science

Review: Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande

I believe strongly that doctors are women and men who work in a health-care facility of some kind, including Being Mortalhospitals, clinics, shelters, combat support hospitals, etc. Doctors, ahem, do not host talk shows. Medicine is a challenging, ever-evolving field of study and practice. One cannot be both a practicing doctor and a television personality.

That is, unless you are Atul Gawande.

On Feb. 10, PBS will break this rule when the Frontline documentary crew shadows the surgeon, author and New Yorker writer. The show is a tie-in with Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal, which chronicles the history and current state of end-of-life care, an issue that’s come to the fore through the proposing and passing of “death with dignity” initiatives in many states. Gawande takes us inside the nursing home, assisted living communities, to learn what these institutions are getting right and getting wrong, and to offer a view of the alternatives, such as hospice.

I have enjoyed most of Gawande’s writing, but I believe he’s surpassed his previous successes with Being Mortal. While his other books have been intimate and instructive, there is greater depth here that opens the author to his audience as never before. As the book progresses, it becomes a memoir, of sorts, of his father’s final years, a touching, factual documentation that delivers a bold-stroke illustration of his argument without overshadowing the narrative.

The focus of the book, however, is not on Gawande or his family. It is on the thousands of families struggling with end-of-life issues everyday. An indirect consequence of medical progress, Gawande argues, is that extending life has overshadowed sustaining quality of life, and in modern times, we have the luxury of distancing ourselves from our mortality.

“Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the ‘dying role’ and its importance to people as life approaches its end,” Gawande writes.

Being Mortal begins with a scholarly frame: the author calls up one of my favorite books, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, drawing attention to the relationship between the titular character and his butler, Gerasim. Without falling down the rabbit hole of Tolstoy’s existential treatise, the takeaway for Gawande is at what point do we stop pursuing cures (which agonized Ilyich) and provide comfort instead (as offered by Gerasim).

As Gawande puts it: “…it is clear that there are times when the cost of pushing exceeds its value.”

Defining when it’s that time is an uncomfortable topic, and as the author explains, it leads to many difficult conversations, but is important for the benefit of the dying as well as their caretakers.

The Frontline episode should be fantastic, as the show usually is, and will hopefully wean Americans off the junk food of television doctors Oz, Phil, et al. and snake-oil salesmen like Eben Alexander.

Instead of junk food, Gawande gives us science, history and heart in a page-turning treatise on the way we die now, and how we could do it better.

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Review: Is There Life After Football?

Is There Life After Football?: Surviving the NFL

James A. Holstein, Richard S. Jones and George E. Koonce, Jr.Is There Life After Football

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but in one night I met two athletes who would become prominent figures in the modern NFL concussion narrative: Mike Webster and Jack Tatum. At the time, Tatum was recently retired, but Webbie was still playing for my hometown Steelers, and of the seven or so players I met at this banquet, these are the only two I remember.

Because I bleed black and gold, I was happy to meet Webster. I remember him being incredibly friendly, shaking hands with both my father and me and penning a thoughtful autograph. But as cool as that was, I was really excited to meet the notorious Tatum, the icon of NFL villainy for permanently paralyzing wide receiver Darryl Stingley.

This had earned Tatum one of the coolest sports nicknames of all time, and he was at this banquet promoting the first of his three autobiographies, They Call Me Assassin.

Tatum didn’t just look mean–the air around him chilled, the energy darkened. Something repulsive oozed off of him and kept the crowd at a distance. He didn’t crack a smile, had none of Webster’s warmth. When I handed him my autograph sheet he literally just signed his name. No message, no greeting. Just “Jack Tatum.” He was terrifying, and I came away from that encounter star-struck.

Of course, my opinions of both men are much different now.

Nevertheless, both men symbolize the celebrity and consequence of football’s golden age: Tatum the intimidating aggressor whose ferocity and win-at-all-costs mentality are prized attributes and Webster the tough-as-nails scrapper who attained on-field glory at the cost of his mind, body and dignity off of it.

