Monthly Archives: August 2015

“Radiant: Towers Trilogy Book One” by Karina Sumner-Smith

Another post-apocalyptic dystopian Young Adult novel, with a female protagonist. Main themes, magic and ghosts. Some kind of zombies. Also socioeconomic inequality, bonded labor and other glimmers of our current world.

What does the reader get out of this? The heroine has POWER. Not the same kind of magic as her peers, but something that is different and very, very dangerous. And she is entirely independent. I can understand the appeal to young women.

Would a young man read this book? No idea. I just realized I have NO clue what young men read. (My readily available sample size has n=2.) Science fiction, perhaps? But this is not sci-fi but rather fantasy.

This book kept me reading, but I don’t feel impelled to go on with the series. Maybe later.

Oliver Sacks (1933 – 2015) Rest in Peace

Oliver Sacks died today. We are fortunate that we can look forward to the posthumous publication of works in progress or from his voluminous journals. I reviewed his recently published autobiography on August 24.

His obituary in the New York Times states “Dr. Sacks variously described his books and essays as case histories, pathographies, clinical tales or ‘neurological novels.’ ”

I like “pathographies”. If anyone deserves a neologism, it is Oliver Sacks. In fact, he can have a whole genre, ‘neurological novels’.

In Sacks’s memory, I plan to read Musicophila, in the expanded version published in 2008. And maybe increase my daily intake of Mozart.

In a recent New York Times article (August 14), Sacks described his state of mind as he faced death. “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

The only other author I have encountered with such skill at finding and telling stories is Robert Coles, who wrote The Call of Stories and The Spiritual Life of Children. I’m pleased to report that Coles is still alive, now aged 85.

“The Lost Garden – a Novel” by Helen Humphries

This is the first of the fiction-with-a-supernatural-twist novels I promised to review, and the third of the books recommended by my friend who participates in a book club of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. (See blog entry of July 1, 2015.)

I loved The Lost Garden! It takes place in 1941 and examines the impact of World War II on English civilians. (No one in England is really a civilian at this point in time. Anyone may be assigned to a job deemed to be essential to the war effort.) London is being torn apart by bombing – the psychological pressure is intensifying. Fear of invasion runs rampant.

Gwen leaves her research job in London to supervise a group of young women who have been assigned to grow potatoes on a disused estate. Nearby, soldiers are quartered to await transfer to the battlefield.

The main themes of the book are love and loss. Gwen finds an abandoned garden of astonishing beauty and mystery. She falls in love and watches others love and suffer.

“The Lost Garden” is full of horticulture, especially taxonomy, infused seamlessly with the plot. There are also extensive literary references. Gwen is obsessed with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and also with The Genus Rosa by Ellen Wilmott.

All this adds up to a moody, thoughtful atmosphere. The characters emerge slowly. I won’t give away anything about the “haunting” of the estate. Read and enjoy!

Bibiophile Heaven

You know how I complain about finding books? choosing books? Suddenly I am reading TWO novels (unusual for someone who reads more nonfiction than fiction), and each of them contains an element of the supernatural! They are great! I’m seriously considering getting sick – you know, sick enough so I need to stay home on the couch all day with a cup of tea.

I admire an author who can sneak in a whiff of the supernatural without losing touch with the world where I live, which is relatively mundane. Looking back at what I’ve posted about since starting this blog, I find only two books that meet that criterion – A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond (YA fiction, June 27, 2013) and Tea with the Black Dragon by R A MacAvoy (April 20, 2015).

Stay tuned for reviews!

MY Life, MY Brain and how to spend 20 minutes of my precious time

I just spent several hours reading the most recent book by neurologist Oliver Sacks, and writing about it. (See preceding blog post.) Then I settled down to decide whether I should resume use of the website “Lumosity”, which claims to train my brain.

I signed on with Lumosity last March, encouraged by my personal physician, (yet another) new provider, in whom I had confided my concerns over absentmindedness. Hey, I’ve got sketchy genes – my mother was disabled by Alzhiemer’s when she was younger than I am now. So of course, when asked about general health concerns, I mentioned cognitive decline, aka dementia. I was advised to try an on line brain training program.

Lumosity presents me with five “games” each day, taking twenty minutes or less. The website tracks my performance, letting me know if I’ve accomplished a new personal best or “top five” performance. I can review my scores. Most games are offered at many levels – I move up automatically as my skills become sharper.

What did I accomplish in 4+ months? After initial fluctuations, I seemed to be on a steady, slow upward trajectory. My strengths are problem solving and verbal fluency; my weaknesses are attention and flexibility.

Lumosity claims to be “fun”. Nope. The only game I actually enjoy measures verbal fluency, and it comes up only once every week or so. A few games are so frustrating that I reject them. (I can request a substitute game at any time.) One involves remembering two steps backwards in a sequence. Another shows billiard balls bouncing off “bumpers”. I find it hard to predict or remember their movements.

Another game I find challenging involves figuring out a “rule” for acceptance or rejection of patterns. The number of characteristics (shape, color, number, etc.) increases over time, up to a current total of six. I can succeed if take notes. But I don’t know if that is “permitted”.

