Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for June, 2016

The Atonement

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by Beverly Lewis (Thorndike 2016; ISBN 9871410487605)

The Atonement is the story of Lucy Flaud, a young Amish woman who has flouted the conventions of her strict community by having an affair with an Outsider. The story is set in the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, three years after Lucy lost the baby that resulted from this affair; the father declined to marry her when he realized that he would be expected to become “Plain” (Amish). Lucy’s grief over her lost love and the death of the fetus is unabated. Her guilt has also estranged her from her beloved father, Christian Flaud, who is likewise grieving the loss of his relationship with her. Christian begins attending a grief support group at a nearby (non-Amish) church, and he eventually persuades Lucy to attend as well. But Christian inexplicably befriends a young “English” man he meets there, exposing Lucy to the charms of yet another potential suitor who is not Amish. Lucy gives herself over to charitable work to fill her time, believing that she can never marry. When her longtime friend Tobe expresses his desire to court her, she rejects him, believing herself to be forever ineligible to marry a virtuous Amish man because of her past transgression.

Beverly Lewis grew up in Amish country, daughter of an Amish mother, so I think it is safe to say that her depiction of Amish home life, way of speaking, and beliefs is probably pretty accurate. I enjoyed the story (although the characters seemed too goody-goody to be real), but this glimpse into the religion and culture of the Amish was for me the best part of the book.

Two other novels by Lewis set in Amish country are The Shunning and The Brethren.

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Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by John Elder Robison (Spiegel & Grau 2016; ISBN 978-0812996890)

I recently read and blogged about Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison. It turns out that he also wrote two other books before this one came out this year: Be Different and Raising Cubby. (Must read those too.) I am fascinated by his descriptions of life with autism, much as I was by Temple Grandin‘s and Daniel Tammet‘s. It’s like reading about how life is lived in an alien culture; if you’ve read much of this blog, you know how cultural differences fascinate me. Autistic people’s way of experiencing the world is so different from most people’s, and their unique abilities are so remarkable.

This book briefly covers some of the autobiographical material in Look Me in the Eye, but what it is really about is Robison’s participation in a research project at Beth Israel Hospital near Boston in 2008. The study, by neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone and psychologist Lindsay Oberman, explored the effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on people with autism. (TMS involves “using an electromagnetic field to induce signals in the outer layer of the brain.”) The goal of the study was to assess whether TMS might be able to increase autistic people’s emotional intelligence–their ability to read emotional signals in others, which they are famously bad at.

The upshot of the research study is that in Robison’s case, the TMS did radically transform his ability to sense emotions in other people, which in turned engendered major changes in his behavior and human relationships–not all of which were positive. He writes openly about his post-treatment experiences, what he learned from the study, his fears and insecurities, his relationships with family and friends and researchers, and his feelings when his new-found abilities fade with time.

Robison also considers the question of whether using therapies like TMS to “cure” autism is in fact a good idea. He admits that the loneliness and bullying he endured as a child and his difficulties with human relationships as an adult were painful, but considers that the special abilities that enable him to understand machines better than other people provide a kind of counter-balance to this pain. He writes, “Sometimes, a touch of disability makes us great.” (p.274) Many of humankind’s quantum leaps forward have been made possible by the minds of people who, when we look back, seem to have been on the autism spectrum: Einstein, Beethoven, da Vinci, Mozart, and others. What if their eccentricities had been “fixed” when they were children? Would they have gone on to greatness anyway?

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in brain science and/or autism.

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

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Posted by nliakos on June 20, 2016

by David Eagleman (Pantheon 2011; ISBN 978-0-307-37733-3)

In this excellent book, neuroscientist David Eagleman explores the question of who we really are, given that the conscious part of our brain is but a small part of the whole. He writes, “Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.” (p. 4)

That “massive engineering underfoot” not only runs our physical bodies (digestion, vision, reproduction, etc.) but also influences our conscious decisions in multiple ways, impacting who we are attracted to, what we choose to eat, what thoughts and ideas we have–pretty much everything, actually. As Eagleman writes, “Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control.” (p. 8)

He likens this realization to the “dethroning” of the earth as the center of the universe and the “dethroning” of humankind as the apotheosis of creation or evolution, yet he stops short of espousing materialism and reductionism–the assumption that everything about us can be explained by understanding our physical components (the “break-it-down-to-the-smallest-bits approach”). He keeps an open mind and urges his readers to do likewise.

