Renwick Berchild is a pseudonym. A. Marie Kaluza hails from the USA, lives in Seattle, WA. Her poems have appeared in The Machinery India, Lunaris Review, The Blue Nib, Ampersand Lit, Slink Chunk Press, Streetcake Mag, and other e-zines, anthologies, and journals across the globe. You can find her work and additional links at RenwickBerchild.com.
I gave my friend the brow, which is the raised left eyebrow I traditionally extend to invoke my incredulousity on any manner of subjects, but mostly harmless “recommendations” (though, over the years I’ve come to call them “insistences”).
“This is the book by that internet guy you’re always watching who does the sarcastic and mean yellow and black stick-man reviews, right?” I posed in the tone.
“Yeah, but I really do think you’ll like it.” His emphasis on the word really really exposing his doubts rather than alleviating them.
But what the heck, I’ll read anything. So I read Jam by a guy named Yahtzee Croshaw. And you know what? I didn’t hate it.
With a cover that’s a throwback to the 80’s science-fiction paperbacks of yore, Jam starts straightforwardly, not wasting time with unnecessary character build-ups or scenic strolls. Right off the bat, the event happens—BANG! Our protagonist, Travis (no last name), wakes up to go to work and discovers that his city has been overrun with flesh-eating strawberry jam (or, something that very much resembles strawberry jam) by watching his roommate Frank slide down a banister to only be promptly slurped. From this point on, the slightly dim but rather good-hearted Travis and a gang of mishmashed survivors struggle to make it in the ever hungry, ever sticky, ever fruity smelling dystopia.
“It was a pleasant, cloudless Brisbane day. The sun beamed cheerfully across the balconies of the vacant flats opposite. I slid the balcony doors aside, and felt the warm breeze play gently on my face. What a lovely day. By now Frank, Frank who was dead, would have reached the gym, probably flirting with the receptionist on his way to the locker room. If he hadn’t been dead, that is.
I kept my gaze focused on the clear blue sky and stepped forward until I could clench my hands around the railing. I took a deep breath. Then I looked down.
The jam had filled the courtyard and foyer and pushed the water out of the swimming pool. Where it touched walls, little tendrils snaked their way upwards like searching fingers. There was an overpowering stench of strawberries.
From my vantage point I could see into some of the ground-floor apartments. All of them were half-filled with jam, the top halves of TVs and stereos poking up like electronic islets. The occupants were nowhere to be seen.”
With a very thick, bulging vein of modern humor coursing throughout the bulk of the book, it isn’t clear whether Croshaw is punching up or down; really, he seems to have just clipped a clothespin over his nose and jumped in. A story of adventure, Jam has gone the horror/whimsical route, taking the morally confusing path of a lot of contemporary adult cartoons which usually end with creators shrugging their shoulders and balking, “It’s not real, so what does it matter? Just laugh it off, folks.” Croshaw does a little better, never taking up the reader’s time to explain his intentions or lack thereof: there’s jam and it loves the taste of organic meaty bits and its everywhere—oh what are our band of woefully unprepared misfits going to doooooo!
Without shame, I will say I’m a tad of a hardsell when it comes to the slapstick, modish comedy of our times; however, I genuinely found a lot of Croshaw’s Jam funny and even found myself laughing out loud during some of the outrageous situations Croshaw throws his characters into. Ultimately, Jam seems to be a novel about regular people, and the swathe-nature of the modern day zeitgeist: when the worst comes to pass, and the layers of the age are concentrated to their purest elements by way of disaster, what will the archetypal materials of our collective be? Croshaw presents a world hellbent on detachment and irony, emotionally stunted by the ratrace, and trapped inside the restrictive bonds of the 40+ hour workweek. He does all this with a big, jovial laugh track, meanwhile people die and behave selfishly, cower and follow obediently, and sometimes, occasionally, something brave and truly meaningful breaks free. Though not nihilistic, there is a smack of irritation from Croshaw. (Whether he is aware of it, this reviewer can’t say.)
The novel breaks down the event (being the Jam Apocalypse) into 9.2 days, which is fairly rare for a sci-fi, taking a narrative path more commonly chosen by mystery and thriller writers. This works well, considering the intensity of the scape Croshaw has chosen, and throughout the days and nights our characters gain and lose, gain and lose, cope with their present situation by way of camcorders, work projects, hope of a New World Order, and (my particular favorite) a parental attachment to a Goliath Birdeater spider named Mary, all the while waddling around in the jam via plastic garbage bags (it is discovered that the jam, for whatever reason, prefers organic carbon-based snacks and does not consume plastic, therefore much of Brisbane is conveniently spared) and navigating a sailboat from cursory colony to cursory colony, everyone having gone loony from the surprise of flesh-gobbling jam showing up. Some individuals seem to go mad with power (or, mad with potential power) and others grip their fingers around the idea that none of this is permanent or really even happening, spending all their cognitive energies avoiding the very real sticky hungry blob outside. Where the jam-blob came from, no one seems to know, but a few set out to find the inception point, and a couple have secrets that they’re refusing to share.
The book tumbles into a bit of a of Schusterfleck, with the same notes being played over and over again higher and higher until at last the crescendo pops. Ending abruptly, and on a rather bittersweet chord, Croshaw closes up shop. It’s a good enough conclusion, a satisfying enough wrap, and I have no qualms with it. All and all, Yahtzee Croshaw’s book surprised me. Though this reader prefers the lacy, filigreed writing of the late 19th, early 20th centuries, Croshaw’s direct modern style operated perfectly for his humorous, strawberry-preserved tale, mapping the places and plots expertly and rendering fine characters, one-dimensional as they were.
Without further ado, Jam delivers. It’s fun, fast-paced, and is a refreshing turn away from much that currently sits on the science-fiction/fantasy shelf. So go give it a try. This YouTube reviewer has punched out a good book, and this long time reader sends her regards: I liked it!
3 and ½ stars for Yahtzee Croshaw’s Jam. And, I think—maybe—I’ll be more open to my friend’s recommendations from here on.
Now, let’s all go watch The Blob.
The featured image is of the 1958 indie classic film The Blob, directed by Irvin Yeaworth and starring 1960’s bad-boy heartthrob Steve McQueen. According to Wikipedia, “The storyline concerns a growing, corrosive, alien amoeboidal entity that crashes to Earth from outer space inside a meteorite. It devours and dissolves citizens in the small communities of Phoenixville and Downingtown, PA, growing larger, redder, and more aggressive each time it does so, eventually becoming larger than a building.” – As always, thank you.
A decent read for sleuths, James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is a book to remind that little things can invoke big realizations.