In the past decade, we’ve learned about the long-term health risks of playing professional football. With every early death, suicide and descent into darkness and bankruptcy, it becomes more difficult to enjoy a Sunday slugfest with a clear conscience. In another two decades, we may not recognize professional football, because we’re just now recognizing the toll it takes on its players.

An important new book on the subject, Is There Life After Football?, considers not only the physical and neurological toll of the sport, but also the psychological impact of job-mandated violence, short careers, and the wild financial swings common among players.

Penned by two sociologists and an unexpected scholar (former Green Bay Packers star George Koonce–that is, Dr. George Koonce), Is There Life After Football? provides a sobering and insightful view of this transition through the personal anecdotes of Koonce and the research of Holstein and Jones. Most jarring is Koonce’s admission of a reckless act at the end of his career. It wasn’t exactly a suicide attempt, but he did drive his car off the road just to see what would happen.

This anecdote is all the more poignant when considering the recent driving death of Rob Bironas.

Though not as accessible as the prose styles of Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis, the authors do a great job of distilling difficult material into a digestible form. It’s also a treat to read for anyone who enjoyed watching those plucky Packers of the 1990s. Juxtaposing those dynamic teams with Koonce’s experiences gives the book a Behind the Music vibe.

The takeaway is the same. Just as those we see on stage and screen are real people, so too are the men behind the facemasks.

Perhaps in a box, somewhere, at my parents’ house is a slip of paper with Webster and Tatum’s autographs. If I ever find it, I’ll frame it, perhaps donate it to a museum, where it can memorialize a different time, alongside bare-knuckle boxing and Crack the Whip as American pastimes whose time has passed.

Best of 2014

Happy New Year, coming to you live from gate B-11 at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (en route from Pittsburgh to Denver).

Tis the season for arbitrary year-end best-of lists. Even the New York Times, with its battalion of bookworms, can’t cover and judge all new titles. I read more than 50 books this year, more than 30 of which were new releases. From this tiny sample, how can I present a definitive list of best books of the year? 

What I can do is highlight the finest books that reached my nightstand or my Nook. So here, in no particular ranking, are my top reads of 2014.

Spectacular Science Writing

The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things FunnyThe Humor Code

Joel Warner and Peter McGraw

“We’re here to explore the dark side of humor, how comedy can divide and degrade,” write Warner and McGraw. “Here,” in this case, is Denmark, but also Japan, Palestine, Peru and beyond. For more than two years, this odd couple of comedy—Warner a journalist (Westword, Wired, Slate) and McGraw a humor researcher/marketing instructor (at the University of Colorado at Boulder)—traveled the world to learn what incites nasal milk projectiles in other cultures.

Specifically, the intrepid twosome tested whether McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory (BVT) of humor applied to an international audience.

For that, Warner and McGraw visit a humor science library in Japan; deliver clown therapy to a Peruvian barrio alongside Patch Adams; interview notorious Danish cartoonists; participate in laughter yoga (yes, that’s a thing); attend comedy festivals; and McGraw even gives stand-up comedy a try in Denver’s toughest room.

That’s a lot to fit into a single book, but you’ll want to read every word. The Humor Code is an engaging blend of science writing, travel writing and narrative nonfiction. This is one of the best books you will read this year, and it is deserving of major awards.

The Tale of the Dueling NeurosurgeonsThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a brisk and engrossing read, and Sam Kean’s most impressive yet. He digs deep into the archives of psychology to discover little-known and sometimes forgotten gems that have had a great impact on modern science. You will laugh. You will learn. At times you will pick your jaw off the floor and ask yourself, “That happened?”

If you’ve never read Sam Kean, start now. You will devour all three of his books in a week. If you’re a longtime fan, prepare to be wowed once again.

And if you’re a judge for any of the big literary prizes, in the name of all that is just and good, start etching Sam’s name into the trophy.

