Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake. Cas, a teenage boy who inherited his dead father's ghost-killing knife and mission, encounters the first ghost who's his match - in more ways than one: the blood-soaked goddess of vengeance, the teenager who just wanted to go out dancing, the raging spirit trapped in the deadly house she rules: Anna Dressed in Blood. This YA horror/supernatural thriller has a nice snappy pace, some good ideas (Cas lives with his mom, a witch who totally knows what's going on), and Anna is a vivid creation, but the other characters, the world, and the story felt underdeveloped, like an early draft that got polished rather than deepened. I liked what i think Blake was trying to do with Cas - a beautifully polished front of teenage cockiness covering up a well of creepy, death-obsessed nihilism - but as actually shown, he just seemed to alternate between obsessing about death and being full of himself in a way that I didn't find very plausible for a teenage boy. (He's certain that all the girls will be all over him instantly because he's all that. Sure enough, they are!)

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth, by James M. Tabor. Nonfiction about what it says on the can. This has incredibly vivid descriptions of giant caves, tight spaces underground, and what it takes to explore them, and I would highly recommend it as a writer's reference for the topic. As armchair adventuring, it's pretty good too. Unusually for this sort of book, Tabor does not ignore or slight the women who were involved in cave exploration, describing how one "oozed through" a crack so tight that she had to exhale all the air in her lungs in order to compress her chest enough to get through. Yikes! As far as the quest itself, there's a lot of hair-raising exploration, and then an anti-climactic, "And then [spoiler] turned out to be the deepest, the end."

Thorns, by Robert Silverberg. 70s sf in which a fat! fat! FAT! and evil emotional vampire (did I mention that he's FAT?) throws together two tragic people to feed on their pain. One is a space explorer who was captured and surgically transformed by aliens for, uh, no particular reason, and one is a not-too-bright virgin whose eggs were harvested and given to others, and she wants her babies back. They have a hopeful yet sordid affair, while the fat vampire cackles in glee. Can two misfits find hope and happiness together or apart, even if their problems don't get "solved?" Only if they deal with the fat pain-sucker first!

I'm making this sound worse than it actually was. The storyline about the altered space guy had real emotional weight. But even apart from the fat = evil stuff, I am a very hard sell on emotional vampires who feed on pain, especially if they're not conflicted about this at all. The virgin was so childlike and naive that I briefly wondered if she was supposed to have some sort of intellectual disability, but no - just Silverberg's idea of a traumatized young woman who's none too bright, which made her relationship with the space dude, who was intelligent and worldly-wise, possibly more creepy than was intended, and lacking in the possibility of redemption through love. Also, too much 70s sf-type unpleasant sex. I read this because I do generally like stories about traumatized people building up their lives again, but this was overloaded with turn-offs.
rachelmanija: (Fishes: I do not see why the sex)
( Oct. 12th, 2011 04:57 pm)
I will make a filter for this shortly. Until then, cut to spare you, and also for sexual content including some hilarious romance novel excerpts. These are my brief notes, for my own benefit with the exception of the throbbing pistons which are for yours, on today's reading.

Read more... )
Another one of the books assigned for Human Sexuality, which I was nearly done with before I learned that the teacher had been reassigned. I finished it anyway, of course.

I have a lot to learn about trans issues, so please feel free to correct me if I use wrong/outdated terminology, or for any other reason.

Adding “in the modern western world” to the end of the subtitle would have been a good idea: the book does not even touch upon pre-modern or non-European/non-European-descended American concepts of transgenderism. I am certain that a more wide-ranging book exists, and I wish one had been assigned; I kept thinking, “Are you ever going to mention hijras? Two Spirit people? Sikhandi?” She did not.

As a history of transgender (and intersex) activism and history in modern Europe and America, though, it seems reasonably good, not that I’m an expert. Rudacille, a cisgendered woman (a term which never appears in the book), includes a number of interesting interviews with trans people. They are, however, similar kinds of trans people: all American, at least in their thirties, and people who strongly identified with a single gender and, to some degree or another, medically transitioned. Race was not stated for anyone, and was not made clear from the interviews; unless I missed something, there was no one clearly identified as non-white. Neither are there in-depth interviews with anyone who identifies as genderqueer or anything non-gender-binary, anyone really young, anyone who decided not to physically transition, etc, though some such people are quoted.

