Confessions of a Bookaholic: Brains

Book Reviews- Brains and Neuroscience

I have a thing with learning more about how the brain works,. I love reading books about weird medical industry outliers, and I love reading neuroscience stuff about how neurons fire and misfire and are mapped and re-maped, and I love love LOVE when the an author can write about how and when the right brain and left brain come together (see: Proust review below). It’s hard to find a really engaging armchair neuroscience book, and I’m not saying that one of the following six is that book, but you will most likely enjoy one of the first three.

(Unless you’re a psychopath, the only read The Psychopath Inside, and start a club with author James Fallon (nope, not Jim, James) because he’s kind of a psychopath too. Oh, sorry, should have given a pre-emptive “spoiler alert!” there. My bad.)

The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, by Josh Hanagarne (5 stars). I loved this book in every way. Hanagarne’s love of books, his struggles with Tourette’s, his thoughts about family and faith. This felt so real, so honest, and so completely refreshing, despite having some truly difficult pieces about Tourette’s and the causes, treatment options, and prognosis. Hanagarne works in my home library, the main branch of the Salt Lake City library, and he discusses lecture series that I actually attended and describes the glorious architecture, AND IT IS STUNNING! All sky-high windows and open spaces and modern sculpture, it’s one of my favorite places downtown. So, immediately I loved this book more than I probably should have (after 2 pages) because of the location in my heart-home. However, I also deeply appreciate Hanagarne’s respect for his faith, but also his hefty dose of reality about it. The Mormon church has some truly beautiful doctrine (that is not in the very famous, bawdy musical), but there is also a lot of weird cultural stuff, some tied to doctrine, some that isn’t but is pervasive in Mormon areas. It’s a tricky line to walk, but he handles it perfectly without lampooning the church or the faithful, and without trying to convert the reader. (I had zero idea going in that the author worked in one of my favorite buildings or that he was Mormon, and his love for my home and his treatment of my religion was such a delightful surprise and certainly contributed to how much I loved this book.) Hanagarne focuses on his Tourette’s diagnosis and how it affects his life, some of the treatments options he tried, ranging from truly bizarre to extra scientific, and the ways he learned to deal with repetitive short-circuiting of his brain. (Technically this book is more memoir than scientific brain treatise, but my blog, my rules, so whatever.)

Proust was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer (5 stars). I have wanted a book like this for a VERY long time, Lehrer writes eight essays about groundbreaking artists and their work as it is reflected in neurology principles, most of which weren’t discovered and principle-ized until well after the artist’s work was published (and, more likely, the artist was long dead and gone). He discusses four novelists and their topics of writing (Walt Whitman, feeling; George Eliot, freedom; Marcel Proust, memory; and Virginia Woolf, self) and how each of those topics have direct neurological roots that Whitman, Eliot, Proust and Woolf clearly define and explain long before scientists discovered the proof. The other four chapters discuss similar principles of how we as a consumer experience art (Auguste Escoffier’s amazing epicurean creations; Paul Cezanne’s use of color and form and light; Igor Stravinsky’s music; and Gertrude Stein’s use of language) and then goes on to define the neurological process that allows us to enjoy and crave umami, or how a Stravinksy symphony affects our brain differently than Wagner or Beethoven. This bridge of art and science was glorious in every way and I think I must own this book to flip back through my favorite sections again and again.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport (4 stars). For the most part, I really loved this. I think Newport has a lot of really great suggestions and research. His rant about social media got me a little “meh”…never does he provide as an option the idea that you limit your social media consumption through a specific strategy, it’s either all-consuming or you delete your accounts. So, that was annoying. (Example: I log out of all social media apps when I’m done scrolling so I never receive notifications to distract me. Is it a pain to have to sign in? Not really, it takes 2 seconds. Not receiving push notifications from Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/Whatever has GREATLY reduced my attachment to and time wasting through social media. Win-win.

Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks (3 stars). I like Oliver Sacks, his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat” was pretty great; but this book is….it’s meh. He seems to prance over some of the deeper causes of hallucinations, he refers to larger segments he’s written about this case or that patient or this syndrome/disease/whatever in another book–he seriously cross references his own books a TON–and his definition of hallucinations ranges from drug or alcohol-induced episodes, to concussions, to allergic reactions, to legitimate deeply rooted psychological issues, to nightmares and PTSD. It’s…it’s just too broad without enough deep science to back it up. Not my fave.

Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power, by Dan Hurley (3 stars). This was okay, but not great. The basic premise surrounds whether or not there are activities or exercises we can do to strengthen our brains and make us smarter. The short answer: yes, to a degree. Things that make your brain run smoother and faster can increase it’s capacity: listening to classical music stimulates neurons, but only a little. Getting enough sleep and plenty of exercise strengthens your neuro-network, but only a little. Brain-stimulating puzzles and play can increase your capacity, but only a little. In combination, you may be able to increase your brain power a little bit, but only by a few IQ points. Now. If you have had some kind of brain trauma there is a lot more room for improvement, healing, and growth, but no one wants to wish crippling brain trauma on a person in order to prove “get smart quick” schemes.

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, by James Fallon (2 stars). The first two thirds of this book I quite enjoyed, I mean, it’s an interesting twist to have an actual psychopathic neuroscientist (who is in denial about his psychopathic brain) be writing a book about psychopaths and their behavior. The last third, however, Fallon begins to really drill down into his own behavior and psychopathic tendencies, his mania and relationship patterns….and, he’s a SUPER ass. Writing a memoir reflecting on all those things makes him more of an ass, not less of one. It was almost unreadable, to be honest. If you’re looking for a better book about psychopaths, I’d recommend Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test” instead.

Other Brainy Recommendations:

More books about brains and neuroscience.
All book review posts on ye olde blog(e).


Confessions of a Bookaholic: Sciencey Things

Book ReviewsScience, Evolution, and DNA

If you’ve been around here for a minute you know that I’m kiiiinda of obsessed with evolution, science, and genetics. If you’re new, well, welcome; I’m Harriet, I’m kind of obsessed with evolution, science, and genetics. Why do I love this stuff so much? Well, there are a couple of reasons besides the fact that it’s AWESOME and FASCINATING and the science of genetics is ONLY THE BASIC BUILDING BLOCK OF ALL LIVING AND FORMERLY LIVING THINGS!!!! Ahem.

  • Reason One: When I was 3 my family was part of a large study on genetics to determine a) if melanoma skin cancer had a genetic marker, and b) if our family had it (yes it is, and yes we do). My brother was diagnosed with skin cancer at that time, he was 13. We have talked about this my entire life.
  • Reason Two: I am an identical twin, there is another person on the planet with my exact genome and frighteningly similar dental records and fingerprints. Many MANY genetic studies focus on identical twins.
  • Reason Three: In 7th grade when we learned about Mendel and his genetic studies with peas, we also learned the basic grid for dominant and recessive genes. For twelve year olds, the easiest trait to study is eye color, it’s pretty straight forward and most people have either brown or blue eyes; both my parents have blue eyes, according to the grid, I should also have blue eyes. All my siblings have blue eyes with the same needs for contacts and glasses, but my twin and I have green eyes, quite green, actually, with no need for corrective lenses. We also are the only blonde’s in a family of medium-brown haired people, and (pink and purple dye aside) we are SUPER blonde. And we’re considerably shorter than the rest of them too. Frankly, if I didn’t have my Dad’s nose in the center of my face and the exact same eyebrows as my brothers and sister I’d be asking some questions!

I’ve been fascinated with genetics and the laws of inheritance my entire life, it actually seems pretty obvious (to me) that I would become an armchair evolutionary scientist/geneticist as an adult. And now, a few book reviews (if you’re going to skip the rest of this post because science isn’t your thing–that’s fine, you weirdo–perhaps just read the next three paragraphs first, they were my three favorites in this round of reading.

