Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for April, 2015

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Posted by nliakos on April 26, 2015

by Joshua Foer (Penguin 2011; ISBN 978-1-59420-229-2)

Reading this book, I learned a lot that I didn’t know (always a good thing!). Chief among these is perhaps the fact that before people wrote things down, printed them in books, and saved them in digital format, they did not just naturally have better memories than we do; they learned and practiced techniques that enabled them to remember better. These techniques have mostly been lost to us (blame Gutenberg), but have been revived by a small group of memory experts who practice memorizing things like random numbers, poetry, and the order of cards in a deck, and compete among themselves. These techniques include things like the “person-action-object” system, or PAO, in which the memorizer commits to memory a set of images corresponding to two-digit numbers; for example, Pele kicking a soccer ball. This allows him (most of them seem to be male) to generate a memorable image for each six-digit number (Hillary Clinton talking to a soccer ball). It’s vital that the number be visualizable and unusual (thus memorable). Using this system, memory buffs (some are called “grand masters”) can, with practice, learn to remember any number from 0 to 999,999. (Why you would want to do this is another question.) The point is, there are tricks to remembering stuff, and they can be learned and practiced.

(Another interesting thing I did not know is that the human brain is very good at spatial memory and quite poor at remembering things like phone numbers, passwords, historical dates, and instructions; this is why memory champs employ “memory palaces” (mental images of places they know very well) in which to position their images so as to retrieve them in order without forgetting any.)

Joshua Foer begins with attending the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship as a science reporter, and he eventually devotes a year to learning and practicing memory techniques so that he can compete in the next championship (I will not divulge the outcome!). Along the way, he digests a lot of information about memory, learning, intelligence, education, history, chick sexing, savants, and more, and passes it on to his readers, making for a fascinating read.

We generally assume that the invention of the printing press, and indeed, the invention of writing itself, has been a good thing; Foer points out that all those external memory devices have their cost. In one of my favorite sections, he quotes Plato quoting Socrates quoting the Egyptian king Thamus (in Phaedra), to whose people the god Theuth offers a writing system which will improve the people’s memories. Thamus declines, saying, If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on what is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow-men. (pg 138) Which is pretty much what happened. Foer observes later that progressive education has made school more interesting and pleasant for children, but in so doing it has left us without the shared memories that enable us to “partake of a shared culture’. He continues, The people whose intellects I most admire always seen to have a fitting anecdote or germane fact at the ready. They’re able to reach out across the breadth of their learning and pluck from distant patches. It goes without saying that intelligence is much, much more than mere memory, . . . but memory and intelligence do seem to go hand in hand. . . . The more tightly any new piece of information can be embedded into the web of information we already know, the more likely it is to be remembered. . . . The more we remember, the better we are at processing the world. And the better we are at processing the world, the more we can remember about it. (pgs 208-209)  That is certainly true.

However, after all that practice, Foer points out that although he could memorize certain kinds of things (generally ordered lists of something) much better than he had been able to previously, he did not remember other kinds of things (like where he had parked his car, or even a series of colors) any better than he had better.  And he very quickly returned to the practice of using external memory aids (post-it notes, to-do lists, cell phone address books) after his year on the memory circuit. But he also believes that a bigger benefit of that year’s training has to do with being mindful and learning to notice things. What I had really trained my brain to do, he writes at the end, was to be more mindful, and to pay attention to the world around me. Remembering can only happen if you notice.  (pg 268) This brought to mind something someone said on a TV show about forgetfulness that I once saw: it isn’t so much that we forget stuff, but that we never bother to remember it in the first place. It never makes it into our long-term memory.

I could not help remembering, as I read the book, that the reason I started my reading blog, back in 2006, was because I forgot what I had read so quickly after I read it. Apparently, I am not alone in this, in a world in which quantity (how much you read) is more valued than quality (how well you understand and remember what you have read). There is much to be said for questioning our assumptions about reading, understanding, knowing, and remembering.

P.S. Yes, Joshua Foer is Jonathan Safran Foer’s brother. I googled it.

