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.

TBR Tuesday- My Top 5

The average reader has at least 65 books on their TBR. I am no exception. It seems that every time I even look into a bookshop window (it just proves how good Waterstones is at promotion!), it gets much, much longer. Stops at the library are dangerous. Books on display, all waiting to taken, except when you do crumple into the temptation, they merely end up sitting in your shelf accusingly because you have no time to read them, given that you have at least 10 other library books you need to read first. The result? Awkward chats with the librarians, asking for ‘just one more extension’ on the book, when really you know it’s not going to be read in two weeks, is it? Or, you bring it back at the end of the time sheepishly, and when asked “How did you find it?” you dip your head in embarrassment and say “Oh, well, it was on that shelf over there and I just saw it as I walked in” and scuttle away before you can feel their quizzical gaze on you. You once (when asked) pretended that the plot was original indeed, however it was, all things considered, an anticlimax. Why did I think it was an anticlimax- is that what you’ve just asked? Well, although you thought a knowing shrug and nod of the head was a sufficient answer to that one, they clearly did not.

So, here is what’s recently joined the party of my TBR, which is turning more and more into a rowdy Glastonbury mosh pit than anything else, with books battling it , roughly pushing each other out the way for the coveted number one spot.

I will start with Number 5 (just to add to the suspense) :

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Offred has limited options in her society, The Republic of Gilead. The dominating one: have children. If she doesn’t, then she’ll be punished and live an exiled life in a wasteland, destined to die of radiation sickness. Yet can fear of the law repress Offred’s dangerous desire, desire which does not conform to the rules?

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I’ll admit it. I’ve never read any of Atwood’s books, and it’s high time that I start. In a time of such political upheaval, this didn’t seem like such a poor choice to help me reflect upon events, either.

4. Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre

Quite Ugly One Morning is a humorous murder mystery set in Scotland, with a sassy journalist, Jack Parlabane, for a protagonist. He unwillingly finds a corpse and then willingly shoulders his way into the centre of this investigation. Filled with (apparently) remarkable dialogue and wonderful characters.

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It will be funny. It will (hopefully) have people making haggis to perfection. It will be a change from the ‘serious’ literary novels. Or so I hope- but I’ll have to read it first to find out.

3.  The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

An amalgamation of science-fiction and fantasy short stories, often finding inspiration in the most mundane of subjects.
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You know me. Any excuse to read short stories… especially since this collection has had overwhelmingly positive feedback. So why restrain myself? (I think somewhere the title ‘The Paper Menagerie’ also resonated with me, because it is too similar to The Glass Menagerie, a play I found amazing, and therefore some biased link was made!)

2. American Street by Ibi Zobo

Fabiola travels from Port-au-Prince to Detroit, in search of that old Golden Dream, and her American cousins. But once her mother is detained in U.S immigration, Fabiola not only has to navigate the high school politics alone, but how to deal with America’s attitude  towards her arrival, too.
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It seems like a relevant novel to read right now, with the immigrant crisis at its peak. But also, after recently reading A.A.Gill’s essay on Port-au-Prince, I’m interested to explore a part of that city from another perspective, even if it is a fictional one. American Street seems like it will be a proper young adult novel, one that I can truly enjoy, and be a wonderful example for the genre.

1.Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Frank and April Wheeler have everything, everything that a couple in the 1950s could want. A new house, two small children, talent. Of course, April never hoped that she’d be a housewife, and Frank never hoped that his job would be so monotonous, but they know that these are sacrifices for the great reward. The reward of a happier relationship and that lifestyle always just beyond reach. But is it? Yates describes the Wheelers’ once noble intentions slowly falling apart, and as they do so, the pair disappoint not only each other, but the people they should have been.
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I’m not sure if “the blurb sounds really awesome” is a good answer, but that’s basically my thinking. I think when I read this there were an acute, yet tender, examination of relationships, done a poignant and unashamed way, which will be refreshing (and sometimes painful?) to read. Also, it is set in the 1950s, and since I have recently been doing so much reading on the World Wars, it will be useful to read a story set in America’s post-war era.
Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts on them? Is your TBR completely random, and changes constantly, or are you quite quick at ploughing through it? Do comment below!

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…

Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin

Moonwalker. Innovator. Alcoholic.

A brutally honest autobiography of Aldrin’s life, reflecting on not only the stellar parts of his career, but the parts which have shrouded him in despair and embarrassment.

Many Americans view Buzz Aldrin as a national icon; a hero. Part of Apollo 11, the space mission which cemented him in history as the second man to ever walk on the Moon, Aldrin certainly is extraordinary. But there are other sections of his life that define him, too. Like when he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war, an author of novels or when he spent most his days slumped beneath bedsheets, due to the overwhelming depression he suffered. Most people aren’t aware of this side, and Magnificent Desolation explains what precisely Aldrin went through following his Moon Landing; it turns out that the physical side effects were the least of his worries, and that he was psychologically underprepared for the fame that would ensue.