The Evolution of Everything, by Matt Ridley (5 stars). I loved this book so much, and it is so much more than Darwin and the different parts of a cell. Ridley explains evolution and economics and how these vast systems are formed and tweaked and improved over time, whether that system is your eyeball, or your government, or a world religion, or banking, or the basis of trade, or the necessary vs unnecessary parts of your DNA. Ridley covers bits of all of that, plus a dozen more topics, and how Darwin and other science-minded thinkers predicted how and why certain evolutions would be successful and others would, eventually, fail. And, for a huge nerd like me, Ridley was funny. I laughed out loud a number of times at his jokes or satire or one-liners, all with a delightfully nerdy twist. Gah, this book was right up my alley!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (5 stars). In 1951 Henrietta Lacks died from a very aggressive form of cervical cancer, she was a poor black woman from Baltimore who went to Johns Hopkins for treatment, the doctors took a sample of her tumor and sent it to the lab for an experiment, and those cells–HeLa–became the first human cells to survive for more than a few weeks in petrie dishes…in fact, they are STILL alive, multiplying at astonishing rates, and HeLa is one of most widely used raw materials for scientific research, leading to breakthroughs in treatments for dozens (if not hundreds) of diseases and the first DNA genetic mapping projects. But, Henrietta’s family had no idea this research was going on, no idea their mother’s cells were collected or being used, and no idea that large pharma and biomedical companies were making millions and billions of dollars selling test tubes of her cells to scientists and researchers all over the world. In fact, Henrietta’s family cannot afford basic medical care. So, where is the social responsibility? What are the answers? How do you muddle through all that very gray area? I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read this book, I absolutely loved it. I loved the mix of biography and research science, the combination of social commentary and presentation of facts. I loved that by the end of the book I felt like I had a lot of information to form an opinion on using human tissue for medical research without informing the human herself what type of research, and without compensating that person or their family for any monetary gains on that research… but I still don’t know. I know more about genetic mapping and scientific processes, but I still am torn between the two sides of it (to benefit society as a whole (a good thing), or to somehow take care of the person’s DNA/identity/specific genetic make-up). There is SO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT!

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry, by Bryan Sykes (3 stars). I snatched this book up in a used book store specifically to learn more about Mitochondrial DNA, tiny little packets of genes inside a cell that are passed down the maternal line with a mutation only once in every 10,000 years or so. What does this mean? It means that my siblings and I all share the exact same Mitochondrial DNA as my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother. My brothers did not pass that little M-DNA packet to their children as it is only in the egg, not the sperm; M-DNA is not swished around when a sperm and egg combine (X and Y chromosomes recombine, but M-DNA does not) as there is no sperm-M-DNA to recombine with, so that little packet of history remains practically identical for thousands of years. One of my favorite chapters was how using this brand-new testing (in the 1990s’) for M-DNA from bones helped determine the final resting place of the Russian Romanov family who were murdered in 1918 and left in a hole in the Siberian forest. By extracting DNA from the bones, and then testing for mitochondrial DNA, scientists discovered that there was, indeed, a family. A mother and 3 daughters, the father of those 3 daughters, and 3 unrelated adults (doctor and 2 servants). By testing living relatives of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (meaning, living descendants of her SISTER), and testing other living relatives descended from Tsar Nicholas’ MOTHER (Maria/Dagmar of Denmark), they were able to determine that yes, this family was the Romanovs. ISN’T THAT SO FASCINATING! I think it’s fascinating. The idea that I am carrying history from my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother, back hundreds of generations, sends my feminist heart all a flutter. So, I *loved* learning more about M-DNA, how it was discovered, the studies and testing that have happened in my lifetime to figure out what exactly it is and how we can trace it. However, “The Seven Daughters of Eve” as a title is SUPER misleading, because Sykes is really only talking about the seven matriarchs whose M-DNA has populated the majority of EUROPE. Throughout the world, there are just about 30 different “clans” of M-DNA that have survived. So, that was annoying. The very last chapter Sykes talks a little more about those other lines and how they may have spread. But the vast majority of his book is about the M-DNA of the 7 women who, anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000 years ago, were the head of surviving dynastic maternal lines which have thrived and are currently found in the vast majority of Europeans (and sometimes, only in Europeans).

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (5 stars). Part mini biography of several different scientists who discovered genes and DNA and the means of inheritance, including all my favorites. Part current history of what scientists and geneticists continue to figure out on sequencing and altering genes and DNA. And part a treatise on the ethics of genetics and altering DNA and using stem cells to enhance or edit the genetic code of humans. GAH! I LOVED THIS SO MUCH! Mukherjee is a fantastic writer, and even with all the deep and heavy science stuff he kept my attention (I also happen to love the details of DNA and the means of inheritance, so.)

