BOOK REVIEW: Topographies by Stephen Benz

TopographiesTopographies by Stephen Connely Benz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of travel essays exploring locales within America and abroad. The fifteen essays collected are reprints of periodical publications.

As Benz describes destinations and tells travel tales, he often presents local history such as a murder mystery in the Everglades, the fate of the Donner Party, the truth about the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, and the nuclear test at Trinity, New Mexico. But not all of the essays mix history lessons into the travelogue, and some of the most evocative pieces touch on the local landscape in interesting ways such as walking a postman’s route in Havana or camping in Wyoming.

Some travel writing drills down on a single destination and other works spread out over a diverse set of locations. Benz’s approach is somewhere in between. While, except for a couple chapters set in Havana, the essays are about varied locations, only a couple (i.e. the ones on the Everglades and Moldova) stand out as far afield of the rest. Of the seven international essays, three feature Cuba and two Guatemala, and of the eight US essays, all but one is set in the West and three present Wyoming.

The essay collection is divided into two parts. The first eight essays are about locations within the United States, and the last seven describe foreign travels. I found the organization to be smartly arranged, with each of the two parts beginning an ending on essays that are among the strongest in the collection. In the case of Part I, the collection starts with a piece set in the Everglades which brings to life a historical murder, and it ends with a visit to the Trinity Site where the first nuclear test detonation took place.

With respect to the international chapters, they open with a visit to Moldova. The last travel essay I read about Moldova was in Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss.” If you’re wondering why a book on the happiest places on Earth would feature Moldova, it’s for the perhaps ironic but definitely instructive reason that Moldova often comes up as among the LEAST happy countries. Benz presents a similar portrait of Moldova without explicitly taking the dismal nature of the country as his theme. The last two chapters discuss the author’s time in Guatemala, and the last discusses the poetry scene in a country in a country under political upheaval.

The book has a prologue in verse and an extended epilogue in prose.

I’d recommend this book for readers of travel writing, particularly those interested in the American West and Central America. I found the writing to be both skillful and readable, and that the author recognized the value of an intriguing story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Into the Woods by John Yorke

Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into StoryInto the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a book about story and story structure. While Yorke pokes fun at writers who have exacting structural formulae, one need not get past the subtitle to realize he’s advocating a form of structure himself: the five-act structure. And not just any old five-act structure, but Yorke proposes that there be symmetry around a third-act midpoint, and that the approach to story be fractal (to be elaborated upon below.)

The book is divided into five “acts,” or parts, but the theme of each part isn’t related to the role of that particular act in a story or play. The first act consists of five chapters that explain what makes a story. Yorke describes the three-act structure as well as five-act structure, and then explains how these forms are connected — i.e. how five acts can be overlaid, or mapped to, the three-act structure. One chapter, Chapter 4, is devoted to the crucial topic of change. After all, in a story we have a character who wants something and is put through the wringer as he / she attempts to get it, and the moral and / or psychological change that they experience as a result is a major determinant of how satisfying the story feels.

“Act II” explores the components of story – acts and scenes – and how they are arranged into a story. The first of the five chapters describes fractal structure. For those who don’t deal in mathematical concepts on a regular basis, a fractal is a shape that — if one zooms in — one finds smaller and smaller copies of the original shape. This applies to story telling in that one wants acts and scenes to follow a progression that echoes the overall story. That is, a character (at the scene level it may or may not be your hero) wants something, confronts opposition, and this clash either results in more conflict or a resolution. There’s a chapter devoted to the “inciting incident,” which is sometimes called the “first doorway,” and is an event that forces the hero to make a key decision that will put him or on the road of story.

The third “act” consists of only one chapter, Chapter 11, that is entitled “Showing and Telling.” This obviously references one of the most oft-recited (and trite) pieces of writing advice: “show, don’t tell!” As most writers soon discover, this advice is a great rule of thumb but a poor law. Hence, the need to discuss what would otherwise be a simple idea over the course of an entire chapter.

