Tag: non-fiction


Review – Brain on Fire

Posted 4 August, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Brain on Fire by Susannah CahalanBrain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan

I didn’t expect to connect so personally with this. On the surface, there’s not much to compare between me and Susannah Cahalan. There are a few correspondences: the start of her illness was marked with an intense fear, almost a belief, that she’d been infested by bedbugs; so was mine. On the other hand, I “just” had GAD: Susannah Cahalan had an autoimmune disorder in which her own immune system was attacking her brain. (She does mention some speculation that obsessive-compulsive behaviours and other psychiatric issues may actually be attributable to inflammation of the brain similar to what she experienced. The more I think about that, the more I want to become a doctor, maybe work in psychiatry, or maybe neurology, and push that research further. And research into epigenetic aspects of mental illness. Or at least get to the point where I can understand all of the existing research.)

(And sotto voce, I can almost hear my mother’s comment: “Well, you should be a doctor.”)

Anyway, despite the vast differences in the actual content of our diseases, I shared some of Cahalan’s feelings about it. I felt like I lost part of myself, the steady logical voice that refutes the brain’s wilder ideas about what’s going on, and though Susannah lost a lot more than that, I know something about the struggle to regain your own mind. I think people often believe that my anxiety was just an emotion like all my others. It wasn’t, though. It felt stronger than anything else, stronger than me. It felt like something from outside of me, subjugating the real me. It was like having another person physically holding me back, sometimes. The sheer courage it took me to step outside the front door, sometimes — it felt impossible, alien.

So I shared with Cahalan some of the feelings of getting my old self back. Self-hate at the things that still aren’t going right. Worry about what people will think of you. Celebration of tiny steps at the same time as feeling they’re not enough, you’re not there yet. Wonder at how far you’ve come. Worry that you’ll relapse. I very directly share that fear Cahalan feels when she thinks she sees a bug or something. My brain conjured ’em where there weren’t any, too.

I was expecting to find this interesting because of the medical content. That is interesting, though because it’s from Cahalan’s point of view, it’s more of a layman’s understanding of the disease, a memoir of dealing with it. I found it unexpectedly much more compelling than that, because Susannah Cahalan lost and regained her identity, and therefore has a lot to say about the whole idea of identity, and maybe some things to teach neuroscience, maybe even psychiatry.

The financial cost of treating a patient with Cahalan’s disease is staggering, eye-watering, jaw-dropping — there aren’t enough adjectives. But to bring someone back from that state, that’s beyond price.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Blood & Guts

Posted 30 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Blood & Guts by Roy PorterBlood & Guts, Roy Porter

This didn’t really work for me as a history of medicine, even a short one. Each chapter treads the same ground, but with a different theme, instead of following the history of medicine through chronologically.

That’s not to say it wasn’t interesting in places, and I liked the inclusion of so many images to go along with the text, but it didn’t feel like there was anything to get my teeth into. I felt like it would have been much better done chronologically, even if it was in broad swathes of time: ‘early societies’, ‘the Classical world’, ‘medieval Europe’, ‘British empire’, etc. Something like that would’ve worked a lot better for me.

Also, I know he says up front that he’s not even going to touch on Eastern medicine, but considering the way we’ve imported alternative medicines as a commodity here, it would actually be relevant to talk about their development and give them some more credit.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Darwin’s Ghost

Posted 29 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Darwin's Ghost by Steve JonesDarwin’s Ghost, Steve Jones

I really like the idea of Darwin’s Ghost, taking and updating Darwin’s groundbreaking research, and often showing how relevant it still is, how little of it has actually been disproved. Often people who criticise Darwin haven’t actually read On the Origin of Species, and so they have an inaccurate understanding of what he actually said. Steve Jones goes through all of this in quite a lot of detail, giving modern examples and correcting things where Darwin didn’t quite get it right.

That thoroughness does make the book pretty hard going, though. The topic doesn’t have to be — I’ve read another explanation of the early transmission and spread of HIV, for example, which wasn’t boring at all (though it had other faults) — but Jones’ writing ends up feeling rather stodgy. I’m completely fascinated by the subject, and reasonably knowledgeable about it, so if I thought that… I don’t know what other readers would make of it.

