Category Archives: Non fiction

** The State of Affairs by Esther Perel

Esther Perel claims that affairs can have positive consequences, but judging from the many dozens of stories of intense pain, destruction, and resentment contained in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (stories contrasted with only a handful of positive ones), it seems that infidelity continues to be a very bad idea. The strength of the book seems to be more in the willingness to take an honest look at the taboo, and explore the mindset of both affair participants and victims almost clinically, without judgment or preconceptions.

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*** Scienceblind by Andrew Shtulman

If you don’t already suspect it before reading Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong, we humans are often very, very ignorant and wrong about the way things work. The author takes us, chapter by chapter, through physics and biology and shows that, at every age, we fall prey to preconceptions and plain misunderstandings of what we supposedly learned. (He is very kind and gives us examples of confused graduate physics students so we don’t feel so bad!)

He also tries to lay out recommendations for how to bridge the gap and is less successful at that (for one thing, his specialty is psychology, not physics or biology). Still, it seems that STEM courses should spend a little more time contrasting the truth with common preconceptions rather than just solving equations. The problem seems to be the intersection of “common” sense and technical knowledge.

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** Making Sense by David Crystal

David Crystal is at it again, this time not with words but with grammar. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, and he starts, charmingly, with stories about his daughter’s building up her communication skills from single words to sentences. It works pretty well, for the first few chapters, and then peters out, of course. There are amusing tidbits such as why Latin grammarians invented the genitive case (misunderstanding the Greek origin, ha!), and why Irish speakers might say “I’m after giving him a lift”. And the overall feeling that trying to force language into neat categories and rules is by definition a doomed errand.

Perfect for grammar nerds.

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*** Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, despite its title, is not a self-help book, but a serious book written by a scientist who has spent his life studying sleep — and is firmly convinced, as I am, that good things come to people who sleep long and well.

The author provides many examples of  studies that show that poor sleep wrecks memories, destroys healthy eating, makes us susceptible to diseases, and overall turns us into blubbering idiots (and blubbering idiots that do not know they are blubbering idiots, to boot!) Interestingly, the exact mechanisms of sleep are not well understood, even though the consequences are.

So, good night! (Sadly, there are no magic tricks to it, just the old boring techniques of sleeping at regular hours, long enough, avoiding caffeine, etc.)

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*** Drunks by Christopher Finan

Alcoholics have always been with us, but the author of Drunks: An American History reminds us that early America saw alcoholism as a moral failure, while we tend to classify it as a disease, one that’s similar to diabetes or hypertension both in its origin and its resistance to treatment. Along the way, we meet Native Americans early abstainers, physicians with doubtful and lucrative cures, prohibitionists, and of course AA.  I found the history fascinating.

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** The Influential Mind by Tali Sharot

Written by an academic, The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others explores sometimes counter-intuitive studies that show that our peculiar, not-so-rational minds can be influenced by the right stories or by the emotions of others (rather than rational statistics), while we knowingly ignore information that does not conform to our preconceived ideas, We also prefer being in control (even when letting someone else make decisions for us would be preferable), and we want to get information early but if it’s likely to be bad, we withdraw instead.

I would have wished to see a bit more connective tissue between the various chapters, and connecting the results to practical actions, but it’s an enjoyable read.

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** Admissions by Henry Marsh

Following Do No HarmAdmissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon revisits some of the same materials, but, written from the perspective of recent retirement, explores more sweeping themes, some reprising the familiar rants against poor hospital administration and others new, such as his view on training new surgeons. The author continues to display deep emotion for this work and his patient, which is very heartwarming — and at the same time he is not afraid to share episodes of his wicked temper.

The narrative meanders occasionally, too much to my taste but it’s much better than any gripping hospital drama.

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