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott (4 stars). I tend to devour any and all books about Charles Darwin, his theories of evolution and the survival of the fittest, and, in general, the revolutionary era of scientific advancement in which he lived (Fun fact: Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the exact same day, The Origin of the Species was published right before the Civil War). This book covers the history of Darwin’s thoughts, but starting way back with Aristotle and going right on down to Darwin’s grandfather (a famous zoologist in England), Darwin’s contemporaries, and Darwin himself. Stott spends time detailing scientists and naturalists from around the world and throughout history who have discovered, independently, some aspect of Darwin’s theory. I loved reading about these individuals from ancient Greece, ancient Iraq, Egypt, Europe, and South America as they solidified their ideas on where plants and animals come from, and how humans fit into that story.

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins (3 stars). In many ways this is a modern re-writing of The Origin of the Species with additional information about the important advances in evolutionary science since Darwin’s time (1860’s), you know, things like genes, DNA, and all the tiny little bits that make up living organisms. Dawkins goes in depth on all of these little bits, jumping from species to species to give examples and more examples that show, in the end, how much more alike we are than different.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2011, Edited by Mary Roach (3 stars). I picked this up super cheap from a used book sale, mostly because of Mary Roach’s name on the cover. Turns out, none of these essays were written by her, she just selected them (?). Anyway, some of my favorite authors did have contributions, and I liked reading about science-y things without any other unifying thread than they were fascinating. Excellent read.

The Monk in the Garden: The Lost and Found Genius of Gregor Mendel, the Father of Genetics, by Robin Marantz Henig (2 stars). Gregor Mendel, a monk in the mid 1800’s, was the father of modern genetics, meaning, he figured out that there were dominant and recessive genes and the patterns of inheritance, by studying and crossing garden peas for years while making copious notes. Unfortunately, after he died his successor as Abbot at the monastery burned all of his notebooks and papers. The very few letters he sent that were kept, and his one scientific paper explaining his experiments, are almost all that survives. He died without the scientific world in Europe having any idea who he was, and it wasn’t until several decades later that three scientists studying evolution “re-discovered” his paper and brought his experiments to light. Anyway, so that’s Mendel. This biography…is not great. Because there is so little primary documentation that has survived, everything is second or third hand. But Henig tried to make this read like a novel…which was REALLY irritating. ALSO, in the epilogue, she talks about how she has very little interest in genetics, specifically her own genetics, and doesn’t think it’s a worthwhile pursuit to learn so much about genes and chromosomes and this branch of science. Uh…then maybe don’t spend your time researching and writing a non-fiction book about it!? Ugh.

The Descent of Man, by Charles Darwin (4 stars) My nerdy heart loves Darwin so much. Now, this is a BEHEMOTH of a book, Darwin covers what seems like every single species in their evolutionary process. From birds and insects to large mammals and humans. The detail is…well, honestly, it’s a little excruciating to read through for fun. But I love that Darwin went to such extensive lengths to prove his points, spent so much time getting all the details and proofs lined up for his audience, to help them understand his process, the process of the earth’s changes and evolution from primordial soup to thousands of distinct species. And, what hasn’t changed between us. Sigh. I just love Darwin so much. Hashtag: Nerd.

Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History’s Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough, by Rebecca Stott (3 stars). When I picked this up I thought it would be a lot more about Darwin’s notes, correspondence, and discoveries regarding the barnacle (which he studied daily for 8 years, writing 4 volumes on it, and studying, describing, and analyzing these pin head sized creatures honed his chops for writing “The Origin of the Species.” Did you know that ancient barnacles were hermaphrodites, had both male and female parts and were often self-fertilizing. Over time, the male parts became their own male creature, often just a sac of sperm, often embedded inside female organisms. More time passed and the males added additional parts to become more than just sperms, and could be found outside the female, living as parasites, but far more independent creatures than their ancient ancestors. SO INTERESTING! There is an ancient Greek myth about how we all began as hermaphrodites, and the Gods split us into two distinct sexes, which is why we spend our lives searching for our other half. Even Christian theology states that male and female were joined into one (Adam) before God created the female (Eve) as a distinct and separate human. Gah, science is so awesome. Religion isn’t bad either. 😉 Okay, so my criticism: Stott does cover the barnacle and Darwin’s interactions and labors over it extensively, but she also throws in a TON of biographical information about Darwin, his family, his friends, their families, world history that only slightly relates (the siege of Sebastopol, anyone?) to the topic matter at hand. I don’t mind the biographic details, but it was not what I was expecting.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond (4 stars). I wavered between three and four stars, but truly, it’s not Diamond’s fault that I read this book 20 years too late, and after also reading a half-dozen other books that argue the same premise, often with wittier anecdotes, a little extra dose of humor. But, Diamond was most likely the earliest researchers on the theories of evolution of civilizations around the world based on the evolution of plants, agriculture, farming, domestication of animals, which are primarily based on geography, climate, and the availability of wild flora and fauna with which to domesticate. Some parts of the world (Eurasia) had more to work with than others (Australia) and, therefore, “evolved” to “civilized” communities faster. I mean, if you can call densely-populated people who live side-by-side with disease-ridden animals and generally ruin their environment and try to colonize everywhere else “civilized.” Ahem. Additionally, Diamond discusses the evolution of language, technology, and art in various parts of the world, as advanced after significant improvements of food and shelter were mastered.