Did I get “smarter”? Very hard to say. I continue to feel that keeping organized is getting harder. But I also continue to work at a job that makes significant intellectual demands. I work daily with a database system I can only describe as hostile. I assemble and manipulate data. I answer random questions, almost all quantitative. It’s hard work. I worry about errors. I have to document my data management activities very carefully, or I won’t be able to resume where I left off.

After 4+ months of daily Lumosity exercise, I took a vacation, a series of road trips. I don’t own a laptop, and still habitually go “off-line” during vacations. (Yes, I know about smart phones and i-pads. I own a smart phone. Don’t nag.) I skipped my brain training for a month.

Back from vacation, I pondered resuming my daily Lumosity sessions. They are a minor chore, providing satisfaction similar to loading the dishwasher. (As in, at least I accomplished SOMETHING today…) But I can think of more satisfying ways to spend my time. If it’s my computer time we are discussing, I would rather write posts for my blog. (Hello, friends!)

But my doctor recommended continuing with Lumosity, at least for the remainder of my one year subscription. So today I started again, then checked my scores against past performance. Overall, I dropped about 1%. So, is Lumosity a good use of my time? Uncertain, but I plan to hang in (aiming for 5 days out of 7) until the next time I need to make a decision, which will be in March, when my pre-paid year expires.

Oliver Sacks, by the way, offered nothing AT ALL to help me make this decision.

Friends, if you have used an on-line brain training site, I would love to hear about your experience! And anything else you have to say on this subject. Stay sharp, now!

“On the Move: A Life” by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is 82 years old, and near death. He announced in February of this year that the ocular cancer for which he was treated nine years ago has metastasized to his liver. This hasn’t slowed him down! His Facebook page is active, with five posts in the past week, including a supportive message to Jimmie Carter, ten years older than Sacks and similarly stricken with metastatic cancer.

When you read Sacks, you encounter dozen of long names for complex neurological disorders, like achromatopsia and postencephalitic syndrome, but most of us would probably “diagnose” him as suffering from “attention deficit disorder”. He was beyond scatterbrained, and unfortunately lost or destroyed as much written work as he eventually published. He was unable to work in neurological research because he was absent minded and “too dangerous” in the laboratory. With the help of extremely dedicated assistants and editors, he published a dozen books and innumerable articles. I can’t figure out what “genre” he should be assigned to, aside from “non-fiction”. (One critic actually accused him of making up the case histories he recounts.)

Sacks approached each of his patients as the bearer of a unique story, and tried to read the whole life, not just to identify the disease that caused the person to seek medical care. His writings consist mostly of case histories. This has left him somewhat at odds with the academic medical establishment.

Sacks was a non-linear thinker. His mind ran off in so many directions that he would continually add footnotes to his drafts, until the footnotes exceeded the volume of the book.

Sacks was related to or acquainted with an astonishing number of public figures, especially scientists, like Francis Crick (of double helix fame) and Stephen Jay Gould, and poet W H Auden. In many cases, they exchanged manuscripts and ideas extensively.

The best part of this book is the next-to-last chapter, entitled “A New Vision of the Mind”. Sacks is wildly excited about the prospect that modern neurophysiology will, in the next few decades, generate a comprehensive scientific understanding of conscious. CONSCIOUSNESS! It’s like saying that science is ready to explain God. When Sacks began his studies in neurology, the brain was deeply mysterious and “mind” could not be “studied” at all. Suitable tools were not available. Now, fifty+ plus years later, the brain can be imaged in incredible detail. Sacks believes that the theory known as “neural Darwinism” will yield a revolutionary change in our understanding of what it means to be “aware”. Relevant authors and books are cited. This chapter is a great springboard for anyone who wants to understand contemporary neuroscience.

Oliver Sacks is an unusual intellectual and I wholeheartedly recommend his books, especially if you occasionally wonder if your mind is playing tricks on you.

“The Martian: A Novel” by Andy Weir

This breezy, fast paced tale qualifies as “science fiction with the emphasis on science”. Andy Weir obviously had fun writing it. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is a cheerful wise guy. Finding himself abandoned on Mars due to a series of improbable events, he manages to stay alive, presenting NASA with a terrible problem. Can they rescue him? First they have to establish communication. The next problem is food. Watney starts to grow potatoes in the “habitat” intended to shelter the aborted scientific mission. I won’t give you more details, because the entertainment value of this book IS the details. This is a great book for when you need distraction. I enjoyed it while traveling, and look forward to whatever else Weir has up his sleeve.

“The Bremer Detail – Protecting the Most Threatened Man In the World” by Frank Gallagher and John M. Del Vecchio

Let me make two things clear from the start. I think the Iraq War was a tragic mistake, and I think Presidential Envoy L Paul Bremer made some very bad decisions during his management of the occupation of Iraq.

I read this book because of its scale.

I’ve thought a good deal about scale lately. Some things scale up or down well. I could give technological examples. But sticking to books, some topics are too big (the meaning of life) and some are too small (what I ate for lunch today).

