Nonfiction about a brief but fateful encounter between a German ace fighter pilot and an American bomber crew, in mid-air; forty years later, the two pilots met up again. The book started out as a magazine article, and I bet it was a terrific one. It’s a great story and unlike many WWII stories, this one is about people’s best behavior rather than their worst.

As you may guess from the summary, the actual incident, though amazing, lasted about twenty minutes and is recounted in about ten pages. So most of the book is the story of the German fighter pilot, Franz Stigler, plus a much smaller amount about the American crew. (Stigler was not a Nazi and in fact came from an anti-Nazi family. I know that it would have been convenient for him to claim to have been secretly anti-Nazi after the fact, but given what he was witnessed to have done, I believe it.)

The book is is interesting if you have an interest in the subject matter, but doesn't really rise above that. The best parts, apart from the encounter itself, were the early sections on the culture and training of the German pilots. One detail that struck me (not just that it happened, but that Stigler actually told someone about it), which was that dogfighting was so terrifying that pilots regularly landed with wet pants. I'd heard that about the first time, but not that it wasn't just the first time. Just imagine doing that for months on end. And knowing that you're not likely to do it for years on end because the lifespan of a fighter pilot is probably not that long.

If you just want to know what happened in mid-air over Germany, in December, 1943, click on the cut. Read more... )

Does anyone have any recommendations for other books on pilots, fighters or otherwise, historical or otherwise? I've read Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and really enjoyed the combination of desperate survival narrative with odes to the joy of flight. I think I'd be more interested in memoirs by pilots than biographies about them.

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II
Illness memoirs, like child abuse memoirs, have a number of pitfalls. They’re about depressing topics and so are hard not to depress the reader, they’re often by people who don’t write professionally and so are not well-written, and as the subject is inherently self-focused, they can very easily come across as self-absorbed. Even if they manage to avoid those problems, many are valuable works of self-help, self-revelation, community-building, comfort, and calls to action… but are not interesting to someone who mostly wants to read a good book.

This one is a good book.

Julie Rehmeyer, a mathematician and science writer, chronicles how chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME) crept up on her until her entire life had vanished and she was frequently completely paralyzed. While she desperately tried to find a treatment, she instead encountered an array of quacks, snake oil salesmen, nice but useless therapists, nice but useless doctors, a patients’ community full of apparent crackpots, and medical literature claiming that it was a mental illness caused by, essentially, being lazy and whiny.

In desperation, Rehmeyer finally starts listening to some of the apparent crackpots… and when she applies her scientific training to their ideas, she finds that stripped of the bizarre terminology and excessive exclamation points, they sound surprisingly plausible. With her entire life at a dead end and nothing left to lose, she reluctantly decides to try a treatment which is both radical and distinctly woo-woo sounding.

And it works.

But unlike every other “How I cured/treated my illness by some weird method” memoir, the story doesn’t end there. Instead, she not only researches and theorizes about how and why it might have worked, she interviews scientists and doctors, and even arranges to do a double-blind experiment on herself to see if it’s a real cause of her symptoms or the placebo effect. I cannot applaud this too much. (I was unsurprised to find that every article I read on her book had a comment section claiming that her results were due to the placebo effect.)

Lots of people have suggested that I write about my own horrendous illness, crowd-sourced treatment, and jaw-dropping parade of asshole doctors who told me I was lying, a hypochondriac, or crazy. While you’re waiting… read this book instead. Though it’s not the same disease and she was treated WAY better by doctors, a lot of her experience with being beaten over the head with bad science and diagnoses based purely on sexism was very similar. As is much of her righteous rage. I am way more ragey and less accepting than she is. But still. It’s similar.

Overall, this is a well-written and honest memoir that shines a welcome light on a poorly-understood illness. Rehmeyer's perspective as a science writer provides for clarity, justifiable anger, and humor as she takes apart the morass of bad science, victim-blaming, and snake oil that surrounds chronic fatigue syndrome. It's informative without being dry, easy to read and hard to put down.

Through the Shadowlands: A Science Writer's Odyssey into an Illness Science Doesn't Understand
A readable, gripping, informative, and convincing report on the War On Drugs. Hari covers its despicable history starting in the 1930s (created by a sort of coalition of racist politicians and gangsters eager to profit), its horrific results (millions of murders, overdoses, and lives needlessly destroyed), the actual science and psychology of addiction (not what we're told, at least in the US), and a portrait of the few places that have been able to try decriminalization and legalization, despite massive pressure not to do so (their drug problems universally get better, not worse.)

I knew the broad outlines of this story, but not the details, so this book was very educational for me. The part I knew best was about how addiction really works; I can't vouch for the rest of the material, but everything he said about research on addiction matches what I know. I have some arguments or different perspectives on some of his conclusions, but not with his facts. So even if you know a fair amount about the subject already, it's still very much worth reading.

I highly recommend this if you can deal with absolutely horrific stuff in the first half, which is about the War On Drugs and is wall-to-wall hideous injustices, tragic deaths, and gruesome violence. If not, you could just read the second half, which is about addiction and how a few places are dealing with drugs in a compassionate and sane manner.

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
The memoir of a neurosurgeon, focusing on how dangerous it is for patients, how it's often a complete gamble whether surgery will cure them or kill them (or paralyze them, or leave them in a permanent coma, etc), and how much that gets to the author.

If a book which is largely about the doctor's feelings as opposed to those of his patients, when the catastrophe happened to them rather than to him, annoys you on principle, don't read this. Personally, I liked knowing that there is at least one more doctor in the world who cares what happens to his patients, even if the caring is composed in equal parts of compassion, professional pride, and fear of being publicly shamed.

