THE DARKER THE NIGHT, THE BRIGHTER THE STARS A NEUROPSYCHOLOGIST’S ODYSSEY PAUL BROKS Allen Lane, 320pp, £20, Oldie price £14.58 inc p&p
In 2003, neuropsychologist Paul Broks published a celebrated exploration of the mind-brain boundary, Into the Silent Land. His latest book, a genre-defying study of grief following the death of his wife Kate, is, thought James Mcconnachie in the Times, ‘just as brilliant’.
‘To understand what this book is really about you need to know the ending of the quote in the title. It comes from a 19th-century Russian poem and concludes: “The deeper the sorrow, the closer is God.” Except that there is no God in this book, there are only terrible depths of grief, along with layer upon layer of neuroscience, philosophy, memoir and Greek myth.’
In Standpoint, Adam Zeman was bowled over: ‘The Dark Night is the bleak, stumping fact of death: death in general, but one death in particular, that of Paul Broks’s beloved wife; the Bright Stars are just those, as Broks is a star-gazer, and a lover of astronomy. Neuropsychology is his trade, the study of the neural basis of the mind and its disorders; the book is an odyssey, both because it charts his life, from boyhood memories of Airfix models and dreams of football stardom to adult loves and fascinations, but also because it foregrounds the pervasive role of myth and legend in our thinking.’
Mcconnachie reflected that some might find parts of the book ‘intolerably self-conscious and artful’ and David Aaronovitch in the Times was unconvinced by its forays into fiction but he ended on an uplifting note: ‘I prefer Broks when he’s talking about himself and his own life and Kate’s death. Here he is on hope and cancer. “There is no hope. Hope is worthless. Hope is delusional. Hope is counterproductive. Accept the hopeless truth. See hopelessness as an honest companion who walks the last days with you. Love outlives hope. Get hope out of the way.” That seems to me to be both true and beautifully put,’ wrote Aaronovitch.
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND THE NEW SCIENCE OF PSYCHEDELICS MICHAEL POLLAN Allen Lane, 465pp, £20, Oldie price £13.99 inc p&p
Dying painfully of cancer, Aldous Huxley elected to ease his passing by taking LSD. Not for the first time he was ahead of the game. Reviewing Michael Pollan’s ‘sweeping and often thrilling chronicle of the history of psychedelics’ in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman revealed that scientists now accept that psychedelics might enormously benefit the dying, as well as alcoholics and those with ‘treatment resistant’ depression. He quoted this beatific epiphany from a terminally ill tripper: ‘Oh God, it all makes sense now, so simple and beautiful.’ Pollen himself says ‘LSD allows us to reboot the brain and discover new patterns of thoughts and behaviour.’
In Salon.com, Benjamin Bell opined that ‘very few book advances can have been spent the way Pollan spent his: traipsing round the country sampling psychedelic drugs under the guise of “research”.’ But, said Bell, it was time well spent, because having interviewed scores of people ‘who believe that hallucinogens are the keys to understanding and salvation … Pollen does a remarkable job convincing us these devotees may be on to something.’ In the Times David Aaronovitch concurred. Approaching the book ‘with prejudice’, he was ‘won over by Pollan’s arguments against total prohibition, in favour of developing the therapeutic use of psychedelics, and indeed in favour of personal experimentation in controlled circumstances’.
THE INCURABLE ROMANTIC AND OTHER UNSETTLING REVELATIONS FRANK TALLIS Little, Brown, 296pp, £18.99, Oldie price £14.62 inc p&p
There is no doubt this book about the destructive power of obsessive love is a disturbing one. It takes the form of a series of stories, based on heavily disguised case studies, told by psychotherapist Frank Tallis. Christina Patterson in the Times described with fascinated horror the tale of Megan, happily married for 20 years, who fell in love with her dentist and, erroneously convinced he loved her too, destroyed her life. Of ‘immaculate, beautiful’ Anita who is consumed by sexual jealousy and ‘spends her life searching for evidence of the affairs she has convinced herself her husband is having’; of Ali, who has ‘come to therapy ostensibly to save his marriage but has been seeing about 3,000 prostitutes’. Of the man in love, ‘like Romeo, like Tristan, like Werther’ – but with the six-year-old daughter of his friends. ‘It is always unwise,’ Patterson quoted Tallis as saying, ‘to suppose that human sexual behaviour has its limitations.’ Kathryn Hughes told us in the
Guardian that Tallis had ‘cherrypicked these anecdotes from a career that has spanned several decades’. And given that Tallis is also a novelist, she wondered whether ‘everything – or rather, everyone – is a composite, tacked together from bits and pieces of other people’s anguish’. Publishers Weekly praised Tallis’s ‘graceful narrative style’ and Patterson too was struck by the beauty of the writing, describing it as prose that ‘edges towards the poetic’. Most importantly, there is deep compassion for his patients, she said, to the extent that the whole project itself feels nothing short of ‘an act of love’.
‘Hope is worthless... Love outlives hope. Get hope out of the way’