Book Review: You are Not Your Brain

George developed OCD in college. He recounts: “I started getting these weird thoughts. I remember the first one: If I did not put something a certain way, someone in my family would die.” As time went on,

he had a growing sense that the… brain messages were false and that the feared outcomes wouldn’t come true, but he couldn’t resist the impulses to check or arrange.

Steve had a reputation for being the “answer man” at his company. Over time, he came to feel that nobody ever solved anything for themselves. He lost respect for their neediness and felt overwhelmed. When he went home, his family’s demands began to seem like more neediness. One relaxing drink became two became, eventually, full-fledged alcoholism.

Yet both, according to the authors of You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life, were able to overcome these formidable challenges by applying the Four Steps contained in the book.

Brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to form new connections and create new patterns of behavior – is something of a hot subject right now, but the articles I’ve seen about it usually seem to take a cheerleading, big-picture “You can change for the better!” approach. This book delves into how the brain can be changed, and how, if you aren’t paying attention, the changes may not always be positive, before laying out four steps for consciously and positively changing the brain.

Neuroplasticity is operating all the time, which means that if you repeatedly engage in the same behaviors (even something as benign as checking your email several times a day), neuroplasticity will designate that action as the preferred one, regardless of the effect of that behavior on you or your life. In a very real way, the actions you perform now and how you focus your attention have downstream effects on how your brain is wired and how you will automatically respond to deceptive brain messages and events in the future.

In spite of the somewhat new-agey terminology the authors use (deceptive brain messages; Wise Advocate; true self), the book seems solid in its science and reasoning and it has helped me to understand several things that previously eluded me.

For instance, I had heard before that “should” and “should not” are unhealthy words to use to yourself unless you are actually discussing a moral imperative (“I should not lie” is fine; “I should do the laundry/work harder/be a better person” is not), but could not accept this. The book helped me see it more accurately. This passage is about the first few weeks post-stroke for a woman who was determined to walk again even though her doctors said she never would:

When she could not achieve what she wanted, Connie’s deceptive brain message swooped in and told her she should be able to do it – thereby implying that something was wrong with her. This caused the uncomfortable sensations of anger and frustration to rise in Connie – negative sensations that she wanted to be free from immediately. Her desire for relief was high and her expectation of achieving her goal, which had switched from completing the therapy exercise to feeling better immediately, was low. As long as she maintained the unrealistic expectation to get rid of those uncomfortable sensations and feel better, she was stuck and would feel worse. Instead, when she called the sensations what they were – anger and frustration – she was able to switch gears and focus her attention on a realistic expectation, such as completing the therapy exercise one more time for the day or switching to another exercise that was similar but easier for her to complete.

After that, I understood why I had always had two different mindsets about myself, especially professionally. On the one hand I received a great deal of praise and trust, and I knew I was good. Yet I was plagued by a constant sense of failure: I should have been able to take on another project, I should have foreseen that snag, I should have been able to convince the entire company of the importance of involving Marketing early.

Whether the Four Steps will totally eradicate that remains to be seen – full disclosure: I have not completed the program yet – but just seeing the “should’s” for what they are has brought a measure of peace.

In short, I would recommend this book for anyone who has a habit they would like to break (procrastination included!) or an unhappy thought-pattern. It can’t hurt, and putting effort into change is a good indicator that change will happen.

Dialogue Rules

(This blog is about fiction-writing techniques and is a departure from my usual subject-matter. If this isn’t of interest, feel free to skip until next time!)

One of the things I particularly struggle with in fiction writing is dialogue. Considering how much of our lives we spend blabbing to each other, it doesn’t seem like it should be hard to create realistic dialogue on the page… but it is. Continue reading “Dialogue Rules”

Book Review: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon

luciaI have the terrible wonderful habit of browsing the books for sale whenever I’m in a thrift store or library; I like inviting serendipity. I don’t remember where or when I found this biography, but it was definitely serendipity; my taste for personal histories, especially of women, would have been enough to pick it up, but the ability to justify it as a possible source for research – and, better still, a source for the sort of details of everyday life in historic Europe that are so hard to come by – made it an easy sale.