As that suggests, it's a memoir dedicated to saying how he really feels, whether that's elevated or petty. He spends quite a bit of time on justifiable raging over his hospital's incredibly terrible computer system, which keeps locking up the password so no one can see the scans they need to operate (hilariously, at one point some equally angry person sets the password to fuckyou47 (and then no one can remember if it's 47, 46, 45...), the lack of beds that mean that patients are deprived of food and water all day pending surgery and then the surgery gets canceled, and all the other myriad ways in which health care in England now sucks. (It still sounds about a million times better than health care in America.)

He talks frankly about his mistakes as a surgeon, some of which killed people. This is really a taboo topic, and my hat is off to him for going there.

There's also a lot of fascinating anecdotes about individual patients, and some beautiful writing about surgery, the physical structure of the brain, and the constant paradox of how that one squishy organ is the source of everything that makes us human and able to do things like write books, all of which is a source of wonder to him and one which he conveys very well.

It's definitely worth reading if the subject interests you, but it doesn't quite rise to the level of medical writing that I'd recommend whether the subject interests you or not. (My nominees for the latter are Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks, and James Herriot.)

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery
Explanation on FMK tag if you missed it. Please feel free to discuss your vote in comments.

Poll #18446 FMK # 3: Drugs, Deserts, and the Devil
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 60


The Black Arts, by Richard Cavendish. A history of black magic from 1968. Normally I would think this is total bullshit but it does have footnotes and a bibliography.

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21 (42.0%)

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5 (10.0%)

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24 (48.0%)

Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari. A history of the US War on Drugs, starting from the death of Billie Holiday. Sounds like it might have a lot of info I didn't already know. By an award-winning British journalist, so probably good; probably also incredibly depressing.

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16 (30.2%)

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20 (37.7%)

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17 (32.1%)

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. Classic book from 1968 on being a park ranger in Utah; nature writing + politics, I assume. I'll be curious if it's aged well.

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27 (52.9%)

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14 (27.5%)

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10 (19.6%)

Do No Harm, by Henry Marsh. Memoir of a brain surgeon. I really liked some articles I read by him. Unlike the stereotype of surgeons, he seemed humble and compassionate.

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34 (66.7%)

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15 (29.4%)

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2 (3.9%)

A Higher Call, by Adam Makos. Nonfiction about an encounter between two fighter pilots, an American and a German, during WWII. I'm assuming it went a lot farther than one encounter, and no, I don't mean THAT sort of encounter.

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18 (35.3%)

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15 (29.4%)

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18 (35.3%)

A Voyage Long and Strange, by Tony Horwitz. The history of America interspersed with Horowitz's road trip to try re-enactments, go down the Mississippi on a canoe, etc. I've enjoyed some of Horowitz's books and found others forgettable.

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25 (49.0%)

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6 (11.8%)

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20 (39.2%)

Soldiers of the Night, by David Schoenbrun. A history of the French Resistance. Back cover mentions "the bilingual, bisexual American who executed Nazis and collaborators with an ice pick or his bare hands" and "dear little old ladies who became master thieves."

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33 (61.1%)

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18 (33.3%)

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3 (5.6%)

An account of the making of Tommy Wiseau’s cult classic terrible movie, The Room, by the leading actor, who was also Tommy’s roommate, Tommy’s friend, and one of Tommy’s five credited assistants on The Room, two of whom never appeared on the set and one of whom was dead.

You can get a sense of The Room by watching this thirteen second clip: the unfathomable choice to shoot on unconvincing green screen in a parking lot rather than use the actual roof or studio they had available, Wiseau’s peculiar costume (chosen by himself) and even more peculiar line delivery (“I did not hit her, I did nawwwt! Oh hai Mark”), and most peculiar of all, Wiseau’s acting, which goes beyond mere woodenness to give the impression of an alien or robot attempting to imitate one of those strange “human” creatures.

Those thirteen seconds, Sestero tells us, took three hours to shoot due to Wiseau’s inability to walk, talk, hit his mark, or emerge from the Port-A-Potty-like outhouse without whacking his head.

The Disaster Artist is both an account of the making of a world-class bad movie and a character study of the world-class oddball who created it:

Even today, a decade later, I still can’t unsee Tommy’s outfit: nighttime sunglasses, a dark blazer as loose and baggy as rain gear, sand-colored cargo pants with pockets filled to capacity (was he smuggling potatoes?), a white tank top, clunky Frankenstein combat boots, and two belts. Yes, two belts. The first belt was at home in its loops; the second draped down in back to cup Tommy’s backside, which was, he always claimed, the point: “It keeps my ass up. Plus it feels good.”

Sestero may be a decent actor when not directed by Tommy Wiseau, but based on his lack of other credits, I suspect he’s a much better writer. His prose is a pleasure to read, and his depiction of the doom-laden hilarity of the making of a truly terrible movie is dead-on.

Tommy Wiseau is a strange, mysterious, lonely person who won’t say where he came from or how old he is, and has apparently unlimited funds. He connects with Sestero in a relationship that starts off casual and ends up taking over his life.

Sestero is a struggling actor who is inspired by Wiseau’s ability to be totally himself (he has pens printed with “Wiseau’s Planet,” which he may have beamed down from; that would explain a lot); Wiseau seems to be attempting to figure out human interactions by studying the one person willing to be his friend, with a side of spooky fixation a la The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s all fun and games until Sestero is lying awake and seething at 4:00 AM while Wiseau is hanging upside down like a bat from the pull-up bar he installed on the door to Sestero’s room.

I tried to imagine Tommy's mind from the inside out. I saw burning forests, blind alleys, volcanoes in the desert, city streets that plunged into the ocean, barricades everywhere, and all of it lit in the deep-cherry light of emergency.

