Monthly Archives: August 2010

Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison

Having read both An Unquiet Mind and Night Falls Fast, I looked forward to reading Exuberance.  After all, I think Kay Redfield Jamison writes with amazing insight into mental behavior, and the topics she writes about are interesting to me, both in an academic way and for personal reasons — I have loved ones with bipolar disorder.  Unfortunately, Exuberance, rather than being a mostly-scholarly work on positive psychology, is more of a rambling collection of historical anecdotes with some study information tossed in.

Jamison is definitely not an impartial author.  She herself has bipolar disorder.  From her account, her experience of mania was, while uncomfortable, was also thrilling and addicting, to a certain extent.  She acknowledges the fact that exuberance can blend with mania, and describes situations where people whom could be described as “exuberant” can also be considered to be experiencing mania.  She makes the attempt to give the warning that some of this behavior can be detrimental to the person and draining on those around them.  Her personal experience makes her at least somewhat sensitive to how mania works, and she does do lip service to the idea that, sometimes, being up is not great, especially not if it’s all the time.

She then spends the rest of the book talking about how great the people who experience an overabundance of exuberance are.  Scientists and naturalists are described as experiencing overwhelming awe and joy about their chosen topics and life in general.  She implies that others, who do not experience the same level of overt wonder, are not as good as others.  We aren’t as creative, we aren’t as vital to the perpetuation of the species, and we aren’t as able to see things in innovative ways and do innovative things.

That’s shortsighted and callous.  There are several people whom I would not consider to be exuberant — Steve Wozniak, for one — but are still creative and innovative.  As someone who lives more on the bottom register of open enthusiasm, it bothers me that Jamison finds it easy to dismiss the majority of humanity as not contributing much if they aren’t extroverted and jubilant.  I personally consider some people she would find “exuberant” to be, rather, draining and tiresome without real insight.

I think this is my main problem with Exuberance.  Jamison sees normalcy in people most of us would consider to be going through manic episodes.  She idealizes those states because she had some good experiences with hers, so it must be good when people experience them without a depressive backlash.  Not necessarily; people are just as irrational in manic states as they are in depressive ones, and are just as likely to have bizarre ideas and be harmful to themselves and others.  Plus, they’re just uncomfortable to be around.  No matter how valuable their work may be, few people want to be around those who are “up” all the time.  It takes a lot of personal energy.

One good thing about Exuberance is that Jamison does put forth research that discusses how playfulness and exploratory behavior can be beneficial for the individual and for the species as a whole.  A moderate amount of playfulness helps cement social cohesiveness and create interpersonal relationships; exploration can lead to new discoveries that benefits the species as a whole.  I don’t dispute these findings, and, in fact, thought that this is what the entire book was going to be composed of.  I am disappointed to find that it’s mainly made up of her own conjectures with a little bit of science tossed in.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes by Stephen Jay Gould

I’m going to make an embarrassing confession:  when I was a teenager, I attempted to read one of Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections and didn’t quite make it through.  I think it was the baseball; something about it turned me off.  Now, twelve years later, I lament not having tried another of his books while younger.  I recently read The Mismeasure of Man and thought it was brilliant.  Now I have read an actual book of his shorter works, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

First off, Gould writes with an amazing balance of intellectual integrity and approachability.  His essays have a hint of humor, which he uses to help the reader through the material.  The topics, even though the book is thirty years old, can be complex for those who don’t have a basic understanding of natural science.  I found his treatment of subjects I knew were really clear.  This made my confidence in my comprehension of the new stuff he presented me with pretty high.

That said, the structure of the book is composed of sections that deal with different subjects: “Sensible Oddities”; “Personalities”; “Adaptation and Development”; “Teilhard and Piltdown”; “Science and Politics”; “Extinction”; and “A Zebra Trilogy”.  Let’s take them one by one.

“Sensible Oddities” contains essays about the strangeness of some aspects of nature.  Gould starts off by presenting us with animals like the anglerfish family, the males of which some species become permanent attachments of the females, becoming little more than a source of sperm with a heart.  He then discusses how these weird characteristics are beneficial adaptations to the species — anglerfish live in the deep and dark ocean, a swathe that is sparsely populated.  From the female’s perspective, an attached gentleman is most likely easier than having to look for him again when you become sexually receptive.  I love how he uses these examples to gently explain how evolution works.