For a paperback I snatched from the store on a whim, The Secret Life Of Pronouns turned out to be a very enjoyable Sherlockian jaunt around the basic principles of language and how they reflect the human psyche. Though not exactly a rich, or deeply educative read, nonetheless I learned things and had genuine fun participating in the several exercises and small tests Pennebaker peppers throughout the book. Though there are holes—to be sure—and some of the items presented feel lackluster and obvious, Pennebaker has knitted together a fine, comfortable read that will likely pique the interest of any inquisitive brain seeking to snoop a bit into the external lives and mentalities of others.
Although the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological states. Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. With advancements in computer technologies, this approach is informing a wide range of scholars across many disciplines–linguists, sociolinguistics, English scholars, anthropological linguists, neuroscientists, psycholinguists, developmentalists, computer scientists, computational linguists, and others. Some of the most innovative work is now coming from collaborations between academics of all stripes and companies such as Google.
Aside from the points of being a tad repetitious and quite a lot naïve about machine-learning technologies and their impacts, Pennebaker is a fun, pep-filled narrator, enthusiastic about his work and eager to share. This animated, optimistic energy is ensnaring, and keeps the pages turning regardless of whether the subject matter has become tiresome and stretched (and therefore thinned) to its capacity. Certainly, the childlike twinkle in Pennebaker’s eye shows up in his writing, and though the book itself could have been shaved down to 150 pages or less, he makes it worthwhile. Pennebaker, after many years of service in his field, has discovered something; and he is excited—oh yes he is excited—and like a kid with a newfound love of dinosaurs, Pennebaker launches himself headlong into telling us all about it.
Broken down into ten chapters, the book opens with the basics: a short refresher on elementary school grammar, function and content words and what the differences are, and how our words and speaking styles represent our emotional states, and furthermore, our personalities. Specifically, Pennebaker is interested in function words, and the book (rightly so) revolves almost entirely around them.
What are function words? We’ll do a quick lesson. Check out this sentence of mine I hastily jotted down in one of my notebooks some unknown time ago:
…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.
I picked this specifically because its rather nebulous; however, any reader can gauge with some accuracy what I’m talking about/commenting on even without the knowledge of the full context. That is because the above sentence is full of content words.
…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.
Because of content words, it is relatively easy to glean that I am critiquing an aspect of social media and its value for users. Perhaps an image of a person helplessly scrolling through Instagram or Facebook jumps into frame. If you are someone who’s native language is not English, and you only know a few choice words, you might pull “picture,” “joy,” “social media,” and “viewers” from the sentence, and still (probably) be able to cobble together what I may be talking about.
But if we highlight these words, a very big confusion emerges:
…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.
Behold function words. Those little things that hardly seem to exist in the midst of an engaging conversation, a bombastic argument, or the sweet nothings uttered in blushed ears. Function words, via Pennebaker, “[…] are words that connect, shape, and organize content words.” If one reads just the function words (regardless of what their native language might be) what the heck I’m talking about is just that—Huh? The heck are you talking about?
So completely unmemorable are function words it’s amazing that a whole book has been written about them. And though The Secret Life Of Pronouns in itself is not such an amazing book, I was once again reminded of how knowledge, and wisdom, often hides in the cracks.
Yet even with this praise, there is a lot that is unclear in much of the statistical data Pennebaker dishes out.
In fairness, Pennebaker acknowledges that the research is still in its infancy—however, along that note, there seems to be a lot of formulating hypotheses and locating data needed to support them after studies and tests have been carried out, also known as p-hacking. Regardless, correlations by those algorithmic machines are fervently being made: women tend to use far more cognitive words and personal pronouns than men do, men tend to use bigger words and more prepositions; when tragedy strikes a nation’s use of the word we skyrockets, when a world leader is about to declare war his/her use of the word I plummets; liars use more verbs and social/emotional words such as she and him, if and any, while truth tellers tend to use more words in general and more self-reference words such as I and me. This all sounds neat-o, but (noted by Pennebaker himself) much of these subjects suffer from a lack of “ground truth” and others seem more to do with the circumstances and environments of individuals rather than the personalities of individuals unto themselves. Sometimes the information contradicts itself, such as in the case of world leaders dropping the word I from their vocabulary during tumultuous times, and research stating the more confident and in control a person feels, the more their use of the word I drops. Are we supposed to draw the conclusion that leaders lodged in conflict are, in fact, more confident and sure of themselves? Such impasses are not discussed, nor it seems even noticed. Much of the data feels cherry-picked, and therefore detached and limp. For a book loaded with tables and charts, it stings of discombobulation and half-finished projects.
There is also the problem of Pennebaker not really delivering on his goal—a window into personality. Can function words tell us if someone is kind or cruel, selfish or generous, neurotic or relaxed? The Secret Life Of Pronouns doesn’t say, but it does say how to utilize function words in finding out whether someone grew up rich or poor, is female or male, or if a person’s relationship is happy or on the rocks. Pennebaker doesn’t seem to think much about how such discoveries and sleuthing technologies could be manipulated by advertising companies and the ilk, or be misused to decide whether someone gets extension on their credit, is let into a prestigious college, lands a dream job, or wins publication in an esteemed journal. Straight into it, the vision of The Secret Life Of Pronouns is severely limited. Though entertaining and interesting, it ceases to have substance or anything really worth chewing on.
But it’s good enough. So give it a read if you’re bored and like sleuthing. Really, who doesn’t like playing detective every once in a while? Ultimately, I enjoyed Pennebaker’s bubbly spirit and gained a little more insight into myself. (Which, I’ve consistently found, is always worth doing.) So, what the heck, I give it a solid C.
Three out of five stars for The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.
In a castle, deep in the Romanian wilderness, five sisters have a secret.
From eldest to youngest, sisters Tatiana, Jenica, Paula, Iulia, and little Stela, by way of a hidden door in their bedchamber, depart to another world each and every full moon.
Dressed in their best, the young’uns go dancing. But not with boys—oh no. Oh no not with fellow young boys. These girls go out partying with dwarves and trolls, with fairies and beasts and other magical forest folk. Free-spirited Iulia spins and spins until her face gets red; elegant and beautiful Tatiana sways serenely, her cascade of black hair tilting on her head; bubbly Stela jumps and jigs with her tiny woodland friends; Paula does not dance, but discusses her studies—at a table with robed academics while the music plays—enthusiastically expounding her writings and theories.
And then there’s Jena. Sensible Jena. Responsible, plain-looking, opinionated Jena.
With her best friend Gogu (who so happens to be a frog) she observes more than she dances, watches over more than she joins. Are her sisters safe? Is there trouble nearby? Jena understands the Other Kingdom can be a dangerous place, so she keeps her wits about her, keeps track of the time, keeps tabs on all her siblings and makes certain that everything goes smoothly and that everything is fine.