Harriet the Bookaholic: June 2015

In the last few weeks I’ve become slightly obsessed with the Romanov family, the last reigning monarchs in Russia. This has dovetailed into my love for Russian literature and–strangely–has given me some additional insight into psychology and neurology. See, Rasputin, the self-proclaimed holy man who seemed to help the young, hemophiliac Alexey, heir to the Russian throne, used all sorts of mind tricks on the Tsar and his family to maintain his position. The Tsarista, Alexandra, also had an arsenal of neurological issues/weapons that she employed with her children, her husband, and the Russian people. Honestly, I was so fascinated by how these seemingly unrelated topics informed and explained each other in so many ways. Go Team Nerd!


The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson (4 stars). I really enjoyed this book, it is a brief skip through the mental health industry touching on a number of different components but without exploring in depth anything in particular. As an newly minted armchair psychiatrist/psychopath spotter Ronson blunders through identifying and interviewing mental health professionals, Scientologists who believe psychiatry is a total sham, criminals and professors and verified psychopaths. Entertaining and a pretty quick read–surprising for such a heavy topic–this is a good lighthearted overview of some mental health issues and the societal conditions surrounding them.

Additional Recommended Reading: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey;  Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan.

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, by Daniel Tammet (3 stars). While I appreciated and was fascinated by the book, I’m not sure if I would say I “loved” it. It can be jarring to read, but I also think that is part of what makes it so interesting, the writing is a slightly edited version of Tammet’s thinking with some tangents and explanations and facts that seem a little off, but truly help us understand how his mind works. And that, I think, is the point. Very interesting read.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon; Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer; The Tell-Tale Brain, by V. S. Ramachandran (but ONLY the first half of this one! The last half is crap.)

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks (3 stars). I’m spoiled by Atul Gawande’s medical writing. I appreciate the case studies from some early neuro-psychology diagnosis and treatments, but I wasn’t drawn in to Sacks’ writing like I am to Gawande’s. Or to House.

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, by Sigmund Freud (2 stars). Meh. Freud has a large body of research and I know he’s the father of blah blah blah, but for me it was too narrow and too anecdotal. Is Freud’s research useless? No, I found his chapters on free word association quite fascinating. But, overall, I see it as a very small starting point to explaining the much larger and more layered sciences of psychology and neurology. I also reject the idea that anything we forget–names, dates, places, faces, ideas–is a product of repression. I don’t think that every slip of language or memory is somehow due to our souls/brains being corrupted and destroyed by sex or violence or shame. I think sometimes our brains prioritize the things they view as most important, and making a mistake like forgetting the name of that restaurant you had dinner at that one time in that one place does not necessarily mean you have some kind of unrequited latent sexual need for that person/thing that is only associated with that restaurant in the vaguest and loosest possible terms.

Additional Recommended Reading: A Whole New Mind, by Daniel H. Pink; Complications, by Atul Gawande; Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman; Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