The penultimate “act” is about character, characterization, dialogue, and background. Like most books on story, the emphasis on making memorable characters is more about determining their wants, needs, and weaknesses, rather than being about figuring out how one will dress them or what accent one will assign them. Not that studying the latter isn’t worthwhile, but it’s a common error to produce a muddled character because one hasn’t given enough thought to who they are at the most fundamental level.

Chapters 15 through 17, address the subjects that are probably most responsible for poor story writing: dialogue, exposition, and subtext. The central challenge is to tell the reader just the right amount, neither letting the story get bogged down in needless information, nor leaving the reader thinking the story unbelievable because they don’t have the requisite background to understand what motivates characters. From “as you know, Bob” dialogue to Bond-villain monologuing, there are many ways to ruin a good premise by botching these story elements.

The final “act” deals mostly with the challenge of writing series. Series writing presents a huge challenge unto itself. We are all familiar with examples — such as the television show “Lost” — that started out with great promise and devolved into a pile of rubble by the end. The first three of the five chapters in the final part discuss television and series writing challenges in detail. The last couple chapters close out the book.

The book has seven appendices. Five of these are examinations of the structures of stories known for being exemplary: “Raiders of the Lost Arc,” “Hamlet,” “Being John Malkovich,” “My Zinc Bed,” and “The Godfather.” [“Being John Malkovich” may be included because Charlie Kaufman was known for strongly rejecting “formulaic” approaches to story structure, but Yorke wanted to show that structure happens organically even if it might not be purposely pursued.] The sixth appendix considers first and last act parallels. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Yorke proposes that there is a symmetry around the midpoint that occurs in the third-act of a five-act story. The final appendix is a handy table that shows how the structures taught by masters of screenwriting (e.g. John Truby, Robert McKee, as well as Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” [which is referenced throughout Yorke’s book]) map to five-act structure.

I found this book interesting and informative. Like other great books on story, there is extensive use of well-known stories [particularly cinematic, e.g. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” “Casablanca,” etc.] to help clarify the author’s points. I would recommend this book for those is interested in story, and how stories are structured to be best received by an audience. The space the book occupies is bit different from Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story” [which I reviewed recently.] While Truby’s book is the kind one would sit down with as a reference after reading it in order to help one build one’s story structure and scene weave, Yorke’s book is less of a hands-on guide and more of a light read to improve one’s ideas about story more generally.

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BOOK REVIEW: Second Nature by Michael Pollan

Second Nature: A Gardener's EducationSecond Nature: A Gardener’s Education by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This isn’t simply a discussion of lessons of gardening, though it does tread that ground. However, Pollan uses that topic as a jumping off point to explore a couple of broader topics. First, what defines the American approach to lawns and gardens, which is clearly distinct from that of our Old-World ancestors / comrades? Second, what does it mean to say some approach is more or less “natural” in an ecosystem that has been shaped by the hand of man? As a neophyte balcony-container gardener, I was attracted to the book for its gardening lessons, but I found myself most provoked to thought by these other questions.

This book starts with an Introduction to set the stage and a first chapter that contrasts two approaches to lawn and garden that Pollan saw within his own family. The other eleven chapters are divided into seasonally themed parts. These parts – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter – touch upon the life of a gardener during each, respective, season.

The section entitled Spring discusses the challenge of getting plants to grow against the onslaught of competitors and consumers: animal, vegetative, and other. It also discusses mowing, the open approach to lawns found throughout America, and what the latter means for the former. (It has long intrigued me that many Americans who will pledge liberty or death, often aren’t so big on their neighbor’s liberty if said individual’s lawn gets to about four inches of shag.) Lastly, Pollan educates the reader about the gardener’s passion for compost.

The three Summer chapters explore what happens through the middle of the growing phase, including the need to weed. Though Pollan explores the criticisms from the “keep it natural” camp. There’s a lot of discussion of the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau, and how they represented a change from previous thought on the garden. However, the first chapter in this section is about Pollan’s experiences with growing roses, a provocative subject among gardeners, apparently.