The book is dead-on about the way you can slip into a friendship with someone you like at first, who then reveals more and more clingy weirdness until you suddenly wake up wondering how the hell you put up with it for so long and run for the hills. Once Sestero is no longer rooming with Wiseau, he’s more able to appreciate Wiseau’s peculiar brand of charm. Which does exist, but is best enjoyed from a distance.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made (currently $1.99 at Amazon).
This is the memoir of the guy who went climbing in an isolated part of Colorado without telling anyone where he was going, had an 800 lb boulder fall on his hand, and was trapped in a narrow canyon for six days with one day’s worth of food and water before he finally saved his life by amputating his arm with his multi-purpose tool, then climbing out and hiking for miles.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I saw this book when it came out, but never picked it up as I assumed that it would be a poorly-written “as told to” with a magazine article’s worth of content telling the story I bought the book for plus a book’s worth of boring padding about where he grew up, who he dated in college, etc. rmc28, who gave it to me, assured me that it was not that. She was correct. Thank you very much! It is indeed very good and I liked it a lot.

I was pleasantly surprised by what a good writer he is. He’s also, at times, a genuinely original thinker. He was a mechanical engineer, and he didn’t just sit there under the boulder, he devised several MacGyver-esque mechanical solutions to get himself out, including a remarkable system of ropes engineered to try to lift the boulder off his arm. They didn’t work due to 800 lb boulder vs. ropes without pulleys operated by one man stuck in one position and only able to use one hand, but it was one hell of a good try and makes for fascinating reading.

This originality comes through in other places too, like when he speculates that the “life review” memories that sometimes flash through people’s minds in extremis are a last-resort backup system to fight-flight-freeze, and are there to provide motivation to make one final effort for survival on behalf of their loved ones or their possible future, when otherwise people might just give up and die. I never thought of it that way before, but it’s a fascinating idea and he convinced me.

The only point where the book falls flat is at the very end, where he visibly sees the end in sight and rushes through “Recovery sucked but I was back rock-climbing two months post-amputation and I went on Letterman and my family is awesome and I learned important life lessons from the whole thing, bye!” in about two pages.

Otherwise, it’s a well-constructed, thoughtful, page-turning read, with lots of suspense and surprises. If all you know is the news accounts, there was a lot left out; at least, there was a lot that I hadn’t known. For instance, why he waited so long to cut off his arm; it turns out that the obstacles went way beyond the obvious and into seemingly not even being physically possible, as did how/why he finally did it.

Ralston can also be pretty funny, sometimes in a dark way but also more casually. There’s some beautiful nature descriptions. The depiction of how one’s mind works under imminent but prolonged threat of death is extremely well-depicted and absolutely accurate to my own experience and what I’ve heard from others. If this isn’t something you’ve experienced yourself but you want to write about it, his book would be an excellent resource.

Obviously, it contains an account of an amputation (not that long but quite vivid). Also a color photo (easy to avoid if you read in paper copy— it’s toward the end of the second photo section).

Getting back to the original news story, I suspect that a lot of people had the same two thoughts I did when it first came out: “Holy shit, that guy is hardcore,” and “Why the hell didn’t he leave a note saying where he was going?”

People who enjoy risk for its own sake tend to divide into two groups. There are the ones who take meticulous precautions to decrease the risks that they can control, and spend a lot of time contemplating “What should I do if…?” so when they need to take action on a split-second’s notice, they won’t waste precious time thinking, “What should I do?” or rush into foolhardy action.

Those types of people, by which I mean me, find it very annoying when non-risk-takers call them reckless, because in their minds, they are the opposite of reckless. When they hear “reckless,” they don’t think of NASCAR racers or bomb defusers. They think of Aron Ralston. Not because of the boulder, which could have happened to anyone. Because he didn’t leave a note.

The other type of risk-taker is impulsive, doesn’t take extensive (or sometimes even basic) precautions, and trusts in their skills and strength to get them out of trouble. At best, they’re jaw-droppingly badass; at worst, they’re living out their own personal Jackass. Based on his own book, this is indeed Aron Ralston. At least, it was at the point when the boulder fell on his hand. (He becomes much more level-headed once it is literally impossible to not spend some time sitting and thinking.)

When I first heard his story on the news, after my first uncharitable thought, I figured maybe he’d gotten lost and people were searching the wrong area, or he normally told someone where he was going but just hadn’t that one time. Nope, it was exactly like it sounded like: he went climbing in a dangerous and extremely isolated area alone, without telling anyone where he was going. Moreover, getting trapped with no one knowing where to search for him (or even when he was supposed to be back) was not an isolated incident, but the latest and most dramatic of a series of wilderness accidents either caused or exacerbated by his own actions.

But here’s what makes his book interesting: I’m just repeating what he says himself. Without either bragging or breast-beating, he recounts his history of recklessness, how he kept getting into accidents which he was then able to extricate himself from because he really was strong and brave and skilled, and how that reinforced his belief that he could do anything and get himself out of anything.

To write a good memoir, you have to let go of the desire to make people like you, and be honest about yourself to the best of your ability. Ralston’s memoir feels very honest. He was a bit of a privileged hipster dude who did a lot of reckless stuff, some of which affected others as well as himself, and kept on doing it out of ego and a lack of belief in his own mortality. But he’s aware of that dynamic. And that’s a big part of what makes his memoir, which cuts back and forth from the bottom of the slot canyon to his life up to that point, unified and compelling rather than padded and dull. It’s not a random collection of anecdotes, it’s a character portrait leading up to the ultimate in-character story.

Back to those two types of risk-takers, death by stupidity is one of my ultimate horrors. I have never doubted my mortality. I totally believe that the world has teeth. Death is inevitable, but I don’t want to meet it thinking, “Why the hell didn’t I leave a note?” I take precautions largely so when I do, I’ll at least be able to think, “This could have happened to anyone.” If my car gets trapped in the bomb zone (this has actually happened), I want to be able to say, “I underestimated how far that was likely to extend, next time I’ll park farther away, but it was an easy mistake to make and the majority of us made it, including our team leader.”