Romanov Family

Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, by Robert K. Massie (4 stars). I knew very little about the Romanov dynasty (or the reign of the Russian Tsars in general) before picking this book up, you know, except for that Anastasia movie with Meg Ryan’s voice (full of inaccuracies, btw! There’s a surprise!). Massie gives a detailed and thorough history of the Romanov family, which ended with Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, his wife, the German princess Alexandra, and their children. Additionally, he details the horror and tragedy of young Tsarevich Alexie’s hemophilia and the toll it took on their family, the disease was kept completely secret from the Russian people and the vast majority of the people at the Tsar’s inner court. Having a feeble heir to the Russian empire was seen as weak, and heaven forbid a Romanov be seen as weak (or, you know, that one of the four healthy daughters be named as heir to the throne. Ahem.). As Russia entered World War I–fascinating, by the way, how that all came about–Nicholas and Alexandra become more and more enamored with Rasputin, the peasant mystic who seemed to be able to bring healing and relief to her sickly son. These two things, Alexie’s hemophilia and Rasputin’s mystical healing powers, are ultimately, Massie argues, what brought down the Russian empire. (I think a healthy chunk of the problem was going into the 20th century the Russian empire had a complete lack of any democracy for millions and millions of starving, freezing peasants while the ruling minority grew wealthier and wealthier, but whatever.) Nicholas was busy on the war front and Alexandra was overseeing things at the capitol, St. Petersburg, despite zero real training in running a government, let alone managing a vast empire at war. Both were absolutely out of touch with the urban civilians and peasant poor and their need for more autonomy in their governments and ruling bodies and some basic human rights and guarantees. Nicholas was easily swayed by Alexandra’s opinion in politics and who was hired and fired in positions of power, and Alexandra was completely devoted to and controlled by Rasputin because he brought relief to the young Alexie. (Alexandra’s recommendations for government positions seemed to rest solely on whether or not that person believed in Rasputin.) And Rasputin was dead set on controlling the country’s affairs. So: Hemophiliac Heir + Rasputin + Civilian Unrest/War = Fall of the House of Romanov = Rise of Bolsheviks/Lenin –> Stalin/Communism = Cold War. Fascinating stuff (although, perhaps a bit incomplete in the details).

The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, by Helen Rappaport (3 stars).  Rappaport focuses her book on the 3 months the Romanov family spent under house arrest in Ekaterinburg and the details of their execution and burial. While she does explain some of the larger political movements and background of the major players, she mostly concentrates on the personal lives of the Romanov’s, their few remaining servants, and the guards and soldiers who surrounded them. Unlike author Massie (see review above), she has a wider view of the fall of the House of Romanov which includes centuries of brutal autocratic rule, a weak Tsar Nicholas II, starving masses, and Russia’s disastrous entrance into World War I followed by a simultaneous civil war between Bolsheviks and monarchists.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming (3 stars). This is written for a young adult / middle-grade audience, in my (non-expert) opinion, which I didn’t realize when I picked it up. Overall, I think it was a pretty decent coverage of the events leading to the fall of Imperial Russia and the murder of the Romanov family. However, there was a lot of the more horrific details, rumors, and deception that was left out completely, most likely due to the younger target audience. Which is fine, I suppose, but when you are talking about a 300-year dynasty crumbling, an empire in ruin, and a royal family being murdered…there’s a lot of gruesome and kind of essential details for it to truly make sense.

Russian Literature

The Proposal, by Anton Chekhov (5 stars). This is a short story / one-act play and is absolutely hilarious: a hypochondriac suitor, his flustered future father-in-law, and the woman to whom he is trying to propose marriage. Go on, go read it. It may take you 15 minutes. I’ll wait. [This is you following my directions in exactness…] [15 minutes later] See? SO GOOD! You’re welcome.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (4 stars). Ah, Raskolnikov, why you gotta be like that? (Calculating murderer, thief, liar, benefactor to widows, students, and children.) While Raskolnikov’s reasons for ax-murdering two women are pretty twisted (he sees himself as one of The Greats, like Napoleon, and therefore his actions will bring about a better social good and will not be punishable), his mental state afterward shows some pretty interesting behaviors and I’d love a more educated analysis and diagnosis. Excellent read, beautiful language, lots of moral meat and philosophical contemplation. Recommended.

Additional recommended reading: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy; Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley (this play was also made into a brilliant movie starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep).


Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, by Nancy Pearl (4 stars). This isn’t so much a novel or narrative as it is a reference book to flip through again and again. Nancy Pearl (librarian extraordinaire) has made a book of book recommendations based on your travel plans, or your hopeful travel plans, or your armchair travel plans. She covers dozens of countries, cities, or regions and includes history, non-fiction, and fiction books that discuss that place. The only real problem, of course, is that while published in 2010 this already is missing so many great location-centric books! I wrote a bunch of my own recs in the margins and went through the index circling books to add to my To Read mountain. I do wish that there had been a bit more about the books than just a title and (sometimes) author, two sentences would have been really helpful on all books, not just a select few from any given geographic area.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner.


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