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
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
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Sep. 8th, 2009 12:26 pm)
The Alpha Box by Annie Dalton. Lonely teenager Asha finds a magic box, and is coached by the Goddesses contained within it to defeat the evil power of the nihilistic rock band, the Four Hoarsemen, who are turning teenagers into depressed zombie groupies (unsurprisingly, few people notice) as the first step in their plan to turn the world over to a flying saucer full of unseen aliens at a huge outdoor concert.

The realistic emotions and character interactions make this less ridiculous and more touching than it sounds.

Dustbin Baby by Jacqueline Wilson. A children’s book by a popular British writer. It’s been fourteen years since the newborn April was found in a dustbin, but she hasn’t remotely come to terms with her ignominious beginning. After a fight with her adopted mother, she sets off to try to connect with her past.

A sweet, poignant problem novel with at least one good surprise and a satisfying conclusion. The flashbacks to April’s childhood are darker than I’d expected, but since we know that things turned out all right for her, it’s probably not too disturbing for younger kids.

Don't Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs. An anthology of true stories of culinary disasters and panic in the kitchen, written by famous (and semi-famous) chefs. Like any theme anthology, some stories are better than others and many are similar to each other, but if the subject matter sounds amusing I can guarantee that it lives up to its theme. I often laughed aloud as I read.

In these stories, chefs are terrorized by rampaging meringues, make 400 French soldiers spit out their coffee, flood a car with gallons of Hollandaise sauce, accidentally contribute to the working of a medical miracle, discover new taste sensations when they drop the foie gras in the chocolate sauce, and (this happens several times) must come up with ingeniously hilarious methods of saving face when they drop or otherwise destroy a wedding cake. Remarkably, there is only one story about a food fight.

Some stories are gross and “This Whole Place is Slithering” is gruesome. Caveat emptor.
Ostensibly a scientific exploration of happiness, Stumbling on Happiness is actually mostly about how bad people are at predicting what will and won’t make them happy, and why. Well-written, entertaining, and reasonably informative. A few thoughtless jokes of political objectionableness did not ruin it for me, though your mileage may vary.

The Wiseman books are both shallow and obvious, though with a few good bits. Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things is similar to Freakonomics – somewhat random essays attempting to explain the hard and soft science behind weird stuff – but in even less depth. Also, if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics, you’re already painfully familiar with much of the material.

The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles is a study of why some people are luckier than others, and how we can increase our luck. I will summarize the total content of the book, thus saving you from having to spend time reading it:

Luck is in the mind of the beholder. People who think they’re lucky are looking on the bright side. Also, they are extroverted and meet more people, thus increasing the chance of lucky chance meetings. If you want to become luckier, look on the bright side and get out more. There you go!

(I can never write that phrase without thinking of Sondheim’s Assassins (2004 Broadway Revival Cast), in which the demented assassin Charles Guiteau goes to his execution singing, “Look on the bright side.” That scene sums up what I believe is a quintessentially American form of toxic optimism. Sure, the mailman won the lottery.)
A collection of essays, many autobiographical. If you’re interested in Amy Tan and writing, this is a must-read. If you dislike her fiction, I hesitate to recommend this; the style and most of the topics not focused on writing are quite similar. I do generally like her fiction and I am interested in writing, so I enjoyed this.

A number of the most powerful and poignant stories focus on her remarkably eventful and often traumatic life, the equally eventful and traumatic life of her mother, and their difficult relationship. (Difficult is putting it mildly: when Tan was a teenager, her mother, who was frequently suicidal, held a cleaver to Tan’s throat.) I hadn’t realized quite how autobiographical some of her fiction was until I read this book.

I also enjoyed most of the pieces on writing. Tan is quite funny about detailing the neurosis-beset life of the writer. In more serious matters, she has several essays about the expectations put on her as a Chinese-American writer (she dislikes the term “writer of color”), both from white people and from people of color. Her essays on the matter are heartfelt and worth reading even if you totally disagree with some or all of her opinions, which are too complex to summarize here.