Faith and Wisdom in Science

Tom McLeishfaith and wisdom in science

McLeish explores the history of both scientific discovery and biblical narrative, finding commonalities in the ways humans in each arena are awestruck and inspired by the natural world. There is room, he argues, for the sublime in science. The earliest scientific studies were not the cold, heavily controlled research we have today, he writes, but passionate probes of the natural world. There has since developed a rift between the science and humanities. Science got custody of the brain in the divorce, and humanities, the heart.

If you still feel the sublimity of mountain peaks, marvel at existence at the subatomic level or can be moved to tears by a sunrise, you’ll enjoy Faith and Wisdom in Science.

 

Dystopian Literature

Justice, Inc.

Dale Bridgesjustice-inc-cover

In the introduction to his short story collection, Justice, Inc., Bridges prepares us for the satirical rapture he is about to unleash: God, discouraged by his failed attempts to kill off the human race, comes to the realization that “…when left to their own devices, they appeared to do a fair job of exterminating themselves.”

And thus the chain catches on the death-coaster, drags it to the summit and lets that fucker drop.

Hang on.

These are masterful tales of human obsolescence, cruel absurdities and species self-deliverance. In Bridges’ world, justice is self-imposed, whether or not his characters realize it. You want the convenience and savings of a Wal-Mart? Fine, but you have no one else to blame when you wake up in a world controlled by Wal-Marts. Punishment fits the crime.

Justice, Inc. manages to be both observational and engaging, philosophical yet lyrical at the same time. You’ll find yourself caring as much for the characters and their plights as for the underlying philosophy within each tale.

Bridges writes not with a pen but a skewer, piercing the absurdity of our cosmic sitcom with clarity and humor. Justice, Inc. is philosophical satire in the vein of Vonnegut and George Saunders—fellow madmen who have stared into the abyss and come away laughing.

Ominous Realities

Eds. Anthony Rivera and Sharon LawsonOminous Realities

Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Keeping up the intensity is “Doyoshota,” by Ken Altabef, a haunting intersection of conspiracy and cacophony that makes tinnitus sound like a Beethoven sonata.

Eric Del Carlo’s “We Are Hale, We Are Whole” is deserving of any “best-of” anthology, a smart, thoughtful piece of writing that should be a must-read for anyone attempting to world-build within the confines of a short story. It also takes a philosophical bent about quality of life, aging, health care and sacrifice.

 

Best Biography

Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon Happy Cloud, Happy Trees

Kristin G. Congdon, Doug Blandy and Danny Coeyman

Beloved painter Bob Ross is all the more mysterious for the minimal amount of unauthorized or paratextual materials surrounding him. Mostly, what we know of Ross comes from his TV program. The mystique of the painter’s life has fueled his cultish following, and the authors do a wonderful job of exploring the man, his devotees and that ineffable thrill of creation. Bob had a word for it.

He called it joy.

An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken

Hal CrowtherAn Infuriating American

The tone of this extended essay is established up front by a quote from the subject himself, H.L. Mencken:

“To the extent that I am genuinely educated, I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes and the average pedagogue teaches.”

Mencken, one of America’s finest journalists, was also a world-class iconoclast, and the tone and spirit of his work is captured wonderfully in this short study by Hal Crowther, himself an esteemed author (and 1992 recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award). Mencken should be required reading for everyone (particularly prospective journalists), and An Infuriating American is as good an introduction to the writer as you’ll find.

The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation

Harold SchechterThe Mad Sculptor

“You can certainly learn as much about a society by which crimes people are obsessed with at a particular time,” says Schechter. “I think, in a general way, the crimes that become national obsessions, that strike a deep communal chord, symbolize the particular cultural anxieties of the moment.”

In the 1920s it was poisoners; in the ’70s Charles Manson personified the worst fears of the counterculture; the ’80s had phantom Satanists and the ’90s belonged to the serial killer; and today we have the rampage shooter.

But in the 1930s, it was the sexual deviant that haunted and titillated the public.

Enter Robert George Irwin, the subject of Schechter’s new book.

Irwin was a troubled and talented artist whose stunted psychosexual development (and religious obsession) fueled romantic fixations, violent outbursts, numerous hospitalizations and an attempted self-castration. It climaxed with a vicious triple murder in 1937, made all the more newsworthy because one of the victims, Veronica Gedeon, was a pulp magazine cover girl.