Any reservations I had came from the fact that Andrea di Robilant is Lucia’s descendant. On the one hand, there’s romance in the “long-lost story discovered in family archives,” but on the other – mightn’t it be vanity publishing, making a book out of nothing very much? It was, however, cool that the portrait on the cover is indeed of her – a portrait that was deemed lost until he tracked it down. (This would be a bit too much National Treasure if it did not become apparent in the telling of the story that, because it was not a major work, nobody had ever bothered to go looking before.)

But, anyhow, I bought it and read it and enjoyed every minute of it, and it vastly exceeded anything I hoped it would be. I also found myself confronting a number of common myths about the past and even discovering a few surprising facts we don’t often consider at all. Here are a few: Continue reading “Book Review: Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon”

Book Review: The Corner Office

corner office

Adam Bryant was curious about CEOs. Specifically, are there certain traits they have in common that set them apart from others? And are those traits necessarily what we would expect?

To find out, he interviewed more than 70 CEOs and executives, then grouped the nuggets he gleaned into chapters under three broad headings: “Succeeding,” “Managing,” and “Leading.” Continue reading “Book Review: The Corner Office”

Book Review: The Slow Fix

The premise of the book is that “quick fixes” cause more problems than they patch up. For instance, the BP Deep Horizon oil spill was the result of years of quick fixes. Honoré is quick to acknowledge that when billions of gallons of oil are pouring into the ocean, you need a quick fix to stop it – but then you need to step back, examine what went wrong, and figure out a way to keep it from ever happening again. This is a Slow Fix.

On the other hand, a Slow Fix is always – and often counterintuitively – a good investment.

The full review is published on vision.org! Read it here.

Thoughts After Calling 911

From looking up her symptoms on WebMD it seems she may have stopped breathing very briefly, and her body was trying to make up for it.  Suffice it to say that hearing her grunting and snorting while her eyes rolled back and her unconscious body jerked and her head hung back at an unnatural angle – and then having it all stop so suddenly and so completely that I wondered for a moment if she had died – was unnerving enough. Continue reading “Thoughts After Calling 911”

December Book Review: Teen Fiction

I haven’t made much progress with the non-fiction book this month, in spite of having one checked out for 5 weeks; I’ve gotten sucked into children’s/young adult fiction.

But it never ceases to amaze me that at some times in history, and in some circles, reading fiction was regarded as scandalous and, worse, a waste of time – no better than, in the words of one man, “a pre-fabricated daydream.” Of some fiction, yes, that is true. But the best fiction is as instructive as any textbook and a lot more memorable.

A few months ago I started reading the Betsy-Tacy series. The early books (which start when Betsy and Tacy are 5 years old) can be read at the most leisurely pace you desire. But once I got halfway through high school they became surprisingly compelling. Each was read late into the night and the minute one was done I checked out the next two.

Betsy and Tacy graduate high school in 1910, so the adventures of their high school crowd are exceedingly innocent and fun. They go for drives and picnics. They congregate at Betsy’s house, with Betsy’s family, for Sunday night dinner. They stand around the piano and sing by the hour. They dance spontaneously in the living room or go to dances – the old-fashioned kind, with dance cards and a three-dance limit for any two people.

Honestly, I’m completely jealous. Having once in my life been present at an impromptu sing-along, I can testify that it’s a lot more fun than our self-conscious generation would expect. In fact, after reading these books – which were based on the author’s experiences growing up – I suspect the last couple generations just might not know how to have as much fun as people who lived before the age of video games and 24/7 TV did.

Should I ever have kids, I hope this is the kind of teenage experience they can have. But I wonder, is that even possible? Will kids by then be so electronics-ized that they can’t comprehend or join in this fun? That sounds alarmist and probably is but I think it would have taken strong leadership to get a group of kids to do this in my day, and I can’t imagine it’s going to get better.

No sooner had I finished those than the library informed me I had reached first place in line for a book that depicts an experience I hope my kids never have: The Hunger Games. The timing was bad, but given that it had taken two months to work my way up from #37 and there were now 28 people behind me, I went to get it. (In a moment of stupidity I failed to request the 2nd and 3rd books at the same time as the first, which means I’m now 142nd and 85th in line, respectively. It’s good to know people still read.)

