in a cage, and her sole worth was in her eggs. A bitch, at least, had teeth."

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

The pamphlet described in great detail a medical procedure that you called mental ventilation, that is the drilling of holes in the skulls of the sick to let the evil spirits out.


New entry, April 2018. I saw a museum replica of a skeleton, from either the Neolithic or the late Stone Age, with a trepanned hole in its skull. Bru na Boinne, Ireland.

Museum exhibit at Bru na Boinne.

New entry, April 1, 2019. (This is not a joke.) I've come across reference to trepanation in:

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

Amanda Feilding, who was born in 1943, is an eccentric as only the English aristocracy can breed them. (She’s descended from the house of Habsburg and two of Charles II’s illegitimate children.) A student of comparative religion and mysticism, Feilding has had a long-standing interest in altered states of consciousness and, specifically, the role of blood flow to the brain, which in Homo sapiens, she believes, has been compromised ever since our species began standing upright. LSD, Feilding believes, enhances cognitive function and facilitates higher states of consciousness by increasing cerebral circulation. A second way to achieve a similar result is by means of the ancient practice of trepanation. This deserves a brief digression. [...]

Trepanation was for centuries a common medical practice, to judge by the number of ancient skulls that have turned up with neat holes in them. Convinced that trepanation would help facilitate higher states of consciousness, Fielding went looking for someone to perform the operation on her. When it became clear no professional would oblige, she trepanned herself in 1970, boring a small hole in the middle of her forehead with an electric drill. (She documented the procedure in a short but horrifying film called Heartbeat in the Brain.) Pleased with the results, Fielding went on to stand for election to Parliament, twice, on a platform of "Trepanation for National Health.” 

Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein

The first step is to score a circle with a tournĂ© knife, the smallest in a knife roll, a third of the way down the eggshell. Then, score it again to cut the top cleanly off, leaving the shell looking like a trepanned head. Then you carefully empty out the yolk and white, separating them into bowls to be used later. 
[on preparing eggshells to be used as serving vessels for custard]

The Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang

Mokoya saw the hole [the dragon-type creature] had trepanned into the domed roof. […] a yawning lobotomy of cracked roof…
[Note: It‘s the roof of the tower containing the library, so this comparison to a brain is apt.]

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Best of September Reading 2017

Out of 30 books that I read in September, there are a handful that really stand out, and half of them happen to be by Indigenous authors.

Best Indigenous Short Stories: 
Annie Muktuk and Other Stories by Norma Dunning
A brilliant collection by an Edmonton author of Inuit heritage. Tragedy and joy; a conversational style; intimate and fresh - I loved it all.
"He had said he was there to study mollusks. Siutiruq in her language - snails. No one ate snails! She told him that if he was looking for wrinkles to visit her anaanatsiaq. He didn't understand. She had dug in some mud along the shoreline and held one close to his blue eyes. 'See the wrinkles on their shell - like Grandma's face!' she had exclaimed. He grinned with all those perfect white teeth." "They are my daughters, the extension of me in this cold northern world. I taught them some English but mostly they all speak their moms' tongue and so do I. When I learned their language, I began to respect their culture and it became a part of me. It moved into my heart and set up camp in my soul. It became who I am." "'Hey, see that big rock over there - let's roll it!' 'Rock and roll - old style, husband?' Elipsee grins. We begin our game of tundra bowling. When we were kids we used to go out and just roll the tundra rock around. We'd make castles and forts and igloos and cairns. We didn't make inukshuks though. That was serious stuff for serious hunters."

Best Indigenous Queer Poetry: 
This Wound Is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt
Wow! I was bowled over by the sorrow, rage and beauty in these powerful poems. Belcourt is a Rhodes Scholar from Driftpile Cree Nation in Alberta.
"the cree word for a body like mine is weesageechak. the old ones know of this kind of shape-shifting: sometimes i sweat and sweat until my bones puddle on the carpet in my living room and i am like the water that comes before new life."
"i ran off the edge of the world
into another world
and there everyone 
was at least a little gay."
"one of the conditions of native life today is survivor's guilt."
"femininity is a torch only the bravest men can carry."
"i never liked goodbyes, but some of us aren't here to stay."

Best Indigenous Nonfiction: Indigenous Writes: 
A Guide to First Nations, Metis & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel
This looks intimidating, like a textbook, but it is very engaging once you start reading. Each chapter is short, with lots of endnotes guiding readers to more information if you want it. I read a library copy and loved it so much that I bought my own copy afterwards. Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, describes Vowel's outstanding narrative voice as 'passionate, intellectual and populist.' 'With facts, examples, patience and sardonic humour, she takes us on a guided tour of the legal, political and social wrangling that has torn at the founding relationships of this country.' Thomas King's The Inconvenient Indian is another title that I recommend for readers who want a better understanding of modern relations between settlers and Indigenous peoples. King covers a broader and more historical North American context, while Vowel keeps a tight focus on contemporary issues in Canada and the historical contexts from which they arise.
"While there are certainly people claiming a First Nations identity based on blood myths (long-lost or imagined ancestors), it tends to be a less common phenomenon in Canada than in the United States. Part of that, at least where I come from, is a deep-rooted racism against Indigenous peoples that makes being Indigenous in no way an enviable or sought-out identity."

