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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5 Melancholic Works of Nonfiction You Should Read

5.) Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl: Deep life lessons learned inside a Nazi death camp.

 

4.) Being Mortal by Atul Gawande: A medical doctor discusses how living longer doesn’t necessarily mean living better, and what that can mean for one’s final years.

 

3.) When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: Contemplations on the meaning of life from a doctor who was dying from a terminal illness, and who succumbed before completion of the book.

 

2.) The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby: The story of a man who developed Locked-In Syndrome in the wake of a severe stroke and couldn’t move a muscle, save one eyelid.

 

1.) First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung: The title captures the family level tragedy of Pol Pot’s rule, but the book conveys something of the national tragedy as well.

BOOK REVIEW: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell And The ButterflyThe Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If it had been written under ordinary circumstances, this would be a fine book. It offers some beautiful imagery and language, and – more importantly — is heartfelt, touching, and nakedly honest. But it wasn’t written under ordinary circumstances, which makes it an astounding book. Its author suffered a severe stroke that, after leaving him in a coma for a time, resulted in a condition called “Locked-In Syndrome,” which resulted in his inability to move any part of his body save his left eyelid. It was by moving this eyelid that he painstakingly dictated the book. As one might suspect, the book is concise and sparse in tone, but it read like that could have been a stylistic choice, rather than a necessity.

The title becomes less nebulous once you know it’s about a man with Locked-In Syndrome. The diving-bell represents his body, a clunky cumbersome entity that limited his perception to narrow slices of the world. The butterfly is his mind, which remained free to go anywhere and create anything he could imagine. Some of what I found most fascinating about the book was the author’s discussion of the mental world he created. Though the book deals even more extensively with how the condition changed his interaction with people. Loneliness is a central theme. Because of the severity of the condition, he is restricted to a special facility and can only see his children on weekends. While his children are the most important to him, he also reflects back to people that he worked with in his role as a magazine editor or who he counted as friends.

The organization is not strictly chronological, and I felt this was beneficial. By presenting flashbacks to before he was injured and, eventually, to when he had his stroke, he broke up the tragedy to keep it from becoming overwhelming.

I found the book to be extremely powerful. I would highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fungi: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas P. Money

Fungi: A Very Short IntroductionFungi: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas P. Money
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Bear with me. Fungi might sound like the most brutally boring topic on the planet, but hopefully by the end of the review you’ll be convinced it’s worth learning at least 125 pages about the basics of these unexpectedly powerful organisms. Regardless of whether you agree with people like Paul Stamets who suggest that if the planet is to be saved, the solution will no doubt hinge on fungi, (FYI – Dr. Money, author of this book, explicitly urges caution about such grand hopes) there’s no denying that these musty denizens of the forest floor (and almost everywhere else) are profoundly important to humanity. From taking out the trash in their role as decomposers to serving as the key ingredient in medicines to helping us digest foods to allowing us to make beer and bread, fungi can be greatly beneficial. They can also be legendarily deadly.

This book gives an overview of fungi with special emphasis on their interaction with the world. The book consists of eight chapters. The first three of these chapters look at the members of the Kingdom more or less in isolation, and the rest of the chapters delve more into how fungi interact with ecosystems and other organisms. Chapter one discusses what fungi are exactly, and what defines members of this kingdom. Given that most people only think of the fruiting bodies of certain kinds of fungus (e.g. the button or shitake mushrooms they get at the supermarket), being explicit about what separates fungus from other organisms is useful. This leads into the second chapter, which explores the huge diversity of this kingdom. The third chapter explores the genetics and life-cycle of fungi. All of these chapters are limited by the fact that there are far too many varieties of fungi to dive into specifics, given how wildly divergent they can be.

The other five chapters explore how fungi interact, and these chapters also move from more general interaction to those specific to mammals in general and to humans, specifically. Chapter four is entitled “Fungal Mutualisms” and it introduces how fungi interact with other species. Specifically, the chapter focus on interactions that are mutually helpful or at least not harmful to either party. Parasitic relationships, in which one participant (specifically plants) is damaged by the relationship, are saved for their own chapter — five. Chapter six investigates the role that fungi are perhaps most known and beloved for, decomposition.

The last two chapters deal with fungal interactions with animals, with specific emphasis on how they benefit or hinder humans. Chapter seven considers how fungi contribute to health or illness in animals. The reader learns about the good (e.g. contributions to digestion), the bad (e.g. infections) and the trippy (psychedelic mushrooms and derivatives – e.g. LSD comes from ergot fungus.) The final chapter explores edible mushrooms and the fungal role in biotechnology, including: pharmacology, fermentation, and bio-fuel production.

The book has many graphics that consist mostly of line drawings but include a few frames microscope photography. There is also a brief “Further Reading” section that suggests other books as well as websites.

I’d recommend this book as a first step to learning more about fungi. It won’t help with things like identification, but it’s a nice overview of a surprisingly broad topic for a neophyte. As is common with this series from the Oxford University Press, there’s not a lot of room for long stories that might make the reading more entertaining, and so it’s probably not the most engrossing book one can find on the topic, but it’s likely one of the most concise and accurate.

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