 

Notable Nonfiction

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

Ian PlenderleithRock n Roll Soccer

The groundwork for today’s soccer popularity was laid by the North American Soccer League, the subject of Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer. Plenderleith documents the folly, effrontery and ultimate failure of the NASL—an impressively thorough tome that benefits from solid research and a witty outsider’s perspective (though now living in America, Plenderleith is British and brings a European’s passion and insight to football writing).

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an excellent work of sports journalism and, regardless of whether you follow football or futbol (or both), it is worthy of any fans’ bookshelf.

The Perfect KillThe Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins

Robert Baer

It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up. But before you begin stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of this as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook, but rather an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.

While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.

 

Illuminating Lit

Beautiful You

Chuck PalahniukBeautiful You

Palahniuk took on male malaise with Fight Club and mocked cultural over-consumption with Choke. Snuff (ostensibly a novel about pornography) lampooned self-destructive excess and exploitation in a manner that could very well have served as a hyper-sexualized predictor of the impending financial crisis of 2008.

In Beautiful You, he wanted to write what he calls gonzo erotica, and in the process has penned an anthem for an overstimulated, multi-tasking, computer-coma society.

Penny Harrigan is a nice Nebraskan girl working in New York City when she catches the eye of the world’s richest man, C. Linus Maxwell. Next thing you know, Penny is the talk of the tabloids and the envy of her coworkers.

Behind closed doors, however, is where Penny is truly transformed. Maxwell introduces her to a world of unimagined, if clinical pleasure. Penny has her reasons to question Maxwell’s motives (especially after a bizarre bathroom tryst with his bitter ex-lover), but is too enraptured with her new-found fame and sexuality.

Oozing with plot twists only Palahniuk’s sardonic tone could make palatable, Beautiful You aspires to remarkable levels of absurdity, but is it any more absurd than the daily inundation of product and marketing? Many reviewers have criticized the gratuitous satire in this novel, but is the idea of world domination via dildo really that far-fetched in a culture that has financially sustained multiple cable shopping channels for three decades?

We are a culture of instant gratification. We are a culture of distraction. We are the lab rats hammering away at the pleasure bar for a taste of sweet, sweet oblivion.

And much like Maxwell, Palahniuk is there wearing a lab coat, taking copious notes and holding up a funhouse mirror to our cage, so that we might catch a distorted glimpse of what we’ve become.

The Children ActThe Children Act

Ian McEwan

Fiona Maye is an experienced judge on the cusp of old age who is questioning her lifetime of restraint (as well as her decision not to reproduce). We enter her story mid-conversation to discover Fiona reeling from her husband’s proposed (and possibly in-progress) infidelity, just as she’s preparing for a high-profile case with a child’s life in the balance.

Cut to the courtroom, where a precocious teenager is refusing a blood transfusion on the grounds of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Invoking the Children Act of 1989, Fiona gives her ruling, the consequences of which ultimately lead to a spontaneous, classically McEwan mistake, one that risks undoing her marriage, her career and a lifetime of calculated decision-making.

The Children Act is a short, but dense novel, as is usually the case with McEwan. The man is a master of reflection and interiority. The opening chapter encompasses but a moment in a 30-year marriage, but lays bare its successes, failings and a lifetime of insecurities and second-guessing. The tragedies unfold in slow motion and a lifetime of torment is distilled into a bitter, lingering moment.

 

Quality Quickies

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiechimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feminists

This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. “Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.

It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”

The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important.

Legion: Skin Deep

Brandon SandersonLegion

StephenLeeds is afflicted with a mental disturbance wherein he has imaginary friends who enable him to solve crimes. His mental manifestations, which he calls “aspects,” have names, back-stories and seemingly a life of their own, though they are bound by the limits of Leeds’ finite knowledge and experience.