Fall is harvest season, but the chapter in this section that I found most intriguing was one about planting a tree. This is where Pollan brings the question of what it means to be “natural” to a head. He discusses a nearby piece of protected forest that was decimated by a tornado. There was an ardent debate between those who thought that nothing should be done with the land and it should be allowed to grow back however nature saw fit and others who thought intervention was necessary. The argument can end up turning a position on its head. What if one does nothing and the land is overtaken by a non-indigenous invasive species?

The last section has an amusing chapter on garden catalogs and how companies’s style and emphasis varies in an attempt to corner a segment of the market.

I enjoyed this book, and would highly recommend it not just for gardeners, but for individuals who have an interest in the interplay between nature and humanity.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read OneHow to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The sentence is the unit of writing at which beauty resides. So, while sentences might not be the sexiest scale of writing, it’s worth learning how to do them well. Stanley Fish offers a book which explores why we should care about the sentence and what separates the good and bad of sentences, before it moves into investigation of various types of sentences.

The first four chapters lay the groundwork by explaining what it is about sentences that make them worth mastering, and then outlines what makes a good sentence (while simultaneously explaining how truly great sentence construction might not come about through the sources and approaches that one has been led to expect.)

Chapters five through ten examine a few different classifications of sentences. Chapters five and six contrast the subordinating style with the additive style. The former sentences are hierarchically arranged, while the latter offers the freer / less ordered approach. Each of the two approaches has its advantages. The former make up many of the pithy bits of wisdom transmitted through sentence, while the latter supports a streaming consciousness style of writing (if done well.)

Chapter seven considers satire by sentence. Chapters nine and ten turn to a different classification scheme: first and last sentences, respectively. Both first and last sentences are disproportionately remembered, and each has a unique role in written works. The final chapter is about sentences that are self-reflective.

Throughout the book, Fish uses sentences – some famous and others from famous works – to offer the reader exemplars of the craft. The general approach is a good deal less technical and more reflective than most books on the subject. This makes Fish’s book both more readable, but also more contentious (in as much as a discussion of sentences can be contentious) than related works.

I’d recommend this book for writers and those interested in crafting language.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master StorytellerThe Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Whether a story works or not is often clear to small children and demented lunatics. Why a story does or doesn’t work requires a level of technical understanding not much less complex than that required to know why an internal combustion engine is or isn’t working. Why? Story structure rests invisibly below the surface (except to the writer and those who mine for it, and sometimes even to them,) and structure is where the story wins or fails.

John Truby’s book systematically explores what components are necessary to have an appealing story, and how those components are best arranged. It’s written for writers, allowing one to systematically proceed through the chapters in order to build a detailed outline of one’s story, but it could be beneficial for those who want to understand story in contexts other than writing (e.g. business uses, film-making, etc.)

As the subtitle mentions, Truby’s model of story revolves around a 22-step framework. It should be noted that this division is neither the only one imaginable, nor the only one that works. There are numerous great books on story available, and most have their own unique ways of organizing the details. While some authors focus heavily on screenplay versus the novel versus other story forms, Truby keeps his approach generalizable. Like others, he uses examples from both film and classic novels. Having said that Truby’s way isn’t the only way, it is a way that works, and it’s among the most popular works on story building.

While would-be writers may seek out books that focus on “concrete” issues, i.e. building character details, describing setting, plotting actions, etc., this book keeps eyes on the conceptual details that make or break a story. That is, the story consists of a flawed character with a need who experiences a chain of events or trials that results in him or her having a revelation and coming away changed. This is not to suggest that Truby doesn’t investigate issues like character development and creation of setting (there is a chapter each for those issues,) but he does so always with an eye to how one takes that character from a psychological and moral need through to a revelation, coming away somehow changed. I don’t want to make the book sound boring because it focuses on concepts like moral need, theme, and symbolism. Such concepts are what good stories are built upon. If one wonders why even movies with blockbuster budgets sometimes fail, it’s often because they lack such a conceptual framework.