The last essay, about a mysterious chronic illness she develops which causes a cascade of horrifying symptoms which eventually include hallucinations, is both a compelling medical detective story and a good conclusion to the book, though I was not fond of her attempt to pull in 9/11, which occurred at the same time. (Moral: if no one knows what’s wrong with you and you have bizarre symptoms, online research is the next best thing to Dr. House.)

Like most essay collections, there’s some randomness and a couple of pieces that could have been dropped with no harm to the book. But it’s a strong collection overall.
I was initially put off of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent work of pop sociology by a review that said that he explained the better math scores of Asian countries as compared to European ones by saying that working in rice paddies makes you good at math. Now that I’ve read it, I still don’t buy his rice paddy theory, but the theory itself isn’t quite as dumb and direct as the claim above. I’ll explain what it actually is as a snapshot of the value and drawbacks of the book: some plausible explanations, some poorly supported theories, some mind-blowing anecdotes and analysis, some goofy overreaching.

Gladwell’s theory is that working a rice paddy is more labor-intensive and responsive to individual experimentation than working a wheat field (interesting if true; he provides good evidence in favor of rice, but little against wheat), and that virtually the only factor separating kids and countries which do well at math with kids and countries which don’t is the amount of time and effort put into studying and doing math. The latter claim is very well-supported, especially by the hilariously telling 100% correlation of scores on an international math test with the percentage of questions completed on a long and dull survey handed out at the same time: the kids who are willing to plow through the survey are the kids who do well on the math test, and the kids who get bored and give up on the survey score poorly on the test.

Gladwell then attempts to link the work ethic necessary in rice farming to the work ethic passed down culturally long past the point when many people in the country are farming anything, so that rice farming is a sort of first cause for seeing things like a longer school year as valuable. I still think this is a stretch. But the chapter itself has all sorts of fascinating material— and the fact that my attention was held by math is a testament to Gladwell’s writing.

His thesis is that no one really pulls themselves up by their bootstraps, and that exceptional success depends on advantageous sociological factors and chance as much as it does on merit, and sometimes more. This is probably not a startling idea to anyone here, but some of his individual examples are genuinely eye-opening. I especially liked the first few chapters, on the disquieting intersection of early birthdays and talent tracking, and the crucial ten thousand hours of practice. There’s also a good section on how a number of factors (including the years of their birth and the unintended repurcussions of a particular brand of anti-Semitism!) gave some Jewish lawyers the chance to become legal superstars.

Recommended if you enjoy pop sociology and are willing to read some cultural and other generalizations that may make you tear your hair out.

My favorite works by Gladwell are his magazine articles, which tend to be more in-depth and less prone to sweeping conclusions than his books, and Blink, about the benefits and perils of snap judgments, which has some great material on subconscious prejudices and what can be done to overcome them. And is very entertaining.

Outliers: The Story of Success

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

An excellent, somewhat dense work of nonfiction by a real-life Buckaroo Banzai (in this case, a session musician/music producer turned neuroscientist rather than a rock star/brain surgeon, but close enough) on the science of music.

The first chapter is fairly hard going if, like me, you are unfamiliar with music theory, have never played an instrument, and your last math class was algebra II twenty years ago, especially if you barely passed. He suggests that musicians skip it.

But once you plow through (or skip) that, the rest of the book discusses, in a clear and witty manner, a number of topics that I'd always wondered about, plus lots that never occurred to me: why we associate certain emotions with certain notes and whether or not that's culturally determined, how many hours of practice are required to produce a world-class master in anything (about 10,000), and tons of amazing research from Levitin's own lab on music and how ordinary non-musicians listen to and recall it.

As a delicious bonus, due to his unusual background, he gets to drop in personal anecdotes about Joni Mitchell and Francis Crick.

The book was written with a Western (and primarily American) audience in mind, and the main forms of music it references are Western classical, jazz, and rock. But he does explain enough about cultural variation that even if you're not into any of those genres, you should be able to extrapolate accurately to the music you know.
Due to getting stuck for several hours in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, while the plane supposed to take me to Los Angeles was diverted to Oklahoma lest it be sucked up by a tornado, I was forced to hit the airport bookshop for additional reading material, which is how I obtained this. At the time I thought the author's name was familiar because I'd heard of the unusual premise. Several chapters in I realized that Vincent used to be a particularly annoying columnist for the "LA Times." Oops.