I couldn't help wondering if Rudacille, probably unconsciously, selected her interview subjects according to who she felt comfortable talking to (and who felt comfortable talking to her,) and so ended up with a bunch of people who were demographically similar to her and who more-or-less shared her beliefs. Irritatingly, sometimes she'd give a nod to diversity by quoting someone for one line, prefaced with something like, "So-and-so, 19, who self-identifies as a Radical Faerie trannyboy," and then not follow up with an interview.

Rudacille has somewhat biologically determinist and stereotypical views about gender, in the sense of believing that certain qualities, like compassion, nurturing, adventurousness, analysis, are inherently masculine or feminine. She also comes down heavily on the “nature” side of questions like “why are boys more aggressive/better at spatial relations/etc,” not to mention on the “oh hell yes” side of questions like “Is it even true that boys are more aggressive?”

The trans people she interviews mostly hold at least somewhat similar beliefs, citing their gender non-conformist behavior in childhood as an early indication that their true gender didn’t match their bodies. (It’s more complicated than that in some cases; some of the people she interviews are intersex.)

Rudacille concludes with a chapter making a case that DES and other environmental estrogen-affecting chemicals may affect fetuses, causing them to be transgender. I kept waiting for her to add, “Though of course, while that may be true for some people, it cannot be true for all, since transgender people pre-date the existence of any of the chemicals I’m talking about.” Alas, no.

I suspect that a subjective sense of gender is inborn, and that some people have it more strongly than others. I know people, male and female, who don’t have a strong sense of their own gender, and others who do. This seems to have nothing to do with whether or not you match a gender stereotype. But I would guess that the stronger the sense of your gender, the stronger the distress if you have a body which doesn’t match it.

I have always had a very strong sense of being female, but I was so gender-nonconformist as a child that it was a significant source of conflict. I liked “boy stuff.” I had “masculine attributes.” I liked to dress “like a boy.” But I never wanted to be a boy; I was just into stuff which (bizarrely, in my mind) was labeled “boy stuff.” I was so convinced that I was female, despite everyone telling me that I was in no way a proper one, that I decided that none of the things I liked could possibly really be boy things. I was a girl, and I liked to climb trees. Q.E.D., climbing trees was also a girl thing.

I mention that as an example of how biological sex, gender stereotypes, and the internal sense of gender seem to me to all exist independently of each other. They may all line up. Or some of them may. Or none of them may.

There must be some trans people who stereotypically fit the gender they were assigned at birth, and yet still feel that it’s the wrong one. (Say, a female assigned at birth who loves looking pretty and shopping, but knows that in his heart, he’s a man – a man who loves looking pretty and shopping.) I wish Rudacille had interviewed a couple of them, because that might have shaken her annoying beliefs in the inherent masculinity and femininity of abstract traits.

Any recs for something a bit more radical, less gender-stereotype-essentialist, and/or with more pre-1800 history and perspectives other than European and American-minus-Indians?

The Riddle of Gender
This book, one of the required texts for my 10:00 AM Monday Human Sexuality class, suggests that the class, while possibly lacking in academic rigor, will not lack in amusement value. I am picturing a cross between a 70s encounter group and a "Let's all draw our vulvas, watch a video of women ejaculating, and then make an offering to the Great Goddess!" workshop.

Its arrival this week was perfect timing, given that the month to date was the sort which, to completely misquote Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, left me grasping for straws of comfort like, "No matter what else happens today, at least I still like my clitoris."

This is the sort of book which has an anatomical drawing of a clitoris, and a woman pointing to it and exclaiming "WOW!"

The book has some interesting information about clitoral anatomy (the little button part is just the tip of the iceberg; a large portion of the female genitalia is made up of clitoral tissue and structures.) But most of the book is basically, "Wow! A clitoris!"