On the face of it, The Hunger Games doesn’t make sense as a young adult book; for those of you who haven’t seen or heard of the movie, it’s about a group of 12- to 18-year-olds who are pitted together in a government-organized, fight-to-the-death, last-survivor-wins televised entertainment.

But while this is certainly a more subtle and sophisticated read than, say, The Princess Diaries, there are plenty of indications that this is indeed teen fare. The story takes place in fictional Panem, which was formed from the ashes of a United States destroyed by a series of natural and man-made disasters. Panem consists of a very rich cosmopolitan Capitol, surrounded by 13 Districts – until civil war between Capitol and Districts destroys the 13th District. The choice of 13 original colonies – sorry, I mean districts – is clearly not at all obvious or contrived.

The love interest manages to be even more influenced by outside events, and consequently confusing, than even the average 16-year-old crush. Our heroine is pushed into a relationship in the hopes it will give her a better chance of survival, then left to wonder for the next month whether the guy’s affection is real, whether she can trust him, or whether this was all a clever idea to get her to lower her guard so he can more easily kill her.

And Battle Royale it is not. Of over 20 deaths, we’re present for five (four extremely quick and lacking in gore) and know the cause of four more (three of which are of natural causes). The others happen entirely off-screen. The point of the book is not to give us a bloodbath for the sake of it, but to make us understand that physical violence follows from mental violence, and that injustice is a form of violence.

In that context, I offer two reviews from the author’s website that I particularly like:

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire [the second book in the trilogy] expose children to exactly the kind of violence we usually shield them from. But that just goes to show how much adults forget about what it’s like to be a child. Kids are physical creatures, and they’re not stupid. They know all about violence and power and raw emotions. What’s really scary is when adults pretend that such things don’t exist [or, one might add, turn them into cheap entertainment].

and:

“…readers will instinctively understand what Katniss knows in her soul, that war mixes all the slogans and justifications, the deceptions and plans, the causes and ideals into an unsavory stew whose taste brings madness.”

Indeed, if being good requires as a first step filling one’s mind with good things, the book provides plenty of examples to choose from. Self-sacrifice, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, outgoing concern and love are really what drives the book forward.

In short, if the next two books in the Hunger Games series are as good, this series will join Betsy-Tacy on the list of books I want on my shelf should I ever have children.

Judging a Book by its Title

Yesterday I was introduced to The Book Den of Santa Barbara, which is the best bookstore I’ve ever been in. It had the perfect blend of interesting new books and beautiful used books, and if I ever have a house with a library, I would happily fill it up there.

While browsing, I began to ponder whether the phrase “judging a book by its cover” isn’t a little too narrow.

When I was no older than thirteen, I would pester my mom to take me to the book store so I could buy books you wouldn’t expect to even be on the radar of a tween: collections of Jane Austen’s lesser and unfinished novels; Tales of a Wayside Inn; Moby Dick; Camilla. (Austen references Camilla in Northanger Abbey so clearly I must read it, and I did, all 913 pages. It still tickles me that, a decade later, a literary roommate saw it on my bookshelf and was hugely impressed. “My professor always said that if we were really serious about literature we would read Camilla,” she explained.)

“Literature,” then, was always something of a hallowed concept for me. At our local Borders, amidst the sections devoted to history and biography, mystery and young adult, there was a whole section called “literature”. Naively assuming an author must meet some elevated standard to be included there with the classics, I was wildly impressed.

And then I was disappointed. At some point, after picking up countless of these novels and having reactions ranging all the way down to disgust, it dawned on me that this was the catch-all section. This was the section for books that didn’t fit into any of the accepted genres. This was the section for writers with literary aspirations – most of which they could never hope to meet.

A snobbish reaction? Yes, most likely. But I was upset by the failure to distinguish between great and bad and only so-so. Confronted with an entire bookstore, how was I supposed to know what was worth the time to read? The result was that for many years, when confronted with modern books with “literary” titles, I instinctively shrank away in horror.

But as I looked at the rows of titles yesterday I finally realized what a useless distinction that is. Many of the classic titles – Portrait of a Lady, Tender is the Night, The Age of Innocence, War and Peace, The Eternal Husband – sound much like the modern titles. The difference, at least for me, is that the classic titles are irrelevant; they have no independent meaning. I know that they are classic, so the titles are just the way of distinguishing one classic from another in my mental index.