The girls pay their respects to Ileana, the fairy queen of the wildwood, and then set off again across the Bright Between. On five boats uniquely shaped—swan, wyvern, phoenix, wood duck, and salamander—they return to their bedchamber in the early morning, sleepy eyed and full of new daydreams. Their secret secure, their secret still secret.
But secrets have an animation about them. Like young girls, no matter how hard we try to keep them out of harm’s way and keep them locked up, secrets have a way of sneaking off. In a series of unexpected events, the sisters’ lives change. The wildwood holds secrets all its own, and seeds planted long, long ago start to take root. Jena tries with all her might to maintain the order, to keep the two worlds divided and to keep her sisters safe; but the forest has other plans, and the magic around her and within her is set to fly—no matter what she has to say about it.
The long room we sisters shared had four round windows of colored glass: soft violet, blood-red, midnight-blue, beech-green. Beyond them the full moon was sailing up into the night sky. I put Gogu on a shelf to watch as I took off my working dress and put on my dancing gown, a green one that my frog was particularly fond of. Paula was calmly lighting our small lanterns, to be ready for the journey. […]
“Come on,” Iulia urged. “My feet are itching for dance.”
The first time we had done this, in our earliest days at Piscul Dracului—when I was only six, and Stela was not yet born—Tati and I had been amusing the younger ones by making shadow creatures on the wall: rabbits, dogs, bats. At a moment when all our hands had been raised at once to throw a particular image on the stones, we had found our forest’s hidden world. Whether it had been a chance or gift, we had never been sure.
An excellent YA fairy tale, Wildwood Dancing starts the party early and doesn’t let up. Juliet Marillier (who, according to her bio, sounds just as magical as the books she pens) is skilled in her abilities, deftly weaving enchantment and mystery and bringing to life well-wrought characters and magical scenes. Taking the very popular folk tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” Marillier leaves behind its traditional German roots and takes it for a spin out in Romania. A bit of a Rubik’s Cube, the book kicks off right away and doesn’t take unnecessary amounts of pages getting to all the juice: tall, dark, and handsome strangers, danger and intrigue, mythical beings, adventure, wild and sudden emotions, and of course, lots and lots of dancing.
With a handy-dandy glossary in the back and a guide to help with difficult pronunciations, the book feels hale and hearty, and a reader can quickly fall into another world.
Fairy tales are popular in YA right now. Ever since women started getting their hands on them, there’s been an eagerness to flip the script. And why wouldn’t there be? No longer willing to be passive victims in their own stories, women insist on a different kind of tale, a tale that involves autonomy, action, and liberation, the inner narratives of young women and girls at last spilling free.
It’s not all good, of course. What reader hasn’t found herself rolling her eyes at overused tropes and ham-fisted scenarios where our heroine shouts, “NOT TODAY, BUCKO!” and kicks comically sexist Evil von Baron Le Pué to the curb while seizing a kiss from the equally preposterous non-sexiest Bad Boy Edward Hot Pants and then using her super powers to blast a sunbeam into the sky to exemplify her extraordinary abilities to overcome all things m-a-n while at the same time riding off into the sunset with one. It can get tiresome, all the mentally ill girls who are secretly psychic or have telekinetic powers, who are not the pretty ones because they are “too skinny” and/or have “wild hair” and are “clever”. It doesn’t fall on deaf ears that YA has problems. But it should also not fall on deaf ears that YA has a lot to offer, and has in fact offered it in abundance. Simply put, perhaps YA has garnered most of its bad reputation over the years on its slow cultural and societal formation into “a girl’s genera”.
So in summary, Wildwood Dancing might be a difficult book to get your son to read. The characters are overwhelmingly female (which can, sadly, be enough of a deterrent) and the tale itself feels traditionally feminine. But books, ultimately, do not have sex nor gender. Wildwood Dancing is a wonderfully told tale about truth, love, and the courage to believe in yourself. It is fun, exciting, and undoubtedly at times titillating (this red blooded woman will admit to some flushed cheeks) and there’s certainly enough fantasy to keep you interested. The sisters are all versatile, flawed, and contain their own desires and dreams. Juliet Marillier does an excellent job of bringing real life struggles to the fore, and just as gracefully guides readers through them, not shunting on painful conflicts and that sometimes human beings don’t get things right; however, with some planning—and some guts—Marillier reminds that we can fix what’s been wronged, and that stumbling is just a part of living.
Read Wildwood Dancing. Why not? Unless you can’t find it. Jump into your boat (your car), sail the Bright Between (your street), get yourself to the Other Kingdom (your local library), and remember, life is a dangerous wildwood.
But, there’s also dancing.
Four out of Five Stars for Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing.
All images are sections of Kinuko Y. Craft’s truly spectacular cover art. Find more of her artwork at http://www.kycraft.com
Any creative worth some heft of salt knows that when a work is completed the journey is only half done. The work must cease its building phase—the artist must stop dabbing, the writer must stop fiddling, the dancer must end practice and get on with the stage—and the work must then be passed into the arms of the waiting crowd. The creative must relinquish control; it is a sacrificial act as much as it is a power grab, and the creative must contain this dichotomy if the creating is to continue and not stagnate. Any creative that falls into either of these two holes will lose the friction needed to make and originate new work.
The conversation will start immediately. If the work has impact (for good or for ill) it will be shared and elaborated upon again and again and again, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for years, sometimes for centuries. The creative arc will only end when the masses lower it back into silence. If the work has managed to maintain itself in the physical world, there can be a rebirth. Certain unfortunate works may become perverted, and misused, proceeding forward into the future zombie-like; the creative takes risk every time a work is released and set flown.
Art is the echo of humans in time. The world is full of footprints of us. A book is no lifeless lump of paper, a portrait no mere lonely, empty vessel, but the echoing voice of some individual, who took their two hands and starting clapping fervently into the darkness.
Francine Sterle’s stellar chapbook, Nude in Winter, is a fluent culmination of such echoes, Sterle specifically choosing to reconstruct the voice of paint and painter (sometimes photo and photographer) into the voice of pen and poet. Containing 58 ekphrastic poems, Nude in Winter is both reflection and progression, as image is spun into idea and color into sensation. In each work mulled over, Sterle finds the doorknob, and swings open the closed frames to lay bare the vast landscapes behind them. Interacting with the artworks of known names such as Frida Kahlo, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and William Blake, to the lesser known names of Kiki Smith, Helen Frankenthaler, and Clyfford Still, Sterle’s poems are alive and breathing, speaking in clear voices, while still maintaining the thin string tied to the artist’s liminal, braced world.