There is a long chapter on female ejaculation, in which women enthusiastically describe their gushing orgasms, with slightly terrifying details like, "And then I had to mop the floor!" The author then notes that you too may be able to teach yourself to ejaculate, if you don't already. Personally, after I am done having solo or partnered sex, the last thing I want to do is mop the floor.

Despite some dubious history and a cringe-worthy discussion of the Tao and Tantra, this book is mostly harmless. I expect it would be delightfully eye-opening to any women who aren't already familiar with their anatomy or the possible range of their sexual response. But for a graduate course... seriously? This is the best you can do? If anyone knows of more academically rigorous or up-to-date or more culturally sensitive books on female sexuality, please rec them to me, and I will rec them to the school.

I also boggle that this apparent typo in chapter one didn't get corrected through many editions: From as far back as the Kinsey report in 1953, intercourse has not been found not to be the most effective means for women to experience the full range of their sexual response, and yet, penis-in-vagina sex remains the ne plus ultra of sexual activity.

And I boggle more at this: During full-blown sexual response, clitoral tissues expand enormously. The erectile tissues fill with blood, causing the clitoris to protrude enough, as one woman put it, "to fill my cupped hand."

The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips

Hilariously pornographic cheery illustrations below cut )
This book, one of the required texts for my 10:00 AM Monday Human Sexuality class, suggests that the class, while possibly lacking in academic rigor, will not lack in amusement value. I am picturing a cross between a 70s encounter group and a "Let's all draw our vulvas, watch a video of women ejaculating, and then make an offering to the Great Goddess!" workshop.

Its arrival this week was perfect timing, given that the month to date was the sort which, to completely misquote Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, left me grasping for straws of comfort like, "No matter what else happens today, at least I still like my clitoris."

This is the sort of book which has an anatomical drawing of a clitoris, and a woman pointing to it and exclaiming "WOW!"

The book has some interesting information about clitoral anatomy (the little button part is just the tip of the iceberg; a large portion of the female genitalia is made up of clitoral tissue and structures.) But most of the book is basically, "Wow! A clitoris!"

There is a long chapter on female ejaculation, in which women enthusiastically describe their gushing orgasms, with slightly terrifying details like, "And then I had to mop the floor!" The author then notes that you too may be able to teach yourself to ejaculate, if you don't already. Personally, after I am done having solo or partnered sex, the last thing I want to do is mop the floor.

Despite some dubious history and a cringe-worthy discussion of the Tao and Tantra, this book is mostly harmless. I expect it would be delightfully eye-opening to any women who aren't already familiar with their anatomy or the possible range of their sexual response. But for a graduate course... seriously? This is the best you can do? If anyone knows of more academically rigorous or up-to-date or more culturally sensitive books on female sexuality, please rec them to me, and I will rec them to the school.

I also boggle that this apparent typo in chapter one didn't get corrected through many editions: From as far back as the Kinsey report in 1953, intercourse has not been found not to be the most effective means for women to experience the full range of their sexual response, and yet, penis-in-vagina sex remains the ne plus ultra of sexual activity.

And I boggle more at this: During full-blown sexual response, clitoral tissues expand enormously. The erectile tissues fill with blood, causing the clitoris to protrude enough, as one woman put it, "to fill my cupped hand."

The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips

Hilariously pornographic cheery illustrations below cut )
A detailed, readable account of traditional acorn preparation in terms of how-to and cultural significance, by Julia Parker as told to Beverly Ortiz. Parker is a Kashia Pomo Indian who gives demonstrations of traditional arts and crafts at Yosemite museum, but her style of acorn making is from the Miwok/Paiute tradition, and was learned from her husband's mother.

The book begins with a brief account of Parker's life story, and then plunges into a step-by-step account of acorn-making, complete with anecdotes, advice, and accounts of how Parker learned it. It's an incredibly labor-intensive process, but one not seen as mere labor. It has cultural, social, and spiritual significance, and the way Parker describes it reminded me of martial artists and other traditional artists and craftspeople from many cultures, who transform repetitive, painstaking work into a form of meditation.

I would really like to try making acorn from the black oaks on Dad's property, but it could be a multi-visit process. Alas, I cannot do the traditional hot-rocks-in-woven-basket technique, as I have no basket (or none I'd want to risk ruining) and there are dire warnings about exploding rocks. Also dire warnings about boiling acorn mush exploding out of stainless steel pots, with a note that Parker usually cooks while wearing a protective leather skirt.