“Personalities” is all about founders of scientific work.  This section will never go out of date, since it’s discussing people who worked in the past to build our current understanding of biology, geology, and related scientific fields.  Gould doesn’t talk about the expected giants in a fawning manner; rather, he discusses their good points and bad, and how they created a framework for the scientists of today to add to.

“Adaptation and Development” is a section that might be considered dated.  The essays here talk about how genes and their expression were debated at the time.  The idea of the selfish gene — and more moderate alternate theories — for example, as an explanation for the replicated sections of DNA that make up a great part of the genome.  I haven’t read extensively on the subject, but I think there are more developed theories now.  That’s not a fault of the book, though — just a fact of the world moving on while the printed word stays the same.

The most fascinating part of the book for me was “Teilhard and Piltdown”.  I knew the basic story of Piltdown Man, the half-human, half-ape skull conglomeration found in a gravel pit in England.  It’s a fraud — hate to burst anyone’s bubble.  I had no idea, however, about the men behind the lie, and I loved reading about Teilhard, the French-born Catholic clergyman who most likely was a willing part of the fleecing of the scientific community for forty years.  His story is an interesting one, somewhat sad and sympathetic at the same time.

I also really liked “Science and Politics”.  The fights detailed within about evolution and its teaching in schools — both historic in the Scopes trial and the then-current fight in Arkansas — are the same ones waged over the same topic today.  It feels like the scientific community is Sisyphus, getting so far and then having to run back down to catch the stone as it slides to the bottom down into Intelligent Design territory again.  No matter how things change, they seem to stay the same, at least as far as the struggle with creationists goes.

In “Extinction”, Gold discusses some theories on how extinction works.  He uses the size of candy bars in one essay to explore how they might “die out” at each increasing price point.  He also talks about the catastrophic theory for how the mass extinction in which the dinosaurs, among other creatures, died out.  That’s a little dated, too; the research is pretty firm on that one now, but Gould presents it as a likely but fairly new idea still in the early stages of development.

Lastly, “A Zebra Trilogy” uses the example of zebras to explore relative closeness of species to one another, how embryonic development can be used to answer questions about adult animals, and how sometimes science can work backwards, getting the idea first and fitting the data to that idea, and how this is detrimental to all of us.

Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes is a wonderful collection.  It’s on a subject I like a lot, and written by a phenomenal popular science author.  I enjoyed it immensely.  Now I just have to atone for my teenage sins and read more of his books.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

The last time I read Ray Bradbury, the book was Fahrenheit 451.  I really liked it, but nothing sparked my interest enough to start reading another of his books.  Spurred by something I read about him recently, I thought I would give another of his books a shot.  I read the description of Dandelion Wine and wondered how the man who wrote a speculative piece of fiction in which books are forbidden would treat the story of a Midwestern boy’s summer.  It turns out that they’re not so different, and he does a fantastic job.

Before I even deal with the overall themes of Dandelion Wine, let me talk about Bradbury’s use of language.  I regret not reading him right along now, after experiencing this book.  His prose is absolutely gorgeous.  The way he goes about describing his characters’ surroundings evokes the feel of a mid-American summer to perfection.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a Midwesterner myself, but I can feel the days, hear the cicadas, and see the layout of the town.  Green Town exists for me in a way that few fictional locations have when attempted by other authors.

Bradbury also has a remarkable way of regulating what he allows us to know of a character’s mind.  Douglas Spaulding, the twelve-year-old protagonist, is a sensitive boy; we know this through his thoughts and his actions.  But there are also things that we are never allowed to know about him, such as the extent of what he saw one particular night, and how those things affect his later behavior and health.  I thought it well-handled, keeping a sense of suspense that serves the plot well.

The story, on its surface, is that of Douglas and his brother, Tom, during the summer of 1928.  Throughout, we follow them on their adventures, but we also see other townsfolk and learn some of their stories, making the book, for all intents and purposes, just as close to a collection of very tightly-related short stories as to a novel.  It’s really quite a nice way for Bradbury to present what he wants to convey, since the story really isn’t a coming-of-age tale; or, rather, it’s the ultimate coming-of-age tale — that of handling the most damaging of losses.

