I have started out this year with a literary bang, and frankly I couldn’t be happier about it. People often ask me how I read so much, and the short answer is that I typically devote at least 2 hours a day to reading. I read during my lunch break, I listen to audiobooks while I work out, and I always read for 20-30 minutes before I go to sleep. Reading is my jam, apparently, and days where I don’t spend a chunk of time with my nose (or ear) in a book I feel…adrift. I think that’s the right word. Reading keeps me generally alert and thinking clearly and broadly throughout my day; and I don’t get mentally exhausted from reading like I do from binge watching Netflix. So, I read. I’m a nerd who reads a lot; I accepted this long ago.
I’m excited to get back to a regular, monthly post of the books I’ve read and my reactions to them. I have found lately that I’ve been reading book after book in a single category and then a few weeks later switching to another topic. So, for now, that is how I will format these posts with recommendations on other books I’ve read in each category.
Brain on Fire, by Susanah Cahalan (3 stars). I wanted to love this book, I truly did. Cahalan suddenly falls victim to a bizarre virus-thing where the body attacks the brain and she spends a month in the hospital while doctors try to figure out what is going on. I think the premise is fascinating, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not as well written as House, it’s not as medically intriguing as anything written by Atul Gawande…it just…it wasn’t enough.
Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman (4 stars). What do you get when you mix psychology with neuroscience, and then throw in a side of economics and physics? You get this book. It was equally informative, entertaining, and also–at times–a bit over my head (hello, physics). But, I loved the arguments that Eagleman brings up–backed by fact and experiments/case studies–about the malleability of the brain, and also about how easily damaged it can be, and the sometimes disastrous consequences.
The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, by V.S. Ramachandran (3 stars). I absolutely LOVED the first half of this book; I excitedly texted people about things I learned and inserted neuroscience facts in any conversation I could. However, at almost exactly the half-way mark, Ramachandran seemed to run out of topics that he had both studied in depth or had any case work for, including viable statistics. And this is where he lost me. He spent the next 150 pages “debunking” theories that he gave very little information on, only to put forth his own theories that also included zero statistics, perhaps an anecdote, but that’s all. He takes quotes from Charles Darwin *completely* out of context (a personal pet peeve of mine), and spends 50 pages on the superiority of Indian sculpture and art. Which, fine, it’s lovely, but was certainly the weakest part of the book. A man who self-proclaims not to be very interested in, or know much about art, spends two full chapters trying to lay out 9 essential rules and laws for “good, high art.” Yet he doesn’t describe any conversations he has with artists, has zero brain scans of artists vs non-artists for comparison, and frankly, seems to know NOTHING on some of the basic premises of art, both technical and emotional. Minus two stars, Ramachandran. I went back in my personal copy of this book and wrote in large letters on page 150 “STOP! DO NOT KEEP READING! NO, I’M SERIOUS, PUT THE BOOK DOWN, NOW!”
Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas (5 stars). This was fascinating and wonderful, heartbreaking and hopeful; I loved it. Wilberforce was a British politician who fought his entire life to end the slave trade in the British empire and abolish the practice of slavery. He brought a bill before Parliament every year for decades before it finally got enough votes to pass. This book detailed the very worst of humanity, and also highlighted the very best kind of men and women, those who spend all their energy fighting the evil and injustice in the world. We need more people like Wilberforce and those who fought with him, perhaps now more than ever before.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (5 stars). I have heard about Uncle Tom’s Cabin for years and years but never read it; people, you all should read it!!! First of all, I should point out that the version in The King and I is not at all the story of the book; some of the characters, yes, but that’s it. Even though this was written pre-Civil War, it remains a beautiful and heartbreaking tribute to the lives of black slaves in the American south, and the white folks who oppressed or helped them. The most revolutionary part of the book at it’s publishing was that black people were–gasp!–human, they had feelings and relationships and hurts just like white people. Stowe has often been credited with writing the “spark that lit the powder keg” of the Civil War, and she has some pretty direct calls for ending slavery, for white people, especially Christians, to work diligently to help the blacks obtain an education and become members of their “civilized” society. This is such a wonderful book, I highly recommend it. (I listened to this, all 20+ hours of it, and cannot recommend that route enough.)
Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela (4 stars). I knew about 2 paragraphs about Mandela; Robben Island, political prisoner, apartheid, etc. However, I had no idea the system that both created and tried to continue apartheid in South Africa. No idea. Did you know that political “criminals” in South Africa (which is what Mandela and his freedom fighters were sent to prison for) are banned; they cannot travel, cannot speak in public, their words and photo cannot be published in any media. They are just…gone. It’s bizarre, and that system is what supported apartheid until the 1990’s. I can’t even fathom this kind of “judicial” system! Shows how much I take for granted the freedom of the press; the power of words, and the fear of words.
South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, by Nancy L. Clark and William H. Worger (4 stars). Fittingly, I read this entire textbook on Martin Luther King, Jr./Civil Rights Day, and I really appreciate how Clark and Worger set up the historical context for apartheid and the economic and social drivers that both created and cemented it into place in South Africa. I am still baffled by how prevalent racism and racial segregation and oppression was in S.A., and how recently (Blacks couldn’t vote until 1994!!) I read this after Mandela’s autobiography, and it helped me place him in better context with the history of rebellion–non-violent and violent–within S.A. and appreciate more the ending of apartheid. Recommended.
Additional Recommended Reading: A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry; Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris; Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton; The Power Of One, by Bryce Courtenay; Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis (3 stars). Dry British humor, sarcastic, acerbic, some misogynist bullshit, of course, because this was written by a man in 1954, but a hilarious portrait of mid-century postwar life for a failing first year professor at a mediocre English college. Funny, a little fluffy, and if you are an adjunct professor you may find this a wee bit too close to home. *Read for my library’s book club.
Additional Recommended Humor Reading: The Diaries of Adam and Eve, by Mark Twain; A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson; Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach
Women With Big Eyes, by Angeles Mastretta (3 stars). This collection of short stories is about dozens of “Aunts” in Puebla, Mexico and their experiences as feminists, out-of-the-20th-century-Puebla box, sexually liberated women. I enjoyed these stories, but I dind’t realize this book was just a collection of short stories without a cohesive thread, other than all the women live/lived in Puebla. Some stories are just a page long, while others are more in-depth. These women all have different stories, lives, dreams, hopes, lovers, religious affinity, and motivators but for the most part they are all saucy, vivacious, and independent. And that is the part I really liked. (Shocking. I know.) *Read for my library’s book club