Vincent is a non-transsexual lesbian who decided to disguise herself as a man for a year to find out how the other half lived. She also mentions her long-held fascination with gender and gender roles, but claimed that despite being a tomboy, she never ever ever, no really not ever not once, ever wanted to be a man, and hated almost every minute of pretending to be one. (Except for the times when she male-bonded and realized how wonderful male camaraderie is and how totally different it is from her "friendships" with shallow, back-stabbing women-- one thing that came up a lot is that Vincent's current social circles resemble the movie Mean Girls.)

I would be surprised it living a persona wasn't uncomfortable and disturbing, but there was a point when I wondered if she was protesting too much. Such a crazy-ambitious feat of role-playing and disguise may not be about her deep secret desire to be male, but it's got to be about some deep desire. That really ought to have been explored more.

Curiously, Vincent fails to explore the one group for which she has a genuine control: men of her own social class, race, and similar social circles. (White New York upper-crust intelligentsia, as far as I could tell.) Instead, she penetrates blue-collar bowling leagues, sleazy door-to-door sales companies, a monastery, cheap strip clubs, and an Iron John group. She also dates women, which comes closest to seeing her own life as if she were a straight man.

The reason I pick on this is that the book turns out to be at least as much about class as it is about gender, but Vincent consistently compares poor blue-collar men to rich professional women, and then makes conclusions about gender.

In perhaps the most ridiculous instance of this, she describes the physical state that blue collar men attain after a lifetime of hard labor, stress, and poverty (weather-beaten complexion, callouses, etc) and says that it proves that men and women are inherently and biologically totally different in a way that cannot at all be accounted for by social conditions. This makes no sense whatsoever, as everything she describes, except for the five o'clock shadow and several pounds of muscle, would also be true of women who work similar jobs.

The failure to account for class differences also undermined the conclusions she arrived at, which is that men are not really powerful and priveleged compared to women, because the desperate door-to-door salesmen (etc) she met had unhappy lives. I still do not understand how she reached that conclusion given that the only people more miserable and exploited than the male salesmen were the female salesmen, but there you have it.

Generally, she seemed to cherry-pick for blue-collar or middle-class white Christians in settings in which a certain set of stereotypical male traits are expected or selected for. If she'd broadened her horizons, she might have found large groups of men in cultures (for the broad meaning of the word) in which emotional expressiveness or conversation on subjects other than sports or friendly relationships with women are common and expected.

Many non-WASP cultures do not expect or require men to repress all shows of emotion, or to be painfully inarticulate. (Many if not most brands of Jewish culture, for instance, encourage men to talk, to each other or to women, on many subjects and at great length eloquently.) Cheap strip clubs are an excellent setting if you're looking for men who feel driven to engage in cheap sex. It is unsurprising to find gynophobia and repressed homosexuality in monasteries.

Some of the reportage was good, and the chapter on the bowling league was touching-- she really bonded with those men. I also enjoyed the chapter on iron John, as I've always been curious about what goes on in those groups. The chapter on dating exerted a horrifying, train-wreck fascination.

But again, her conclusions were both obvious and flawed: of course going on dates under false pretences is even more unlikely to give you a fun time than normal dating. Of course women will be pissed off if, after two dates, you inform them that you're not available for a relationship and never were. And of course men who are attending Iron John meetings will be unhappy with social constructions of masculinity. That's like going to AA meetings in the hope of drawing general conclusions about how Americans relate to alcohol.

I don't know what her lesbian dates were like, but getting rejected is not unique to men, and if I can manage to cope with men who cruelly and capriciously withold sex from me by refusing to date or have sex with me, without gaining a murderous hatred of men, I don't see why men can't do the same.

Though Vincent does not seem to be a feminist, reading her book put me in a radical mood. Especially the chapter where she discovers that men hate women because women hold the power to give or withhold sex, so they're constantly being rejected. And also women are bitchy. No wonder men are so angry! No wonder women get raped! It's all because every woman is not automatically available upon demand!