Wound through Douglas’ story are shorter tales of unexpected and sorrowful events, forcing the people of Green Town to adjust to new understandings of life.  A man builds a happiness machine, only to find that people become miserable when they have to leave it.  The cruel disbelief of children crush the self-image of an elderly woman to the point that she denies she ever was anything but an old woman.  The entire town faces with hushed voices the horror of a stalking killer of women.  Friendships are built, then destroyed through moving and deaths.

Bradbury’s whole story is about fleeting existence.  Everything changes, and, overall, everyone dies.  No one is immune, and how one handles that fact determines how they will be able to live their life.  For Douglas, coming to the realization that he, himself, is alive and thus will die, leaves the reader in serious debate as to how he will cope with it.  Bradbury also seems to imply that there are those who become changed by this realization, and that there are others who are either able to take it in stride or never make the mental leap at all.  It appears Tom falls into one of those two latter groups, and it would be interesting to see how Bradbury thinks this changes how the boys experience their lives.

Maybe I’m in a slightly morbid mood, but I found Dandelion Wine beautiful.  It felt true and fresh to me, exposing me to a completely new way of viewing life.  That’s one of the best things a piece of literature can do for someone, and that’s why I like Dandelion Wine so much.

Rating: 5/5.

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Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are by Joseph LeDoux

I am extremely interested in how the brain works.  After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and before starting my master’s (in fields unrelated to brain function), I worked for a professor examining fMRI scans, which piqued an already healthy interest in the brain and mind.  Almost everything written on the topic for a lay audience will eventually end up in my hands.  Synaptic Self seemed especially interesting to me — who doesn’t want to know how the brain creates the self?  It’s one of the fundamental questions of life.  Unfortunately, I got to this book about seven years too late.

The science in Synaptic Self is engrossing and amazingly complete.  Joseph LeDoux walks the reader through the physical set-up of neurons, how they communicate with one another (both individually and en masse), and how genes and behavior alter the pathways our brain cells make.

LeDoux doesn’t dumb down the science, which is awesome.  It also could easily become confusing.  For example, many of the diagrams in the book include abbreviations that don’t really make sense.  In one case, when explaining the roles the amygdala and the hippocampus play in stress, the caption text calls cortisol “CORT”.  Not a huge deal, but, first of all, why did the word need abbreviation, and second of all, why would you bother if the actual diagram uses “cortisol” in every instance of its use?  There were many occasions where I had to go back and reread a part to make sure I got what he was saying.

I don’t really feel like the book got to a point where I could relate to what LeDoux was expressing until he got to the section on people with mental disorders — schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders.  I’ve had experience with those, I’ve done research on them, and learning about how scientists used the information he tells us about in the previous chapters to develop understanding and, from that, treatments, was fantastic.  I didn’t mind the rehash because he told the story well.

I’m also not convinced he makes his point in the best way.  I got his main idea, but felt let down, to a certain extent.  Our selves are made of the connections our brain cells make between each other.  They use genes to know where to go, vaguely, and then use input from the environment to learn where to go, specifically.  Varied tasks, interwoven, make us react in certain ways.  A lot of what we do is hidden from conscious experience.  And … that’s us.

This is the crux of my dissatisfaction:  I’ve heard most of this before.  I went through psychology courses in the early to mid 2000’s, and, yeah, I learned that aspects of personality are not all genes and not all environment.  I get that genes set you up with tendencies, and that your experiences influence how your individual brain ends up working.  All the content of this book is stuff most people who are interested in the topic will have already heard from other sources a long time ago.

This isn’t really LeDoux’s fault.  He wrote the book in 2002, when research in this field was relatively new.  And, for a book that was near the ground-level of a new point of understanding the brain and the self, it’s pretty good.  I just wish it had been a little more approachable and that I had reached it earlier.

Rating: 3/5.