I do not know why I come to the window— / white curtains framed by a white wall. / The first breath of morning moves them. / They do not hesitate. / If rain dampens the leaden sill, / they shiver in the washed air, / waver when an animal heat crawls / hour by hour across the yard, / tremble when another summer / crumbles to dust. Some days / they refuse to move as if they hear / crows scolding them from the trees. / Soft as an owl’s downy breast, they allow / the light of dawn into the house / to nest on the floor by the bed. / Behind them, everything fades. / I do not know why I come to the window.
It’s not very often a poetry book sends me whirling through WikiArt.org like a madwoman. Every page turned left my mind pivoting in the wonder: What is she seeing? Where are her eyes? Some art I knew, of course; Giovanni’s Madonna in Prayer and Blake’s Albion Rose are hard not to know. Some artists are so renown, even if the painting itself alludes, the unique style of the elite artist pushes in like a tide, and Monet’s delicate brush, Kahlo’s dreamlike, surrealist spectacles leak in.
And the work can grip you—suddenly. Sterle’s words profess a deep yawning into the body of another. I took it upon myself to read aloud to one of my friends “Rag in Window”, and as the last lines came out I fell into a total sob, bending myself over in the chair, forehead to my thighs and book clutched to my chest, weeping.
Sterle’s work instigated the age old question in me: What is art for? It has often seemed a stupidly worded question for it has seemingly unlimited answers which begs (what I’ve always felt, the more apt question) why ask it at all? Open ended, and circular, I avoid it like the plague, yet always someone’s words, someone’s art, someone’s performance drags me back, drags me back and away and back again, an ebb and flow of life that can’t be discarded, leaving it to become one of the most undying questions of life. Why art? What is art for? What is the artist’s goal? Desired achievement and does it matter? Is the artist a mere secondary element to the grander life of a work, or is it more like the relationship between parent and child? (The endearing mark of its nurture almost inseparable from its identity.)
Nude in Winter pokes at these questions, and so blows them open, where Sterle herself then walks into them like rain. With the falling drops, she finds the shapes, the contours, the materials, and she takes these elements and builds her own art: A departed father, an unspoken love, a prodigal son, a girl sexually abused, the metacognition of a sculpture, the doubts of a old man, the morality of observation, the poet debating words at a desk.
Perhaps this is what art is for: Validation of ourselves. Our inner existence revealed, in the careless cascade of peaches from a basket, the green skin of a bearded violinist grown from the pulled sound, color as emotion and memory, our personal pain expressed vividly in some stranger’s rendering… Is this what art’s for? Sterle asks, rising the question up, and the page turns and it falls back in. Her scapes are visceral, her sight imaginative. The laws of interpretation are bent back around and fed to the reader, revealing the age old question yet again, but in new words: Are there laws? What is art for?
Francine Sterle’s chapbook is worth reading. No blunt halfhearted wisdoms are shoved in your face, no chintzy metaphors and tired facsimiles that often weigh down modern day pop-poetry are present. Sterle’s work invites one into a gallery of gasping, singing, whispering beings, each poem displaying another arc, each line carved alive from out the canvas. It is a beautiful book, an intimate book. A book worth reading and a book worth having on your shelf.
Five out of five stars for Francine Sterle’s Nude in Winter.
The featured image is Peaches by the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet. (1883) Available via the public domain. All the artworks (with the exception of Kahlo’s Henry Ford Hospital) are featured in Francine Sterle’s ekphrastic chapbook, Nude in Winter.
The human relationship with time has always been a pushmi-pullyu one. Usually, when time is exhorted upon in our daily lives, it is spoken about in its quantity and availability that can be allotted and used in the chaotic arrangement that is existing. One has either “too much time” or “too little”; time is “running out” or “dragging on”; we must “set the time”; we must properly “time” musical notes and when to throw the ball; we discuss our past with the mapping phrase “back in my time”; furthermore, time as exactitude, and time as nomothetic. Time, as we experience and use it, is a constantly shifting needle, pushed and pulled throughout our lives. Should a person have one of those suspiciously strange, eerily flawless days, time is “right on”—and, before one can even savor the delicious, punctual moment, the pleasing perfection has passed—swooped into the river of this mystical thing we know of as time.
During the western Age of Enlightenment, time in literature became personified. As nature became Nature and love was exalted to Love, so time was written as Time—a subtle, though I believe, sure expression of our intimate link with the mysterious, rolling hour. Time accompanies us without falter, an ever present companion such as the likes of oxygen proceeding in and out of our bodies and the microbiology of our skin. We occupy time as much as it occupies us. Its material, mechanism, and form mostly eludes us, but its force is undeniable, unstoppable, enviable even… Time, like death, is perfect, in that it cannot be improved upon. In its function, in its being, time is unsurpassed.
I have long been an admirer of time, perhaps because I have long felt time was on my side. As a child, I yearned for my grandmother’s white hair and her vein strewn hands; as an adolescent, I craved a craggy forehead and a bespeckled, splotched chest. Now, in my thirties, I sometimes in the night flip through the pages of old diaries, and with my feet clung to the leather of my seat, chin rested on my beaten knees, I trace the ink I looped into intimate disposition, and consider how I can barely grasp what has been and what will be. Often seen as a bandit, I’ve spent my life viewing time as a great giver. Hasn’t my life been nothing short of but a constant receiving and processing of time? Time is a filler, not an emptier. I think I have been lucky, for this perception has seemingly protected me from much stress and anxiety.
So a book on time was irresistible. I have read several now, one of the best being About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution by Paul Davies. My latest read, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time (in its native Italian: L’ordine del tempo) is a summarized, but rich rendering of Rovelli’s life’s work: the study of space and time. Well plotted and envisioned, Rovelli’s book is written for the layman while not shunting expertise. From the point by point charting of Newtonian time, to the nebulous musings of Aristotle and the Greek philosophers, to a fever dream of possibilities, Rovelli explores far and wide what it means to be in time, and what it means to be time itself.
One after another, the characteristic features of time have proved to be approximations, mistakes determined by our perspective, just like the flatness of the Earth or the revolving of the sun. The growth of our knowledge has led to a slow disintegration of our notion of time. What we call “time” is a complex collection of structures, of layers. Under increasing scrutiny, in ever greater depth, time has lost layers one after another, piece by piece. […]
One by one, we discover the constituent parts of the time that is familiar to us—not, now, as elementary structures of reality, but rather as useful approximations for the clumsy and bungling mortal creatures we are: aspects of our perspective, and aspects, too, perhaps, that are decisive in determining what we are. Because the mystery of time is ultimately, perhaps, more about ourselves than about the cosmos.
