Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, October 2012

Reviews of books read last month.  Two satirical novels, and two popular
science books: one on neurology, and the other on psychology.

1. "Cold Comfort Farm" by Stella Gibbons

This story is mostly set in rural England during the 1930s. Flora Poste,
a twenty year-old young lady from London, has just lost her parents.
Rather than try making do with her annual allowance of £100, she decides
to go live with her country relatives, the Starkadders, on their "Cold
Comfort" farm in Sussex.  She considers her aunt and cousins as backward
and in need of "tidying up".  She begins imposing herself on the lives
of her relatives, loosening Aunt Ada Doom's grip on the family.  Among
other things, she aims to find a suitable husband for her cousin, and
encourage another cousin to take his religious fervour on a cross-
country preaching trip.  This latter project is more a case of getting
him out of the way so that her match-making can succeed.

Apparently this book parodies popular fiction of the era, with some
winks to great Victorian novels.  Having only a basic familiarity with
those novels, a lot of the parody aspects are a bit lost on me.
Nevertheless, it was still a reasonably enjoyable novel.  Flora is
clearly a busybody, who means well most of the time.  The other
characters are depicted as rather grotesque stereotypes, but that's
in keeping with the satirical nature of the story.

2. "Gulliver's Travels" by Jonathan Swift

This classic satire was written in the 1720s, and is a collection of
tales of the narrator's journeys to strange lands.  Perpetually
shipwrecked or otherwise abandoned, the hapless protagonist recounts
his adventures, starting with Lilliput where he is a giant among its
tiny inhabitants.  On his next voyage, the tables are turned, and he
is dwarfed by the big people of Brobdingnag.  Wherever he goes, he
engages the locals in philosophical discussions.  These are really
opportunities for the author to savagely critique and satirise the
people and social institutions of his own time and place.  For example,
in Brobdingnag, the king is convinced by the narrator's argument
regarding legislators: "[L]aws are best explained, interpreted, and
applied by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting,
confounding, and eluding them" (p139).

Ideas from this relatively brief novel have been influential ever since
its publication, and not just in literary and political circles.  The
words big-endian and little-endian have been co-opted by computer
architecture to describe ways of encoding information.  To the
Lilliputians, they refer to the two sides in the strident and seemingly
petty disagreement about which end of a boiled egg should be cracked.
In the final adventure, we meet the Yahoos, who are coarse and
uncultured beings, lacking the refinement of the horse-like Houyhnhnms.
The Yahoos really represent everyday humans.

Arguably, this could be considered a piece of proto-Science Fiction.
While describing travels to far-off and imaginary places, the tales are
actually a reflection on the author's (and our) own society.  I enjoyed
reading this novel, which, despite some archaic spelling and wording,
wasn't hard to read at all.

3. "The Mind's Eye" by Oliver Sacks

This book, by renowned English-born neurologist Oliver Sacks, examines
various vision-related disorders.  Sacks moved to the US in the 1960s,
and has spent much of his early career working as resident neurologist
in an aged and chronic care facility in New York.  Conditions covered
include prosopagnosia (face blindness), alexia (word blindness),
aphasia and stereo-blindness.  The connection between all these is not
just the mechanics of our eyes, but also how much our brains actually
construct what we see.  Hence the title, the "mind's eye".

Perhaps the most poignant section of the book is the second-last (and
longest) chapter, "Persistence of Vision". It's basically a journal of
the author's own experiences with distorted vision and hallucinations.
In late 2005, Sacks was diagnosed with an ocular melanoma in his right
eye.  While undergoing treatment and surgery, he kept notes describing
how his sight changed.  To help overcome his fear, he also conducted
little experiments on himself to better understand what was happening
with his vision.

While this book discusses the cases of several patients, it is Sacks's
most personal to date.  In addition to the hallucinations and loss of
stereoscopic vision caused by the melanoma, the author has also long
suffered from face blindness.  This is a brave and inspiring work, in
addition to being informative and entertaining.

Sacks has appeared several times on the Radiolab podcast. For example,
he discusses face blindness in "Strangers in the Mirror":
Also, two of the patients discussed in "The Mind's Eye" were featured
in "Seeing in the Dark":

4. "The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling and Start Living" by Russ Harris

Everyone wants to be happy, but is happiness overrated?  The author, an
Australian medico argues that many people are trying so hard to be happy
that they're actually making themselves feel anxious or depressed.  He's
had to overcome his own bouts of depression and self-doubt, and suggests
it's ok to be sad sometimes.  Life wasn't meant to be a bed of roses.
Instead of pursuing absolute happiness (for ourselves and loved ones),
we should be working towards meaningfulness.

The book is a practical guide to acceptance and commitment therapy, ACT,
pioneered by Steven Hayes.  The same acronym can sum up three steps to
dealing with setbacks: Accept your thoughts and feelings, and be
present; Choose a valued direction; Take action.  Of course, the book
goes into more detail than just list cute acronyms.  Pain and negative
thoughts are unavoidable, but these are only thoughts and they cannot
hurt us.  We can defuse them and get beyond them.  We can allow them to
come and go without judgement or struggle.  We should focus on the here
and now, and let negative thoughts and feelings pass.  Goals, especially
if they are other people's, can be sources of pain and suffering.  We
should instead work out what our core values are, and do whatever helps
us live those values.  This is how to achieve meaningful lives,
without getting hung up on fleeting happiness.

I read this book as part of my ongoing process of coping with tinnitus.
ACT is a useful and natural progression from my studies of cognitive
behaviour therapy (CBT).  Something that I found particularly
interesting is the subtle distinction between "accepting" and
"acceptance".  The former suggests that it's a process.  We don't have
to like what happens to us.  Also, we shouldn't feel pressure to just
"accept it".  Acceptance takes time, but it helps if we stop struggling
with our problems.  Letting go is also important: we need to accept that
some things are beyond our control, and dwelling on them doesn't help.
While ACT shares things in common with spirituality and religion (for
example, meditation and mindfulness), it does not mandate a religious
conversion.  It turns out that these concepts are consistent with
scientific research, and they can help us deal with everyday problems.