Posted in Education, Memoir, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do

Posted by nliakos on April 19, 2015

by Wallace J. Nichols (Little, Brown 2014; ISBN 978-0-316-25208-9)

The sub-title pretty much says it all. “J.” Nichols, a researcher who founded (among other things) the Blue Mind project, a kind of TED Conference for all things related to water, cites studies that support his idea that we came from water, we are drawn to water, and without water, we can’t survive, or at least not optimally. I am ready to believe, but sometimes the evidence seems a little off. Some of the studies Nichols cites show that it is nature that humans need and that makes us feel less anxious, etc; then he will add almost as an after-thought, that of course water in nature makes it better, but I am not always convinced that the study he is citing demonstrated that. It’s kind of a P.S. that he tacks on near the end. This is not to say that he does not support his claims; he does, but sometimes the support seems less targeted than other times.

Nichols talks about “getting your Blue Mind on” by swimming, boating, fishing, walking or sitting by water, taking a shower, looking at a fish tank or fountain, even looking at a painting or photo that depicts water in some form. He points out that urban dwellers are often isolated from water (and nature); their anxiety builds up, but they can counter this tendency by making sure they get (see, hear, feels, taste, smell) a watery dose of calm.

Personally, it does make me feel calm and happy to hike along the lake shore at my local state park, to sit on my sister’s back porch gazing at Tarr Creek, or to walk along the beach, letting the waves tickle my toes. But what about people who live their entire lives far from a significant body of water (mountain or desert dwellers, for example)? What about people who live on or near the water but are still cantankerous, mean, greedy people? I am sure there are such folks.

Nichols’ aim is to make his readers realize how importance (clean) water is to us and how we must take responsibility for preserving and protecting it. “We protect what we love.” He says that the gloom and doom and information overload of overly serious environmentalists is not working. He suggests we would be better off sharing our positive stories of water.

I am not very optimistic about our species’ ability to protect the planet. I hope Nichols is right, and I wish him well.

P.S. Looking at the Blue Mind project web page, I discover that Blue Mind 5 is taking place in Washington, D.C. in 3 weeks!

Posted in Non-fiction, Science | Leave a Comment »

“Death, Grieving, and Journey Into the Past”

Posted by nliakos on April 19, 2015

by E. Z. Sala (in the ebook short story collection Pain and Healing, available at; 2015)

My webhead friend Nergiz sent me this story; she helped publish the book. This story follows Robert Bernardier, an elderly French gentleman whose wife Rosaline suddenly dies. It describes his shock at realizing that Rosaline is dead, how he tries in vain to resuscitate her, his remorse at not having learned CPR properly. It follows him through the first days as a widower, when his sister-in-law and friends frequent the house, and then later when people stop coming so often. It examines his feelings of helplessness and loneliness as depression sets in. The loss of his wife brings back the pain of having lost both of his children as young adults. Eventually, he begins to take care of his house and garden again; these activities begin to heal him. Finally, he undertakes a trip to the place where his son Pierre went missing in action while serving in the military. In his dreams, he promises Rosaline that he will find Pierre’s body and bring it back to France to be buried alongside her; but when he finally finds Pierre, he discovers that bringing him home is not as simple as he had thought. The story is sad, but it shows how grief eventually gives way to purpose and to a return to a life that may be different, but is worth living all the same.

There are four other stories in the book: “Divorce, Destitution, Despair, and All That Begins with D Except Death”; “On a Shore Landed a Man Who Once Dispensed Pain”; “Dreams, Pain, and Soothing”; and “War, the Mother of All.” I have not read those.

Thanks, Nergiz, for this story.



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Laughing Without an Accent: The Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad

Posted by nliakos on April 11, 2015

by Firoozeh Dumas (Villard, 2008; ISBN 978-0-345-49956-1)

Having enjoyed Funny in Farsi, I was looking forward to Dumas’ second book, and it did not disappoint (nor was it very different from the first one). There are stories about her childhood in Iran, her college years in the U.S., her parents’ inevitable foibles (only this time she provides us with her family name, noting that “it took about twelve minutes for the average Iranian to figure out my last name”), and the challenges of crossing cultures, like celebrating a life instead of mourning a death and understanding why Carol Burnett’s Tarzan yell was funny to Americans.

The final chapters are not funny, but they are worth reading. The first is about delivering a commencement speech, including Dumas’ “top ten things [graduates] should know”, like avoiding television and credit cards and making sure to show your gratitude to people, always have a book handy, volunteer, and vote (and #10: brush and floss daily, because you have no idea how much it will cost you if you don’t!).