The book also contains instructions for easier-sounding and non-explosive traditional recipes, like manzanita cider. I might tackle that one first.

It Will Live Forever : Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation

ETA: If anyone wants a signed copy at $15.00, I am pretty sure the author will be selling them at the fair tonight, and if you speak before I leave, I could grab one for you.
Before I spend the next two years plowing through textbooks, please recommend me some books on psychology: therapy, memoirs of therapists, memoirs of people with mental illnesses, theory, anecdotes, treatment, classics which are still relevant, cross-cultural and non-western issues and theories, etc.

No holds barred! I am particularly interested in trauma, but on the other hand, that's also the area where I'm best-read. So anything goes. (Should I read Jung?)
A cookbook/food memoir, emphasis on the former, about the cuisine and associated folkways and traditions of the Syrian Christians of Kerala.

George’s family lived in Mumbai (then Bombay), but visited Kerala often, and her mother made an effort to cook in the Syrian Christian style. This gives George an unusual insider/outsider perspective. The short essays which bookend the recipe sections are evocative, well-written, and atmospheric, sometimes explaining traditions like the baths and oil massages given to new mothers by means of an account of her own pampering after the birth of her daughter, sometimes telling stories about her childhood and family.

If you like Madhur Jaffrey, you will probably like this, though George comes from a completely different food tradition. If you’re already familiar with non-Christian Kerala cuisine, the Syrian Christian version has a lot of overlap; if you’re only familiar with other Indian traditions, the food and culture depicted will be nearly completely unfamiliar. I’ve been to Kerala once, and was bowled over by the beauty of the landscape and the deliciousness of the food. Reading this book, I longed to return.

The book was published in the USA, and the recipes suggest where to find ingredients there, as well as local substitutions for ingredients that can’t be found. I didn’t try any of the recipes, but some of them look fairly easy and many of them look absolutely delicious. It’s also very enjoyable to read for pure food porn.

The Kerala Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of South India (Hippocrene Cookbooks)
I recently read Ben Sherwood’s The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life. It wasn’t terrible, and the style is lively, but I can’t recommend it; it’s a significantly less-good variation on what I think is the gold standard for books exploring how and why people live and die in extreme circumstances, Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. (Avoid Gonzales’ Everyday Survival. It’s terrible.)

The Survivor’s Club starts off well, then devolves into a mess of dubious studies, shallow analysis, and lengthy claims that since most people who survive extreme danger felt that faith in God got them through, then you need to have faith in God to survive. Most people believe in God, and many believers feel that faith gets them through hard times in general. Of course most survivors applied the tools they already had. But to say those tools should be acquired or would be useful to people using different tools is ludicrous. By that reasoning, most people have two ears, so most of his survivors have two ears, so you need two ears to survive a shipwreck. Faith undoubtedly does help believers survive, but that doesn’t mean that non-believers would do better if they had faith. It means that non-believers use different tools.

That’s the example that annoyed me the most, but as I read, I frequently found myself muttering, “Was this study ever replicated?” and “Correlation is not causation!” and “If this study was disproved, why did you devote so much time to it?”

But it did make me notice that there are a couple of aspects to survival that none of the books on it I’ve read have addressed, or addressed in detail. Probably because those aspects are insufficiently macho.

But first, let me explain what I mean by “survival.” I don’t mean to guilt people who die. We all die. And I especially don’t mean to guilt people who lived through traumatic, dangerous, or horrendous times, but feel that they weren’t tough enough, brave enough, enough of a survivor – that emotional survival means coming through stronger than ever, undamaged, or bent but not broken.

First of all, survival is literal. You walk away from a flaming car crash, you survived, whether or not your actions made that possible. Secondly, survival is emotional. By that I do mean living through awful things, and eventually coming to a place where you’re glad you’re alive. But there’s no deadline for either of those. As long as you literally survive, you have time to emotionally survive.