The Order of Time is a progression—from beginning to end—into greater and greater entropy; this, I think, is part of Rovelli’s vision, for it is the story of time. The opening chapters are of time’s material, its measurement and mechanism, and what could be considered its proofs. Some myths and beliefs are quickly expelled, and with a very sharp scalpel, time is sliced; what was once explained and referred to as a singular body, flowing and constant and in perfect sync with all of space, is blown apart into innumerable sects. Rovelli explains, “Times are legion: a different one for every point in space. There is not one single time; there is a vast multitude of them.” Gravity, and heat, are massive influences of time’s current. A human being who lives on the seafloor will have more time than one who lives up in the mountains; our aquatic friend’s processes will process more slowly, while our mountaineer’s will process faster.
This is not a matter of perception—but fact. Precision timepieces have shown us that time does indeed move at different rates, and it all boils down to Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity. Thermodynamics also plays a role, keeping time in its forward trajectory. Though time is multitudinous, it is certainly moving in one direction, Rovelli reassures. If I fall and skin my knee, I can not go back. Time is a river, as it has long been waxed and waned; however, each drop of water, each locality, exists only in relation to the others. Though it seems the river is one, it is not. It is our limited perceptions that see it as such. Time is not the broad stroke of a very big brush; it is intricate, painstaking pointillism.
So Rovelli makes a bold conclusion: due to the splintered, smattering that is time, there must therefore be no present, just past and future. In such squeezed, bubbled localities, the present is merely a construction of the human mind; in the material of the universe, time is a strange serpent, a creature of merely head and tail, asymmetrical and without equidistance. This leads to another revelation: that time is something that is happening. To us, time is understood by the diurnal rhythms of the natural world. The rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the comings and goings of the tides, the circulations of the seasons. We count the ways in which things change. From out the fields of physics, we find ourselves being led by Rovelli into the forests of philosophers. If time is happening, and if the happening of life is the continual totaling of events occurring around us, if suddenly, nothing were to move, nothing were to change, would time cease to pass and therefore, cease to exist?
It was a question Aristotle posed, and Rovelli rolls it in his hands, considering. He does this a lot throughout the course of the book, spinning the thoughts of his predecessors, as though spinning a basketball on his finger. It’s a balancing act, and the Law of Angular Momentum. The momentum must be conserved, or the whole thing falls off.
And things do fall off. Certain parts of The Order of Time can leave one scratching one’s chin like a chimp. At stages, a reader can feel the brain growing; a lightheadedness that invokes the sensation that your head will detach from your shoulders and float upward until your crown bumps the ceiling, rolling on its side as though a helium filled balloon. To his credit, Rovelli does his best to put things within reaching distance, but sometimes you’re just left up on your tippy toes, straining for the box. “Many parts of this story are solid, others plausible, others still are guesses hazarded in an attempt at understanding the whole.” Rovelli writes. The Order of Time begins very differently than how it ends; it proceeds from definitive rudimentary bits into manifold extrapolations; lopsided, and on incline, the ball in form of a book that is Rovelli’s mind rolls further and further ahead into question: this, by all means, is time.
Though time is fascinating to me, and I have spent countless hours discussing it in both verbal and written form, it was not the subject of Rovelli’s words that I found most enjoyable about this read—rather, it was Carlo Rovelli himself. (This is something that occurs often to me in reading: it is not only books I find so interesting, but the writers of books as well.) Rovelli has a wandering mind, and his elegant prose and choice vocabulary lend a wonderful freeness to The Order of Time that is so often lacking in the genres of science and nonfiction. In the dilating eye of quantification, the soulfulness and emotion of his study does not leave. Embracing the poetry of a carefully unfurling scene, Rovelli communes easily with his memories, his loves, his life. In what he calls “the residues of the past”, it is Rovelli’s reveries that make The Order of Time a book worth reading.
As humans—most notably over the past several decades—our explorations into the cosmos and the inception of it All seems to be emitting a quadraphonic sound: gravity, heat, space and time are all converging like points on a compass, but in our eager hands the arrow keeps spinning, round and around. It is a question: will we be able to sail deep into the unknown seas with this compass? Are these great titans the guides that will aid us in our strive to know more, and go further than we have ever gone? I don’t know, but over the years of my reading, it is clear to me that slowly, a consensus is being built by an impassioned chattering of scientific minds. These four things, have something to do with the birth of our universe. And if you are someone who is interested in The Big Questions, Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time is a fine piece of writing to add to your library.
Make time for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time. I was not disappointed; hopefully, you won’t be either.
Four out of five stars for Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time.
In the morning of October 2, 2018 a massive oscillation of pulsing white started to heave its lungs over the southwestern Caribbean sea.
For the NHC (National Hurricane Society) this was nothing out of the ordinary. Such disorganized accumulations of thunderstorms occur fairly regularly during the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico hurricane season, however, dutiful in their profession, they began to monitor it. Over the next few days, the tropical disturbance slowly, in a smooth fog-like creep, began to gather itself into a definite whorl. An enormous wheel, of rumble and powder, started to roll northward and then so eastward toward the Yucatán Peninsula. Its body got built quickly, and a head began to form. By October 6th, a lazy, sleepy eye was taking shape. Advisories got initiated. People waited on the land, looking out. On the 7th day, it depressed, spun, and woke, and by 16:55 UTC that day it had a name. Hurricane Michael over the next three days would begin barreling into the Gulf Coast and Florida, its gaze reaching landfall on the 10th of October. In wild winds and torrential rains, it popped up electrical poles like wine corks, smothered beaches, flooded rivers, tore into houses and flung small animals into the sky. Northward it banked, tired—yet still determined—and poured and howled itself over the states of Georgia and both Carolinas. On the 11th day, its one, beautiful mean eye closed; still, like a sleepwalker, it continued. Hurricane Michael had one last gasp, and after traveling east for four days, its cyclone-shell dropped on the Iberian Peninsula the 16th of October, washing Portugal in its death throes. No doubt it was satisfied with its brief, but brutal life.
I was not there, of course; I was safe and snug on the west coast of the United States, watching it all from my laptop. I had an awe and respect for its savagery, its sheer size. Hurricane Michael in little more than a week had ripped through a dozen countries and touched three continents. It slouched its belly over some 5,000 miles, crushing all it could before it vanished into literal thin air. I found it remarkable, and terrifying; a true Titan of Nature.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, the glaring, unforgiving Sun, are all welded into the amorality of the Earth and Universe, so very far beyond the simply duality of right and wrong that us human beings so lovingly cling. It was at this time, watching Hurricane Michael thunder itself through the lower east coast, that the true mass of climate change—the heavy bodies of the fast rising seas—sat all their weight upon me. As I scrolled safely through the destruction of Hurricane Michael (a pang for being a rubbernecker, twinging) it began to fully settle upon me just how much we were not ready for the onslaught of destruction that was making headlong for us.
