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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Book Review: Bitter in the Mouth

Two books with very similar and uncommon themes mades their way to me over the past few days. When that kind of thing happens, I try to pay attention. Since, I'm not sure what else to do with the information, I figured I'd write it on my blog.

The first book I read was "Blue-eyed Boy", by Joanne Harris. Having recently discovered this author ("Chocolat", "Blackberry Wine", "The Lollipop Shoes") I have been reading everything she wrote. This book is not at all like her others. Some fans of her previous books said they were very disappointed with this one, or didn't read it at all. I applaude authors for trying new things even when they have a model that works and I found this book a different but interesting reading experience. It's quite a disturbingly dark book and isn't a "feel good piece". Nor does it have the past lives, magical, old world feel of the others. In fact, it's a "computer age" book and that's part of the story. I like a book of fiction that introduces me to a non-fiction concept. In this case, the story introduced me to synesthesia. At least one of the characters associates music, noises, or certain tones with particular colors. Interesting, and I thought of my friend that associates particular colors with the days of the week.

The next book I picked up, quite by chance, because it was literally falling off the shelf in the library, is called "Bitter in the Mouth", by Monique Truong. Amazingly it seems, in this work of fiction as well, the main character has synesthesia. In her case, certain words provoke a taste in her mouth. She can "taste" words. It's an involuntary response and depending on the taste they provoke is either a positive or negative response. Either way, it's quite distracting for sure. The character grows up with this secret in the 1970's in small-town North Carolina, where it's hard to live with secrets. This is only one of the secrets that are central to her character and her story.

"Bitter in the Mouth", is not an easy read. Throughout the dialogue, the taste associated with the word is often written in italics. This makes it very distracting to read. A couple of times I got lost in the food groups and had to make my way back to figure out the meaning of the sentence. That's the power of this book in my opinion. As I read it, for just a brief period of time, I could begin to imagine how distracting it must be to have this type of synesthesia. If only to a small degree, I could imagine life for the character and for those people in the world that really have this experience.

There is a lot of intrigue in, "Bitter in the Mouth", and I was hooked as I had to unravel the secrets and find out what was really going on. It's a story of family tragedies, coming of age, and growing up different in the world. And everyone, is in one way or another, different, even in a small town culture.

Truong explains the very real condition of synesthesia a bit in the book and after reading the two books, I was intrigued enought to do a bit of research as well. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. There are a variety of variations of synesthesia depending on which senses are involved. In Grapheme-color synesthesia, individual letters of the alphabet and numbers are shaded or tinged with a color. In sound-color synesthesia, voice, music or noises trigger color and simple shapes. This sound-color was described in "Blue-eyed Boy". In Ordinal-linguistic personification forms, ordered sequences like numbers, days or months, are associated with personalities. This form is described in a book called "Wednesday is Indigo Blue" ( I haven't read that one yet, but it's on my list). Finally as in Truong's book, Lexical-gustatory synesthesia describes the condition where words or spoken language evokes taste sensations in the mouth.

Whichever type of sensations are evoked, a consistency is maintained. For instance, in Truong's book, the word "one" always "tastes" like bread and butter pickles for the character Linda, and the word "Mom" always tastes like chocolate milk for her. Synesthesia is always involuntary and automatic, and often, it is genetically linked.

In the research I did, I found that some synesthetes are unaware their experiences are unusual until they realize that other people don't have the same experiences. Others, like the character in Truong's book, really feel they are keeping a secret. What does seem consistent is that most synesthetes see their perceptions as a gift, not as a condition or disease. Many use their unusual abilities to be very creative, skilled in memorization, or talented mathematically. But as I read about it, I think for most, it is also "overstimulating" and overwhelming, so that if you do experience the world this way, you need to seal yourself off now and then from such over-stimulation. I imagine it might be kind of like landing in Vegas when you're used to the country. It can be exciting, enriching, and a pleasurable experience, but you're going to need to step back and take a break now and then because you just can't assimilate all those lights, noises and actions for an extended period of time. At least not until you learn to filter and adjust.

I guess we all filter and adjust as we grow and find our way in the world. I wonder what other experiences people have as children that they learn to "tone down" or ignore in order to be able to function in society. I wonder if we would all be able to see auras, feel energy fields, and hear others thoughts, if we weren't having to tune that out in order to be able to focus on a task at hand. Hmmm....

In the meantime, Monique Truong's book "Bitter in the Mouth", expanded my world a bit and I appreciate that!

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