Best Indigenous Dystopia YA: 
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Read a long post about this thought-provoking novel on my blog here"Wildlife was limited to buzzards, raccoons the size of huskies, domestic pets left to run feral, and hordes of cockroaches that had regained the ability to fly like their southern cousins. I had been scared of them all when I was still running with my brother. Now they were nothing. I crunched over lines of roaches like sloppy gravel, threw rocks at the pack of guinea pigs grunting at me with prehistoric teeth."
Best Queer Fantasy: 
Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire
Twins from a nursery rhyme, thrown in with elements from two horror classics - Dracula and Frankenstein. Dark, playful, witty: a stylized folktale effect. A doorway fantasy with a creepy atmosphere, perfect for Halloween. I actually liked this slim follow-up to Every Heart a Doorway quite a bit better than the first one, and it does stand alone.
"At the crest of the hill Jacqueline's foot hit a dip in the soil and she fell, tumbling down the other side of the hill with a speed as surprising as it was bruising. Jillian shouted her sister's name, lunging for her hand, and found herself falling as well, two little girls rolling end over end, like stars tumbling out of an overcrowded sky."
"It would become quickly dull, recounting every moment, every hour the two girls spent, one in the castle and one in the windmill: it would become quickly dull, and so it shall not be our focus, for we are not here for dullness, are we? No. We are here for a story, whether it be wild adventure or cautionary tale, and we do not have the time to waste on mundane things."

Best Queer Science Fiction: 
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Warm and compelling adventure in two timelines with a focus on AI (artificial intelligence) personhood.
"Life is terrifying. None of us have a rule book. None of us know what we're doing here. So, the easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it."
"Among their galactic neighbours, Aeluons used the usual set of male-female-neutral pronouns that any species would understand. But among themselves, they were a four-gendered society."

Best Cookery: Salt, Fat, Acid Heat: 
Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
"Use salt to enhance, fat to carry, and acid to balance the flavour." 
The first half covers the basic elements listed in the title, presented with warmth and encouragement. Classic recipes follow, with lots of suggestions for variations. 
"Recipes do not make food taste good; people do."
"The choice to embellish this book with illustrations rather than photographs was deliberate. Let it liberate you from feeling there's only one perfect version of every dish." The whimsical art is by Wendy MacNaughton.
Fold-out charts are packed with information. This would be a great gift for anyone who wants to learn how to cook, or who doesn't feel confident about improvisation in the kitchen.
All of the recipes that I tried from this cookbook turned out great.
This is a carrot salad with ginger and lime,
topped with borage from my garden.

Also notable is the fact that four of the children's audiobooks that I listened to in September happened to feature trees in a prominent role. All of these are recommended for family listening.

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle [2 hr : various readers] age 12 and up
A powerful history of Cuba's three wars for independence, told in verse through multiple perspectives. Heartfelt and heartbreaking.
"How can there be
a little war?
Are some deaths 
smaller than others,
leaving mothers
who weep
a little less?"
Hurricanes were battering the Caribbean when I read this, making the words even more poignant.
"People walk in long chains of strength, arm in arm, to keep from blowing away. The wildness of wind, forest, sea brings storms that move like serpents, sweeping trees and cattle up into the sky. During hurricanes, even the wealthy wander like beggars, seeking shelter arm in arm with the poor."

The Skeleton Tree by Iain Lawrence 
[8 hr : narrated by Christopher Gebauer] age 7 and up
Wilderness survival adventure. Two boys who don't get along are shipwrecked in Alaska. 
"I don't read endings. It's more real that way."

Noah Barleywater Runs Away by John Boyne 
[5 hr : narrated by Andrew Sachs] age 7 and up
"Anyway, it was probably best that he went out to make his own way in the world. After all, he was already eight years old and the truth was, he hadn't really done anything with his life so far."
A warm and whimsical fable about coping with adversity. It's a clever riff on Carlo Collodi's classic, and I recommend adding Pinocchio to your family's audiobook playlist as well. Maybe listen to Pinocchio first, so that young folk won't miss the literary allusions. Some aspects of Boyne's writing will be best appreciated by an older audience, but it's layered books like this that make for great intergenerational listening.
"... to London, stopping for a couple of days at a literary festival, where I ran in and out of the authors' readings at such a speed that the wind I generated turned the pages of their books for them, leaving both their hands free for drinking and fingerpointing."

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate 
[3.5 hr : narrated by Nancy Linari] age 8 and up
A red oak named Red (216 rings old) is the narrator of this brief and elegant story about kindness and bigotry.
"Different languages, different food, different customs. That's our neighborhood: wild and tangled and colorful. Like the best kind of garden."


And, finally, some book synchronicity in September: 

In his haunting, satirical and cinematic novel The Golden House, one of the many things that Salman Rushdie lampoons is the shifting and competing incarnations of Communist parties in India. In Ants Among Elephants, a nonfiction family history about untouchables that I was reading at the same time, Sujatha Gidla describes her uncle Satyam's involvement with various Communist groups and their ideological differences. "After that meeting, the Revolutionary Communist Party split into two splinters, each one claiming the same name CPI(M-L) - ML for Marxist-Leninist." The same name! They made it easy for writers like Rushdie to make fun of them.