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.

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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit- Jeanette Winterson

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Winterson based this novel on her own childhood

The bones of this book are made from the Bible. Yet it is also constructed from the joyous shredding of beliefs, when Jeanette starts to question her religious upbringing by her Pentecostal parents.

Religion? You might say. Religion; today the cause of wars, shootings and fear. Religion; a burden on society that is as addictive as it is dangerous. Why would I want to read about something like this? I’ve enough of it in the skirting the tabloids next to gruesome photojournalism. Why should you read this? Because it’s hilarious. It opens with the frank lines; “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what.” There is an honesty behind these words, a vivid way that the characters are illustrated that it seems like the story can be nothing but genuine. It follows Jeanette’s childhood, where her predominant influences were her strict (adopted) mother, driving her to be a missionary and the local church community. Initially homeschooled, legal obligations forced her to school;

‘”Why do you want me to go?’ I asked her the night before. “Because if you don’t go I will go to prison” … “But if you go to prison you’ll get out again. St Paul was always going to prison.”      “I know that” (she cut the bread firmly, so that only the tiniest squirt of potted beef oozed out) … “but the neighbours don’t. Eat this and be quiet.”‘

Jeanette struggled with fitting in with her decidedly non-Christian classmates, as well as  with desire, when she falls in love with one of the girls at the Church. At sixteen, she is forced to decide between religion and love, family or girlfriend.  And the question that rages in Jeanette’s mind is; why can’t I have both? 

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Personally, I do think that there is a slight inequality in the amount of male and female characters, but given that this is a book about matriarchy in society and lesbian love, there isn’t much room for omnipresent male characters…. maybe not such an appalling thing, actually. (It’s worth mentioning that there are a few but they’re more secondary/ tertiary characters, hence the visibility of this ‘inequality’.) It doesn’t detract from the quality of the plot though, even if the storyline is more thought-provoking pace than action packed.

One issue, however, was the slight irrelevance of the myth theme of Percival which was introduced; it did offer variation from the wintry grey industrial scene, and it was an unusual way to represent Jeanette’s story (I presume that’s what it was), however it did appear to be part of the novel as a mystical exciting feature, rather than something which was actively contributing to the story.

The wonderful thing about this was observing the transformation of Jeanette, and the way her comically awkward tone dominated her perspective of childhood. Although it’s set in the drab Midlands, this novel is a sparkling example of fiction at its finest. Like all novels, there’s an interesting reflection of author in it, too: the fact that the protagonist has the same name is the author is not the only similarity- the novel is actually based on Winston’s own upbringing, where she explores her childhood by turning herself into a fictional character.

Anyway, generally a great 20th century novel that is worth the title of a classic. If you’re a literature fan, then you should have read this by now (!), so I recommend this specifically to teenagers, mainly because the book discusses the pressures of conformity. A pressure they are no doubt familiar with, so reading this might just be an eye-opener on the topic.

5 reasons you need to read Frankenstein now

 

You need to read Frankenstein now. In the suspendsion between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, where you can only eat mince pies at meals because you have so many left over, there is no better way to escape to the stoic mourning of Christmas (until next August) than to read. But why read Frankenstein?

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1. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the conception Shelley’s story. (In fact, the way Frankenstein came about, with that ghost story competition with Lord Bryon at Lake Geneva is nearly as famous as the outcome- Frankenstein- itself.) Shelley had a remarkable sense of audacity to publish her book, even if it was initially anonymous, because at the time such gruesome horrors conjured from female minds was frowned upon. But luckily she did, and for the centuries since it hasn’t ceased to shock and thrill all who have come across it, whether Frankenstein was in a literary form, or in a film or stage adaptation. There would be no better way to commemorate Shelley’s great novel than to read it on this anniversary.

2. The season is to create the right atmosphere for book: at the moment, we are in the depths of winter. Darkness seeps into our windows too early everyday, leaving us looking solemnly outside from underneath our blankets, a hot tea by our side. Frankenstein is full of rich imagery concerning nature; soaring icebergs and bleak landscapes. You can all too easily submerse yourself in the wintry atmosphere. For those living in warmer climes… it might be significantly harder to envision the biting chill of polar landscapes whilst you rub the rest of your suncream in, but there you go.

3. You need to learn who Frankenstein is, if you don’t know already. For years in movies the creature that Victor Frankenstein creates has been given that name, but frankly that it grossly inaccurate and just because Frankenstein sounds like an awesome name for a monster, doesn’t mean it is one. This mistake has thus been duplicated: Frankenstein’s Bride isn’t Frankenstein’s bride at all, but his creature’s bride.