But what’s that really about? Ego. I want to feel good and look good to others (as opposed to wanting to be liked), just in a different way from the reckless kind. I want people to think, “She went in with her eyes open and did everything right, sometimes life just hands you the short straw.” Ralston wanted people to think, “Man, what a badass, that guy lived to the fullest and followed his dreams without fear.” Neither of us were motivated to avoid the slot canyon and the boulder, we were motivated to avoid thinking badly of ourselves and imagining others thinking badly of us once we were sitting at the bottom. We just had different ideas of “badly.”

But that’s not why he was climbing mountains and I was going to crime scenes, it’s just how we approached the question of personal risk. The actual “why” was how it all felt to him, and that sounds a lot like how it all felt to me. He liked adrenaline, he liked nature, he liked using his body skillfully and pushing it to the limits, and he liked being the guy who lived dangerously. He was doing some stuff to show off, but that was mostly the careless parts; climbing itself was something he did because he loved doing it.

It’s hard to feel lucky in more than a very abstract way when you’re in the bottom of a canyon with a boulder on your hand. But there’s worse things to regret than not leaving a note. He could have never climbed at all, and kept his hand and skipped the trauma. But then he would have skipped his entire life.

No matter how hard we imagine it and wish they would, God and the Devil never come down to offer us a deal: your life if you devote the rest of it to good works and always leave a note, your life for your right hand, a takeback on the entire boulder incident if you also take back all the climbing you ever did. In real life, all we can do is evaluate what we would have chosen if there had actually been a choice. It always seems to come down to your actual life with the worst parts included, or an entirely different one with both the worst and the best parts left out. Ralston says he’d have taken the life he did live, exactly as it was.

I believe him. He still climbs.
A friend of mine once had a very lavish birthday party for which she hired a professional magician. I was a little skeptical, as I have never much enjoyed stage magic. It usually strikes me as a bit cheesy or dull, not to mention repetitive. Once you've seen one card guessed and one thing vanished, you've seen the whole show; the rest is just variations.

This guy, whose name I forget but will ETA in if I figure it out, was different. His tricks were still variations on tricks I'd seen before. But his performance was wonderful and his persona was like nothing I'd seen before. It was all based on understatement and faith in the audience to appreciate the artistry of competence and skill.

He didn't make dumb jokes or big promises. He wore a slightly old-school-looking dapper suit. He had beautiful hands and moved in the precise, no-motion-wasted, polished manner of a martial artist or open kitchen chef or Olympic gymnast. Every time he moved, you could see the thousands of hours he had to have spent doing and re-doing that exact movement until it looked effortless and was perfect. He embodied "in the moment."

I don't recall his exact tricks, though I do remember that they were clever and done with charm, sometimes funny (in an understated way), sometimes "how the hell did he do that?" We all gasped and laughed and were enchanted. But the main enchantment was watching an incredible craftsman at work. He didn't brag; he didn't have to. His skill was evident. He could have been a carpenter, and we'd have been just as blown away watching him join wood... perfectly. And that was his persona: the craftsman.

I don't think it was an accident that he was performing for a bunch of Hollywood professionals in Los Angeles, and that he also worked at the Magic Castle, which is where magicians go to see each other perform. Whatever else you can say about Hollywood, it appreciates the effort and difficulty of making things look effortless. It was the perfect match of performer and audience, and I don't know if he, or that persona anyway, would have worked elsewhere.

I realized then that stage magic isn't about the tricks at all. It's about the performer and the performance. And the audience. All else aside, that guy's "Watch me flick one finger perfectly" deal would have been literally impossible to do in a large arena. We were in a small room with the farthest person no more than 30 feet away from the front row. Any bigger, and you wouldn't have been able to see what made him great.

I told him afterward that he'd done the first magic show I'd enjoyed at all, and that I'd not only enjoyed it, I'd loved it. I tried to explain why; hopefully it made sense. He did seem sincerely pleased. In an understated way.

Hiding the Elephant makes a similar point about performance and audience vs. tricks. But the book is at least 50% about the tricks. It's nonfiction on American stage magicians and their tricks in the 1800s (Houdini’s time), written by a modern designer of magic illusions who is not a performer himself. Interesting perspective, mixed execution.

He says from the start that while he’ll explain how some tricks are done, he’s not going to spill secrets on anything that hasn’t been previously detailed in print, though some of his sources are not well-known. He does, however, detail some original research he did into how Houdini made an elephant vanish onstage— a trick which impressed other magicians more than the audience, as Houdini’s showmanship as an illusionist was lousy compared with his dramatic skills as an escape artist.

Each chapter begins with him discussing some concept of magic, often couched in autobiography, which leads in to his chapter on a specific historic magician. These intros are beautifully written and fascinating. The historical material is noticeably more dryly written and often quite technical. It turns out that most magic tricks of that era were indeed done with mirrors aided by elaborate stage tech. If you care about the details, he explains many of them with diagrams and careful explications of the physics, engineering, and math which create the illusions. I read a lot of the book thinking, “Mia Lee would love this.”

If the whole book was like the chapter intros, I would have loved it too. If there had been more focus on the magicians’ personalities and the cultural factors playing into stage magic, and less on technicalities, I would have liked it more. There was a reasonable amount on the former (Houdini comes across as a real jerk), enough so that some chapters were moderately juicy reading, but ultimately the book felt much more bloodless than I expected when I began.

I suspect there are histories of that era of stage magic I would like better, but I don’t know which they are. It isn’t a subject I have that much inherent interest in. On the other hand, it did inspire me to re-watch The Prestige, and that was every bit as good as I remembered.

Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear
Barbara Ehrenreich rips toxic positivity a well-deserved new one in this much-needed but unfortunately poorly organized book surveying the origins, bizarre applications, and downside of the American obsession with positive thinking.

The first chapter is about how her diagnosis with breast cancer lands her in a strange new world of enforced positivity and a weird, mutant, and extremely pink version of feminist femininity.