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The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

What if a retired man, encouraged by his wife, started a business to match people up?  What if he’s matching them up for arranged marriages?  This is the premise of The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, a cute and likable story by Farahad Zama about life and love in India.  Presenting a straightforward story, the book gives us small bits of life advice while remaining an ultimately light tale, providing for easy reading.

Books taking place in India, and discussing the people who live there, are nothing new.  One of my favorites is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.  In fact, there seems to have been an explosion of the genre recently, with many new Indian writers bringing their works to the world.  I, for one, am ecstatic about this.  I’ve been fascinated by India since I was little, and I can always read a little more fiction that takes place there.  I don’t care if it’s serious, like Roy’s novel, or lighthearted, like Zama’s book.

The basic premise, that an older man, Mr. Ali, helps others find marriage matches, struck me as quirky and charming.  He sets up shop on the front veranda of his and his wife’s porch, advertises for clients, and starts taking in their information to add to lists, which he sends out to clients who would find them of interest.  His business becomes so popular that he takes on an assistant, Aruna, a sweet, intelligent young woman who has been forced out of her master’s program in order to provide money for her family.

Aruna proves to be a very capable employee, as well as pleasant enough to Mr. and Mrs. Ali that they consider her like a daughter.  Their own son causes them no end of troubles, with his social activism, and Aruna appears to offer them a bit of stability and comfort their lives would otherwise lack.

It is a bit predictable that Aruna is good with managing the office and at assisting people in finding their marriage matches.  I can easily accept it since Aruna is such a sympathetic character — she needs to be good at her job because her family needs the money.  Plus, her job leads her to a match of her own, so it’s a good plot device.

I have to admit, I expected that Aruna (and possibly her sister) would end up married by the end of the book.  I think that’s pretty much a given with a book like this — someone important to the story will get married.  It’s practically a rule.  Zama did, however, surprise me a bit.  I was guessing about one man for Aruna, and it turned out to be someone completely different.  I liked that he was able to distract me to a certain extent, although I did manage to get the right man before the official reveal.

There was another way The Marriage Bureau for Rich People surprised me.  The Alis are Muslim, Aruna is Hindu, and the customers of the matchmaking service are both, with some Christians tossed into the mix as well.  There is no friction between the groups; in fact, the people seem to readily acknowledge the similarities of their core beliefs, and choose to take the opinion that God is God and religion is a creation of man.  This is amazing, and I wonder how accurate that assertion is for actual Muslims and Hindus living in close proximity to one another.  For this book, it made storytelling easier, so I suspended my disbelief.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t wonder about the actual relationships people build with their neighbors with beliefs different from their own.

My last surprise was actually closely tied with the premise of the book:  I didn’t realize that so many marriages in India are arranged. I knew it was a practice commonly employed in the past.  Why I thought love-marriage was predominant now, I have no idea; the caste system, plus the difficulties of meeting people of the opposite sex who would be considered suitable to not only the individual but also the family, makes it a challenge to find someone.  No wonder family members, like uncles, or services like Mr. Ali’s, are necessary to help marriage matches along.

I enjoyed learning a little more about an aspect of Indian culture that I haven’t read a lot about.  I also thought the romance part of the story endearing.  I hope that Zama writes more books, because I already know I’d like to read them.

Rating: 4/5.

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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Having read Stiff, Mary Roach’s book about the corpse and what living scientists and people do with them, I anticipated Packing for Mars was going to have some humor mixed in with incredible stories about space exploration.  I was especially excited by this for several reasons: I like popular science books; I liked Stiff; and I love astronomy and space exploration.  Roach doesn’t disappoint.  Packing for Mars shows us some of the behind-the-scenes planning of our space programs, goofs and all, and creates a very readable account of the development of a branch of science very new and very much a part of many cultural identities.

In fact, Roach starts off her book not with NASA or cosmonauts but with JAXA, Japan’s space organization.  She takes us there to show us one of the processes that comprises how Japanese astronauts are chosen; they’re put in a room with nine other hopefuls for a week.  Their eating behavior is monitored, their interpersonal skills are evaluated, and their work ethics are examined (in a rather clever way).

