Everything In Its Place, by the brilliant Oliver Sacks, and discussion with author/photographer Bill Hayes

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My Review:

Oliver Sacks, the bestselling author and professor of neurology wrote many books about his patients, his own disorders and nature, including the notable, Awakenings.  In his final compilation of essays, Everything In Its Place, he talked about a myriad of topics, from his love of libraries, to how cold temperatures stop the growth of cancer, from dreams and near death experiences to medical case studies and a town where everyone has Tourette’s Syndrome.  He was a true, deep thinker and scientist who studied the past.

Oliver swam every day, was severely shy and suffered from prosopagnosia (was unable to recognize faces). He was celibate for 40 years and was private regarding his sexuality.  He passed away in 2015 at 82 years old from cancer.  Everything In Its Place consists of his essays that were configured into this book and released post mortem.

Sacks lived alone, focusing on his work most of his life, but in his seventies he fell in love and enjoyed a wonderful 8 years with author and photographer, Bill Hayes.  Bill wrote the must-read memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, along with 3 other non-fiction books, and a book of photography called How New York Breaks Your Heart.  My book club and I had the incredible opportunity to meet with Bill and we discussed his unsurpassable relationship with the brilliant neurologist and learned about their interests and the wonderful friendship and love they shared.

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Conversation with Bill Hayes:

Oliver grew up in a Jewish home and left England at 27 years old.  He lived at the hospital where Awakenings patients were being housed and he put all his efforts  into his job as a physician and neurologist.  Oliver had no romantic relationships for most of his life while he concentrated on his work.

Bill Hayes lived in San Francisco for 25 years.  He wrote a trilogy about medical history and the human body, and he studied anatomy at UCSF.  At 48 years old, in the spring of 2009, Bill moved to NYC to reinvent himself after the devastating loss of Steve, his long time partner of 17 years, passed away suddenly.  Previously, Bill had written to Oliver Sacks about one of his books, and coincidently, once in NYC, they ran into each other in the west village and they developed an intellectual and romantic kinship.

Oliver enjoyed the new found companionship with Bill, savoring the time they spent together making dinner and everyday chores like loading the dishwasher.  According to Bill, the two men had a deep connection despite their 30 year age difference.  They were kindred spirits, and both had been through a lot.  Bill says Oliver was “chronically quotable, hilarious, eccentric and philosophical”.

Oliver had prosopagnosia, and discussed it in his books, bringing this condition to the surface.  He was not able to easily recognize faces, something he deemed a “neurological hiccup”.  He studied how people adapt to different conditions including bipolar, Alzheimers, dementia, Tourette’s and autism, and wrote about them.

Bill told us Oliver mastered the art of writing.  It came easily and fluidly.  He wrote longhand with a fountain pen on yellow lined paper.  He used no technology, no wifi, and no computer.  He had two assistants in his office and they transcribed what he wrote.  He composed in his head and generally there were not a lot of revisions.

Oliver insisted Bill keep a journal and six months after he passed away, Bill felt free to write.  Using conversations he recorded in his journal, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me, was released in 2015.  Today it is being made into a film.

Oliver published 16 books and Bill suggested we read Gratitude (4 essays about death that appeared in the NYTimes), and The Island of the Colorblind, which he described as most lyrical.

Oliver’s writing includes medical case histories,  essays on human behavior, nature, swimming, and other interests.  When compiling this collection, Bill fought hard to include the Why we Need Gardens essay in the book and it was added 6 weeks before Everything In Its Place went to press.

Bill’s memories with Oliver are joyful.  They shared so much laughter, even during his failing health in the last year of his life.  Bill says a lot had to do with Oliver; he was so clear when he learned he was terminal.  He wanted to live out his life with Bill, writing, reading, traveling and spending time with friends.  His old friend, Laura Snyder is currently in the process of writing a biography of Oliver Sacks.  She had written The Philosophical Breakfast Club, his favorite book.

Our book group was luck enough to see Oliver’s apartment via FaceTime and we asked Bill a few personal questions about himself. He told us he is currently single and dating, although the bar was set high once he met Oliver Sacks.  He also willingly shared the important significance of his five tattoos:  the end of one life and the beginning of another, I am my own anchor, a Joni Mitchell song, his five sisters and Oliver’s middle name, Wolf.

I highly recommend reading some of Oliver Sacks’ work, and Bill Hayes’ memoir, Insomniac City.  Both men are fascinating and a wealth of knowledge, compassion and creativity.

Goodreads Summary

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About the author:

Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, was a British neurologist residing in the United States, who has written popular books about his patients, the most famous of which is Awakenings, which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

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Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me by Bill Hayes

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My Review:

I couldn’t help but fall in love with New York City as I lived it through author Bill Hayes’ eyes reading Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me.  He is a wonderful observer and he captures the essence of people through photographs and his stories.  He tells us his life journey (after he loses his beloved partner he leaves San Francisco to start fresh in NYC) and we experience his existence as he heals his soul, taking in the sights of the city and finding beauty in his connections with others.  We here about his relationship with Oliver Sacks, the well-known neurologist,  genius of a man and can feel the love they had for each other through the pages.  Although Sacks was almost 30 years older, Hayes often seemed to be his guide contributing to what made them a well matched, intriguing couple.

I’ve always been enamored with New York City and did enjoy living there for a while, but now, in addition to my renewed appreciation and love for my favorite city I feel warm feelings toward author Bill Hayes who is no doubt a kind, tender hearted, open minded man who, in his life has nurtured loves until they are gone, but he continues to see, appreciate and capture the beauty in this world. Oliver Sacks seemed like a brilliant, unique and loving man…I would have enjoyed meeting him.

As Bill Hayes writes. ” It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here.  But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters, at the very least.  Just remember: Ask first, don’t grab, be fair, say please and thank you, always say thank you – even if you don’t get something back right away.  You will.”

This tender memoir was like reading a love letter to New York City – I have a list of people I know who will cherish it like I did!

As seen on Goodreads:
Bill Hayes came to New York City in 2009 with a one-way ticket and only the vaguest idea of how he would get by. But, at forty-eight years old, having spent decades in San Francisco, he craved change. Grieving over the death of his partner, he quickly discovered the profound consolations of the city’s incessant rhythms, the sight of the Empire State Building against the night sky, and New Yorkers themselves, kindred souls that Hayes, a lifelong insomniac, encountered on late-night strolls with his camera.

And he unexpectedly fell in love again, with his friend and neighbor, the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose exuberance–“I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life,” he tells Hayes early on–is captured in funny and touching vignettes throughout. What emerges is a portrait of Sacks at his most personal and endearing, from falling in love for the first time at age seventy-five to facing illness and death (Sacks died of cancer in August 2015). Insomniac City is both a meditation on grief and a celebration of life. Filled with Hayes’s distinctive street photos of everyday New Yorkers, the book is a love song to the city and to all who have felt the particular magic and solace it offers.

 

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About the Author:

The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction, Bill Hayes is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the author of several books.

A photographer as well as a writer, his photos have appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Granta, New York Times, and on CBS Evening News. His portraits of his partner, the late Oliver Sacks, appear in the recent collection of Dr. Sacks’s suite of final essays Gratitude.

Hayes has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome, the recipient of a Leon Levy Foundation grant, and a Resident Writer at Blue Mountain Center. He has also served as a guest lecturer at Stanford, NYU, UCSF, University of Virginia, and the New York Academy of Medicine.

Purchase a copy of Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me HERE