We are in the last days of our time in North Tropical Queensland; off to US and Mexico for eleven weeks next Tuesday. I finally got round to writing out our travel schedule and gave it to John who groaned and said “This is TOO much.” He is right but it is TOO late. It is all booked, 26 flights and 18 different places and various “events” like the Mighty Mississippi Blues Festival, The Grand old Opry, the NashTrash tour, the Rock n’ Soul Museum in Memphis (and just for me a return visit to Gracelands—John refused to do that again; he thinks it will be the same as it was 20 years ago down to the teddy bears on the grave), Snug Harbor in New Orleans (another favourite and John is fine about returning there), Garden District walking tour with a man named Tree (highly recommended by our friend Glenda) and in Natchez, antebellum mansions galore booked and best places sourced to scoff down southern food (catfish, crawfish, gumbo, grits, biscuits). And that is just a snippet of the Deep South bit (add Savannah, Georgia, South and North Carolina and Williamsburg, Virginia for a little Civil War history). Then there is Washington DC—three weeks before the election—New York, Cape Cod , Newport, Rhode Island, and seeing some of my new author friends and some old ones too, and finally an Author’s Retreat in November for me in the desert near Phoenix, while John flies home to NZ and cuts the lawn. Oh, and I forgot our three weeks in Mexico. John spent a happy hour or two drawing in our crazy cross-cutting travel on a US map (see above). That’s what you get for leaving it up to a spatially-challenged female neuropsychologist.
Last weekend here in Cairns we went to the Tropical North Queensland Writers’ Festival where I was in two sessions and we met lots of lovely new people; writers, readers, publishers, and of course the common denominator, we are all book lovers/fanatics. One of the sessions I was in was a panel on “Navigating the publishing maze” and our moderator, publisher Gloria Webb, had her work cut out to keep me and the other panelist, Anna Campbell, in line. I had met Anna two minutes before we began, although from our brief e-mails I knew we would hit it off. The books we write are poles apart, but that made it all the better, for us at least, but the audience seemed to be enjoying it hugely. Not sure they learnt anything useful about navigating anything. Anna writes Historical Romance with a capital R, and if her novel I had earlier bought on Kindle and read is anythng to go by, they are what I call bodice rippers without actually knowing if that is what they are (although bodices do get ripped so I hope I am not insulting any category of romance writers.) Anna was saying how the Romance Writers (of NZ, Australia, America) are a great association to join for writing workshops, feedback on writing, competitions etc, whatever your genre of writing (well in fiction I guess, especially women’s fiction). It reminded me of when I discovered this for myself (a story I did tell to this responsive audience).
It must have been about fifteen years ago that I saw a Donald Maass workshop advertised on the NZ PEN newsletter. I was at the very beginning of thinking I could write fiction, and knew zip, but even I had heard of the great Donald Maasss, one of the top literary agents in the US. I’ll go to that thought I, and when I went to register saw that for another few dollars I could also register for the whole Romance Writers of NZ conference, which was hosting the Maass workshop. Why not? I thought. Better than marking student essays. I kid you not, I had never read a Romance but figured I knew what they were from the jokes about Mills and Boon (one of my best school friends was an avid consumer of these novels which way back then usually had a very sweet couple on the front done out in pastel colours…) I arrived and sat in a large room with about 150 excited women and one elderly man, and hoped there was no-one there who would recognise me (I was playing hookey from the university). I had been to the Donald Maass workshop the previous day, which to this day I still remember in detail as it was an eye opener to me. Before then I thought it was OK to just want to write one novel (the great American/NZ/British novel of course) and have it sell all by itself. Back to the opening of the conference.
“All stand” said the dramatically-dressed woman at the front (no pastels for her, I think her hair was red and green). So we all stood. “Now sit down if you don’t have matching underwear on” she said.
The last 50 conferences I had been to were on neuroscience, psychology and medicine and this was a new conference opener to me. My mind scrabbled back to dressing that morning and I realised with horror that by random chance I did have matching underwear on (the neutral colour my daughter calls boring). I considered sitting down anyway, but thought that they might come and check us all and discover I was a fibber. So I remained standing (with surprisingly few others!) and some women scuttled around giving each of we standing winners a parcel of six or seven paperbacks, my first Romances. It went on like that all weekend, as I learnt about Alpha Males, how to write erotic sex scenes, and other topics I would blush to write in this family newletter. I went to all the short workshops on all sorts of writing topics: we might be given the first line and asked to write a first paragraph. I was hopeless and too shy to share (my friends will find this hard to believe… but I was way out of my depth here) and was blown away by the superb writing of these women.