More general conclusions: It's really hard to be a man, much harder than it is to be a woman, and women fail to appreciate that. Women are back-stabbing, boring, bitchy, and have totally unreasonable expectations of men. The genders are so different, biologically and inherently, that they are basically two different species. There are no social advantages to being a man. Dating and marriage is scary and unpleasant for men, and that plus their uncontrollable sex drives means all men either go to nasty strip clubs or want to. Traditional male roles are stifling. (OK, I agree with the last one.)

Well, that was negative. Generally, I disagreed with her politics, and felt that though some of her reportage was good, she consistently drew overly sweeping, unwarranted, and/or obvious conclusions from it.
Walter Jon Williams recommended this non-fiction account of deep sea wreck divers exploring a German U-boat as being far more terrifying than any horror movie, and cited the scene in which a diver reaches for his knife with his left hand instead of his right, and so sets in motion a chain of events which ends in his death.

Walter was absolutely right: this book is scarier than most horror, and more suspenseful than most thrillers. There was one moment, toward the end, when I actually exclaimed aloud, "Noooo!" Though there's some melodramatic phrasing at the beginning, the writing style soon settles down into smooth, unobtrusive clarity. It's one of those stranger than fiction tales, and an extremely satisfying read.

Deep sea wreck divers explore wrecked ships for kicks and souvenirs. It's extremely dangerous hobby, particularly in the early nineties, when they used compressed air instead the now-standard helium-nitrogen-oxygen "trimix." The latter allows you to function normally at great depths; the former means that once you get to the incredibly dangerous wreck, where every move stirs up blinding silt and perhaps knocks down rotted timbers to pin you in place as your air runs out, you are so oxygen-deprived that you are essentially dead drunk and prone to irrational fits of panic or fury. Plus, if you ascend too fast, you will get decompression sickness, or "the bends": the pressure that causes nitrogen to dissolve in your blood in the depth, releases it in large bubbles if you shoot to the surface instead of ascending in slow stages. In minor cases this can still cause excruciating pain; in severe ones, your blood basically turns into soda pop and you die in agony.

As portrayed in the book, deep sea wreck divers are adrenaline junkies, mostly men with something to prove. (To my annoyance, though a couple female divers are mentioned, none are described. I'd have liked to hear more about being a woman in what is clearly a highly male-dominated field.) The various iterations of wreck-diving culture and characters, from the careful technicians to the rowdy frat boys, are vividly depicted.

The story begins in 1991, when some divers find a sunken U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. There is no record of any U-boat ever having been sunk there, so they begin exploring it to find out which one it is. This proves to be way, way, way more of a challenge than any of them ever expected: all identifying marks have worn away, and the submarine is a death-trap which, over the course of several years, claims the lives of several divers. Two of the divers become obsessed with figuring out its identity, and alternate increasingly dangerous dives with historical research that takes them digging through US Naval records and interviewing German U-boat commanders. The historical mystery ends up being just as fascinating and suspenseful as the diving itself, and has more surprising twists than an Agatha Christie. From the simple story of a dangerous exploration, the book evolves into a look at the uncertainty of the historical record, the limits of obsession, and the commonalities between men at war and men at play. An excellent, gripping book.
So, after the disappointment of City of Falling Angels, I am looking for recommendations for nonfiction about modern cities (ideally) or modern non-urban locations.

I don't mean socio-political analyses, like Mike Davis's City of Quartz (Los Angeles), but more novelistic narrative nonfiction, maybe organized around a central event, like the murder in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or maybe just an account of living somewhere, like Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun (Tuscany) or William Dalrymple's City of Djinns (New Delhi).

Cities I am particularly interested in reading about are the ones I've visited: Los Angeles, New York City, Santa Cruz, Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa, New Delhi, Bombay (I should probably get Maximum City, right?), Thiruvananthapuram, Pune, Jaipur, Venice, Rome, London, and Madrid.