The book consists of eleven chapters. The first sets up the idea of story and how stories work. The second chapter is about the premise of the story, the one-line idea that shapes the happenings of the story. Chapter three describes seven key steps of story, the seven are added to / expounded upon to develop the aforementioned 22 steps. The seven steps are: 1.) weakness & need, 2.) desire, 3.) opponent, 4.) plan, 5.) battle, 6.) self-revelation, 7.) new equilibrium.

The fourth chapter is about characters. However, it’s more about arranging characters in webs of interaction and considering them as archetypes in order to advance the story, rather than the usual types of advice on making unique characters. Chapter five is about the moral argument being made by the story. The hero’s path from need to revelation will reflect some sort of moral lesson. The sixth chapter is about story world, which other books might call “setting.” Again, the approach remains focused on advancing the story, and not on picking a time and place that seems neat or interesting for their own sake.

Chapter seven delves into territory that one doesn’t see in every book of writing advice, and that’s symbolism. The chapter describes building a symbol web that – like the story world – advances the feeling one is trying to create in the story. Chapter eight is about plot, and it fleshes out the seven key steps mentioned above to offer the full 22-step model. Chapters nine and ten discuss scene, the individual events happening in a story at a given time and place. The first deals with what Truby calls “scene weave” or how scenes are organized to create optimal tension. The penultimate chapter is about how individual scenes are constructed to advance the story. Chapter ten also explains how dialogue is most effectively written. The final chapter is a brief conclusion that explains how stories with good structure maintain relevance.

The book uses text-boxes, graphics, and notes as necessary.

I found this book to be tremendously useful. Truby spends a lot of time using well-known examples from film and literature to explore how the masters put together stories, and that benefits the reader greatly. 22 steps sounds like an unduly complex approach, but it works, especially as the focus remains so tightly on the hero’s arc. I’d highly recommend this book for writers, and anyone else who needs to understand story at a detailed level.

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BOOK REVIEW: Eats MORE, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Eats More, Shoots & Leaves: Why, All Punctuation Marks Matter!Eats More, Shoots & Leaves: Why, All Punctuation Marks Matter! by Lynne Truss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Coming out: October 22, 2019

This children’s book shows kids what can go awry for want of properly placed punctuation. Lynne Truss’s popular and humorous grammar guide has spun off a cottage industry of books designed to shift perception of grammar studies from brutally dull to witty and fun.

The book is simple and easy to use. Throughout most of the book, each page consists of two pictures, each captioned with a sentence that describes said picture. The captioning sentences consist of the same words in the same order, but differently punctuated. Often, one of the plates is punctuated to make a perfectly logical picture; whereas, the other is absurd. However, other times both meanings are reasonable, but substantially different. Some of the sentences are grammatical oldies but goodies (e.g. “Eat here and get gas.”) but most are more original. There are a few pages upon which a larger multi-part picture is drawn with three or four captions.

The book’s only other feature is a sentence that explains the difference between the captions. Said sentence is written upside-down in small print below each plate, and is presumably a cheat code for parents who haven’t brushed up on “Strunk & White” in a while. Besides missing Oxford commas (i.e. the titular problem,) the book demonstrates miscommunications based on missing or misplaced apostrophes, semi-colons, parentheses, and exclamation marks.

The only surprise was finding “dog’s” used as a contraction for “dog is.” I was under the impression that that apostrophization could only be a possessive (i.e. “dog’s bone” is a bone that belongs to a dog) and only specified pronouns got apostrophe-“s” as a contraction. Don’t get me wrong, I employ such contractions all the time in poetry — mostly to preserve meter — but poets love to infuriate grammarians.

Though it’s intended for kids, I enjoyed reading this book, and found it to be a nice review of punctuation that didn’t require getting too cerebral. I’d recommend it for parents, and for those who want to hit the highlights of punctuation in less than a half an hour (it’s only about 30 pages.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I think it can be argued that this will be one of the most influential nonfiction books of this decade (it came out in 2012.) I say that not only as an introvert, but as one who has seen how confused and muddled introversion has been – not only among extroverts of the general public, but also among those who should have a firm grasp on the subject, namely psychologists and introverts, themselves.