In Skin Deep, the second novella in the series, Leeds is coerced into locating the corpse of a tech worker who was in possession of dangerous information—while at the same time outwitting a devious businessman and avoiding the strike of a first-rate assassin.

What makes the Legion books so amazing is not so much the outer conflicts, but the inner ones. Who are we? How do we define who we are? Would we all be better served to, ahem, use our illusions? These are the deeper strings Sanderson plucks in the Legion series.

May there be many, many more.

 

Horrific Hits

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahonWinter People

What is it about New England that inspires isolated, small-town horror tales in which the blood runs as cold as the weather? I’m not sure what it is exactly, but having spent many a wintry a night in Maine, I am familiar with that feeling. And I can’t get enough of it.

Jennifer McMahon captures that frostbite feeling perfectly in this heartbreaker of haunted legends and legacies, curses and karma, and, more than anything, unendurable loss.

The Winter People is well-written and bursting with heart. There are mysteries at every turn, and reminders that grief can be deadly. Or worse. Like a modern retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” there are consequences for disrupting the dead, and The Winter People reminds that despair can drive even the most sensible among us to dangerous depths.

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts

K.C. Parton10 Short Tales About Ghosts

Typically, the hallmark of a great ghost story is that it unsettles the reader. When reading K.C. Parton’s collection of English ghost stories, however, one is filled not with dread, but comfort. These 10 tales are reminiscent of the kind my father would tell me over campfires—and those, of course, will always be my favorites.

Parton’s stories have that same appeal. These are not tales of terror, but subtle chillers made all the more spooky for their familiarity. Stories that make you think twice before cutting through the graveyard, not to avoid falling prey to a Saw-like killer, but for that abstract fear that tickles as much as it terrifies.

A big draw for me is that most of the stories have an industrial setting. Growing up in the Rust Belt, I was exposed to the real-life horror of the steel mills, and I found much ghostly inspiration in the rusted machinery, secluded warehouses and the imaginative possibilities of the graveyard shift. Parton’s stories fit that mold, which shouldn’t be surprising, as he came of age in England’s post-war factories.

These stories tap into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end.

The Cutting Room

Ellen Datlow, editorThe Cutting Room

“With no dreams left to search for, I have only nightmares to anticipate.”

This is one of the most haunting lines from the tremendous opening story, “The Cutter,” by Edward Bryant. It sets the tone for all the delicious horror in Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology. Disturbing images and the blurring of reality is a common theme in this collection. Stephen Graham Jones’ chilling “Tenderizer,” for example, David Morrell’s “Dead Image” and the wonderfully titled “Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo” by Garry Kilworth.

Anticipate many nightmares within these pages.

Review: The Upside of Your Dark Side

The Upside of Your Dark Side

Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener

So, I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, as I long ago embraced my Upside of Your Dark Sidedark side, but I’m glad that Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, a pair of psychologists and professors at George Mason and Portland State Universities respectively, are promoting widespread awareness.

And no, this isn’t a Darth Vader-style enticement to evil, but rather a commitment to intellectual and emotional honesty. Embracing the dark side is being an anti-Pollyanna, acknowledging negative states of consciousness rather than suppressing them. Realizing that feeling bad is inevitable and natural.

Or, to let the scientists speak for themselves, “…we, the authors, reject the notion that positivity is the only place to search for answers. We reject the belief that being healthy is marked by a life with as little pain as possible.”

Perhaps it’s my love of Eastern philosophy, but I’ve always subscribed to an elastic emotional outlook: the greater the highs, the greater the lows. Inoculating oneself from pain only serves to numb one’s experience of joy.

It’s a conundrum that dates at least as far back as the dueling philosophies of the Cynics and the Stoics, but has become especially germane in the decades of post-WWII prosperity. At some point in the past 50 years, the fantasy that you could enjoy the thrills without enduring the chills became an accepted philosophy.

To seek comfort and happiness is natural, but now, the authors argue, it has become an addiction.

The self-help and pharmaceutical industries, along with positive psychology (to a lesser extent), have cultivated a bubble-wrapped culture where discomfort is treated as an abnormal condition. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s not healthy. There’s nothing wrong with feeling down sometimes, feeling angry sometimes.

