Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Book Review: On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

I have long loved and admired Dr. Sacks, and I wish I had read more of his books about the bizarre and sometimes hilarious ways the human brain can work. Although it's also nice to know I still have several left to read.

To start with, this provocative cover got a lot of people talking and picking up the book who might not have when it first came out. We think of the elderly, gray-bearded doctor we saw on television in the last couple of decades, and of course portrayed by Robin Williams in Awakenings as quiet and retiring. To see him young and buff and wearing leather on a motorcycle was jarring in a delightful way.

He goes through his childhood briefly, and the book really gets started with him going off to school. Both of his parents were also doctors, and his older brother became a doctor, so it was kind of a given, although he wasn't 100% at first--he kept his options open, but it kept coming back. He also has another brother who had mental health problems. He was brilliant, but troubled and lived with their parents for their entire lives. It's easy to attribute Oliver's career to his brother's problems but those in fact came later, after he'd started down his path.

Pretty soon Oliver moves to Canada and then the United States for school. He tells his parents it's temporary and he'll return to England (where he was avoiding post-WWII mandatory military service). But he never does permanently. Although he also never becomes a US citizen. He stays at a YMCA, he gets a job in San Francisco, he rides his motorcycle all around North America. His graduate schooling is somewhat haphazard and yet it also somehow happens. He loses a few jobs over the years as well, sometimes clashing with management, sometimes not getting funding, sometimes being banished for radical ideas. It's crazy to think, with the caliber of standing he had later in life, that in his early career years, he was fired a couple of times. I wonder if the men who fired him ever later looked back on that and thought wow, they really screwed up?

Anyway, he talks about a couple of early loves, including one young man who broke his heart. And after that, Oliver more or less swore off a love life. (He also didn't have time for one.) He was celibate for many decades, but in his 70s he met a wonderful young man, Bill Hayes (who wrote Insomniac City about their relationship.) He was always torn about being gay. I mean, he was okay with it, but he felt severe judgment from his mother, which affected him greatly.

The book was charming and gave great insight into the background of this great mind. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Except, that even if Dr. Sacks wasn't able to do the audiobook himself, they really should have gotten an Englishman as the narrator. It was discombobulating to hear him speak of being British and of England being home, from a man with an American accent. That seemed sloppy to me (even though the narrator was great otherwise.)

I downloaded this book from the library via Cloud Library.

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