Introversion is frequently confused with a number of different conditions and temperaments with which it may or may not occur in large overlap. The most common mix up is with social anxiety, which can occur in conjunction with introversion but can also occur in extroverts. While social anxiety may be more common among introverts, it’s important to note that – like any anxiety – it’s possible to reduce it through various approaches (but one will still be introverted if one was to begin with.) I believe Cain’s book (and the wave of books and talks that have come since) has done a great deal to reduce the confusion about what characteristics are in fact highly correlated with introversion and which ones are just lumped together in the public consciousness because they seem to involve being less adroit in social situations (i.e. everything from shyness to Asperger’s.)

There is a growing change in approaches to introversion, and I think it owes a lot to this book. The go-to advice for introverts of: “just behave more like an extrovert” is on the decline, and is increasingly being replaced with a clearer understanding of how introverts should manage their time and efforts to get the most out of life. [It should be noted that, if one is talking about pretending to be more extroverted for a short time frame and for a particular purpose, said advice is not so bad.] However, as advice for how to arrange and conduct one’s life day in and day out, it’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s not just a disaster for the introverts. If one is responsible for leading or managing a business, it’s a recipe for under-performing a firm’s potential. If you’re a teacher, it’s a recipe for turning smart kids off of school. And, if you’re a parent, it’s a recipe for handicapping your child. More and more, business leaders are beginning to realize that there are gains to be had from allowing employees to tailor their work schedule and mode of conducting business to their temperament. Educators are finding that a more balanced approach to lessons reaches more students with greater effectiveness.

The book is organized into eleven chapters. It begins with an introduction that not only sets up the topic but also tells the story of Rosa Parks – one of modern American history’s most well-known introverts. [The story of this civil rights leader is no doubt told in part to try to break the stereotype of the introvert as a milquetoast person lacking lead in his or her pencil.] Cain employs stories about renowned introverts from Albert Einstein to Mohandas Gandhi to Steve Wozniak to Brian Little. The latter might not be so renowned outside of academia, but he’s included because few who attend the lectures of this award-winning professor would suspect he’s an introvert.

Chapter one discusses this world made for extroverts that introverts find themselves living in. The second chapter rebuts the myth that leadership and extroversion are inextricably linked, discussing examples of introverts who excelled in leadership (of course, there are no shortage of examples of extremely charismatic and gregarious individuals who’ve once and truly run enterprises into the ground.) Chapter three discusses the breakthroughs that have often come about through solitude and a work environment that allowed individuals to focus on tasks for long periods at a time without interruption or distraction (instead of the standard work approach that involves a constant refrain of “collaboration” and which breaks up work days willy-nilly with meetings of dubious usefulness.)

Chapters four and five focus on two lenses through which researchers have investigated introversion. Together, the chapters ask whether temperament is destiny, and, if not, to what degree and how one can move beyond it. The first lens is “sensitivity.” In this case, the word sensitivity is not being used as it’s most commonly used these days – meaning becoming highly emotional about trivial events. Rather it’s about how aware one is of subtle stimulation, and – given there are limits to processing stimuli – how prone one is to becoming overstimulated (since one takes in more.) The second lens, which one might relate to the first, is “high- versus low-reactivity.” That is, chapter five focuses on a study that observed how responsive children were to stimulation and what influence that had on the children’s temperament. [Note: it should be pointed out that these factors aren’t considered synonymous with introversion, and there are some who bemoan the fact that they have become so with the popularity of Cain’s book.]

Chapter six explores a famous mixed couple (extrovert and introvert,) Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. While Eleanor was highly introverted, she is often considered one of the most influential first ladies of the twentieth century. (Which isn’t to comment on the controversial claim that toward the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, she was running the show because he was ill and lacked the energy to comply with the intense energy demands of the Oval Office.) The contrasting nature of this power couple yields interesting insights.

Chapter seven shows how an introvert’s more cautious approach to risk and reward often leads them to come out on top in turbulent times, while more reward chasing extroverts may get stuck in a cycle of buying high and panic selling low. The 2008 economic downturn was clearly fresh in mind when Cain was preparing this book, and there was lots of material about those who best weathered the storm and why. Warren Buffett, a noted introvert famous for his cautious but profit-making investment strategy, is used as an example.