Since I made it through a horrendous childhood, twenty years of major depression and PTSD, two flaming car wrecks, one non-flaming car wreck followed by four years of physical therapy, and a number of encounters with people who were physically menacing me, I think I’m well-qualified to discuss my own survival.

My tips may not work for you, since you are not me. But I offer them on the theory that at least some will be relevant for some people.

Failure IS an option

There is a very unrealistic belief that if you completely fall apart emotionally and become a sobbing wreck, you have failed to survive and will forever stay in that state. This is not true at all.

The single most helpful belief you can have is not “I can get through anything in one piece,” but rather, “If I do fall apart, I can put myself back together again.” You don’t have to be unbreakable, or believe that you are. You just have to believe that whatever happens, as long as you still live, you can eventually recover from it.

It’s also helpful, if this isn’t too recursive, to believe that this is possible even if you don’t, at that moment, believe that it’s possible. This is particularly relevant if the thing you’re trying to survive is mental illness.

Fear is not the enemy

I’m not just talking about The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence here, though that’s true too. I mean that trying not to be afraid is a waste of time and energy. Fear is information. It may be information about the outside world, in which case it’s worth paying attention to. It may be the information that your brain is sending you inappropriate signals of anxiety or panic. It’s important to register the fear, analyze which it is, and then proceed appropriately. Just being able to say to yourself, “I know that I’m afraid, but I’m going to do this anyway” is often sufficient to force yourself into action.

Fears that you should pay special attention to: admitting or acknowledging that something is wrong, making a fuss about something everyone else is ignoring, overreacting/being hysterical in public, and being mean/acting crazy.

If you feel yourself having those fears, consider that they may be signals that something is very, very wrong, that everyone else is in denial, and/or that the person you feel guilty or stupid for being scared of is genuinely menacing you.

You don’t have to react instantly

There are very few situations in which freezing momentarily will get you killed. (And if you do get into one of them, it’s very likely so extreme that you wouldn’t have made it out anyway.) If you’re aware in advance that freezing is a natural human instinct, you will hopefully notice when you’re frozen. You can then take a moment to take stock of the situation and decide upon a plan of action. (A very, very simple one!) If you can do that, by the time you’ve decided, you should be able to move.

Also, time feels like it’s moving slowly in an emergency. Don’t panic because it feels like you were frozen for hours. It’s probably only been a few seconds.

You don't have to be a Navy SEAL

If you're an ordinary person, and you encounter a situation in which you would need special training or great strength to survive, honestly, it's probably bad enough that whether you survive or not is purely up to luck anyway. The strongest guy in the world can still get squashed by a cement truck.

But for the situations ordinary people are likely to encounter, you need the qualities you already have or can acquire if you decide to work on getting them. Everyone has some degree of endurance, courage, intelligence, and common sense. And everyone can acquire the ability to cut through denial that something is wrong, the willingness to look foolish in public, and the belief that recovery is possible.
A fascinating, easily readable history of cancer, how people conceived of it, how they tried to cure it, and how all that changed society and science. Mukherjee is an oncologist, and salts the text with anecdotes about his own patients. (Those were great and I would have liked more of them.)

If you like pop science at all, this is a great example of it: educational, clearly written, both explaining things you always wondered about (why is there so much cancer nowadays?) and delving into issues it never occurred to you wonder about (how did we get from a time when the New York Times refused to print the words “breast” and “cancer” to marathons for a cure?) Mukherjee takes us from bone tumors found in ancient mummies, to the Persian queen Atossa who had a slave perform a mastectomy on her, to the genesis of “wars on diseases” and campaigning for funds and cures, to the beginnings of chemotherapy, to cutting edge genetic research. He brings all the personalities of the scientists, the politicians, the patients, and the (evil! evil!) tobacco company executives to vivid life.

I probably don’t need to mention that this book can be gross, upsetting, and disturbing, given the subject matter. (The section on radical mastectomies was especially nightmarish.) But if you can either deal with that or skim a bit, I highly recommend this.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
I decided I felt like reading some nonfiction before I plunge back into the fictional waters. This memoir by a CIA agent was just the thing.