She mentions that my favorite part of Funny in Farsi, “The Ham Amendment”, was censored out of the Iranian translation of that book. I guess they don’t want anyone to think that being a good person might make up for not being a Muslim.

A quick, pleasant read.


Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Leave a Comment »

Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World

Posted by nliakos on April 9, 2015

by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche (Perigee 2012; ISBN 978-0-399-53797-4)

What a delightful read for a language nerd! (Actually, I think anyone would find this book interesting–but language nerds, definitely.) Written by two professional translators, it explains how much we rely on translators and interpreters, and how their services enable most human activities, including war and diplomacy, business, advertising, fashion, religion, travel, sports, literature, the justice system, policing, healthcare, the movie industry, technology, and more. Pretty much anything you can think of is included in these 235 pages. Also included are many fascinating accounts of successes, failures, and bloopers (for which Kelly and Zetzsche interviewed colleagues around the world). They discuss the difficulties of getting just the right word(s), the role played by culture in translation, and the amazing ability of translation/interpretation professionals to navigate the minefield of potential translation disasters (for very little money).

I first heard about this book on the podcast The World in Words, which I recommend to language nerds everywhere.

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Together Tea

Posted by nliakos on April 6, 2015

by Marjan Kamali (Harper Collins 2013; ISBN 978-0-06-223680-7)

Together Tea is the story of Mina, who immigrated to the U.S. as a young girl with her family fleeing the Iran-Iraq war and the oppressions of the Islamic regime in Iran, and her mother Darya. The reader is privy to the points of view of both women–perhaps more of Mina; chapters do not alternate from one to the other, but you definitely get inside both their minds. This is what makes reading novels so enchanting, isn’t it? Readers can experience through the characters of a novel what they could never actually experience firsthand. In Part 1 (1996), I experienced Mina’s feeling of perching on a hyphen between Iranian and America, as well as Darya’s realization that she will never truly feel that America is her home; then in Part 2 (1978), I lived the life of a young girl in Iran as the Islamic Revolution transformed the life of the country and of everyone in it–and the terror of war as Saddam’s bombs rained down and the day approached when Mina’s older brothers would undoubtedly be forced to join the fighting. In Part 3 (1996), Mina and Darya go back to Iran for a visit, and Darya comes alive in a way Mina cannot remember her mother as being, while Mina experiences severe reverse culture shock but reconnects with her Iranian family and her best friend Bita and encounters a young man who can truly understand her because he has lived through the same things that she has. Darya is finally able to achieve some distance between Mina and herself, and Mina is finally able to do what Darya kept pushing her to do while also fulfilling her own dream of being an artist. It’s a feel-good book all around.

There is a lot of Persian culture described here: foods, the clothing, the custom of tarof (declining offers many times before accepting them), the dancing, courting and wedding customs, and more. Fascinating! I wish they had included a glossary, though. (Farsi words and sentences are usually, but not always, translated by following English.)

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Posted by nliakos on April 5, 2015

by Neil Abramson (Center Street 2011, ISBN 978-1-59995-410-3)

The subject headings for this book are Wives–Death–Fiction, Chimpanzees–Fiction, Human-animal communication–Fiction, Human-animal relationships–Fiction, and Bereavement–Fiction. That pretty much covers it.

Helena, a veterinarian, was married to David, a lawyer (so far similar to the lawyer/author and his veterinarian/wife). Helena is dead (Wives–Death–Fiction), yet she narrates the entire story. Unable to “go on” (as Albus Dumbledore would have put it), she hangs around observing her husband, her friends, her animals, and some other people as they encounter various struggles. Occasionally, someone seems to have some inkling that she is there in her ghostly non-form, but in general even the animals are unable to perceive her presence.

David is not dealing with his grief very well (Bereavement–Fiction), nor is he very good at dealing with the menagerie of damaged animals Helena has left him (Human-animal relationships–Fiction); the draft horse Arthur and the pig Collette are particularly challenging. Eventually, he does get some help in the form of unemployed vet tech Sally and her ASD son Clifford (Human-human relationships–Fiction?). But the crux of the story revolves around the drama of Helena’s friend Jaycee and Cindy, a chimpanzee (Chimpanzees–Fiction) whose language development Jaycee has been developing and studying, with help from Helena (unbeknownst to David). Now Jaycee’s research funding has run out, and she will lose Cindy (who, if returned to the general research primate population, risks being used for a study that would main, torture, or kill her). desperate, she tried to take Cindy from the laboratory (a federal crime, as Cindy is federal property). Arrested, she will go to prison (in addition to Cindy’s being vivisected or worse) unless David can be persuaded to take her case. There is a trial. Helena watches from the other side, still guilt-ridden by what she and Jaycee did as young scientists that resulted in the death of Charlie, a young bonobo (Chimpanzees–Fiction).

