Express Reviews

New books hot off the presses.

How I Became a Human Being
By Mark O’Brien with Gillian Kendall
University of Wisconsin, $29.95

“If you think moving is a hassle,” a newscaster told Bay Area audiences one day in 1978, “consider the case of 29-year-old Mark O’Brien of Berkeley.” People and cameras had gathered to watch O’Brien move from a UC dorm into his first apartment, because a crane was required to hoist his iron lung through the window. A quadriplegic since being ravaged by polio at age six, O’Brien attended Cal as part of an effort, if not to normalize his life, at least to take its reins. Hence the appropriately titled autobiography that he drafted before dying in 1999. O’Brien became a journalist, poet, and subject of the Oscar-winning documentary, Breathing Lessons. He doesn’t give the finger-wagging tone much purchase in his pages, viewing it, thankfully, with wry suspicion. But he doesn’t overdo the wry suspicion either, and the result is a keen, winningly direct voice. If the book’s chronological structure seems periodically to unravel into a collage of banalities and epiphanies, if some anecdotes seem heavily procedural, it helps dramatize a hard-won delivery from unthinkable confinement. More importantly, though, it’s not hard to find something among O’Brien’s abasements and achievements that does feel like your own life. — Jonathan Kiefer

Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology
by Paul Broks
Atlantic Monthly, $24

In this meditation on neurological order and disorder, neuropsychologist Broks isn’t afraid to go beyond the clinical: One chapter finds him naked atop an aquarium, trading fluids and philosophies with a beautiful dream-being. Sounds a bit like the delusions suffered by some of Broks’ patients, and that may be precisely his point. He contends that even the healthy brain is inscrutable territory — what lies inside our skulls is a “silent land” whose contours he suspects will never yield true answers about who we are. Clinical study can, however, draw some conclusions when things go wrong, as when a woman with an inflamed brain loses the connection between thought and emotion and thus comes to doubt that she exists. Broks is at his best when he uses such cases to discuss the relationships he sees between brain, mind, and existence. “Minds emerge from process and interaction,” he surmises. Charting this emergence sounds like an exciting project, but Broks goes higher rather than deeper, spinning fantasies about aquarium sex and a trip in a matter transporter. These flights of fancy aren’t his strong suit, and we’re left wishing he’d make more use of his clinical experience and less of his none-too-original philosophy. The silent land would be a more interesting place if Broks remained as our guide, rather than leaving us stranded there. — Anna North

Under the Banner of Heaven
By Jon Krakauer
Doubleday, $26

Into Thin Air author Krakauer is the literary patron saint of doomed adventurers. His latest subjects are less inclined to pore over topo maps than the Book of Mormon. And when they grow weary of the revelations of founding father Joseph “Dude, where’s my golden tablets?” Smith, these folks simply make up their own. They’re Mormon fundamentalists, excommunicated from the official church and bent on maintaining its original principles, including polygamy and white supremacy. This book is part Mormonism for Dummies, part In Cold Blood, and part a polemic against theocracy. By following Ron and Dan Lafferty’s 1984 slayings of their sister-in-law and her infant daughter, Krakauer examines how faith becomes a potent enabler for the bloodthirsty. He profiles fundamentalist communities in which polygamy is the norm, and where welfare provides for those proliferating while awaiting the end of the world. And he argues that a faith founded on allegedly divine revelations is prone to further revelations left and right. After all, who’s to say Smith’s conversations with God are less valid than the ones in which Ron Lafferty believes he is being told to slit a baby’s throat? Minor lip service is paid to the fact that most Mormons don’t become murderers or polygamists. That’s an undeniable flaw in an otherwise fascinating work. — John Dicker

The Book of Dead Birds
By Gayle Brandeis
Harper Collins, $23.95

Part catalogue in which a bird-loving mother details her daughter’s failures with the creatures, part flashback to the mother’s tragic life as a prostitute near an American military base in Korea, and part responses from both characters killing in one way or another the thing the other loves — it’s a terrific premise: Daughter Ava Sing Lo, who is mixed-race Korean and African American, seeks to make amends for inadvertently destroying her mother’s pet birds by going to the Salton Sea, whose bird population has been devastated and where she might redeem herself in her own and her mother’s eyes. The larger picture — the desert rats around that landlocked body of water who come straight out of Central Casting; a groovy rave that rings hollow — make the book’s descent all the more dramatic, because it could have been so great. Early on, we see Ava working on her “under the bed book” — if only Brandeis could have maintained this intimate feel instead of lapsing into broad strokes such as “The Salton Sea has no outlet … even though I know the sea could be just the outlet I’ve been looking for.” There’s the occasional nice scene, including one that takes place at what is surely the ultimate date movie; but overall the story, despite its accomplishment of being several in one, is predominantly what used to be called an Oprah book. — Susan Compo

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