Chapter eight shows how the extrovert’s world is not universal while discussing Asian approaches to education. This chapter shows the inversion between Eastern and Western approaches. Famously, there is Laozi’s saying: “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.” This is in stark contrast to modern American institutions, which often overestimate the intelligence of those who yammer and underestimate the intelligence of those who hold their tongues.

Chapter nine explores the question of when and how introverts should behave in a more extroverted way. This is the chapter that discusses Brian Little – the Professor who is a veritable scholarly rock star but who knows how to manage his introversion. His story provides a nice example of how introverts can get the job done without necessarily appearing awkward, overwhelmed, or run down — if they learn how to manage their time and interactions. Chapter ten discusses the differences in approach to communication and how it can be managed.

The last chapter may be the most important. It’s about recognizing introversion in children and helping them get the most out of a world in which the decks remain stacked against them. The chapter is titled “On Cobblers and Generals,” which refers to a story that begins the chapter. In the story, a man who enters heaven asks St. Peter if he can speak with the world’s greatest General. St. Peter points out a man who the recently departed man happens to recognize as a man who mended shoes for a living. When the man points out that there must be some mistake, he’s told that the cobbler would have been the greatest military mind in history if only his talent had been recognized and nurtured.

As is no doubt clear, I found this book to be tremendously well-written and beneficial. I would recommend it for anyone who is a leader, a parent, a teacher, or a person – be they introvert or extrovert – who would benefit from knowing how a misunderstood segment of society clicks.

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BOOK REVIEW: Anxious Joseph E. LeDoux

Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and AnxietyAnxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety by Joseph E. LeDoux
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines the neuroscience of anxiety, though psychology also makes a prominent appearance in the discussion – particularly toward the end of the book. It’s written by one of the top researchers in the field emotional neuroscience, though LeDoux discusses the work of other labs, comparing and contrasting their work with that of his own, and thus giving an idea of the fault lines in the field. (By that I mean more the questions that remain in dispute, not who hates whom.)

The book addresses a number of key questions such as: How does brain activity result in the emotional experience? How do conscious emotional feelings relate to and interact with non-conscious responses to threatening stimuli? Is the human emotional experience a hand over from animal ancestors or a uniquely human condition? How effective are drug-based versus psycho-therapeutic approaches to anxiety disorders? What has been learned about extinguishing anxious responses to threatening stimuli? Needless to say, this book doesn’t answer all the questions, as many of the questions – particularly those regarding consciousness – remain to be definitively answered. It does offer a great overview of the state of understanding in the present day.

I won’t present a chapter by chapter outline, but rather a look at the book’s general flow. LeDoux starts by laying groundwork, and in this case that means clarifying the relationship between fear and anxiety. While the former often captures the imagination because of its dramatic and traumatic causes, the latter is more of a concern as its grinding long-term effects can cripple the immune system and have other adverse effects. The early chapters also discuss what has been learned about how emotions are formed in the brain and how views about this have changed over time.

Chapter five is where LeDoux explores the relationship between animal emotionality and human emotional life. This is an important subject as it relates to the question of whether research with animals can teach us anything relevant to the human experience. As it has become progressively more difficult to conduct any research that causes human subjects any emotional distress, this question may be instrumental to making progress in the field.

Chapters six through eight are interconnected by the question of consciousness. Chapter six discusses the nature of consciousness, which remains one of the most slippery and least understood concepts in the natural world. Chapter seven delves into memory and consciousness – an important topic as anxious responses can be viewed as learned responses and this begs the question of unlearning. Memory will later be revisited with respect to the question of whether it’s possible to erase painful or anxiety-inducing memories (ala, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) – based on work that came out of LeDoux’s lab – and, if so, whether it’s a good idea. The final consciousness chapter gets into consciousness of emotion, specifically (as opposed to all the other thoughts and feelings of which one can be consciously aware.)

