Connect Four

After making a run of fiction, I ventured into the realm of non-fiction. I picked up Eve Ensler’s In the Body of the World, because I had heard about the honesty and bravery of it. I generally prefer fiction, but non-fiction is refreshing, as an author can put his or her whole life on the page, especially in a memoir. I admit, that Ensler, detailing her struggle with uterine cancer, (Irony alert, duly noted by Ensler) put a lot out there. She was at times shockingly honest about her ordeal, and the book was breezy for it. Ensler stayed on point, revealed herself, and delivered her message about healing the world. It is hard to criticize a memoir, but the sheen just seemed too powerful. By their first names, Ensler mentioned her friends that inspired her, and stayed with her throughout her struggles. Then, I got to the end, and saw that her first-named friends were, in many cases, well-known entertainers and activists. It just seemed a little too falsely humble for my liking but the depths of the revelation impressed me, though.

This element was strangely lacking from R.A. Dickey’s Wherever I Wind Up, a thoroughly entertaining baseball memoir penned by Dickey, (and veteran sportswriter Wayne Coffey). I love baseball with a passion, but too many baseball books seem to cover familiar ground, (taking the same basepaths?). Dickey’s book went beyond his struggle to stay in Major League Baseball. Like in Ensler’s memoir, Dickey reveals that he was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. There is something missing from the reveal, though, as Dickey mentions opening up to a trusted parishioner, I cannot get over the sense that he withholds details of the depth of his abuse from his readers. Now, by no means is he expected to recount horrible events in detail, but he glosses over details in other sections, such as when he mentions straying from his beloved wife. How? With whom? Repeatedly, or just once? Dickey’s maddeningly vague. Also, the message that Dickey repeats, that God has a plan for all of us, is agreeable at first, but simply reappears on almost every page. I get it, buddy. Still, this memoir is….a solid single.

The book I read next was picked as a Top Ten of the Year by The New York Times, and intrigued me greatly, and proceeded to sit on my shelf for over five months, while I passed it over for other books. Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? appealed to my background as a Philosophy major, and referenced a great chunk of names with which I have become familiar, and managed to helpfully elucidate their ideas: Spinoza, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger…. I would not recommend this book for anybody that could not provide the first name of the previous five philosophers.  Holt, of course, went beyond these thinkers for enlightenment, venturing into the realm of theoretical, (and non-theoretical) physics, and into computer simulacra, which, despite not being my background, fascinated me. I enjoyed Holt’s visits to the Café de Flore, and I was only occasionally stumped by what I was reading. It wasn’t until the end of the book that Holt revealed his project, (hard to say if it was his intention from the start), and revealed that what I had been reading was….a memoir. And like the previous two, I just did not get the feeling that Holt left it all on the page.

 

These explorations made the final book that I chose, another one that I had been meaning to read for a while, seem long overdue. It was imperative that I would read Sebastian Seung’s Connectome, (which I believe is pronounced as “Connect-ome”, not as my girlfriend and I speculated, “Connect-to-me”). This book was extremely forthright. Seung revealed his project, (why is that each book had a project? I feel like this is different than a thesis), and laid out the Four R’s of connectomes, which I am not going to list here, but reoccur frequently. As my background is not in neuroscience, there is plenty for which I would like to hear all sides, but Seung did not overwhelm the lay reader with jargon, and was great about revealing himself plainly and showing dedication to his work. I would stop short of calling Connectome a memoir, though he did make an effort to put it all on the page, which I appreciated greatly, and made the challenges easier to accept. There was a great amount of overlap with Holt’s work, including a section on how Leibniz and Newton discovered chemistry independently, and how Leibniz was mocked by Voltaire for his “we are living in the best of all possible worlds theory”. But the Seung work managed to Connect-to-me, (sorry), a little more than the Holt book because Seung’s great reveal leaves room for the reader to Connect, while Dickey, Ensler, and Holt revealed their projects, their memoirs were for themselves, and themselves only.

The term “memoir” needs not to be used in the pejorative sense. These four books were most effective when the authors would reach out and connect to the reader. The more personal and revealing a memoir would be, the more that I would hold it close.

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