She clearly traces the journey from breast cancer being an unspeakable and hidden doom to how genuinely needed efforts to get it more funding and make it seem less of a shameful death sentence went off-kilter in some very strange ways. For instance, support groups (needed; very helpful to many women) get so obsessed with the idea that positivity is essential to survival that they refuse to allow women to express any negative emotions, especially anger, for fear that they will literally kill them; one of Ehrenreich's ends up ostracizing a dying woman for being angry and depressed.

As Ehrenreich points out, actual research on the effect of positive thinking on illness outcomes is complicated at best. Just to start with, many studies don't actually say what people think they say, and "positive thinking" is extremely hard to measure. And then there's the whole issue of correlation vs. causation: the patients who were more positive might have felt more positive because their illness was less severe, they had better medical support, etc, while the more negative patients might have had worse symptoms, couldn't tolerate the treatment, etc. So it might not be that positive thinking causes better outcomes, but rather that people who were going to have better outcomes anyway are more likely to be positive. And so forth.

And even if positive thinking really does make it that fraction more likely that you'll live longer (even the best-crafted studies don't show large differences), can positivity be forced? If it works at all (it may not) does it work if it's forced, or does it have to be sincere? Does telling people they need to smile or they'll die produce the sincere happiness that's supposedly needed. Or is it more healthy to feel and express the emotions you sincerely feel, even if they're not positive?

And how come, out of all the illness-based positivity hammering, it comes down hardest on a disease primarily affecting women? Could it be that "smile, smile, smile, look on the bright side, use the opportunity to bond with your loved ones, and whatever you do, don't be angry" is a message that American women get anyway?

Ehrenreich's righteous fury burns through this chapter, fueling a killer takedown of bad science, not-actually-feminism, and cruelty disguised as kindness. It was brilliant and if she'd written the whole book on that, it would have been stunning. Also, there is definitely enough material for a book's worth.

The rest of the book unfortunately leaves the subject of breast cancer and, in most cases, illness behind to first explore a possible root cause of the whole positivity movement in the US, then devote a chapter each to various idiotic and rage-making applications. It was interesting but didn't live up to the beginning. Unless I missed it, the US is really overdue for a current version of something like Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Oct. 27th, 2016 01:15 pm)
Mary Roach’s schtick is breezy, quirky science/history of science nonfiction on odd, often gross subjects (corpses (Stiff), life after death (Spook), digestion (Gulp), in which her investigation is part of the story. Also one-word titles. Her best book, on space exploration (Packing for Mars) is the only one without a one-word title; it’s her funniest, especially the memorably gross chapters on bathing or rather not bathing (NASA’s experiment on exactly how long it takes for your underwear to rot off feels more sadistic than their chimp experiments), going to the bathroom (EWWW), and food (at one point, created by veterinarians until the astronauts rebelled at eating kibble.)

In general, her books are fun but suffer from a lack of depth; she frequently raises interesting questions and then either fails to explore or fails to write about the answers. This is most noticeable when you happen to know something about the subject, which is why Bonk, on the history of sex research, was particularly unmemorable to me.

Grunt is a mid-level Mary Roach book. I know something but not tons about the subject (the science of less-written aspects of war, such as uniforms, stink bombs, shark repellant and vehicular safety), so it was reasonably informative and generally engrossing. In contrast to NASA, which was hilariously uptight about its image and in a perpetual state of horror at Roach’s questions about zero-gravity sex and astronaut toilets, the US military was surprisingly enthusiastic about letting her write about the gross stuff. As a result, she got access to submarines, labs, hospitals, and all sorts of trainings. This part was much more interesting to me than the military history parts, which I generally already knew about.

But the issue of “go deeper” and “and then what?” remained. For example, she mentions that uniforms need to look cool because soldiers won’t wear critical items if they make them look like dweebs. She reports one unintended result of this, which is that the Navy got blue camouflage; when she finally found a Navy commander willing to comment on the purpose of this, he dryly remarked, “It’s so if anyone falls overboard we won’t be able to find them.” And that is the sum total of her reporting on that issue.

To me, this is a fascinating topic that could have been a chapter all by itself. Something she doesn’t mention but which I’ve read about elsewhere is that in a recent war US soldiers were getting a lot of eye injuries due to failure to wear eye protection. When asked, they said it made them look stupid. The Army called in Rayban to consult in designing cooler eyewear, and eye injuries went down.

How did Rayban define cool when designing military hardware? Is it even true that cool value is a significant factor in gear-wearing compliance? Did the dorky eyewear also have some more significant drawback, such as limiting vision? What would soldiers say if you got them in a real conversation over exactly what they’re thinking when they set aside their protective gear, the meaning and importance of coolness, the value of safety, and whether any of this relates to why they’re in the military at all?

The book doesn’t get into any of these questions, instead focusing, in the clothing chapter, on whether bomb-proof underwear exists (not really, but you can design undies to reduce infection in case of below-undie blast injuries) and how uniforms are safety-tested. Interesting stuff, but I’d have preferred more depth and detail. And that was my feeling about the entire book.

A book on war and specifically on the US military in a time of war has some implicit questions, namely “Is it all worth it?” and “What exactly is the point of all this?” Roach doesn’t address these questions explicitly, though the content of some chapters brings them to the reader’s mind, until the very last paragraph, where she does so with pointedness and grace. But it’s literally one paragraph. In Packing on Mars, those questions were central to the book and she asked them of a number of people she spoke to. They’re what gave that book the depth that’s missing from her others. Those are touchy issues in a military context, but they’re touchy at NASA too given that astronauts do die and the space program is constantly at risk of cancellation.

I doubt very much that Roach was banned from asking those questions while she researched this book. Maybe she thought they were too sensitive or people would shut down if she asked or she did ask but ended up deciding the answers would make her book too political for a science book. Who knows. But I wish the larger questions were more present. It might have taken the book from “worthwhile if the subject interests you” to “excellent nonfiction of general interest to anyone who can take the content.”