The main effect seems to have been to make me really want to read On the Origin of Species; I’m told that Darwin’s prose is quite readable and even interesting, and comparing it to the view of it I got from this book will be interesting.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Delete This At Your Peril

Posted 28 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Delete This At Your PerilDelete This At Your Peril, Neil Forsyth

I picked this up at the library because I needed something light, and the humour reminded me of my dad a bit. I can imagine him stringing along a scammer in this way, though I think he’d be more subtle and clever about it. It’s amusing enough at first, in this case, but after a couple of exchanges I was skimming them all and shaking my head at the reductio ad absurdum of some of it.

I wouldn’t buy this, but it might be worth a flick through if you’re looking for something funny.

Rating: 2/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 26 July, 2014 by Nikki in General / 42 Comments

Time for Stacking the Shelves! I have not bought books this week! I have been to the library three times, though… Still, this is a much smaller haul than it could be, knowing me. (If you don’t believe me, go back and check last week’s.)

ARCs/review copies

Cover of Unthink by Chris Paley Cover of Of Bone and Thunder by Chris Evans Cover of The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero Cover of Tales from the Palace of the Fairy King by Daniel Lieberman

I’ve already read Unthink; I’m being pretty good at keeping on top of my books from bookbridgr. The next two are from Netgalley, and the last one direct from the author. Thank you to everyone involved in giving out ARCs and review copies!

Library (fiction)

Cover of Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey Cover of Windhaven by Lisa Tuttle and G.R.R. Martin Cover of This Is The Way The World Ends by James Morrow Cover of The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The first two I actually own; Guardian of the Dead I own in Kindle format, though, and I only really use my Kobo lately, and Windhaven is… I think I’ve owned it in ebook for about five years, probably longer, and the site I bought it from has shut down leaving me with no access. So. Libraries! Then This is the Way the World Ends (I’ve checked the title and it should have the is in it; why the SF Masterworks cover omits it is anyone’s guess, though the physical copy I actually got has it right) doubles up for two of my challenges, one to read ten new-to-me SF Masterworks, and one to read all the books recced in Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010, which you’ll see below.

Library (non-fiction)

Cover of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker Cover of Delete This At Your Peril Cover of Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Fillippo Cover of The Search for Richard III by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones

I’ve been meaning to read The Better Angels of Our Nature since I did the Everyday Moralities class on Coursera. The humour of Delete This At Your Peril reminds me of my dad (look it up, Mum — you’ll agree). I’m planning to read all the 101 SF novels recced in the third book here; not because I think it’s particularly better than any other book of recs, but because it spans twenty-five years and contains a lot I haven’t read yet/need to reread.

As for Philippa Langley, well, I’ve heard that she’s a bit… over-enthusiastic about Richard III and that she came across slightly batty on the documentary. So far the book isn’t contradicting that impression. Still, apparently Michael Jones’ chapters are worth it.

Comics (library)

Cover of the comic Mara by Brian Wood et al

Random choice from the library’s graphic novel section!

So, what’s everyone else been up to? Have y’all been good or bad this week with your buying habits?

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Review – The Language Instinct

Posted 25 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of The language Instinct by Steven PinkerThe Language Instinct, Steven Pinker

When it comes to something I don’t know much about, I’m pretty easily swayed by other people’s arguments. Like, I finished this book feeling it was pretty intelligent and interesting, and then I read some criticisms and reviews and heck, I don’t know what to think. Still, I did find it interesting, and while the book looks deceptively slim for how long it took me to get through it, Pinker expresses his arguments clearly, with examples and sourcing, etc.

His basic argument is that we’re hardwired for language. That, as with our sight, hearing, etc, we have a ‘language sense’; if properly stimulated during the critical period, our brains quickly figure out how to parse language (at least, the language spoken around us when we are at that age, even if that language is sign language). We don’t need to hear every word or possible sentence structure (couldn’t possibly) to pick up on the rules of grammar and apply them, when speaking and when listening. This only refers to the critical period; a child will learn grammar instinctively on being exposed to a language, but an adult must learn it by rote, in the same way as you have to learn to process visual input during the critical period for that, or you’ll never have the same visual acuity as someone who did.