The last three chapters are also interconnected by movement from the question of how is anxiety felt / experienced to the question of what one can do about it. The first of these chapters discusses an epidemic of anxiety (entitled “40 million anxious minds,” and that refers to the US alone) and what has been learned about drug-based treatments. As it happens, drug-based treatments haven’t proven reliably effective, leaving plenty of room for other approaches, e.g. psychotherapy. This fact is the basis for the last two chapters that discuss different approaches to extinguishing the connection between a stimulus and the anxious response. The first of theses chapters (ch.10) is more general and the last chapter dives deep into the research that has been done in recent years. Chapter 11 also offers a nice discussion of how breath exercises and meditation can be instrumental in reducing the adverse effects of anxiety.

As would be expected of a scholarly work, the book is heavily annotated, has an extensive bibliography, and uses a great number of graphics in an attempt to lend clarity.

I would put this work in the same category as the works of Robert Sapolsky. That is to say, it resides in a space between the level of detail usually seen in works of popular science and that which is seen in textbooks for specialists. That is to say, LeDoux does get into some detail and this isn’t a light read for anyone without a heavy-duty background in biological sciences. That said, if you have a basic scientific literacy (and / or don’t care too much about the fine detail), it’s by no means impossibly dense. When it’s not diving into the various brain regions and neuronal pathways, it’s quite readable.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a detailed look at how anxiety arises and how it can be quelled.

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BOOK REVIEW: Bonk by Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Mary Roach specializes in nonfiction on quirky topics that offer plenty of opportunities for humor – if of an uncomfortable variety of humor. Few topics hit those marks better than sex, especially when it is juxtaposed with science. Sex has a long history of being on the fringes of scientific study because the value judgments society applies to the topic makes it hard to attract both scientists and subjects, and when neither are lacking there is the matter of convincing agencies and institutions to fund one’s work. On the other hand, there is both demand for better information about sex and a great deal of potential for earnings to be gained by making both the experience and result of sex better or more reliable (more or less fertility as is desired.) All this has led to sex and science becoming strange bedfellows — that have sometimes let in pseudo-science for an awkward threesome.

Roach presents a wide variety of studies from famous early scholars like Kinsey and Masters & Johnson to obscure present-day scientists like the Egyptian researcher who has to find prostitutes to have intercourse with inflated condoms in order to study nerve reflexes in the female nether regions. Sometimes, the research involves animals, as in the case of researchers trying to determine whether the female orgasm draws semen up further toward the Fallopian tubes by studying pigs, or studies of mating rituals of monkeys and how they compare and contrast to those of humans. Though most often the studies are human-centric and ask questions such as: why do a few women orgasm with excessive (and, unfortunately, embarrassing) ease, while too many others have difficulty achieving that result at all? And, why aren’t sex toys better designed to achieve their objective?

I give Roach bonus points on a couple of grounds. First, there is the plentiful combination of humor and fun facts that make the book extremely readable. Second, Roach takes some personal risk when, for example, taking part in an imaging study with her husband that involved intimacy in an MRI. That is not even to mention the many things she must have seen that she can never unsee on her global tour that took her to places like Taiwan and Egypt as well as to conventions and research parks across the US.

It should be pointed out that there are important and serious topics being addressed by the science in the book, issues like: erectile dysfunction, sexual dissatisfaction (and its adverse effects upon relationships), and fertility difficulties. So, it’s not all jokes and quirky facts. Solutions to problems (surgical, pharmaceutical, and even psychological) are discussed, though there is a lot of basic science to consider as well. (For the less scientifically oriented, basic science is that which doesn’t have a specific objective, but is rather to enhance understanding so that further down the road economically and practically viable solutions can be achieved. The lack of specific objective means this type of science can be particularly tricky to get funded. It also makes for some of the more amusing anecdotes because – unlike painful issues of persistent genital arousal disorder or erectile dysfunction – its easier to form jokes about penis cameras and romancing a sow.)

