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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips

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

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

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

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

It Will Live Forever : Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure IS an option

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

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

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

Fear is not the enemy

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

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

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

You don’t have to react instantly

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

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

You don't have to be a Navy SEAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy
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