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This book, despite being co-written by Ken Abraham, was definitely written by Aldrin. The words had bitter edges on certain topics (like when discussing his failures in his post-astronaut military career, or when discussing conspiracy theorists) and at other times would appear as if he was desperately trying to seem complementary, as if through the publication of this book he was wary of any outstanding offences he could cause.

Also, occasionally Aldrin would start to build up an event as if it had massive significance in the grand scheme of his life, and as a reader I would wonder what this event would foreshadow. More often than not it turned out to be completely irrelevant and not tie into anything else in the book:

“One overly zealous reporter planted himself in front of our car, refused to budge while snapping photos of me through the windshield. In exasperation, I raised my hand and gave him the finger. As soon as I saw the flash go off, I knew that I had made a gigantic mistake. When we got back to the hotel, my first call was to the attache at the embassy to see if he could quash the picture. He must have successful, because the photo never showed up”

It’s just utterly frustrating. If it turned out that the image had been leaked and had started to give Aldrin an awful reputation which affected his speaking career, then it would have been understandable. But nothing came of it- so why waste a paragraph mentioning  an irrelevant event that is not tied onto anything else in the book? This happened so many times throughout and frankly I found myself exasperated.

What I did enjoy though was when Aldrin started to discuss how in his later career he continued to develop ideas for space exploration. His words sounded so resolute and hopeful for the future- how by 2030 we should have people living on Mars, and his grand plans for a Mars Shuttle System. Above all I found that part fascinating, because it offered me an insight into the future of space. He spoke a lot about space tourism too; it seems like a plausible concept and he discusses it at length because he had devoted plenty of time to ensuring that it became as intrinsic to the American economy as ordinary tourism. We’re not quite there yet, but time can only tell!

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I would recommend this autobiography to those  who have an interest in space history and astronauts, as it does not only offer a valuable insight to Aldrin’s life, but also into the future of space in our society. It is not a necessarily a relaxing read as most of the information is presented quite factually and straightforwardly, but nevertheless I’m glad I gave it go!

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne

The title is misleading. Having sold 19 million copies across the globe and accessible in 46 languages, suffice to say, the Secret isn’t quite so confidential anymore.

19 million is a large number. So what’s the attraction? Apparently, according to Rhonda Bryne, it’s in your thoughts. The actual Secret is the law of attraction, which basically means that the thoughts coming from You (she was very found precociously capitalising this pronoun) could control the Universe, as long as they’re on the right frequency. All you had to do, it seems, was twist your internal antenna and tell the Universe what you wanted. In fact, it clearly says: “You are the master of the Universe. You are the heir to the kingdom. You are the Perfection of Life.” Bryne continues by telling us that apparently you, (yes “You”), have attracted everything in your life towards you. So, she continues that means that people who have cancer, were in a housefire or unwillingly part of a warfare were so because their thoughts had attracted them to that situation. It seems questionable.

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But there is technically some truth in The Secret, in the sense that it relates to the psychological concept: “Confirmation Bias”, and manipulates it slightly in order to make the book the best-seller that it is (along with the help of the promotional shout outs by Oprah Winfrey). So the Secret says think good thoughts, and good things will come your way: well, we are already subject to confirmation bias, whether we know it or not. As all scientific studies has shown, humans have incredibly short attention spans, so we have to select carefully what we pay attention to. An easy example of this is a broken friendship: you and this friend are getting along swimmingly until they do something shocking to break this bond. Enraged and surprised by this, you review your past few months together and suddenly realise how all along they’ve been scheming, and you’ve never recognised these blatant signs until now- because you’re actively looking for them.

In short, the Secret channels confirmation bias to such an extent that you are obsessively positive for a such a long time that eventually the bias must to work. It changes your perspective on life and encourages you to never doubt yourself and always take that plunge, because negativity will be your downfall. This kind of positive thinking, where you consistently tell yourself that you WILL get that job interview, or whatever else you aspire to, actually resolves in laziness. We become complacent because we have already ‘completed’ the task- which results in a lack of motivation and thus preparation, because what’s the point if you’ve already ‘achieved’ the end result? Therefore overall performance will be lower. And anyway, on a personal level I don’t think that it is such a good idea: think about all those crazy ideas we’ve had (what if you had worn that cat suit to the Christmas Party last year- what would Aunt May think of you now)? Precisely. I believe that second thoughts are useful after all.

But- and this is where the Secret attempts to justify itself, it has loyal supporters! William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein are meant to have owed their successes to this Secret. There is only limited evidence though: random quotations dotted throughout the oddly square book which have only very weak relevance to the topic at hand. Here is an extract from the book:

“ ‘Is this a friendly Universe?’ … Albert Einstein posed this powerful question because he knew The Secret. He knew by asking the question it would force us to think and make a choice.”