Thus far, I think I’m going along with him. I do have questions of a sort of chicken and the egg nature: which came first, the brain’s Universal Grammar module, or language that necessitated it? I’m inclined to think that the structures that we now use to understand language were used for something else earlier in our evolution, and became co-opted into our communications array (so to speak) over time. Our brains formed language, and then the language formed our brains…

All in all, I don’t know whether Pinker’s right, but I found his work convincing. Having read a couple of other books on language, including Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, and applying what I know from those too, I find it hard to disagree with Pinker even where I want to, for example about relativism.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Stroke of Insight

Posted 22 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte TaylorMy Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor

Someone gave this as their example of what to expect from this book, and, well, it’s pretty instructive all on its own:

“I unconditionally love my cells with an open heart and grateful mind. Spontaneously throughout the day, I acknowledge their existence and enthusiastically cheer them on. I am a wonderful living being capable of beaming my energy into the world, only because of them. When my bowels move, I cheer my cells for clearing that waste out of my body. When my urine flows, I admire the volume my bladder cells are capable of storing. When I’m having hunger pangs and can’t get to food, I remind my cells that I have fuel (fat) stored on my hips. When I feel threatened, I thank my cells for their ability to fight, flee, or play dead.”

Plus a lot of being one with the universe, etc.

The book actually starts off with a good introduction to what having a stroke is like, albeit I felt that the science was aimed ridiculously low: I felt like even someone who didn’t know anything about the brain would get impatient with the tone. It was overly simplistic, maybe even a touch condescending. Still, that’s the best part of the book: whatever else you may say about her, Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist and can explain very clearly what happens to the brain during a stroke. For that aspect alone, I’m glad I followed up on the rec from the Coursera neurobiology MOOC.

But once we get onto oneness with the universe, I’m getting antsy, and once we’re thanking our cells for our bowel movements, I’m out the room.

Oh, and this review is a good critique of it from the point of view of a clinician.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Serpent’s Promise

Posted 21 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Serpent's Promise by Steve JonesThe Serpent’s Promise, Steve Jones

I’m quite enjoying Steve Jones’ other book done in this sort of style, taking the work of Charles Darwin and revising, updating and adding to it. Unfortunately, this one fell flat for me. Using some of the central stories of a religion as a gimmick while making it clear how much you look down on people who profess religious belief… ugh. Just, ugh..

Some parts of the science here were interesting, but overall it’s nothing I haven’t read elsewhere. Mostly it feels like Steve Jones riding his hobby horse, over and over. I’ve got several more of his books to read, but I’m starting to think he’s a one-trick pony.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Unthink

Posted 20 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Unthink by Chris PaleyUnthink, Chris Paley

I received an ARC of this via Bookbridgr. I wasn’t sure what level it would be pitched at, but as a general rule, all things to do with psychology and the weird ways our brains work interest me. It turned out that this book was probably below the level I’m reading at when it comes to psychology, which is more Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Paul Bloom, etc: because I rate my personal enjoyment of a book, that’s definitely knocked down my rating. But that’s no real comment on the content, which is interesting; just a lot of it, I happened to know already.

However, if you’re looking for a book with a lot of interesting facts, explained in an accessible manner, then Unthink may well be for you. It’s presented in a very easy to read format, with little chunks rarely more than two or three pages long, each with a descriptive chapter title. Despite the simple presentation, there is also a wealth of notes in the back which go into more detail, point to sources, etc.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – 21st Century Dodos

Posted 16 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of 21st Century Dodos by Steve Stack21st Century Dodos, Steve Stack

Received to review. I might be a bit below the target age for this one — I remember some of these things, like cassettes and candy cigarettes and Jif, but other stuff was on its way out before I got there. I’m about to turn twenty-five, so I’d guess I’m about ten years behind some of this nostalgia stuff.

It’s not a very substantial book, but if you feel like a bit of nostalgia and an opportunity to go ‘I thought I was the only one who remembered that!’, then this might be for you.

Some of it hasn’t yet gone the way of the dodo for me: my parents get milk delivered, and I remember watching the milk float arrive on those illicit late nights I stayed up reading, sometimes. Okay, the first time it actually really freaked me out. But still. Milk float.

Rating: 2/5

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