“People who are whole, those of us who are willing and able to shift to the upside or the downside to get the best possible outcomes in a given situation, are the healthiest, most successful, best learners, and enjoy the deepest well-being.”

I’m reminded of my own experiences in therapy. I was the difficult patient who used my session time to challenge my therapist with my grim view of humanity. I would rattle off atrocities and injustice and point out that our culture rewards the worst kind of people and punishes the good. No, not just our culture—our species. Then I would grin triumphantly as the counselor struggled to argue against that.

I knew I’d finally found the right therapist when, during our first session, I gave her my misanthropy spiel. Her response: “Yeah, you’re right. So what?” Sometimes things are shitty.

This was the jolt I needed to crack my defiant shell and get to work on getting better.

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener hope to provide the same jolt to readers acclimated to a self-help mantra of “I’m OK, You’re OK,” and hopefully they are successful in this task.

They should be, as this is a very interesting read. What I like about The Upside of Your Dark Side is how the authors incorporate scientific research, positive psychology theory and personal anecdote to construct a cogent warts-and-all perspective of the human experience. Even though it features plenty of scientific research, the narrative is very accessible to lay-readers.

The shortcoming of the book, for me, is that the authors can be overly expository—they do a good job of illustrating a point, but then summarize said point as though they don’t trust the reader to draw the correct conclusion. But I wouldn’t mark down a letter grade for that. That’s the inherent risk with science writing. The authors have to take arcane material and present it to an audience that, for the most part, doesn’t share the authors’ background or familiarity with the topic.

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener by and large hit the sweet spot between academic and accessible. This is a book to be enjoyed by all—and to some a revelation.

Review: Waking Up

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion

Sam Harris

My anticipation for the new Sam Harris book turned to anxiety when I learned it would be about spirituality. Was the firebrandtype philosopher and scientist—co-founder of Project Reason and author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation—changing teams?

Nah.

Perhaps a better title for this book, though, would be The Atheist’s Guide to Meditation.

At its core, Waking Up is about mindfulness, and as a fellow atheist who has attended a fair share of Buddhist retreats (including a recent one on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), I can relate to some of the conflicts Harris encounters. No matter how secular the retreat, I get nervous when I find myself in a room full of people following the direction of a group leader offering spiritual betterment.

Harris takes out the touchy-feely and goes straight for the scientific foundation of a mindfulness-based approach to life. The result is a book heavy on Buddhist philosophy and refreshingly light on bullshit.

What makes Waking Up different is that it’s also what Harris calls a “seeker’s memoir.” We follow his journey from a skeptical teen to an adult struggling with the feelings of “unsatisfactoriness”—which is his interpretation of the concept of dukkha, rather than the traditional definition of suffering.

He had my attention early in the book, when describing the disquiet of his solitary thoughts and the relief he felt when experimenting with MDMA, LSD and DMT: “It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life.”

Through his seeking, Harris reveals that, for him, spirituality is not the existence of a higher being in the ethereal realm, but rather the cognizance one has of an immaterial self. “Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents. And the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next.”

Speaking of continuity, Harris gets a little far afield the deeper we delve into the book. Beyond memoir, he explores the scientific underpinnings of consciousness and meditation, drops some knowledge about psychedelic drugs and, justifiably, rants on the silliness (and scientific dishonesty) of Proof of Heaven and other accounts of near-death experiences.

While I really enjoyed many of these sections, they didn’t have the cohesion of a linear narrative. It read more like a collection of essays on a single topic—which is fine, just not what I was expecting.

Harris’ informed and enlightened discussion of psychedelics resonates the most with me. Not only do I agree with his observations (and share some of his experiences), but Harris also challenges some of my long-held assumptions.

For instance, Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception is a seminal bit of psychedelic literature, and for years I bought in fully to Huxley’s description of the brain as a “reducing valve.” Harris debunks this by drawing on modern neuroscience, causing me to think about mind-manifesting drugs in a new way.