The nature of WAR is something I want to understand, but the topic is too big. This book is about one small aspect of war, one man’s experience in a particular time and place. At this scale, I can learn something.

Gallagher was a bodyguard, responsible for the personal safety of Bremer in Iraq after the invasion and before a new civil government was installed. Iraq was unstable and violent, growing worse as the months passed. Gallagher worked for the now infamous contracting company, Blackwater.

The use of contractors to do “military” tasks is a relatively new wrinkle, presumably a result of the switch to an all volunteer military. It seems unlikely that any money is saved by the use of contractors, but a different labor pool is activated. Contractors are disparaged by many (especially in the military) for being “mercenaries”. Their relationships to military and government are often strained.

Gallagher was hired by Blackwater solely to protect Bremer, originally for a period of just 30 days. He is by no means an apologist for Blackwater. By his standards, the Blackwater managers stateside had no idea what was going on in Iraq or how to protect Bremer. Eventually Gallagher managed a team of three dozen specialists (many formerly in the military) to protect Bremer 24 hours a day.

Any notion that the “private sector” always does things better than government is certainly dispelled by this book. Blackwater had its share of pointy headed bureaucrats and sometimes made very strange decisions.

Bremer was not an easy man to protect. He left the safety of Baghdad’s “green zone” almost every day, meeting with Iraqi leaders in many different settings. His schedule couldn’t be known accurately in advance. Most of the time, he worked 16 hours a day. As his tenure in Iraq progressed, he was targeted for assassination, and the Iraqi insurgents got better and better at making bombs and organizing attacks. As the man closest to Bremer in public, Gallagher was also an identified target.

By dint of very hard work and a certain amount of luck, Gallagher and his team managed to keep Bremer alive, AND avoided any injury or death of civilians.

What did I learn from this book? Some people are adrenaline junkies, and the rest of us should be grateful (in most cases) for the work they do. Armed conflict brings out both the best and worst in people. Our governments policies are implemented in ways that can astonish and sometimes disappoint us as citizens.

War is hell.

Ecological Science at the Frontier: Celebrating ESA’s Centennial (in Baltimore)

ESA = Ecological Society of America.

This was not MY conference, actually. I entered using a name badge marked “guest”. Fifteen years ago, that would have said “spouse”. Thirty years ago, “wife”. My husband is an ecologist and chair elect of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Ecological Society of America. I tagged along to the organization’s 100th NATIONAL meeting in Baltimore last week.

I’m good at “tagging along”. I can always find something interesting to do. But I didn’t need this skill to enjoy the ESA meeting! It was exciting. I think the attendance was over 3000, larger than most professional meetings I attend. The demographic was young and the level of enthusiasm very high. I’ve long known that ecologists have fun. After all, they do much of their work out of doors and in the company of fellow enthusiasts. Often they travel. And ecologists are purposeful. The study and understanding of an organism or ecosystem often leads to the desire to protect it, a complex challenge in this age of climate change and sea level rise.

I am also pleased to report that the City of Baltimore, troubled though it has been over the past months, has got its act together. (I did NOT consider withdrawing my participation because of the recent riots.) The area around the convention center was, predictably, heavily policed. My ventures into other areas, “sketchy” but not rock bottom, were brief and uneventful. And the Baltimore Inner Harbor area is great! Full of people and activity. I couldn’t see anything that made it different from the rest of urban, tourist oriented America. The free public “circulator” buses are better than the public transit in Philadelphia or Boston, and the Light Rail, which goes farther from the city center, is quick and convenient.

And, to top it off, the Ecological Society of America really knows how to throw a party! I’ve sat through my share of convention banquets, listening to dull speeches and eating rubber chicken. ESA’s “Birthday Bash” consisted of an excursion to a local microbrewery, where the parking lot was lined with food trucks (ethnic, spicy…) and the beer flowed freely. Add a good country rock band and it was a perfect summer evening. A great time was had by all.

I plan to attend a national meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in October. Hope it is equally good! Stay tuned

“Renewable – One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope” by Eileen Flanagan

I’m surprised I’ve never met or even heard of Eileen Flanagan, because we move in circles that overlap. I said the same about Judy Wicks, author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business (see my blog entry of April 8, 2015). Flanagan is a decade or so younger than Wicks and I. Wicks and Flanagan both reside in Philadelphia.

Renewable begins with Flanagan’s recent act of chaining herself to the White House fence during a climate change protest. Then she circles back to recount how she came to that moment.

A major factor in her personal and spiritual growth was her Peace Corps service. She joined in 1984 and was sent to Botswana, a country known to me only through the writing of Alexander McCall Smith, who created the delightful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. Flanagan’s reflections on Botswana are enhanced by her analysis of the comparative impacts of colonialism on Africa and Ireland, her ancestral home.

Upon her return from the Peace Corps, Flanagan went to graduate school at Yale to earn a Master’s degree in African studies. Then she faced the complications of seeking simplicity while raising children in urban America. Familiar territory!

Interestingly, one of Flanagan’s companions in the White House protest described above was civil rights activist Julian Bond, who died this week.