This is one of the enjoyable parts of Roach’s book — she got to go to lots of cool places and talk to a lot of interesting people.  Astronauts and cosmonauts abound, as do psychologists, engineers, space program managers, and nutritionists, among others.  Roach has a true gift for putting herself in the interview without being obtrusive about it.  It’s enjoyable to read the accounts of, say, a research subject from a study of what happens if people lay in bed and don’t use their bodies to move around, but it’s even better to get Roach’s observations on the person’s surroundings, their manner of carrying themselves, their way of speaking.  She’s astute, and that eye for detail adds a lot to the book.

In fact, Packing for Mars feels very much like her exploration of the story of space exploration, which is probably my favorite aspect of the book.  It’s obvious that she’s done a lot of research and a lot of digging.  The amount of work she does to track down interesting stories is pretty impressive — from reading old newspaper articles about the primate-space program to trying to track down a Czech porn star who appeared in a film that supposedly featured a scene in a zero-g plane, Roach has her bases covered.

Having done all this research shows.  For the geek in me, I was delighted to see that there was actual science behind the humor and the entertaining stories that make up the history of space exploration.  Roach talks about what researchers do to find out what might happen to the body, for sure, but she also talks about the underlying biological and physical concepts underlying why these things happen.  It’s even better that she does it in an accessible and humorous way.

A couple of writing techniques Roach uses endears her books to me.  One is puns and plays on words.  I’ll always admire a clever pun.  I don’t care what other people think about them.  I like them and admire those who can craft good ones.  Roach has a talent for language control that makes hers very organic; they almost slip by you before you recognize the.  Another charming aspect to her writing is the use of footnotes.  I’m a sucker for footnotes — thus one reason I love Terry Pratchett.  Roach includes some great asides in hers, and I looked forward to pages containing them.

There’s no resisting a book with both science and comedy on its side.  Factor in that the book is well-researched and well-written, and I’m completely won over.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

When I first chose to read The Woman in White, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  I thought, perhaps, that it would be a supernatural thriller of some sort — one of the descriptions I read lead me to believe so.  It isn’t, and how happy I am to have been wrong.  The Woman in White is a superb and clever mystery story, and has no need of the occult.

Wilkie Collins’ telling of the story of Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie has a pacing that is very pleasant.  Collins takes his time to describe locations and characters in a way that seems lost to modern writers.  I, for one, enjoy the longer exposition that he provides, not only for the surroundings, but also for the thoughts of the narrators.  Their minds are open for exploration while also maintaining small secrets for later.

Notice I did say narrators.  Collins has not only Walter Hartright tell us this story from his point-of-view, but we also follow, among others, the Fairlie family lawyer, Laura’s cousin Marian, and the clever and devious Count Fosco.  He also uses multiple sources — for example, Marian’s account of part of the story is told through her journal entries, while Count Fosco’s is told through a writing of his about past deeds.  I thought this a wise choice, since the story involves all these people.  Hartwright’s experience of the events that unfold after he meets with the Fairlie family could never have provided the information and insight needed to properly built a true mystery.

The actual mystery of The Woman in White is well-done.  It’s not my first choice of genres, but I think, for the time it was published, that it was rather smart.  We’re given an obsessed, mentally-unstable woman, Anne Catherick, who floats in and out of the story, stirring up suspicions.  We have a smart and brave hero in Hartright, who collects the accounts of others and puts everything together in order to rescue the woman he loves.  There’s Laura Fairlie, who is a sweet and delicate woman not entirely up to the challenges placed in front of her, and her cousin, Marian, who is a strong and fiercely intelligent woman whose strong love for Laura and Walter allows her to perform amazingly on their behalf.  Lord Glyde, Laura’s husband, is a brute, but it is his companion, Count Fosco, who is the deadly mastermind behind the entire story.

The story is compelling.  Collins makes inheritance money the ultimate center of the story, and, while death is in this book, there is only one slaying, and it was not performed for the gain of money or in retribution for anything done against the Fairlie women or Hartwright.  I thought this a refreshing approach to handling a story that easily could have gone down the murderous route.

It may be that I’m a tyro when it comes to mysteries, but I think Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White has a timeless appeal that will make it a quiet favorite for generations to come.

Rating: 4/5.

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