I once knew a man who used to refer to the company he used to work for as “The Company.” My Dad used to insist that meant he’d worked for the CIA. I didn’t believe him, until one night the Company man drank a lot at dinner and said, without noticing it, “the CIA,” before he switched back to “the Company” in the next sentence. My Dad brought it up later, but the Company man insisted that he’d been joking…

Moran’s book is entertaining and often quite funny, especially the first two-thirds, which concern her training, most of which involves skills she will never need and much of which has a distinctly Keystone Kops air. From crashing cars through barriers to being “imprisoned” by cafeteria ladies, the training sequences are uniformly worth reading (if you like that kind of thing.)

The book loses steam when she’s sent to Macedonia, where she is instructed to work on extracting information from useless contacts who clearly know none. The last straw is when she and everyone else at the CIA are blindsided by 9/11, and then (in Moran’s opinion) support going to war against Iraq in an effort to cover up their utter failure to know or learn anything about actual terrorist threats. The end, in which she quits the CIA and gets married, is a bit of a whimper. I’d have been more interested to hear about how she managed to get permission to publish this book at all, and what sort of hoops she had to jump through to do so.

Still, I did quite enjoy the first two-thirds. Worth getting from the library.

Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy
Pop science about the history and current state of the space program, focusing on the effect of space travel on the human mind and body. Funnier, better-researched, and more informative and coherent than Spook and Bonk, and marginally less gross than Stiff, this is exactly what I want out of light pop nonfiction: an entertaining read that tells me stuff I didn’t already know.

This is a very, very funny book, crammed with hilarious asides and footnotes and “you can’t make that stuff up” trivia. Roach’s comedy sometimes feels forced in her other books, but here it flows naturally from the subjects she’s investigating. Her twelve-year-old sense of humor is a perfect match for her earnest investigation of space toilets, experiments to find out what happens when you make someone sit on a couch and not bathe for three weeks, the possibility of improving bone density in old women by whacking them across the hips, and rumors about masturbating space monkeys.

I can’t decide if the funniest chapter was the hilariously disgusting one about not bathing, the even more hilariously disgusting one about space cuisine (at one point, designed by Army veterinarians), or the one in which she doggedly pursues rumors of zero-gravity sex through a morass of hoaxes, porn flicks, and websites for dolphin-fanciers. (My favorite moment in the latter was either the footnote about prehensile dolphin penises, or the conversation about Ingmar Bergman she has with the porn producer.) I even enjoyed the chapter on vomiting, though I probably shouldn’t have read it while eating lunch.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis, by Lisa Sanders, a doctor who's the consultant for House (I am sure she is not to blame for its inaccuracies, though), is a solid, readable book about... well, exactly what it says on the tin, but with the most attention paid to the physical exam, which according to Sanders is a dying art in America. I still think the best book on the subject is Atul Gawande's Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, which reaches the heights of fine literature, but Sanders's book is informative and worth reading if you're interested in the subject.

Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis

Arthur E. Hertzler's The Horse and Buggy Doctor (Bison Book) is more of general interest, assuming that medical details don't make you turn green and then faint. He wrote it in 1938, looking back on his long career as an American doctor, and the first chapter looks even farther back, to medicine as it was practiced in his boyhood (the 1880s).

This is well worth reading for two reasons: the content is fascinating and eye-opening, even if you already have a decent background in medical history, and Hertzler's style is unique, oddball, literate, grumpy, and vivid. He has a way with deliberately stilted and roundabout phrasing that cracked me up.

To return to the female complaints. One may divide them into two general classes: the female complaints and the male complaints. The former include those due to maladjustments between the biologic and the ethical. Male complaints, on the other hand, are those in which man is the aggravating factor or, maybe, the regressive factor. These are subtle things which only doctors can hope to understand.

...

The more intimate relations between doctor and patient have never before been discussed in print, but I am going to come nearer to doing so than has yet been done. Only an old doctor who has lived with people knows this relationship…. The more nearly the doctor's experience of life has paralleled the patient's before him, the better he is able to understand that patient. The tragedies of literature are silly things; they must be made simple and obvious or else they will not be understood. Shakespeare wrote tragedies out of his imagination, not from experience. They are foolish, because he had not seen life in the raw. Tragedies cannot be written. They are inarticulate.