And yes, that is definitely snobbish.

For years I have proudly declared that I always judge books by their covers (and, apparently, their titles), and that it works. That is, when I do pick up a book, I nearly always like it. But there is no way of knowing how often the reverse is true. How many of the books I don’t pick up would I like?

Confronted by an entire bookstore (and, now, internet!) of books to read, I may continue with this method. After all, there is limited time and everything has to be prioritized somehow, and there is nothing wrong with that. But I will make an effort not to assume the worst about a novel just because it is modern and has an interesting title. That is simply small-minded.

November Book Review: Passionate Minds

David Bodanis is the reason there is no toothpaste in our household – thanks to his book The Secret House (we use baking soda with just a touch of stevia instead). It may have been through that connection or by some other chance, but either way I was thrilled to discover this book: the tagline is

The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Chatelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world.

Impressively, Emilie du Chatelet, born in 1706, denied access to all formal education and scientific communities of the time, and all but forgotten now, did research that formed the foundation of the “squared” in E=mc2 and, separately, doing no research at all, theorized properties of light that wouldn’t be confirmed until 70 years later and form the basis of photography, among other things. This was a woman I needed to know more about.

The book is an easy and compelling read and good for a general overview of two remarkable and intersecting lives, but ultimately disappointing. Bodanis mentions in the preface that Voltaire and Emilie were together for ten years but that the relationship ended unsatisfactorily, leading to her early death and a certain bitterness in his later work. I would say that is a highly overdramatized way of summarizing the story as recorded in the main text, but my enjoyment of much of the book was spoiled as I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

More disappointingly, however, the book seems superficial. In the preface Bodanis contends that the pair, who corresponded with nearly every major thinker in Europe, were at the center of developing the up-and-coming Enlightenment. Yet in the main text their correspondences are referred to only passingly.

Even looking at it only as a story of their love, I have read biographies of entire lives (this skips most of Emilie’s growing-up years and picks up Voltaire intermittently from age 23, when he was already well-known, ending by quickly summarizing his last years) that aren’t much longer than this yet seem much more thorough. There are certainly books where this is unavoidable because the detail simply isn’t available. In this case, that isn’t true.

Du Chatelet had been an inveterate letter writer, sometimes sending four or five messages a day, and Voltaire wrote constantly too, so what I found about key events was often as dense as an email trail today. Thousands of those letters have survived, as have du Chatelet’s own half-dozen books and unprinted manuscripts (including beautiful, private autobiographical reflections). There are also letters from houseguests and neighbors and purchasing agents and scientists, as well as a vast thicket of police reports, complemented by a small layering of servants’ memories… The detail was so great that when, for example, I describe Voltaire smiling after being asked a question by a particular police spy in May 1717, his smiling is not a random guess, but appears in a report the spy wrote that very evening.

So why isn’t more of this included in the book?

There are certainly interesting passages. I had never realized that many of the things we take for granted today – like personalized signatures on letters, or the fact that we can never truly understand another person’s inner thoughts – were revolutionary at the time. Even the advent of cushioned armchairs was a result of a change in philosophical outlook. And I would never have guessed that it was Voltaire who – based on an interview with one of Newton’s relatives – first circulated the story about the apple falling from the tree.

(Of less general interest, but fascinating to me, was the fact that Voltaire and his friend Richelieu – nephew of the infamous Cardinal – were responsible for putting Jeanne Poisson into Louis XV’s bed, thus launching the career of Madame du Pompadour, who was another very smart cookie and about whom I wrote in In the Face of a Royal Pain.)

I’m glad I read the book, but mostly because it has pointed me to a couple of other biographies of Emilie that might actually give a full picture of the heroine.

October Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Why did soldiers in the 1800s fire rounds into their canned food?

Which British monarch was so fat he or she could not go down stairs, but had to be lowered through a trapdoor with a pulley?

Why was the aspidistra the indoor plant of choice in Victorian times?

I confess this was not originally intended as this month’s reviewed book; looking for something entertaining, and misled by the word “short,” I checked it out as my fluff book. However, it being both more serious and considerably longer than Bill Bryson’s other books (it is, in fact, 9 times longer than his “African Diary,” which I highly recommend, and which, at 49 pamphlet-sized pages, was only one evening’s reading for me), here we are.

