The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman

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Given that he serves as a professor at Stanford University, the department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, he certainly knows his facts.

Neurons fire and seeming random clustered pixels form to make words. Perhaps you’re sipping on coffee, eyes rolling as I attempt to predict your movements, the rim of the cup nevertheless brought to your lips. And then a miracle takes place. I know it; Eagleman devoted most of a chapter to how someone was able to perform the seemingly simplistic act of drinking, how the millions of decisions, which control your muscles, sense of balance and so on, all happen behind a veil of obliviousness. He sets out to explain the complexity of the actions we take for granted. These snippets of stories, such as how we walk or why we make friends with certain people, and half-formed scenes are underscored by in-depth, yet intelligible analysis- with accompanying surprising experiments to highlight the sheer beauty of the spongle-like muscle locked behind bone.

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This is an ingenious book because it tears away the shadow of mystery from a part of our lives. Why do we want to help others? Why do we connect with non-animate objects? Given that we’ve only recently evolved into a society which doesn’t hold the necessity of wild foraging as an imperative, it suddenly doesn’t seem like a completely unconsidered question. When our ancestors were lolling around, and the framework for our brains today were being carved out, it was about survival; holding the cave door open wouldn’t get you anywhere. So where did this altruism spring from (at least in some people… in others, sadly, it appears to be an evolutionary step which bypassed them).

Eagleman answers the questions about yourself you never even thought to ask, and delights you with answers that make you wish, if you could swallow medical school, you too could be a neuroscientist.

Or maybe that’s just me.

The Night Manager- John Le Carré

Observe Jonathan Pine, stage right, taking on the worst man in the world, in the BBC Production  a captivating spy thriller, set in the mid 20th century. Absorb the deliciously shady alliance between the secret arms community and the centres of intelligence around the world. Notice the man trying to stay afloat whilst everyone else drowns around him.

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Jonathan Pine is a night manager at an affluent hotel in Zurich, and just another rich man comes to stay the night. Of course, he has booked out only the majority of the hotel- the most expensive suites, (to accommodate his sweeping entourage,) and, naturally, has it all. The wealth, the slavering posse and the charm. But this man, Richard Onslow Roper, also has a secret arms trade to his name. Coordinating it from afar, he controls the entire enterprise and soon becomes a target for Jonathan Pine. Now, look behind Pine’s perfected smile, the rigid tie and suit. He is merely seeking refuge from his past at the hotel, with a history in the military and years of specialist spy training. Yes. Crucially, he isn’t a heroic man trying to take on the world. Come on, this is Le Carré, he is a bit more realistic than that- let’s give him some credit. Actually, whilst we’re at it, let’s also mention the girlfriend in. Roper has a girlfriend-Jed, about half his age (obviously)- and being that typical spy, women of all types are magically attracted to Pine, including Roper’s girlfriend. You understand how it comes to be problematic.

But that’s not the only thing which is problematic: for some reason, Le Carré cannot find a single interesting, empowering role for women in his novel. It is so male-centric, from the main figures in intelligence to Roper’s circle of friends. The only women that feature are various doting wives and a sprinkling of girlfriends of Pine’s. And the only things that they seem to be good at is all being mysteriously attracted to him, betraying their original boyfriends and beliefs in some form for him, and then being unceremoniously ditched as Pine has to flee to another corner of the world. Most notable of these is Jed, Roper’s/ Pine’s (yes…) girlfriend, who is a complete airhead. Even when she attempts to break free from her mould and display some signs of intelligence, Le Carré simply has to scold her for it…(spoiler alert) in the sense that she manages to break the lock on Roper’s office, and leaves a hair! Understandably, it is a useful way to demonstrate to the readers that she has been present there, but this merely demotes her in terms of our impression of her intelligienc. By leaving a trail, Jed is portrayed as more of a snooping girlfriend and less the inquisitive spy, which is accurate enough but regardless does her no favours. Wait! Excuse me, there is actually a half-hearted attempt at equality in the secret circles: a woman who is depicted more like a teddy bear than anything else: she’s known as Darling Katie, and no, it is not ironic. This book may have been published in 1993, but attitudes towards women’s role in society hasn’t changed that much.

The way the antagonist, Roper, is presented is unusual, because not only does he have flaws, such as he is an egomaniac and has a massive arms/ drugs business… but Le Carré has cleverly given him positive characteristics, so that as a reader in a way you can sympathise with him. Not to such the extent that when he eventually is tossed by the ankles in the volcano (this doesn’t actually happen), that you feel remorse, but enough so that there is a hesitation. Roper is almost ignorant. Because we all know villains are self-titled, they don’t believe they are committing evil, and the same applies to Roper. He simply sees his “profession” as a competitive way of living. (Not sure how sympathetic one can be tho
ugh, having said that, considering all the murder and gore that’s involved.)

The novel was sluggish initially, with the first few hundred pages a chore to read. There was concentrated, precise language used, so it was always slightly a struggle to settle into at the end of a long day, but nevertheless, by the time we got to page 350, I felt like I was getting into it. You know what they say- better late than never. In this sense, it was similar to Catch-22. (Never a compliment…) On the other hand, it was seamless by the end, and throughout there was a sticky atmosphere of tension which, when the action truly evolved, made it an impulsive read.

What did you think of the Night Manager? What is your favourite spy thriller this year? Have you seen the BBC Production too- how do they compare?