I wish every parent considering not vaccinating their child was obliged to read the first chapter, in which he relates how common it was for children to die of now-preventable diseases; one family had nine of ten children die of diptheria. He proceeds to explain exactly what death by diptheria looks like. I already knew this, but his description brings it to horrifying life.

Not all of the book is that intense, and much of it is quite funny. If you can bear reading about death and gross procedures, I recommend it.

This seems to be out of print, but Amazon has used copies listed at very cheap prices.
The true story of Sierra Nevada park ranger Randy Morgenstern, who was widely considered to be the best of an elite, though underpaid and underappreciated bunch. Morgenstern knew the mountains like he knew his own hands, and was an expert at a sort of profiling used to figure out where a lost hiker was most likely to be. Then one day he went out on patrol, and vanished without a trace…

If you like books about wilderness survival, you will like this, but if you don’t, this isn’t quite exceptional enough for me to recommend it to people who don’t normally read the genre. It’s solidly well-written, and does a good job of portraying the Sierra Nevada landscape and an excellent one of dramatizing the rangers’ increasingly desperate and mismanaged search for one of their own.

But the story which alternates with that of the search for Morgenstern, that of his life, is significantly less interesting, or at least less interesting to me. Blehm liberally quotes from Morgenstern’s vague, quasi-mystical nature writings, and so I nearly fell on the floor when he also quotes a rejection letter from Wallace Stegner who had the exact same critique I did (“too general, too vague.”)

One half of a very interesting book melded with one half of a mildly interesting one. [Bad username or unknown identity: ”buymeaclue”] would probably enjoy it, though probably with the same caveats.

The Last Season (P.S.)
Surgeon and science writer Atul Gawande’s previous books, Complications (on the role of intuition, the unknown, and other hard to quantify things in the practice of medicine) and Better (on the pursuit of excellence and why we often don’t reach it, focused on by not exclusive to medicine), are two of my favorite nonfiction books. I’ve read them both several times over and highly recommend them. Better in particular has wide-reaching implications and requires no independent interest in medicine.

The Checklist Manifesto, about why checklists are a good idea which can be used in many endeavors, makes an extremely convincing and well-documented case in favor of checklists. But unlike his previous books, which used specific cases to make larger points, this really is a book about checklists.

It would have been of far more general interest if it had been a book about the tension between set routines and individualism, and used checklists as an example of that. Instead, it’s the other way around. By the end of the book I had read the word checklist so often that it reminded me of my experience reading the book about Toni Bentley's ass.

Worth checking out from the library, but not something you’re likely to want to re-read.

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right
Mourning his mother’s death and suffering from midlife crisis, food fanatic Simon Majumdar decides to eat his way around the world for a year. The result is an uneven but always entertaining episodic memoir of his adventures. At worst, it’s perfunctorily written and peppered with national stereotyping (“with typical Latin-American machismo...”) At best, as when he writes about his food-obsessed Welsh-Bengali family or provides precisely detailed snapshots of people he meets on the way, it’s funny and sweet.

He visited a number of places I’m familiar with, giving me that “HI BOB!” feeling one gets when one sees a movie shot in one’s hometown, though he usually went off on some path that didn’t touch on what I expected him to write about: in Santa Cruz he spends the entire trip having Thanksgiving dinner at someone’s house, and in Hong Kong he seeks out obscure restaurants only to invariably find that Anthony Bourdain got there first. (Hate to tell you, Simon, but Anthony Bourdain also visited the yakitori joints in Ueno that you enjoyed so much.) I was amused to note that in Xi’an he too was dragged to the touristy dumpling restaurant that shapes the dumplings into walnuts, geese, goldfish, etc – and since he did not say one word about their flavor, I assume he too was underwhelmed.

It’s not a great food memoir, but it is a fun one.

Eat My Globe: One Year to Go Everywhere and Eat Everything
An extremely readable and fascinating book by a neuroscientist (Ramachandran) and a science writer (Blakeslee), about using case studies of brain-injury patients to examine how the brain works.