Amazingly enough, I cannot recall ever having read a book of that sort about Los Angeles, though I'm sure that many, many, many, have been written, and some of them are probably even good. That is, I have read narrative nonfiction set in LA, like Homicide Special, but it's been much more narrowly focused, like on a homicide squad or a courthouse, and hasn't expanded to touch on life in the city in general.

Again, the requirements are narrative rather than analytical, nonfiction rather than fiction, contemporary (or at least partially contemporary-- lots of these involve both the past and present of a city) and preferably with a focus on solid detail, like characters, food, architecture, etc. I want to know what the air smells like in the summer, where cops go to eat lunch, and whether the the roads are paved with asphalt or square black cobblestones the size of a small woman's palm.

Feel free to link to this-- I'd love to get a wide range of responses and recommendations.

ETA bonus question: What nonfiction book do you think is the best, or is widely considered to be the definitive work about Los Angeles? (If you nominate You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again or any other relatively modern Hollywood tell-all, please also include a non-Hollywood-focused nominee.)

Ideally, I'd like to read some books that are focused on neither Hollywood nor gangs.
Jamling Norgay is the son of Tenzing Norgay, who was, with Edmond Hillary, the first person to climb Mt. Everest. Like many famous men, his children found him awesome and distant, both literally and emotionally, and a hard act to live up to. Jamling Norgay was determined to climb Everest as well, a desire that only increased after his father's death; at that point, Jamling Norgay was as eager to commune with his father by walking in his footsteps as he was to match his exploit.

The book is an account of how he climbed Mt. Everest with the IMAX movie expedition, at the same time that a number of people were killed-- a time also chronicled by at least three other books that I know of. The IMAX expedition was not directly involved in the disaster, but gave up its own vital supplies and time in an effort to help out. (This was recounted in the other books as well.)

This is, unfortunately, an "as told to" account, a genre which has not once to my recollection produced a well-written book. The first page is particularly awful. However, there is enough interest in the subject matter to overcome the prose. Jamling Norgay is a Sherpa, and has strong ties to Tibet, India, and Nepal. The hired Sherpas have taken a disproportionate share of casualties on Everest trips and the non-Sherpa climbers get most of the glory; also, the Sherpas tend to climb because it pays better than the other jobs that are available, which is not to say that in any way it pays well enough considering the danger involved.

Norgay is a Sherpa by birth and culture, but climbs as a member of a team, not as hired help; this gives him even more cultural conflicts that he already got handed to him by his mixed heritage, his cross-continental upbringing, and his father's position. Norgay is forced to think a lot more than most Everest climbers about East vs. West, cultural conflicts and imperialism, religion and spirituality, the legacy of colonialism, and so forth, and that makes the book interesting enough to overcome Broughton Coburn's ham-handed approach to the English language.

If you read this book, it will tell you more about Sherpas in five pages than you will understand from reading any five other Everest accounts in entirety. And just that says a lot about the relationship of the Sherpas and most non-Sherpa climbers. (Jamling Norgay makes a good case that Edmond Hillary was an exception.)

I have not yet read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but I was not much impressed with City of Falling Angels, which is a perfect contrast to Touching my Father's Soul in that the prose is lovely and it's about a fascinating place and culture, but by focusing exclusively on the fabulously wealthy upper crust of society, it left out most of what I was interested in.

Berendt goes to Venice after the grand opera house, the Fenice, burns down, and decides to write a book about Venetians, rather than the more common accounts focusing on visitors to the city. He has some brilliant and funny scenes depicting eccentrics, like a rat poison magnate and a man who insists that contracts be signed with the print of the right big toe, but virtually everyone he focuses on is some sort of excruciatingly wealthy socialite. Halfway through the book, I was overcome with the impulse to join the Communist Party.

I had wanted to read about day to day life in Venice, but I had been thinking more of the day to day lives of fruit sellers and fake handbag sellers and gondoliers and artisans and restaurant owners, not gazillionaire expats and doges. There was also not much description of scenery or food or the smell of the water, nor, unless I missed it (I admit that I started skimming heavily) did Berendt once eat a cup or cone of gelato. Not bad, exactly, but not at all what I was looking for.


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