The book consists of fifteen chapters. As is common in Roach’s book, there’s not an obvious organizational schema – except the first chapter which is a bit more general and the last which answers the old question, “who has more fun, and why?” [except the answer isn’t “blondes or redheads” but rather heterosexual or homosexual couples.] That said, there is a grouping of male genitalia (ch. 6-8) versus female genitalia (ch. 9-12) studies. There are some photos (not particularly graphic) as well as endnotes and references.

I found this book to be fascinating and highly readable, and would recommend it for anyone with an interest in anatomy and physiology, or in sex for that matter.

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BOOK REVIEW: Psychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns & Eva Burns-Lundgren

Psychotherapy: A Very Short IntroductionPsychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The word “psychotherapy” conjures images of a patient on a burgundy recamier-style couch, a psychoanalyst in a matching stuffed armchair, neither one looking at the other as the analyst uses terse questions and monosyllabic acknowledgements to coax out the patient’s problems through interrogation about his or her childhood. While that approach, Freudian psychoanalysis, stubbornly maintains a following, there have blossomed many other varieties of therapy using talk as a tool to ease maladies of the mind. This “Very Short Introduction,” put out by Oxford University Press as part of a large and diverse series with the same subtitle, presents an overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy and its less formal cousin, counselling.

The book consists of eight chapters, and begins with a preface. The preface covers various and sundry topics useful for the reader, but most importantly it takes a step back from psychotherapy to situate this therapeutic approach in a context of psychology and psychiatry, which are subjects often confused in the popular mindset.

Chapter one continues with the basics by defining psychotherapy and offering a thumbnail of the various approaches that will be expanded upon throughout the book. The second chapter pays homage to Freud and his psychoanalytic approach. The authors maintain a diplomatic approach to psychoanalysis though it has fallen on hard times for a number of reasons, both practical (e.g. it’s a huge drain on time, often involving five hours a week for months or even years) and theoretical (e.g. it places a great deal of emphasis on the past, whereas many currently popular approaches favor the present as the relevant time.)

Chapter three explores a number of post-Freudian psychotherapists including Jung, Adler, and Erik Erikson. Chapter four moves on to what is called “Time-Limited Therapy.” As suggested in the preceding paragraph, psychoanalysis placed huge demands on a patient’s [and therapist’s] time and could go on and on with no end in sight. Time-limited therapies focused more on finding a present-day solution for the current problem, and not so much ceaselessly trolling one’s distant past for traumas.

Chapter five is about counselling, which is very much related to psychotherapy in that it involves getting a person to talk out his or her problems. The difference is that it needn’t necessarily involve a therapist with extensive training, but rather someone briefed and / or sensitive enough to know how not to become sidetracked into dangerous territory. Chapter six discusses cognitive behavioral therapy, its principles, and its variations (such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT], which combines elements of Buddhist mindfulness with the cognitive behavioral therapy approach to form a popular and successful therapeutic approach.) Cognitive behavioral therapy is rooted in the premise that distorted thoughts cause emotional and behavioral problems, and that one must address the thought to change the outcome. It also famously requires “homework” to be done between sessions rather than the work being contained within sessions.

Chapter seven moves away from the one-on-one therapy discussed so far, and investigates the various ways in which therapy can be carried out in groups. Groups can be beneficial because they allow the patient to see that they aren’t unique in their woes, which people often believe themselves to be. Family therapy is also discussed as it all allows family members to chip away at their problems as a familial unit. Also, there are numerous interactive forms of therapy in which patients might use various art forms to work out their problems.

The last chapter looks at where psychotherapy stands, and where it appears to be going. One of the important considerations discussed is the influence the advance of neuroscience is having on therapy. For few decades since the famous decade of the brain (i.e. the 90’s,) neuroscience has dominated the discussion of the realm of the mind. There has been less-and-less thinking in psychological terms and more and more in physiological terms. However, there still seems to be a widespread belief that solutions need to combine a recognition of both areas.

Like other books in the series, this one employs a variety of graphics (cartoon, photographic, and diagrammatic), and it also presents brief references and further reading sections to help the reader continue his or her study through other works.

This book offers a solid overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy. I would recommend it for neophytes who need to start with a concise outline of the field.

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