Ramachandran’s speculations on the cause of phantom limb pain from amputated limbs produced a cure which works extremely well for some (not all) patients. But considering how intractable the condition usually is, that’s a remarkable achievement. His cure— which succeeded in some cases where medication and surgery failed— consists of a box with a hole cut into it, and a mirror he bought for five dollars…

Even if you’ve read other popular works on the brain and cognition before, this should be of interest to you, as even when it seemed that Ramachandran was going over familiar territory, he went so much more in-depth that even topics I thought I was already well-acquainted with became completely new. A lot of popular science either over-simplifies too much and doesn’t tackle the questions it raises, or else is too technical to be easily followed by a layperson. This book was easy to read but dug into the deeper implications of its topics nearly every time. Ramachandran at times reminded me of This American Life’s Ira Glass in his ability to ask not just the obvious follow-up question, but the much less obvious and more revealing follow-up to the follow-up.

His enthusiasm for his field and the possibility of doing extremely low-tech experiments in it is contagious and charming. (A number of his experiments require nothing more than a human volunteer, a pencil, a table, a box, a mirror, and an undergraduate hiding under the box.) I also enjoyed his sense of humor: he’s evidently friends with Francis Crick of DNA fame, who is apparently a fervent atheist, and uses Crick as an example any time he mentions atheism, as in (from memory), “It would be interesting to see if stimulating the temporal lobe could also cause atheists to experience a sense of oneness with God. Perhaps I should try it on Francis Crick.” I am an atheist myself, and this cracked me up. He also has a hilarious take-down of the more unlikely theories of sociobiologists in the endnotes to one chapter. Don’t neglect to read the endnotes, there’s great stuff in there.

I thought this book was extremely entertaining, thought-provoking, and educational. My one possible warning is his use of the phrase “normal people” (both with and without quotes) to mean people without brain injuries. Given the context, I’m not sure that would be considered pejorative, but I’m mentioning it in case it is. If that’s not a dealbreaker, I highly recommend the book.

View on Amazon: Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
An extremely readable and fascinating book by a neuroscientist (Ramachandran) and a science writer (Blakeslee), about using case studies of brain-injury patients to examine how the brain works.

Ramachandran’s speculations on the cause of phantom limb pain from amputated limbs produced a cure which works extremely well for some (not all) patients. But considering how intractable the condition usually is, that’s a remarkable achievement. His cure— which succeeded in some cases where medication and surgery failed— consists of a box with a hole cut into it, and a mirror he bought for five dollars…

Even if you’ve read other popular works on the brain and cognition before, this should be of interest to you, as even when it seemed that Ramachandran was going over familiar territory, he went so much more in-depth that even topics I thought I was already well-acquainted with became completely new. A lot of popular science either over-simplifies too much and doesn’t tackle the questions it raises, or else is too technical to be easily followed by a layperson. This book was easy to read but dug into the deeper implications of its topics nearly every time. Ramachandran at times reminded me of This American Life’s Ira Glass in his ability to ask not just the obvious follow-up question, but the much less obvious and more revealing follow-up to the follow-up.

His enthusiasm for his field and the possibility of doing extremely low-tech experiments in it is contagious and charming. (A number of his experiments require nothing more than a human volunteer, a pencil, a table, a box, a mirror, and an undergraduate hiding under the box.) I also enjoyed his sense of humor: he’s evidently friends with Francis Crick of DNA fame, who is apparently a fervent atheist, and uses Crick as an example any time he mentions atheism, as in (from memory), “It would be interesting to see if stimulating the temporal lobe could also cause atheists to experience a sense of oneness with God. Perhaps I should try it on Francis Crick.” I am an atheist myself, and this cracked me up. He also has a hilarious take-down of the more unlikely theories of sociobiologists in the endnotes to one chapter. Don’t neglect to read the endnotes, there’s great stuff in there.

I thought this book was extremely entertaining, thought-provoking, and educational. My one possible warning is his use of the phrase “normal people” (both with and without quotes) to mean people without brain injuries. Given the context, I’m not sure that would be considered pejorative, but I’m mentioning it in case it is. If that’s not a dealbreaker, I highly recommend the book.

View on Amazon: Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
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