The water, la belle dame sans merci, was coming. And she was arriving at a good clip, unable to wait for anyone or thing. I saw it, like a vision: if the west coast of the North American continent would burn in wildfires unending, than the east coast would flood. Highways would wend along the seafloor, barnacles would encrust front steps; the tops of buildings, pockmarked from eroding salt and oiled in algae, would metamorphose into small craggy islands, waves breaking upon them like rocky shores. It was all going to happen, in the rising decades, the turbines of a windmill wheeling in one direction—the east coast was going to flood. One day, the tides would come and the waters would cease to recede. Hurricane Michael with its wake had washed clarity over me, and I sought more detail in the emerging scene.
(So, I went to the bookstore, for I know it is safe to assume that when something of importance strikes me it has surely struck someone else far more educated than I, earlier, and that that someone has probably written a book about it. Lo and behold—there it was.)
Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World is not a book to enlighten and uplift a reader. It is a book of education and facts, designed to inform, ask open-ended questions, and little more. Goodell has one thing on his mind: what’s going to happen, when the water comes? Not if—when. Compiling, vetting, daydreaming, Goodell pens the coming scenarios lurking beneath those encroaching waves. Someday in the future, the Ferrari on the seafloor won’t just be a haunting image in a fiction dystopia. In the approaching decades, as a child grows into an adolescent and so into an adult, so too will the sea gradually climb, and the land—along with the coastal metropolises of the homo sapien world—will become one with the cold blue.
The real x factor here is not the vagaries of climate science, but the complexity of human psychology. At what point will we take dramatic action to cut CO₂ pollution? Will we spend billions on adaptive infrastructure to prepare cities for rising waters—or will we do nothing until it is too late? Will we welcome people who flee submerged coastlines and sinking islands—or will we imprison them? No one knows how our economic and political system will deal with these challenges. The simple truth is, human beings have become a geological force on the planet, with a power to reshape the boundaries of the world in ways we didn’t intend and don’t entirely understand. Everyday, little by little, the water is rising, washing away beaches, eroding coastlines, pushing into homes and shops and places of worship. As our world floods, it is likely to cause immense suffering and devastation. It is also likely to bring people together and inspire creativity and camaraderie in ways that no one can foresee. Either way, the water is coming. As Hal Wanless, a geologist at the University of Miami, told me in his deep Old Testament voice as we drove toward the beach one day, “If you’re not building a boat, then you don’t understand what’s happening here.”
A book that opens with a prologue titled “Atlantis,” like many current events reads of the day, a reader is aware that they are likely going to feel a little depressed and a lot disappointed. This is to our nonfiction writer’s benefit, however, for a good enough writer can grasp what a book is for. Though fluffy feel-good inspiration and kinship memoirs flood the shelves in these self-help, self-love times, a book has a much greater power, one that many modern writers do not utilize fully: The Omen. In this, science fiction writers particularly excel, and lucky for Goodell, his subject of choice falls nearly parallel to the realm of science fiction. But, The Water Will Come is not a fantasy—it is frightening reality. Goodell employs not the mistakes of the past to get his point across, but the what-ifs of the future, and he does it well, gently veering readers to brush by grave scapes of political deadlock, citizen denialism, flooded neighborhoods, climate refugees, health and sanitation nightmares, nuclear spills, abandoned houses, skyscrapers half submerged and crumbling into the sea. The complexity of the situation he tries to make clear: the future of rising seas looks less like an orderly spider’s web and more like a mountain-sized tangle of electrical cords. No one really knows what’s going to happen when the water shows up; but, it’ll show up, salty and bacteria ridden and full of fecal matter and dead things. It’ll kill trees, fuck-up army bases, eat poorer countries and neighborhoods alive. When it comes, not everyone is going to play fair. The rich will likely get along fine, pack up and move inland or to higher ground, sail around the rusted hats of buildings in their boats, continue with their lives. Others won’t be so fortunate.
How much will the waters rise? How much land loss are we talking about here? Once again, Goodell says with a distressing shrug, we’re not sure. But the hopeful 3 feet 2 inches reported in the 2013 ICPP report is looking grimly underestimated. This is of particular importance, because in 2013 the thaw and collapse of the Greenland ice sheet happened too sudden and too quickly to be included. Scientist thought the melt would take decades longer than it did. This is regrettable, for the 2013 ICPP report was the scientific bases on which the 2015 Paris Climate Accords was constructed. Countries all over the world are planning for at most 4 feet of additional water. But by possibly as early as 2075, we’re looking more at 7 to 10 feet of sea level rise. Some climate scientists even suggest as much as 25 feet by 2100.
If I lived on the second floor of a small apartment complex right along the ocean in Miami-Dade, with 10 extra feet of water, I could open my window, sit my leggy self on the pane, and dip my toes in.
And Miami-Dade is ground zero. Those who will be hit the hardest will be those living in Atlantic coastal cities like New York, USA and Lagos, Nigeria; the island states of the South Pacific, such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands (the Marshelles made famous by climate change); Alaska and the upper Canadian coasts (the melting of the Bering Strait a national security and foreign affairs nightmare for the United States); and Shanghai, which sits only about 13 feet above sea level, built on the alluvial plain of the Yangtze River Delta. Small towns will be hit too, and perhaps suffer even harder than their big metropolis neighbors, who’ll have more money to fund big projects such as raising sidewalks and roads, building and tearing down infrastructure, and fixing municipal sewer systems that have broken down from the erosion of salinization, the salt of the rising ocean seeping into everything.
There will be refugees: people who have lost everything and will have to move across national lines, over oceans, travel hills and valleys to find new homes. And we are not ready for them. Such displaced people will have no protection, Goodell reminds, for under international law, there is no such thing as a climate refugee. Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives (deposed by a military coup in 2012) made an enemy of big Western polluters by being fervently outspoken about the fate of his island country. In 2014, he issued the following statement to the polluting giants: “You can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions so that the seas do not rise so much… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.” Though seemingly bleak, Nasheed’s pronouncement is disturbingly real. Consider how the world today is handling the present refugee crisis. With the first-world countries, from Denmark to Australia to the supposed haven of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (the United States of America) slamming their doors, one does not have to be a prophet to envision the horrible future that awaits on the coming, ever rising, ever rising waves.
