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23 March 2013

Book Review: Incognito

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainIncognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The vast, wet, chemical-electrical network called the nervous system.  The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us."

An entire book about how our conscious brain isn't really in charge, which necessitates changing our conscious thinking about who we are, the decisions we make, the art we create.

Take Coleridge.  He began using opium in 1796.  He wrote "Kubla Khan" while on an opium high.  So is the genius of that poem Coleridge's?  "We credit the beautiful words to Coleridge because they came from his brain...But he couldn't get hold of those words while sober, so who exactly does the credit for the poem belong to?"

The book is chock full of great food for thought; the blind lady who can see, creating the illusion of truth simply be repetition of lies, what a "gut feeling" really is, cognitive reserve fighting off Alzheimer's,

Perhaps the most (conscious)thought-provoking chapter was Eagleman's exploration about our penal system and how brain studies could allow us to change our ideas of guilt and capacity for reform. 

A fascinating read.  Perhaps dumbed-down a little too much but, frankly, had it been more intellectual, I would not have found it as intriguing and meaningful.

"The way we see the world is not necessarily what's out there: vision is a construction of the brain, and its only job is to generate a useful narrative at our scales of interaction.  Visual illusions reveal a deeper concept; that our thoughts are generated by machinery to which we have no direct access. Useful routines are burned down into the circuitry of the brain and consciousness seems to be about setting goals for what should be burned into the circuitry."

"The complexity of the system we are is so vast as to be indistinguishable from magic.  As the quip goes: If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn't be smart enough to understand them."

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Book Review - Madam, Will You Talk?

Madam, Will You Talk?Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was about 11 and living in Mandeville, Jamaica, I was wandering around the dusty bookshelves of the used bookstore run by the cancer society, where my mom volunteered periodically.  I had a couple of dollars in my pocket, probably earmarked for an Archie digest comic book, but I picked this up instead.

During the next several months, I combed the used bookstore for more Mary Stewart. I was in luck; a whole shelf full of worn paperbacks that had that wonderful smell of aged paper. I read Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, Wildfire at Midnight and Airs Above Ground.  I liked all of them.  But none of them as much as Madam, Will You Talk?

For years, it was a go-to book every couple of months.  We didn't have a library to frequent in Jamaica and I often would sit, staring at my bookshelf, wishing for something new to read. And when I didn't have anything new, I'd invariably pick this up.  And read it again.  And again.

Eight years later, the book fell apart in my hands. I taped it together with duct tape and got three or four more readings out of it but eventually had to throw it away.  Two years after that, I found another copy, same 75¢ Fawcett Crest Book edition, idling away its time in the philosophy section of used bookstore that obviously had lax organizational requirements.  By this time, I was finishing college and my re-reading became less frequent.  But when I was 28, I had to drive from Omaha, Nebraska to Kansas City, Missouri to hop on a flight to Texas to audition for grad school.  A blizzard hit but I made the drive anyway.  I packed a coffee can, a box of 500 matches, several rolls of toilet paper, a huge down comforter, a +10 sleeping bag, a sack full of food, a couple of gallons of water, my late 90s cell phone, a flashlight, extra batteries and Madam, Will You Talk.  And the whole drive, I was found myself wishing I'd slide off the road and get stuck, just so I could cuddle up in my sleeping bag, next to a nice TP fire-in-a-can, and read while I was waiting to be rescued.

I've not read this book in over ten years.  I picked it up earlier this week because I had miraculously caught up on my New Yorker reading and didn't have anything from the library cued up and ready to go.

It's just as good as it's always been.  And maybe even better.

So off I go on an indulgent re-read of Stewart's books, starting with The Rose Cottage, which is her last book (though she's still alive and kicking at the ripe age of 96, she has not published anything in 15 years)  Her books are often classified as romances but they aren't, really.  They are about strong women who aren't so strong that they don't worry about fashion or fall in love with the wrong men.  They are the Grace Kellys and the Audrey Hepburns of fiction.  They are the women I'd like to be.  In my next life, maybe.

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17 March 2013

Book Review: Eleanor and Park

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will use three emails my husband wrote to Rainbow while he was reading the book as my review:


Dear Rainbow,
I am on page 95. I think your next book needs to be more boring and have much longer chapters that start very boring.  You need to do this for those of us who have lives. You see I am going back to school to get certified to teach English to high school kids. I have real classes. And today I had a real test in a Blue Book. People have to study for tests. Even I have to study for tests. But it is hard to study when Rainbow's book is in your bag.

The problem is that your writing is the kind that sort of stops being writing and becomes just a flow. Then, boom, you hit the end of a section. Hmmm, you say, I guess I could just check out the first sentence or two. I mean, the sections are pretty short and all. Then... shit, I've read the whole thing. Effing Rainbow! I have to study!  Hmmm.  I guess I could just check out the first couple sentences of the next section.

This is a problem for me. I did get some studying done. And I did well on my test, I think. But I worry about brain surgeons or detectives or other people who need to focus on their jobs or people's brains don't get fixed or crimes don't get solved because of you.

So, in summary -- Quit writing such good books. Or at least wait until I'm on spring break or something to have them put in stores.


Dear Rainbow,
The hand rape line was really funny -- I need to stop reading to eat lunch now, but I may just read one more section.


Dear Rainbow,
Now you've screwed up a perfectly good nap window. I'm losing patience with you. I have to walk the dog now. Can't read and walk at the same time.

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