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.

Review: A Life Without Limits by Chrissie Wellington

23rd of April 2017. A massive day for some, it’s when this year’s London Marathon will be taking place, and amongst the tens of thousands, Chrissie Wellington will be competing. She may be one anonymous figure to you, but her fastest marathon time is 2:44:35, which is impressive enough. Especially as that was run immediately after a 3.8km swim and 180.2km bike. You may not have heard of her, but you should have, considering that Wellington is a 4x Ironman world champion and is regarded as one of the best female triathletes in history.

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Reading her autobiography, A Life Without Limits, was inspiring because it shows how determination can almost force results into existence. Wellington won her first world title only 9 months after leaving her day job, and a highly prestigious one at that, as a civil servant in Whitehall. She became a professional athlete at the age of 30, and this is incredible not only because it defies the idea that you have to be committed to a single discipline from a young age, but because in reality Wellington had no real background in sport either. This is one of the many reasons that I’ve come to respect Wellington; she had the security of an established, well paying job, yet she took a risk. She became an athlete and entered a brutal, competitive world in which she was chronically unfamiliar. But she prospered.

If you’re looking for any reason to read this book, it’s this: it explains the history of an athlete like no other, and not just an athlete, but a genuinely compassionate and interesting person. Wellington’s career includes Nepal working on aid, as well as triathlon, making it fascinating to read if you’re looking for an insight on their rural culture, or even as a civil servant.

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This is a book about triathlon, true. Yet it’s also about so much more; about aspects of her career that not only prevent monotony from the reader’s point of view, but also show that the physical attributes of someone can be just the beginning of someone’s personality, not their defining feature. In a book I’ve reviewed previously, Swim Bike Run by the Brownlees, featured there was basically just a skimmed version of their childhood, training sessions and races. A Life Without Limits, on the other hand, is much more varied.

If you want something that is inspirational, a book that will motivate you to achieve more (Wellington set an ironman world record time with shingles, after all) than you need to look no further.

Have you tried a triathlon before? What’s your favourite sport, besides reading marathons obviously 🙂 ? What’s the best sports (auto)biography you’ve read? Do comment below and let me know your thoughts!

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?

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.