All told, Waking Up is an interesting and enjoyable read. There’s a bit of science writing, philosophy, memoir and a unique take on spirituality and meditation.

A Trinity of Science and Spirituality

Faith and Wisdom in Science

Tom McLeish

As much as I love a good intellectual debate, when it comes down to it, I’m a sucker for a good reconciliation faith and wisdom in sciencethesis—a text that searches for common ground, or at least common interests. It’s why I loved Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and why, despite my passions, I do my best to avoid polemics, with varying degrees of success (I think Christopher Hitchens should be required reading, while I didn’t care for Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, though I agree with his premise).

Reading only what supports your beliefs leads to entrenchment and intellectual idleness. Equally lazy is cherry-picking only the extreme views on the opposite side, as it offers a skewed perspective that is easily caricaturized and dismissed (e.g. thinking the Westboro Baptist Church is representative of all Christians or that Ann Coulter is speaking on behalf of human beings).

So it was with great interest that I cracked open (does that expression apply to e-books?) Faith and Wisdom in Science by Tom McLeish, a physics professor at Durham University.

I liken it in tone and intention to Buddhist Biology, by David Barash, a brilliant book in which the author explicates his self-proclaimed Buddhist atheism. However, while Barash delivers a very personal narrative, McLeish takes a more historical focus.

McLeish is a talented writer, which makes Faith an easy and enjoyable read. He explores the history of both scientific discovery and biblical narrative, finding commonalities in the ways humans in each arena are awestruck and inspired by the natural world. Here, he points out parallels, but I don’t think he presents a strong argument. Yes, people from biblical days share our fascination with reality, and myth-making was our earliest stab at explaining the world.

That doesn’t mean that biblical passages are relevant to modern science.

I do appreciate his discussion of the individual’s experience with the natural world. There is room, he argues, for the sublime in science. “By actually working through some real science ourselves, so that we are reminded what it ‘feels like’, we have found it to run rather deeper and to touch more nerves…”

Which segues to McLeish’s strongest topic: The unfortunate divide between the sciences and the humanities. The earliest scientific studies were not the cold, heavily controlled research we have today, he writes, but passionate probes of the natural world. There has since developed a rift between the science and humanities. Science got custody of the brain in the divorce, and humanities, the heart.

Somewhat tangential, though I think relevant, is an article in the Summer 2014 issue of Philosophy Now, “Are There ‘Other’ Ways of Knowing?” The author, philosophical science correspondent Massimo Pigliucci, revisits a conversation on science and philosophy he had with heavyweights Dan Dennett and Lawrence Krauss.

The takeaway is that science, he writes, is too quick to dismiss non-scientific, or non-empirical, knowledge, such as mathematical knowledge, phenomenological experience and intuition (as in subconscious processing, not precognition).

I found it a helpful companion to McLeish’s book, as it shows how easy it is to become dogmatic in the sciences.

But to finish with McLeish, I will draw one final comparison: Cosmos. Both the original and the reboot are classics because they impart knowledge without diminishing the wonder of the natural world. In fact, I would argue that the more we learn of the natural world, the more wondrous it appears.

And like Neil deGrasse Tyson, McLeish is affable, informative and, in my opinion, has written a book not so much about science and religion, but rather on that greatest of virtues that we should never lose, but often do: childlike wonder.

If you still feel the sublimity of mountain peaks, marvel at existence at the subatomic level or can be moved to tears by a sunrise, you’ll enjoy Faith and Wisdom in Science.

 

Why Be Catholic?

Patrick Madrid

I would love to grab a beer with Patrick Madrid. Beginning by analogizing the Catholic Church with Noah’s Ark—andwhy be catholic not always in a flattering manner—he comes across as funny and self-effacing, and very likeable.

It’s easy to see why Madrid is a popular blogger, lecturer and apologist. It’s this accessibility that will draw readers to Why Be Catholic?: Ten Answers to a Very Important Question, a short work with a lot of personality—but little to offer in terms of intellectual debate.