I may sound flippant, and the plot overdone, but I actually loved the book. I tore through it like a brushfire, weeping much of the time.


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My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind–and Doubt Freed My Soul

Posted by nliakos on April 4, 2015

by Amir Ahmad Nasr (St. Martin’s Press 2013, ISBN 1-250-01679-9)

Amir Ahmad Nasr, aka Drima (author of the blog The Sudanese Thinker) was born in Sudan, grew up partly in Qatar and partly in Indonesia , and has traveled in many different countries, chronicles his search for truth as a teenager and young adult. Although his parents were tolerant of other faiths, he was impressed by fundamentalist and intolerant thinking in school. However, the urge to become a jihadist was balanced against the more rationalist views of people he met in his life and most particularly, online after he discovered the blogosphere and began to write his own blog in 2006 . To his credit, Nasr followed and read the entire spectrum of bloggers, from the wacko Muslim jihadists to the wacko Israeli and American far-right, and everything in between, and he found kindred souls among Muslim bloggers and journalists like Sandmonkey, Mona Eltahawy, Wael Abbas, and others.

The real focus of the book is his religious, not political, journey. He employs the metaphor of a marriage in which he is the groom and Islam is the bride. In Part One, “The Arranged Marriage,” he describes being born and educated in a purely Muslim world. Part Two, “The Fall from Grace,” describes how doubts about his beliefs began to plague him, and in Part Three, “The Painful Heartbreak,” he loses his faith in God. Part Four is “the Messy Divorce,” in which he stops even the semblance of religious practice, and part Five, “The Reconciliation,” narrates how he found a way to reconcile religion and rational thinking. Along the way, there is a lot of angst; I can’t imagine how he managed to actually complete his university studies what with all the blogging, blogging conferences, and reading about religion, politics, and philosophy, but somehow he did. I suppose that his passion will mellow as he gets older. As he describes sleepless nights spent mourning his lost love, I thought about how questions of religion and politics can  consume us when we are university students and in our early twenties. For better or for worse, the kind of passion we feel at 20 is likely to diminish by the time we are 40 or 60. So it will be for Drima, in all probability. I may start following his blog, just to see what happens.

I admire Nasr’s determination to be honest with himself (even when it makes him look bad) and to continually seek truth, even when it is inconvenient or painful. He seems like a kind and good person at heart.

I learned a lot from this book, which I just picked off the biography shelves at my local library. That is always a positive thing.

Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

Posted by nliakos on April 1, 2015

by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (Harper 2011; ISBN 978-0-06-173237-9)

Kamila Sidiqi had just graduated from a teacher training institute in Kabul, Afghanistan, when the Taliban took over and forbade women and girls to work or go to school. Trapped at home with her sisters and one brother after her father and second brother fled the city and then the country, Kamila started a dressmaking business out of her home. Her older sister Malika taught her to sew, and Kamila then taught her younger sisters. Before long, she was employing other girls and young women in her Kabul neighborhood of Khair Khana; she even started a school to teach them tailoring and sewing. Although the Taliban did not expressly forbid women to work out of their homes, going out to market her products to male shopkeepers was strictly forbidden, and Kamila risked everything each time she did this, even though her younger brother always escorted her as her mahram, or chaperone. Eventually, Kamila even went to work for the UN Habitat’s Community Forum, becoming an activist in her community (a big risk). Perhaps surprisingly, she is never arrested or beaten by the Amr bil-Maroof, religious fanatics who routinely beat up women whom they perceived as deviated from the rules they were supposed to follow. In fact, as told by Lemmon, Kamila’s story is relatively painless. She worries a lot, but nothing awful ever happens to them. Even learning to sew seems to take little time and effort. I suspect that the journey may have in fact been rougher than described here, but Kamila’s story is still inspiring and serves as a reminder of the suffering of Afghan people (especially women, but whole families as well) under the rule of the Taliban.

Posted in History, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Leave a Comment »