Bryson is known chiefly as a humorist, and the origin of the book is explained with a comedian’s typical curiosity:

Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two…. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me. So I formed the idea to make a journey around it, to wander from room to room and consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life.

What he found, to his “great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world – whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over – eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house.” The result is that one receives the impression that, having found the subject far more immense than he supposed, the book became both rushed and crammed and, at times, not as focused or organized as it might have been.

Fortunately, for the most part this has little effect on the reader’s enjoyment. Bryson’s humor, though relatively subdued, shines through on every page in his entertaining digressions and delight in the absurdities and improbabilities of life, expressed with his usual gift for a good turn of phrase.

There is his exuberant declaration that “Nothing – really, absolutely nothing – says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century’s most daring and iconic building [the Crystal Palace] was entrusted to a gardener.”

After relating how horrified famous diarist Samuel Pepys was to find, in 1662, that his fish dinner “had within it ‘many little worms creeping,’” Bryson assures us that “finding one’s food in an advanced state of animation was not common even in Pepys’ day.”

Or, perhaps my favorite tidbit out of the whole book:

Curiously, the one service room not named for the products it contains is dairy. The name derives from an Old French word, dey, meaning maiden. A dairy, in other words, was the room where the milkmaids were to be found, from which we might reasonably deduce that an Old Frenchman was more interested in finding the maid than the milk.

One theme that appeared throughout and struck me with a kind of understanding sadness was how, in the days before professional certifications, anyone could be anything:

Even after architecture became a recognized profession, most practitioners came from other backgrounds. Inigo Jones was a designer of theatrical productions, Christopher Wren an astronomer, Robert Hooke a scientist, Vanbrugh a soldier and playwright.

Of course, there was a downside to this. “In one decade in America [in the mid-1800s], more than four hundred theaters burned down. Over the nineteenth century as a whole, nearly ten thousand people were killed in theater fires in Britain” – because there were no safety standards, and theaters used wildly unstable lighting developed by amateurs. I understand why the way it is now is “better,” and is the way it must be. But, as Bryson says, the old way contained much capacity for greatness.

The book is in turns shocking-funny:

Even though sugar was very expensive, people consumed it until their teeth turned black, and if their teeth didn’t turn black naturally, they blackened them artificially to show everyone how wealthy and marvelously self-indulgent they were

shocking-tragic:

Of scurvy alone it has been suggested that as many as two million sailors died between 1500 and 1850. Typically, scurvy killed about half the crew on any long voyage [but although experiments in the 1760s pointed to the cure] the British navy… procrastinated for another generation before finally providing citrus juice to sailors as a matter of routine

and shockingly coincidental: one man of no significance to history, James Chiswick, single-handedly connects the sewage of London, the beginnings of professional baseball, the discovery of the atom, and the French Revolution, just because he happened to have gifted children, students, and roommates.

Unfortunately, after about 350 pages of this, the endless factoids and digressions start to get wearing, and just at that point the book reaches the bedroom and takes a decidedly darker and more depressing turn.

Nothing upsets me more than the lack of legal rights for women throughout history, and Bryson manages not only to find the worst examples (one woman, after finding out that her husband was slowly poisoning her, applied for a divorce. After listening to the arguments the judge counseled her to go home and “try to be more patient”), but to follow them with other equally disturbing subjects, such as including a detailed account of one woman’s 17-and-a-half-minute mastectomy, written by the woman herself – because, of course, this was in the days before anesthesia and so she was awake for the whole thing. This is followed up by such everyday horrors in the nursery as are not worth repeating.

Which leaves me in another unexpected place: giving this book, which was mostly very entertaining and by an author I like, a negative review. The casual reader may enjoy reading the odd chapter; the student of history and trivia certainly will. I’m glad to know the 2% of the facts the book contains that I will remember. But as a whole – if I got bored by this kind of Britain-centered trivia, then most people will.

By the way, if you’re still curious about the questions posed at the beginning, the answers are:

  1. Because early tin cans were welded shut, and it was the only way to open them
  2. Queen Anne
  3. Because the fumes of gas lamps were fatal to most other house-plants.