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Before this becomes all Stephen King, all the time, I thought I'd do some quick write-ups of nonfiction I read a while back. All of these are survival stories of plane crashes. I am putting them in order of quality, from best to worst.

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. A meticulously researched and very readable account of the plane crash in a corn field fictionalized in Peter Weir's haunting movie Fearless. Gonzales (author of the fantastic Deep Survival) tells a gripping story of tragedy and heroism, of chance and courage and survival. I ended up skipping the chapter which gets into overly technical details of the exact cause of the mechanical failure that caused the crash, but otherwise it's a very well-done book about a tragedy that could have been so much worse.

About a third of the passengers died; if not for the quick thinking of the pilots (including one flying as a passenger who got recruited to help out), probably everyone would have; if not for their decision to try to land in a cornfield at great risk to their lives, probably people would have been killed on the ground. There are also a number of individual rescues, plus a fascinating account of the emergency response on the ground.

The book has a haunting quality, not just because of the deaths but because of the strangeness of the incident; many passengers found themselves lost in a cornfield, with the plane invisible, as if they'd been transported to another world. And like all large-scale incidents, some questions will never be answered. One man remembers a woman with perfect clarity, but no woman matching that description was on the flight. This is the crash where a man climbed back into the burning, smoke-filled plane to save a baby, whom he miraculously found unhurt in a luggage compartment. I knew that part, but there's a heartbreaking sequel that I didn't know: the baby girl committed suicide at the age of fifteen. No one knows why, or if the crash had anything to do with it.

Highly recommended, if you like that kind of thing and you're not feeling emotionally fragile.

81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness, by Brian Murphy is the story of Leon Crane, a WWII test pilot who was the sole survivor of a crash in Alaska, and made his way back to safety in 81 days despite virtually no supplies or wilderness training, through a combination of grit, intelligence, and some incredibly good luck involving where he crashed - even ten miles in any other direction might have led him to miss something without which he would have been very unlikely to survive.

This is biography, not memoir, and is somewhat hampered by Crane's reluctance to talk about what happened, apparently not due to trauma but to a combination of natural reticence, humility, and the sense that it was a profound experience which could not be put into words, or which words might spoil. So a lot of the story is reconstructed from second-hand accounts, yet gets into enough detail of what Crane might have been thinking and so forth that I would consider it creative nonfiction rather than strict nonfiction, as the next two books are.

If you like survival stories, you will like this. Despite some hiccups, it's generally well-written, clear, vivid, and engrossing. I would say it's good but not great.

My trade paperback omits dialogue marks apparently at random for the first few chapters; I assume this is an error, because if it's a writing choice it's inexplicable and distracting. Hopefully it is an error and your version will not have it.

Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds: The Tragedy & Triumph of ASA Flight 529, by Gary M. Pomerantz. This is similar to Gonzales' book, but tells the story of a different crash. It's good but not as good; it also has a lot of descriptions of horrific, month-long deaths by burns that I found hard to read. It's also haunting in other ways: the stewardess who saved many people's lives got PTSD and never really recovered; she had to stop flying, and while she finally did get on a plane many years later, as a passenger, she never managed to appreciate the lives she saved, but only blamed herself for the people she couldn't save.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by plane crashes. They seem to cause more and more severe PTSD in survivors than other types of accidents, perhaps because everyone but the pilots feel out of control and because survival is primarily about where you were sitting, not what you did. People don't seem to do well with terrible incidents that rub in how much chance is a factor. The freakish, unusual nature also seems to not help. (PTSD from car crashes occurs, but not that frequently. I think it's because drivers have some sense of control, and car crashes are relatively normal and common, unlike plane crashes.)

The Light of the Moon: Life, Death and the Birth of Advanced Trauma Life Support. A memoir by a man whose father, a doctor, crashed his small plane in a rural area at night with his entire family in it. His wife was killed, but his children survived with severe injuries. He was not happy with their treatment at the hospital they were initially transported to, and discovered that there were no nationwide guidelines for treating mass trauma victims. So he created and implemented them, nationwide, no doubt saving thousands and thousands of lives.

The author was a boy and unconscious after the crash, so he apparently interviewed his father to get an account of it. That part is very good. The rest of the book… Well, he's clearly not a pro author. There's endless accounts of the search for the plane which are sometimes interesting and sometimes incredibly tedious. His account of his own research as an adult into what happened is generally awful - he literally has pages and pages detailing how he googled stuff.

The parts I was really curious about - his and his family's recovery, and how his father managed to implement medical protocols nationwide - are mainly skipped over. He says that his nine-year-old brother lost ALL his memory of everything that happened before the crash. If he means his entire life, WOW do I want to hear about that and how he coped - he would have never remembered his mother, for instance. But since the author says nothing more about it, I assume it was a poorly worded sentence and he means that his brother had some degree of anteretrograde amnesia - maybe days, maybe even months - but not his whole life.

Interesting story, not told too well. Bad or flawed memoirs typically have this issue of too much filler and a failure to distinguish between what the author and reader is interested in.
Dr. Lisa Sanders is the doctor who inspired the TV show House. She is apparently a genius diagnostician and if her waiting list was not three years long, I would have already seen her. Her book is marketed as tales of medical mysteries and their diagnoses, complete with the doctor’s process of diagnosing, which is why I bought it.

Approximately 20% of the book consists of that. The other 80% is her opinion that the physical examination of the patient (as opposed to mechanical scans) has a long history, is very important, is underused and poorly taught, and needs to be taught better and done more. She’s probably right but it was incredibly repetitive. She could have summed up her thoughts on that in one or two chapters, leaving the rest of the book for the stories which is undoubtedly why everyone bought it. Annoyingly not what it says on the tin.

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

Any recs for books that are actually about diagnosis? (Medical, not psychological; I'm good on the psych front.)