At the end of the conference I toddled home with my “Goodies bag” to the delight of my kids as they pulled out boxes of chocolates and packets of flavoured condoms! Neuroscience conferences with their conference bags full of flyers about drugs and as a treat a squishy rubber brain that one is meant to squeeze to allay stress could learn from this. And then there were the books. I’d won heaps more during the weekend and now knew that Romance was a multicoloured genre. I had cowboy romances, medical romances, sweet romances, historic romances, Christian romances, rural romances, Australian romances, and yes, S & M romances and erotic romances (years before there were any shades of grey). I admit I have yet to read them except for one that I began to read one night snuggled up in bed. I thought it would quickly put me to sleep. “My giddy aunt” (well something like that) I gasped, after about page 20. “This is …” lost for words to explain to John, reading the Journal of Ecology—“this is so explicit. It would make a gynaecologist blush.” So at last I knew why all those millions of women had made Romance the biggest selling of all genres. Sitting there with their toddlers playing happily in the paddling pool with their nose buried in their book. I should have started with the cowboy romance, not the hot erotic. Anyway, I think that is what my new panelist friend, Anna Campbell (her author name; her real name is a secret which I know but won’t tell) writes, with a historical slant to make it even more erotic I guess (more clothes with dozens of fiddly buttons to have to rip off.)
After that I subscribed to the RWNZ for a year or two and even put my first chapter (of an as yet unpublished but stunningly good novel) into one of their competitions for my first ever fiction writing feedback. It came highly commended with one judge commenting “but it doesn’t appear to follow a Romance format or story line”! As they say at the RWNZ, “All you need is love…and a great story.” I figure all good literature has the great story and most have the love as well, maybe not as the main theme, maybe not erotic, but love is surely there.
On the love note, please do check out this link and watch the short video. http://us10.campaign-archive1.com/?u=ad1d35acc2f69494c492f5849&id=b1ef8908a3&e=fe89e3dc9a
It is about Project Hope, and daughter Josie, who is the CEO of the Christchurch YMCA has spearheaded this (and talks about it in the video). They are sending 25 of their young people who attend their YMCA alternative school to Nepal, to help with the rebuilding after Nepal’s horrific earthquakes. These YMCA teens have been expelled from the NZ public school system and come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, and on top of that have been through Christchurch’s own earthquakes, yet they come to this YMCA school eager to learn and give back.
Thank you to all of you who have shared my promotion hype about my current novel e-book sale (still on until Sunday 21st August). It feels rather crass to be even mentioning it after Project Hope. So consider this to be light-hearted trivia: A Drop in the Ocean got to #67 of all paid Kindle books in US (#4 in Women’s fiction), and to #6 in Canada of all paid Kindle books and labeled a best seller there (#1 in literary fiction), and #22 in Australia (#7 in women’s fiction). Of course it was short lived and has dropped well down now but still many thousands of times better than before…
And more trivia: My photos of HM, the world’s most studied and most famous medical/scientific case, were duly published in a controversial (as predicted) article in the New York Times Magazine on 7th August (and the first non-controversial paragraph or so of that article was a conversation between me and HM.) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/magazine/the-brain-that-couldnt-remember.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share
The photos with a credit to me were then on PBS Newshour (this is that short video with Luke Dittrich, the author of the HM book) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7akPs8ptg4 and next week there will be a review in The Times (the London one) of the book, again with my HM photo. Whether that review will be critical or not, who can tell. The upset amongst scientists from around the world by the unfair implications about Suzanne Corkin, the MIT neuroscientist and leader of the research team who studied HM for half a century, was massive, with letters signed by over 200 scientists sent to the NYT and a statement by MIT published. (The NYT fact checkers did not of course check any “facts” about Sue Corkin with me.) I wrote a Psychology Today post trying to balance this a bit, as I had read an advance copy of the actual book, whereas the scientists had only read the provocative extract in the NYT. If you are interested here is my post. It does seem to have been helpful for many. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind/201608/tale-science-ethics-intrigue-and-human-flaws
I checked through the reviews I have posted in this newsletter and realised I had not shared with you my review of Suzanne Corkin’s biography of HM, published in May, 2013. This is the story of HM through the lens of the scientist, and the other side to the new book by Luke Dittrich that I posted a review of in my last newsletter. So in honour of Sue, who died last May, and was my advisor and mentor when I was at MIT, here it is. And from me, thank you Sue for your mentorship of so many young scientists and women in particular, and for demonstrating the importance of always putting the patient’s needs first when they so generously gift their time to science.
Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, H. M.
by Suzanne Corkin
'Why Sir, if you have but one book with you upon a journey let it be a book of science. When you read through a book of entertainment, you know it, and it can do no more for you, but a book of science is inexhaustible'.
This quote of Samuel Johnson’s was recorded by his Scottish friend, James Boswell, in his book,"'Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides', published in 1785, a year after Johnson’s death.
Suzanne Corkin’s new biography of Henry Molaison, the man with no memory, is a fitting example of Johnson’s wise quote.' Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of Amnesic Patient, H.M.' (Basic Books, New York, 2013), has been eagerly anticipated since the news leaked out that Dr. Corkin had begun writing the life story of her most famous patient, H.M., shortly after his death in December, 2008. Corkin met H.M. in 1962 on his only visit to the Montreal Neurological Institute. Her supervisor, Dr. Brenda Milner, a neuropsychologist, and neurosurgeon, Dr. Wilder Penfield, both from the Montreal Neurological Institute, were the first to realize that the experimental brain operation performed by William Scoville on 27-year-old H.M. in an effort to cure his epilepsy, had rendered him amnesic. His seizures were almost vanquished, but he would never again be able to make new conscious (declarative) memories.
In 1966, at the age of 40, H.M. —as he was known until after his death—made his first of 55 visits to the Clinical Research Center at MIT in Boston, not far from where he lived in Hartford, Connecticut. Corkin was now a research scientist at MIT and “inherited” H.M., partly because of the ready access of MIT to Hartford. In Dr. Corkin’s lab, Henry was the subject of thousands of experiments on memory and other cognitive abilities. When H.M. had his surgery, it was not known that the hippocampus, the structures underlying the temporal lobes on each side of the brain, were essential for forming new long-term memories. The studies on Henry have not only taught us about memory processes and the brain substrates underlying them, but have stimulated and inspired countless students and researchers to pursue careers in neuroscience. The way in which temporal lobe epilepsy is surgically treated also changed as a result of the experimental surgery performed on H.M. In his case the hippocampus was removed from both sides of his brain; we now know that if just one hippocampus is removed, leaving a healthy structure on the other side, temporal lobe seizures can be cured without the patient becoming amnesic.
When 82-year-old Henry died in 2008, Dr. Corkin had been working with him for 46 years, yet he still didn’t know who she was. When told her name was Suzanne, he could say ‘Corkin’, but this was a superficial association of words rather than a signal that he knew her. Corkin’s book is a science book in that it tells the fascinating story of memory, and the methods, experiments and technologies developed in order to understand it; it is a history book in that it draws the reader into the lives of the neuroscience researchers, allowing us a peek into their thinking; it is a human story of the special relationship between researcher and patient; and it is a memoir about the man who did not lose his intelligence, sense of humor, or generosity when he lost his memory. For me, as one of the privileged few who worked with Henry when I was a postdoctoral fellow in Corkin’s lab, reading this book was like a walk through the past, her descriptions were so evocative, and the voices, especially Henry’s, so clear.
The last chapter, ‘Henry’s Legacy’, recounting the dramatic final journey of the most famous brain in the world, is a page turner as exciting—more exciting— than the best thriller, and takes us into the future; a future more mind-boggling than any science fiction book. After nine hours of in situ MRI brain scanning in Boston, followed by a delicate autopsy to remove the brain from the skull, followed by more scanning, Henry’s carefully protected brain had its own seat for the flight across America to the University of California, San Diego. There it was cut into 2,401 very thin slices, each one photographed. Now there is more work to do as the slices are stained and mounted on large glass slides, and the digital images used to create a 3-dimensional, stunningly detailed model of Henry’s brain that will be freely available on the internet. In the epilogue of her book, Dr. Corkin reminds us of the lovely man Henry was, as the people who cared for him and worked with him say their goodbyes, and reminisce about the good times they shared with the man who never remembered them.
For lovers of science, and those who relish a heroic story, this is a book that will stand up to a lifetime of journeys, with every reading providing inspiration and something new to contemplate.