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I am not sure that is entirely justifiable. Einstein actually offers us the meaning behind his quote, and it’s surprising that Bryne didn’t include it in her self-help book, (as it completely contradicts what she decided it meant). Einstein explains that “If we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe.” No concepts about thought-attraction here, I’m afraid, and no mention of the Secret he was allegedly so fond of.

So; the Secret. Take it, or leave it. It’s a strange concept, with psychological roots wrapped up in mushy quotes about our perfections and best-selling anecdotes that tell people exactly what they want to hear. The question is, have you read the book? Do you believe it to be true, or not- if you do, do you have any examples?

The Moth- Book of the Month November

You walk away from a conversation with friends. Shaking your head, marvelling at the bizarre cases of truth. How no one could possibly have made that up. Welcome to the Moth.

The Moth is a kind of event, where people stand up and recount true hilarious, heart-breaking or horrifying stories on the stage. And, standing alone on the stage, clutching only their memories and a mic in their hands, they all have a personal touch. The Moth as a novel is no different: it is merely a compilation of 50 of the best short stories that have been told. Originally, The Moth was created to mimic that feeling of story-telling around the campfire, as your words pour out of you whilst everyone else is leaning in, the flames’ shadows flickering on your face. There is a deep sense of satisfaction rooted in sharing stories; after all we’ve been doing it for most of our history, and just because we have superior technology doesn’t mean this art should fade away: that’s why it is called The Moth; it reflects the fact that humans are attracted to stories like moths to a light, and maybe it is our light; our escape from reality.

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And, although it’s in the written word, this has still been conveyed into the book. Each story has been copied from the speaker (because they’re all spoken on-stage, remember,) word for word. This is fantastic for us, readers, because it presents you with the genuine idiosyncrasies of their voices. You feel like they’re standing over their shoulder, whispering into your ear, and you truly get a framework for their character. People speak differently depending on their upbringing. You know that. So you will understand how frustrating it is when all the characters in a book sound the same; well, all I can say is that the Moth will provide relief in that respect.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys any form of a short story, because there is a wide variation in the topics covered, so you’re bound to find something that appeals to you. Each one is a convenient length so that normally you can read it in one sitting, but usually I’m so enthralled by the previous tale I am driven to discover the next one, and see where it leads me! The best thing about The Moth is that there are so many topics covered. It isn’t simply about travelling, or love, or that funny thing Jeff said yesterday. There are magnificent stories, such as the one about the man who saved Mother Teresa’s life, or optimistic ones, like the woman testing out life with a new prosthetic limb, or harrowing stories about a scientist and his relationship with his monkey used in experiments. It evoked so many emotions with me- so if you’re looking for an uplifting read or a challenging one, then look no further.

 

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

We are all avid readers. We have all discussed, at one point or another, that topical debate. What is your preference: the rising E-book or classic paper tome? Why is it that we are so obsessed, so comforted by the thin pages, when faced with the bold technological alternative? Everyday we are surrounded by this material, whether it is in our note paper, train tickets, toilet paper or bank notes. So it is not a surprise, perhaps, that we are unwilling to let it drift away from society. After all, it is what we have grown up with, yet fundamentally this marvellous invention, one which has been utilised by generations, is largely a subject of ignorance.

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For example, why are ancient pages honoured with a musk of yellow, and why are long-forgotten  receipts faded?

Thankfully, I have found a novel which can satisfy these inquisitive questions, one which dutifully gives us an insight into 10 common materials. It thrusts them into the limelight for a chapter, primarily focusing on their composition, how they were created, and their role in society today. Does that sound technical. A bit too educational for your liking? It shouldn’t. Because along the way we learn about why razors blunt, that concrete never drys out (at least it doesn’t set in the way we perceive it to) and how it is conceivable that the lightest solid in the world is 99.8% air. Miodownik has ambitiously turned a subject which could be lined with boredom into one which is delightful and captivating.
Today, we are constantly, ironically, being pestered by mindfulness fanatics to live in the moment and to appreciate everything around us. That can be difficult when there is tumultuous rain, and you have just missed your train to an important meeting, but no said it was easy. But, it would be easier if we understood what we were appreciating. These materials make up our lives, and the manipulation of these materials could arguably be what isolates the human race from all other species. Yet do you know how plastic is made? Did the fascinating nature, the mere possibility, of surgical implants ever grip you? I profess now; none of these questions applied to me until I read this book. Each chapter is brimming with mind-blowing, quirky information, interspersed among rich anecdotes and charming writing that manages to make even the most mundane materials a source of thrill.

This book has reignited my dwindling faith in non-fiction writing, and I think that one is ever trying to understand society better (because these things are so fundamental to it), appreciate life more (start with the small things) or is simply curious, then this is a brilliant place to start. It was a concise too, which meant that although the information at times was detailed and scientific, it wasn’t winding on for eons, leaving me bored half a chapter away. A surprising yet gratifying holiday read!