Has Goodell written a good book? I don’t know; the writing is a tad dry. (I guess I’ll forego a rating on this review.) Goodell’s writing doesn’t wow, however, on such a dire timeline—one that seems fated to be swallowed into aquamarine dimness—flowing prose and cruel optimism (or pessimistic declarations) seem not the point. Goodell presents what’s there, and like many journalists turned authors, his writing is informative, brief, concrete; and, when he does dream, he does so in a way where he confines himself to the modern day consensus of “Hey now, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.” The Water Will Come is the book I was searching for, and it is what it is. Whether we as citizens of Earth will heed the warnings in its pages, is yet to be seen, but the word is getting out, and Goodell is doing his part in trying to make sure it outpaces the water.
2018 was the year scientists all over the world declared that we were no longer talking about climate change—we were living it. That year, record high temperatures struck Europe and India, Hurricane Florence ripped through Cape Verde and Hurricane Michael followed suit, famine continued for many East African countries, wildfires burned on and on.
It will only get worse. Many climate scientists believe our planet is on the path to becoming a “hothouse.” By 2100, the Republic of Kiribati, and many other South Pacific nations, will be underwater. As the waters rise, and the heat grows, rainforests and coral reefs will shrivel and collapse, freshwater ecosystems near the coast that become contaminated with seawater will choke and die. It will get hotter. Southern Spain and other parts of Europe will turn into deserts; the western United States will be caked in the fumes of wildfires. Berlin, Germany will become as hot as Basrah, Iraq. Such radical transformation in such short time seems impossible to many—but it is already here.
Change is coming; the Anthropocene has begun its march. At current, the world is undoubtedly ours. For how much longer, is a topic up for debate.
Goodell’s message is clear: the water will come. But so much more is riding in on those crystal waves. Though the horizon looks dark, the future will forever remain unknown to us until the light of the present breaks it free. All Goodell and the lot of us can glimpse are the silhouettes of things to come.
And, if you are gazing out, seeking glimpses, The Water Will Come is a good place to start.
The featured image is a view of the eye of Hurricane Michael taken on Oct. 10, 2018 from the International Space Station currently orbiting Earth. The photo was taken by astronaut Dr. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, who began working with NASA as a Flight Surgeon in 2006. In 2009, she was selected as a NASA astronaut. Image provided by Wikipedia – Thank you.
At the turn of the 16th century, a monumental shift was about to occur in scientific medicine.
Not so quietly, a call to intellectual arms was on the move. In 1527, Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist, would help ignite a medical revolution by publicly burning the works of Galen and Avicenna, throwing the much accepted medical theories and practices of the classical masters, such as Hippocrates and Aristotle, into doubt. The world was changing. By the end of the 1500’s much of the occultist influence of the previous principles would be dumped. With the old skin shed, the 17th century would come in with a roar. Throughout the 1600’s two of the most significant advances in all of medical science, inoculation and blood transfusion, would take their first teetering steps. Marcello Malpighi, a lecturer in theoretical medicine at the university of Bologna, using the light of the setting sun, would be the first human being to observe the capillaries through the lens of a microscope. The circulatory system, in all its glory, was being revealed. Yet such monumental revelations, riveting and inconceivable at the time, would be small potatoes compared to what was coming on the wing of the 18th century. The Age of Enlightenment rocked the world, and struck a chord in the western medical sciences. Students flocked to lecture halls, experimentation abounded. What was not known was now known; what was invisible could now be seen. Huge developments were breaking out, huge discoveries being made. And, during this cataclysmic time, small and unnoticingly at the end of the 17th century from an Ancient Greek word meaning “wound”, the term trauma slipperingly entered the medical Latin. The pin drop of this moment, a mere pebble deposited in already rolling waters, would not be truly realized until centuries later.
Though the Greeks used the term only for physical injuries, it would evolve, and around the late 19th century trauma would come to encompass the description of both physical and psychic harm. It is this latter, evolved meaning, psychic, that so often predominates the modern day relationship with trauma. In Bessel Van der Kolk’s illuminating work, The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Van der Kolk plunges headlong into this most tumultuous, eluding of maladies, and gives a studious, heartfelt attempt at bringing integration and clarity into this often misunderstood condition and field.
How to even begin to tackle such a hulking shadow? For those of us who have experienced it, lived with it, trauma is a hydra that pursues its vessel without tire. Van der Kolk, M. D. has spent the greater majority of his life aiding, studying, and observing the individuals hounded by this miraculously persistent of beasts. From car accident victims to rape survivors, from children who have been molested to war veterans, Van der Kolk’s breadth of interaction with the wounded is revealed potently in his book’s pages. Much like the Swiss physician nearly 500 years before him, the Dutch born Van der Kolk is seeking a revisioning of ingrained practice and theory; however, unlike Paracelsus, he has chosen to write books instead of burn them. (A less flashy, though better way I would think.)
In the prologue, Van der Kolk is quick to the point: Trauma affects all of us, our brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, friends, daughters, sons, neighbors, ourselves. Trauma can occur at any moment, happen at any time. In what is often designated into the realm of “other people”, Van der Kolk moves the needle, and advises an awareness that human beings have tendency to let slide. “Trauma […],” he places tenderly, “is unbearable and intolerable. Most […] victims […] become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on.” In these words, it is very easy to forget how fast one can lose control of one’s own life. Yet it happens; in terrible frequency it happens. To the young and old, weak and strong alike. Trauma, like cancer, can rise from the dead. Dormant in the body, it can sudden, fling, and burst sundering through as a tsunami. The brain, for all its faults, is very good at what it does: Storing and maintaining information. But what of horrors? What of profound grief? The brain keeps them, the body suffers them, and the mind, in the grip, writhes.
“[…]traumatized people become stuck, stopped in their growth because they can’t integrate new experiences into their lives.[…] Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.’
“After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their life. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of symptoms […] . This explains why it is critical for trauma treatment to engage the entire organism, body, mind, and brain.”
A book so stuffed with information one has to wonder how Van der Kolk fit it all in, I was very moved and learned a lot from The Body Keeps The Score. A work of relentless devotion, Van der Kolk maintains and promotes the highest of medical ethics clearly: “First, do no harm.” Though many of his patients have histories of horrible aggression and violence towards other human beings, Van der Kolk has only one objective on his mind: Healing. This might make him seem naive, or at worst, enabling to certain readers. But Van der Kolk has not chosen a profession in justice, or law, or philosophy; he has chosen a profession in medicine. And medicine is about treatment and recovery. He doesn’t much seem to care if he comes across gullible and sentimental. What he does care about, to his bones, is results. Open and driven, the writing speaks to these qualities. Crisp, empathic, and full of study, The Body Keeps The Score is a book foremost about medical science. Trauma, and all its terrors, is secondary.