Also, any recs for a book on antibiotics that is 1) about their current use, not their history (I'm familiar with their history), 2) comprehensible to a layperson?

I am particularly interested in learning more about how, after spending my entire life being told that antibiotics have very limited and specific uses and do not cure most things (due to doctors trying to cut down on inappropriate usage) I have recently discovered that, in fact, they have an extremely wide range of uses and "condition responds to antibiotics and, as far as we can tell, to nothing else" is nowhere near as diagnostically useful as I had assumed in narrowing down what that condition might be. For instance, d-cycloserine, an antibiotic normally used to treat tuberculosis, has cognitive effects which may make it useful in the treatment of PTSD.
Many Native Nations begin a Coyote legend with some variation of “Coyote Was Going There.” Trust me—Coyote? Still going. It’s about time ebooks caught up with that crazy Trickster.

Nolan, a Native American Storyteller and therapist, retells traditional stories he heard from his relatives, with cultural commentary, stories from his life, explanations of how he used the stories in teaching or therapy... and recipes!

Nolan has performed these stories in wildly varied settings, from Head Start programs in reservations to international psychology conferences. He interweaves the traditional stories with the stories of how and where he’s told them, and with stories of food and culture and the culture of food. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this.

I really enjoyed it. The stories themselves are great – funny, powerful, resonant—
as is Nolan’s commentary on them. In one story, Coyote orders his woven baskets to fill themselves with salmon from the river. Oh yes, Nolan explains, in those days baskets had feet. Like a duck’s. And could walk around by themselves. I am still cracking up at that image.

Nolan’s wry, humane, erudite perspective on the power of stories to illuminate and heal reminded me a bit of Jane Yolen. But I don’t think you need a particular interest the use of stories in therapy and education to enjoy this. It’s kind of “An Evening with Ty Nolan, Storyteller” in written form. Though he does not mince words when discussing injustice or loss, the overall feeling of the book is warm and uplifting.

As the preface explains, the book is arranged so that you can read just the stories, or the stories and the commentary. Some of the commentary would probably go over kids’ heads, but stories plus selected commentary would probably make a great read-aloud.

I think a lot of you here would like this a lot.

Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories. It's a self-published e-book, so it won't be in libraries. But it's only $4.99. Support your probably-not-local author!
Fantastic analysis of how Tolkien constructed the language, world, and characters of Lord of the Rings, with particular attention to word origins and connotations. Easy to read and fascinating.

Excerpt:

Tolkien also thought - and this takes us back to the roots of his invention - that philology could take you back even beyond the ancient texts it studied. He believed that it was possible sometimes to feel one's way back from words as they survived in later periods to concepts which had long since vanished, but which had surely existed, or else the word would not exist. This process was made much more plausible if it was done comparatively (philology only became a science when it became comparative philology). The word 'dwarf' exists in modern English, for instance, but it was originally the same word as modern German Zwerg, and philology can explain exactly how they came to differ, and how they relate to Old Norse dvergr. But if the three different languages have the same word, and if in all of them some fragments survive of belief in a similar race of creatures, is it not legitimate first to 'reconstruct' the word from which all the later ones must derive - it would have been something like *dvairgs - and then the concept that had fitted it? [The asterisk before *dvairgs is the conventional way of indicating that a word has never been recorded, but must (surely) have existed, and there is of course enormous room for error in creating *-words, and *-things.] Still, that is the way Tolkien's mind worked, and many more detailed examples are given later on in this book. But the main point is this. However fanciful Tolkien s creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was 'reconstructing', he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had a very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

Would anyone like to suggest further reading on the subject? I'd especially like to read something that delves into Tolkien and Lewis's war service and how that might have influenced their fiction.
An exhaustively researched, non-sensationalistic, and clearly presented breakdown of the Columbine school shootings. Very informative and well-written, but solid rather than brilliant. There's a lot of value in Cullen's "just the facts" approach, but I longed for more analysis.

I read this because if anything like that ever happens within a certain area of Los Angeles, I will be called to the scene.

Nothing graphic below cut, but, obviously, discussion of mass murder.

Read more... )

Excellent reporting on a case for which that had largely been missing, but doesn't illuminate larger issues of society or psychology the way that the very best true crime books do.

Columbine
Fascinating, unsettling story of three young Jewish partisans-- two women and a man-- who escaped the destruction of the Vilna ghetto and fought the Nazis from their forest hiding place. (Vilna is where my family is from. Had my ancestors not fled earlier anti-Semitic persecution, that's where I would have been during WWII. About 40,000 Jews were forced into the Vilna ghetto; a couple hundred survived.)

The heroism of women and Jews is often ignored or disbelieved, so I particularly appreciated this extensive documentation of jaw-dropping acts of courage performed as a matter of course, over a course of years, by a gentle-looking Jewish scholar and two tiny teenage Jewish girls.

While much of what the partisans did during the war was completely justified, and more falls into the "who am I to judge" category," the book continues past the war, as Abba and his allies plot what I can only describe as a horrific act of terrorism. Read more... )

Who am I to judge, given what they went through and witnessed? Who am I to not judge, given their intent?

Abba, the man, and Vitka and Ruzka, the women, were extremely strongly implied to have been a romantic threesome during the war; afterward, Abba and Vitka married, and lived next door to Ruzka and her husband in Israel for the rest of their lives. I can't help being glad that they got their happily-enough ever after ending.

The Avengers: A Jewish War Story
[Catch-up review from Goodreads]

Rich spent a year in Udaipur (Rajasthan) studying Hindi; the book combines anecdotes from her stay with tons of information on the science of learning a second language.

It starts out strong, but the parts become increasingly less integrated and the memoir sections become increasingly disorganized as the book continues. There were a number of points where she referenced something as if she'd already told that story, only to explain it 50 pages later. The information was good and her prose, as in individual sentences, was good, but it probably would have worked better as nonfiction about second language acquisition with a few relevant anecdotes than as the awkward chimera it was.