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4. It’s a classic 19th century novel, with thrilling plot, including: a string of murders, a rampant patchwork zombie and a nervy scientist who is starving for revenge. Story arcs don’t t get much more adventurous than. Despite being writing in the contemporary dialect, reading it is rarely a challenge and by reading an older novel you’re literary horizons will expand. It is on most Top 100 reads not because it is so old, but because there something so profound about it. It’s also the first novel in history about the education of a scientist.

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5. Frankenstein explores issues in society. Our world is changing- some argue too quickly. The last of 2016 is rotting away, and then 2017 will be forced upon us. Yet Frankenstein has been with us, modern humanity, for some time. It hasn’t been lost in the flurry of mouldy manuscripts because people connected with it; back then and now. Frankenstein reflects culture greatly. And that is due to the theme of ethics and science- what are the wider implications of an experiment? We have the technology so that it can be done, but does that mean we should do it? To what extent should the scientist’s have control over the created beings, or care for them- is it their duty? In many ways, it is clear that Frankenstein is more relevant today than ever before.

So what are you waiting for- find that battered copy! Or have you read Frankenstein before- what do you think of it? Literary masterpiece, or overrated? Please go ahead and comment your thoughts…

The Book of Strange New Things- Michel Faber

Have you ever dreamt of being missionary to another species? To aliens living in a settlement, half the universe away? If so, then this is a novel engage your fantasy, and if not, you should still read it anyway.

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It is set in an indefinite time in the future; all the notable landmarks of our time period are still there, such as Heathrow airport, but there is a menacing undertone behind the news. In the opening scene, Peter discusses with his wife the monumental collapse of businesses and how many transport systems have simply slipped out of reality. But Peter doesn’t have to worry about that: there’s also a space travel at this point, too, and he is about to be transported to another galaxy, to a growing settlement called the Oasis, which run by an elusive corporation called USIC. Half the universe away. With his co-workers being mechanical engineers and elite geologists, he is surprised at having landed a role so out of this world. Peter is not a scientist, a genius whose name is framed by the list of letters succeeding it. His main function will be to satiate the native beings’ desire for Christianity. He is a priest, and his ‘people’ will be the Oasans. Oasans, with faces Faber insisted on continually describing as like “two foetuses”.

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On that note, the writing in general was elegant; like a minimalistic house gracing an interior design magazines- there were hints of simplicity, but that added to the beauty of his writing. However, as with all magazines, you are bound to find repeats, and Faber would often use the same word to describe the same object at various points in the novel. This is a large book- nearly 600 pages and by the fifth time he describes the air as swirling you’re bored.

The idea fuelling the novel itself was intriguing, and was embedded in the classic science fiction duvet of; “Let’s put a major concept out of context and see how it floats”. The concept in question here was religion, specifically Christianity, and thanks to Faber’s portrayal of Peter, the novel is not only engaging to those who do, or don’t share the faith, but it is also not offensive without Faber being overly cautious in with his language. This is largely due to Peter’s characterisation, I believe, because although the novel oversees his tantalising mental transformation, in essence he is a mild mannered man with firm morales. (Do not conceive him to be merely a meek man though…he has a startling history, which is agonisingly drip fed to you throughout the novel.)

Faber’s strengths were shown when he wrote about Peter’s time with the Oasans. Firstly, his style came across as more fresh there, and it was interesting to read as it contrasted starkly with Peter’s time spent back at the USIC base with humans, which frankly was largely mundane: there were chapters of him merely wandering around the corridors, uncertain of what to do with himself and where to find something to eat. Relatable, perhaps, to ravenous nights at a hotel, but not as engaging as reading about alien races with bizarre rituals and delightful dressing habits.

A notable proportions of the book was also written in letter form: Peter can only maintain contact with Bea, his wife, through this way, and the insights Bea gave into the world collapsing around her, whilst Peter was working, isolated from the news, in another galaxy, was insightful. These letters were not only fascinating in themselves, illustrating the changing dynamics in the pair’s relationship as their separation became prolonged, but it also offered variation. There was a balance between the prose and letters which was struck sublimely.

Whilst I would recommend this novel to anymore who is attracted to science-fiction novels, I would also say that those fantasy readers with an inter-galactic taste would enjoy it too. The pace is erring on the sluggish side though, and is more contemplative than action-filled. The Book of Strange New Things offered me an insight into the world of science-fiction, which I am tentatively exploring, and generally, it has done a brilliant job in doing so.