Sectioned down into five parts, Van der Kolk uses the first four chapters to thoroughly discuss the origins and varied symptoms of trauma. In the fifth, and final chapter, Van der Kolk refocuses the energy into what he believes matters most: Recovery.
In the briefest of briefs and oversimplified, trauma stems from “immobility”. When the instinctual fight or flight responses to terror are denied, the human body continues to create hormones and continues to fire off nerves that instruct the individual to either fend off the attack, or flee. When the panicked pumping of these faculties produces no result, the brain and body, in a way, begins to implode. This implosion, internal and frightening and powerful, can hijack the mind, and from this commandeering, thrown completely out of whack, an individual can become ostracized from their body. They are, essentially, tossed off their own ship. What follows is an endless treading of water and desperation not to drown. Adrift, and wounded, without any navigation tools, the person begins to develop symptoms both physical and psychological from what is nothing short of total exhaustion.
To say that Van der Kolk presents a well researched documentation of trauma and its many expressions is an understatement. So much has gone into The Body Keeps The Score that it can make a reader dizzy. Eager to fit all his arguments and observations in, I will say that if the book has any fault at all, it is that Van der Kolk jumps from point to point to point so frequently, that the ability for the reader (and writer for that matter) to mull and chew upon what’s been laid out is squished.
But this is a small matter, and one that did not dissuade this reader from being impressed by the astonishing workload Van der Kolk has taken upon himself and convinced by the enlightening though troubling facts dispensed in rapid fire formation. Chiefly in the beginning chapters, Van der Kolk makes it clear that mental illness—in its ever growing bouquet of variation—is not birthed out of chemical imbalances spur-of-the-moment. Mental illness, overwhelmingly, is the result of trauma, either formed from a singular catastrophic event (such as a car crash, or a rape) or from repeated punishment and exposure to violence (such as an abusive childhood, or a long war). Van der Kolk, as clearly and kindly as he can, provides a thorough mapping of what happens to the human brain when such circumstances occur, and how these changes then create rippling effects throughout the body. Presenting studies, PEW supported statistics, using images, telling his own stories and the stories of his patients, Van der Kolk dissects the arguments for the belief and trust in purely pill-form medicine. The root cause of such painful and often confusing conditions are not addressed, he argues, and therefore modern medicine continues to fall short for the elephant in the room continues to be ignored: Trauma. How can we prevent mental illness in the brain and body if we do not acknowledge the inception of these diseases? Van der Kolk is not just asking for better, more talk-based healing. What Van der Kolk is pushing for is a cultural awakening.
In a illuminating surprise, there is a hidden, tertiary plot inside Van der Kolk’s information laden volume. One that he has slipped in effectively and, perhaps, quite unconsciously. It is a story of denialism and silence.
Trauma is everywhere, in our siblings, our cousins, our parents, our friends, our neighbors. Then so, The Body Keeps The Score strategically tells us by simple deduction that abuse is everywhere, rape is everywhere, violence is everywhere, domination and hate is everywhere. The hardest lesson of the world, the most uncomfortable of truths, Van der Kolk tells in strict and factual form. Strangers, foreign invaders, monsters of the dark do not arrive in the form immaculate conception. Therefore mental illness—be it PTSD, depression, a behavioral disorder, insomnia—does not arrive by way of spontaneous combustion or generation. No, mental illness is foisted. Those who do our loved ones harm are us. An uncle, a father, a mother, a friend, a fellow employee, a sibling; trauma arrives more often than not on the wings of an intimate than on the heels of a catastrophe. It is this hidden lesson, poignantly slid between the lines of Van der Kolk’s compelling volume, that I found held the most weight. The silencing of abuse and trauma victims, Van der Kolk reminds us, comes at a high price: Skyrocketing medical expenses, homelessness, drug addiction, mental disorders, autoimmune sickness, and more. The question Van der Kolk most wants asked is this: Not what is wrong with a patient (this is often evident), but what has happened to them.
Though great advances have been made in all the medical fields, and the composition of our bodies has never been diagrammed more pristinely, puzzlingly, perhaps predictably, we still remain largely in the dark about the interactions and operations of our inner components. This statement will no doubt cause dispute; however, the likelihood of agreement on the conflicting reports of the scientific media and misinterpretation of discovery, is high. It is evident that, even if a small pocket of heavily uptodate individuals exists, and are inching ever closer to a totality of medical anatomy, biology, neurology, et al., it remains so that the vast majority of individuals are constantly bombarded with opposing results about what is good for them and what is bad, what will harm them and what will not, what is so and what is not so. An avalanche of unreplicatable results continues to plague psychology and much of modern medicine. So, unavoidably, The Body Keeps The Score is a book of subject information to be argued over and disagreed. For his part, Van der Kolk understands and sympathizes with his fellow physicians in the “finding a needle in a mountain of needles” problem. But this does not stop him. Van der Kolk has done his homework, put in his hours, and has chosen to listen to his patients, and, what is perhaps most revealing, Van der Kolk has chosen to believe their stories. And their stories are violence, their stories are sexual abuse, their stories are guilt and shame and above all, suffering. In the epilogue, Van der Kolk writes, “We are on the verge of becoming a trauma-conscious society.” This is, by all means, Van der Kolk’s ultimate goal. To take the ugly thing from the shadow, and bring it into the light.
If you remember, I opened this preposterously long review with a short history lesson. History, by all means, is a great way to reveal the world. To understand where a thing comes from, we must first understand the events that led up to it, the foundation and components that birthed it, the environment and circumstances that hindered, or nurtured it. From a time of great revolution of thought the word trauma emerged. From there, it has traveled hills and valleys, and will continue to move and change and perhaps rebirth and die despite what future awaits. But, its genesis, its life, is planted firm. Though trauma is from the Greeks, *trau, an extended form of root *tere (or *terə) is a Proto-Indo-European word meaning to “cross over, pass through, overcome.”
I do not know if we will ever become a trauma-conscious society in the way Bessel Van der Kolk hopes us to be. I do not know if suffering has purpose, or greater meaning, or if there is a magic bullet out there, waiting for medical science to uncover and wield. But I do know that human beings are strong, stronger then we will ever know, and of the stuff of stars. The cover of The Body Keeps The Score is what initially drew me; a wonderful portrait of human body surrounded by what could be perceived as hands or birds or sound blasts or stars… I saw them as stars. And my first thought upon viewing the picture was how it felt like a transformation.
On the blotted shape, with no characteristics other than legs, torso, arms, and head, there is the heart. Just a heart. A small red dot in a rising shadow.
The heart keeps the score.
Four out of Five Stars for The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
The featured image is an antique lithograph of an anatomy chart of a human body showcasing its internal system by Korpers Des Menschen (1898). Provided by rawpixel – Thank You.