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Jul. 9th, 2012 01:33 pm)
A Week to Be Wicked, by Tessa Dare. Sweet, funny Regency romance in which a female geologist with a fossilized dinosaur footprint runs off with a rake with a trauma-related sleep disorder; hijinks ensue. Avoid if you're looking for realistic period attitudes, grab if you want adorable escapism. The psychological and trauma-related dynamics, however, are quite believable, which certainly added to my enjoyment.

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, by Dennis Covington. Narrative nonfiction by an Appalachian journalist who starts out covering a news story about a Pentecostal pastor's trial for attempted murder by rattlesnake, and ends up snake-handling himself. Extremely strong opening, fascinating subject, excellent prose, but it ends up adding up to somewhat less than I expected. I think it needed either a bit more introspection, or a bit more larger-picture analysis, or both. Worth reading but not quite revelatory. Incidentally, how in the world do people drink strychnine and survive? Is it tiny doses, or what?

Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, by Robert Johnson. Meh. Ridiculously unsourced. If you're going to say people in ancient India had the practice of choosing a year-king, I would like a cite for that or I'm going to think you read in The Golden Bough.

Outcast, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Solid historical about a baby washed ashore from a shipwreck and raised by a British tribe; they eventually exile him, whereupon he goes to Rome, gets enslaved, and eventually ends up on a slave galley. The depiction of the galley ship is horrific and vivid, and the section after that, which I won't spoil, is quite moving. But I didn't like this as much as I did some of Sutcliff's others. The protagonist was a bit too everyman for my taste.

This one is now up on Kindle, but several of her others are no longer available in that format. Weird.
Craziness also runs in the family. I can trace manic depression back several generations. We have episodes of hearing voices, delusions, hyper-religiosity, and periods of not being able to eat or sleep. These episodes are remarkably similar across generations and between individuals. It's like an apocalyptic disintegration sequence that might be useful if the world really is ending, but if the world is not ending, you just end up in a nuthouse. If we're lucky enough to get better, we have to deal with people who seem unaware of our heroism and who treat us as if we are just mentally ill.

This is Mark Vonnegut's second memoir. (Kurt Vonnegut's son.) The first one explains how he had a psychotic break while a young man living on a commune. Due to the circumstances, everyone at the commune just thought he'd become spiritually advanced. Eventually, his parents stepped in to rescue him. It concluded with the note that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia but apparently "recovered," which is unusual, especially given that it all went down in the 1960s. I had wondered if he'd been misdiagnosed.

His second memoir picks up many years later. He became a successful doctor... who periodically had psychotic breaks, to go with his drinking problem and falling-apart family life. But it's not primarily a story about pain and problems, but about one man's particular life. Every life has problems. Usually they don't involve being put in a straightjacket every ten years or so. But that's Mark Vonnegut's particular issue, or one of them, anyway, and he treats it very much in the manner of "everyone's got problems."

The memoir is at least as much about being a doctor as it is about having a mental illness of a somewhat mysterious nature. (He gets diagnosed with bipolar disorder later, but that might not be it either. Whatever he has, it's atypical.) It's also about life, and art, and being a misfit in a screwed-up society, and also about being his father's son (Chapter title: "There is Nothing Quite So Final As A Dead Father"). And accidentally poisoning himself with his shiny new hobby of mushroom hunting.

It's all over the place and hard to describe, but enormously funny, enjoyable, quotable, and wise. Its humane, humorous, epigrammatic tone reminded me a bit of James Herriot, and I love James Herriot. Unless you're really squicked by medical stuff or triggered by mental illness, this is the sort of book I'd recommend to just about anyone.

Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir
Brief notes on books I read a while back but never got around to writing up.

A Taste of China: The Definitive Guide to Regional Cooking (Pavilion Classic Cookery), by Ken Hom. An evocative, hunger-inducing travelogue/memoir/cookbook/food history by a Chinese-American author. A bit of a period piece now, but much of it is historical anyway, and it's well worth reading if you have an interest in the topic.

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. The classic nonfiction book on the value of intuition: specifically, that fear - especially women's fear of men - is often based on having subconsciously picked up subtle signals of very real danger. I've re-read this book a couple times before, and it continues to be valuable: honest, easy to read, thoughtful, and very usable. One thing I'd forgotten was that de Becker himself was a survivor of childhood abuse and trauma, and is writing not only from his experience as a security expert but from his experience as a scared little kid.

This would make an excellent paired reading with Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which is also about how intuition works, but approached from completely different angles. Both books discuss false intuition based on prejudice or pre-conceived ideas versus true intuition based on the situation at hand, and how to tell the difference. Gladwell's book is more sociological, and de Becker's is more of a how-to.

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship. It's an old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and we shared that, too.

Probably the best memoir I've read all year. I read it when it first came out, and then re-read it several months later. Though Knapp's death frames the memoir, it's not primarily about that, but about the intimate, twin-like friendship between two women. Writers Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp bonded over their careers, their alcoholism and sobriety, and most of all, their beloved dogs. The structure is complex but seamless. Caldwell traces her own life story and how it paralleled and diverged from Knapp's, weaves it back into the story of their friendship, and then continues her story without Knapp, but always with her memory. It's extremely well-written, intense, and engaging, and reminded me quite a bit of another favorite memoir of mine... Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story.

It also reminded me of Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, another intense and well-written memoir about female friendship, in this case with troubled author and cancer survivor Lucy Grealy. Though Let's Take the Long Way Home, despite Knapp's early death, is a lot less tragic, since Caroline Knapp sounds like she had a lot more happiness and satisfaction in her life than poor Lucy Grealy ever did. It's also got way more dogs. In fact, it has enough dog content that I would especially recommend it to anyone who loves dogs. it contains dog death by old age, but is much more about what it's like to live with and love and train dogs.

You can click on the author tags to get reviews of the books I mentioned in comparison.
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