The book begins with a retrospective of our understanding of the role of the brain (“There’s Someone in My Head, But It’s Not Me”), continues with an exploration of sensory perception with an emphasis on vision (“The Testimony of the Senses”), and goes on to examine the automaticity of habitual actions, like changing lanes while driving, as well as the hidden preferences behind racism, mate selection, career choice, and more (“Mind: the Gap”).

In “The Kinds of Thoughts That Are Thinkable”, Eagleman examines the limitations placed by our biology on our experience of the world and our ability to interpret it, and considers how one person’s perception can differ from the next person’s–if she is a synesthete, for instance, Tuesday might be magenta to her. Next, he explores the question of whether there is a true self and concludes that there is probably not, in “The Brain Is a Team of Rivals”; to quote Walt Whitman, we “contain multitudes”, which explains our self-contradictory behavior. This chapter also considers the concept of being angry with oneself, making a deal with oneself, being ashamed of oneself, etc. Who is angry at whom?

“Why Blameworthiness Is the Wrong Question” advocates for a justice system that stops exacting retribution for criminal acts and instead metes out sentences based on the modifiability of the criminal’s behavior and the prevention of future crime. Finally, “Life After the Monarchy” (remember “dethroning”?) sums up the book’s themes and posits that one can be more than just the sum of one’s parts. Eagleman presents a strong case that the answer to the “nature or nurture?” question is usually “both”, or in his words, “The future of understanding the mind lies in deciphering the patterns of activity that live on top of the wetware, patterns that are directed both by internal machinations and by interactions from the surrounding world.” (pp. 219-220)  (I love the term wetware for the human brain!)

It’s a very interesting, readable, and thought-provoking book.

 

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

A Street Cat Named Bob & The World According to Bob

Posted by nliakos on June 9, 2016

by James Bowen (A Street Cat Named Bob, and How He Saved My Life: Thomas Dunne Books 2012 – ISBN 978-1-250-02946-1; The World According to Bob, Thomas Dunne Books 2013; ISBN 978-1-250-04623-1)

I happened on these two memoirs while cruising the biography shelves in the public library. They are really like one book, so I will review them together.

Apparently, Bob the London Street Cat is very famous. If you search for Bob the street cat on YouTube, you will find lots of videos about James and Bob. Somehow, I had never heard about them, so it was all new to me. James Bowen was a recovering heroin addict living in a small subsidized flat in London while he tapered off of methadone in 2007. He was living from hand to mouth, making a little money as a street musician, with few friends and a very poor opinion of himself. Somewhat reluctantly, he took in an injured young ginger tomcat whom he called Bob. In the end, it was Bob who rescued James, not the other way around. Bob is a very unusual cat in many ways: he was fiercely loyal to James from the beginning; he travels around London on a leash or sitting on James’ shoulders; he doesn’t mind wearing scarves and jackets (made for him by his many admirers) or taking baths. Is this cat for real???

In addition to being about Bob and his extraordinary relationship with James, the book describes the strange life of a recovering addict and sometime homeless person. Bowen has written honestly about his life as a street musician and later a magazine seller, barely scraping by, living from hand to mouth. It is hard for most of his readers to imagine living as he did for many years.

A Street Cat Named Bob describes how Bowen found Bob, how Bob enchanted passers-by into giving James money when he was busking and buying The Big Issue magazine, how James finally got off methadone, and how he was reunited with his mother in Australia. The World According to Bob reprises some of the material from the earlier book and also describes how the first book came to be written, and how its surprisingly warm reception changed Bowen’s life.

If you are a cat-lover, you are going to love these books! And even if you aren’t, you might love them. Bob is definitely not your ordinary cat. In fact, in many ways, he behaves more like a dog (like when he attacked a would-be mugger who tried to steal Bowen’s rucksack on a dark street one night).

And apparently, there’s going to be a movie about James and Bob, starring Bob himself, coming out this year.

 

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