Going into this book, I had hoped it was intended for a general audience. Unfortunately, it is directed toward the choir. As I’m not part of the choir, I had hoped there would be a substantive argument drawing on scholarship and exegesis, but Madrid’s answers appear to have been composed to reinforce the faithful and educate believers of other denominations on the customs of the Catholic Church.

It is not an argument for Catholicism for nonbelievers, but rather for non-Catholics.

Madrid makes reference to atheists, agnostics and others, but never directly addresses these groups. Case in point: He mistakenly writes of the “miracle” of Lanciano that “Scientists have not been able to explain it, nor have atheists been able to debunk it.” Well, the burden of proof is on the believers, not the scientists. The church is in possession of a bit of human tissue and blood, allegedly consecrated from bread and wine ~700 C.E. No dispute there. They have human tissue and blood. So does Dexter. What proof exists that they started as tapas?

But to be fair, that’s not the point of Why Be Catholic?. This book is for readers for whom issues of existence or nonexistence have already been decided. If you count yourself among them, then I recommend this book as a light, enjoyable read.

For theological debate, try elsewhere.

My preference would be to discuss it with Madrid over a beer. Or maybe tapas.

 

Blood: A Critique of Christianity

Gil Anidjar

I’m not sure where to begin with Blood, except to say that it may well be defining its own genre. It’s challenging, bloodcontroversial, lyrical, overly referential, meandering, meta-everything and modest.

OK, I lied about the last one. This book is quite full of itself.

But don’t take that as a bad thing. It’s a book that demands its own terms, and I respect any author willing to challenge their reader. Anidjar does present a challenge. The fault, though, is that he doesn’t appear to address it to the reader.

Reading this felt like missing the first day of class and coming to the second with no review. There is a conversation happening that I don’t seem to be a part of. Perhaps that’s because I’m a lay reader. Academics and the many readers smarter than me may have better luck, but I struggled with this one.

While that’s partly on me, there is also a lack of clarity in Anidjar’s writing. He has a penchant for winding sentences, extended parentheticals and pivots of thought that left me in the weeds. He strikes me as a brilliant thinker, but struggles with communicating those ideas.

Again, this is partly on me and partly on him.

This is a worthy challenge for any reader.

Review: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

Sam Kean

The fact that Sam Kean has yet to win a major publishing prize is an oversight that must The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeonsbe righted this year. Kean’s previous books, The Disappearing Spoon (2010) and The Violinist’s Thumb (2012), were critically acclaimed best-sellers, but garnered no love from the folks at the Pulitzer and National Book Award.

Spoon was nominated by the Royal Society as one of the top science books of 2010, and Thumb was a finalist in the PEN literary science writing category, but the former is based in London and the latter prize went to another author.

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery provides the prize judges with a chance to make it right.

As with his other books, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a brisk and engrossing read. Kean’s appeal is his ability (like that of Mary Roach) to equally entertain and educate. He keeps you so absorbed in the narrative that you’re unaware how much you’ve learned until you hear yourself dropping scientific factoids at a dinner party.

With Kean, scientific advancement is never dull. He has a nose for the quirky, the quacky and the querulous.

However, his new book may be his most impressive yet, on a personal level. Part of what made Spoon and Thumb so interesting to me was the thrill of discovery. I knew little of chemistry and DNA before cracking them open.

Therefore, the true test of his writing prowess would be The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, a subject a bit closer to my wheelhouse. I never scored high in chemistry or biology, but I graduated with honors with a degree in psychology.

How interesting could he make this familiar subject?

Kean dug deep into the archives of psychology to discover little-known and sometimes forgotten gems that have had a great impact on modern science, and he infused newfound wonder into time-worn stories, such as Phineas Gage. You will laugh. You will learn. At times you will pick your jaw off the floor and ask yourself, “That happened?”

If you’ve never read Sam Kean, start now. You will devour all three books in a week. If you’re a longtime fan, prepare to be wowed once again.

And if you’re a judge for any of the big literary prizes, in the name of all that is just and good, start etching Sam’s name into the trophy.