OK, I’ll readily admit that I have been horrendously AWOL lately. I’m sorry. Life has been very busy, in good and bad ways. Good: one of my school friends is getting married in a month’s time. Bad: I have no money. Good: I got engaged. Bad: I’m struggling to see where I’m headed. And so forth.
But, in amongst all this, I’ve been reading. And I felt the urge to revisit a book I’ve read before, namely “Complicity” by Iain Banks. I don’t know what compelled me to pick it up again, but needless to say I couldn’t find my copy. Dagnabbit. So I bought it on my Kindle (you know, with the money I don’t have).
Anyway. I’ve mentioned Complicity before (back when I briefly reviewed The Bridge a couple of years ago) but I’ve never reviewed it before. I say “reviewed”: I mean rambled incoherently whilst giving across my sheer love of this book.
OK, it’s not a lovely book. I’ll be blunt: it’s the most vile and vicious book I’ve read. Ever. Those of you who have been exposed to Banks before have most likely read The Wasp Factory, and thought that was pretty heavy. Well, Banks himself said in interview that Complicity is ”[a] bit like The Wasp Factory except without the happy ending and redeeming air of cheerfulness”. So, try and think positive.
Complicity is based mainly in and around Edinburgh (a plus for me, already), following the strange and brutal murders of a series of capitalist, right-wing figures. But it’s not just as simple as all that, is it? No, the murders are ingenious, the murderer has the whole thing thoroughly planned out, and the reader is rapidly pulled into the depths of confusion and despair along with our narrator.
The majority of the plot of Complicity revolves around the life of Cameron Colley, a disillusioned left-wing journalist, who is a bit down on life. He is strangely lovable – I say strangely, because he is a bit sad, lonely, has many casual drug habits, has regular sex with a married woman, etc. One might say he is “a good man with bad habits”. My other half once described himself like this, so maybe that’s another reason I find Cameron strangely lovable.
The sections of plot involving Cameron are written in first person – some people call this the “unreliable narrator”, and yes, he probably is a bit, because he does ramble on. But it gives the reader a real sense of being WITH the action, in the thick of it. We feel his boredom, we sense his excitement, and finally, when he is arrested, falsely accused of the murders of those right-wing figures I mentioned, we sense his desperation, and we slip into the confusion and paranoia that interrogation and sleep deprivation brings.
There are a lot of moral questions in this book: questions about crime and punishment, war (huh, what is it good for), and the darker side of human nature. And of course, where do our loyalties lie? Would YOU be complicit?
The descriptions of the murders themselves are brutal and very uncomfortable to read in a public place. But to make matters worse (and even more effective) these sections of the novel are written in second person – yes, YOU, ”You hear the first faint distant screams just as you take the bike’s key from your pocket. You feel suddenly elated”. Shudder.
Like with all crime thrillers, I can’t divulge too much plot without spoiling the experience for you. But needless to say, this remains one of my favourite books of all time (so far). Even if I have to read some of it through my fingers. Seriously. It’s gruesome.
Oh, and a humorous tit-bit: Cameron is heavily into computer games, particularly a fictitious game called “Despot” which is curiously similar to Civilisation (which my dad used to play). Cameron loses many hours due to playing this game. In fact, he’s often playing the game when he should be writing. And you know what? So was Iain Banks. Happy sigh. Art mirrors life mirrors art.
I got this bad boy as a belated Christmas present from my big brother (see here why it was late), but I can confidently proclaim: it was well worth the wait.
This weighty tome from Jeff Potter looks like a text book, but dear lord, if all my text books were this readable, I would have read them all cover to cover by now.
Cooking For Geeks is made up of some science, some “hacks”, some interviews, and tonnes of little nuggets of fascinating facts.
Maybe you’ll love it for the recipes (whilst I haven’t yet tried any, they all sound amazing). Maybe you’ll love it for the miracle berries, or many of the other weird and wonderful additives (which sound AMAZING and I must experiment). Maybe you’ll love it for the stupidly dangerous over-clocked oven (pizza cooked in 45 seconds, anyone?).
If you’re me, you’ll surprise yourself by finding the section on pathogens the most interesting.
The only annoying thing is probably the fact that this book is written by an American, for Americans. Broiling? Seriously? It’s a grill. Also, the references to the FSA make you wonder about our own, British food standards. Must…do further research…
But the problems presented by that fact are minimal. Far too small a problem to detract from the pure joy that is getting immersed into the strange and wonderful world of geeky cooking. Yay!
There is also a Cooking For Geeks website to accompany the book. Double win.
Terry Pratchett is back on form. This is the best book he’s written in a long while, no argument. This is back to the hard-as-nails, philosophical, quick-firing Discworld that we all originally fell in love with.
And there is football.
Wait. What? I hate football.
But don’t fret – it’s not all about football. In fact, football is just a vehicle for the moral story (as it should be). I can’t reveal to you too much, but if I liked it, it can’t be that football heavy, right?
The wizards are back (and it’s lovely to see them again) – even Rincewind makes an appearance, which is good fun, but I’m glad he was just background colour, as I feel his days in the limelight are over (and I think he thinks so too). The Watch are everpresent, but again, this is not their Moment.
In fact, the main characters are new: the working class! Hurrah. They have names and personalities, now. And one of those is the delightful Mister Nutt, a goblin with a mysterious past…
OK, enough teasing. Go read it.
I really want some proper bookcases.
Wow. I honestly don’t want to say too much, because I really think you should go and read this book yourself. All of the reader reviews are right: it’s fascinating, it’s educational and most importantly, it is very very readable.
I’ve seen Ramachandran talk live (at the Royal Institution) and the enthusiasm and showmanship that he presented then really comes through in this book.
I actually got two copies for Christmas – one from Ben and one from my dad. Confusion over Amazon wishlists – Ben obviously doesn’t know how to use them! Bless him. So rather than send the book back, we gave one copy right back to my dad (as he is all about consciousness, phenomenology, and the mystery of the mind).
Now, it took me three weeks to read this. It took my dad one flight back to Dubai. He reads insanely fast! But he says he couldn’t put it down. He’s a very brain-modular sort of person, and his favourite chapters were towards the end, when Ramachandran discusses qualia, and the source and purpose of consciousness.
Personally, I’m all about the earlier chapters, when Ramachandran looks at a variety of different neurological phenomena. He presents us with a variety of case studies, each with very particular forms of brain damage, leading to very unusual problems. There are his famous “phantom limb” patients – people who, following an amputation, can still feel sensation in their absent limb. Later, he returns to the subject of phantoms, by discussing the mindboggling (but increasingly rare) phenomenon of pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy.
But I don’t want to discuss this book at length – I feel it would detract from your own experience when reading it.
If you like Oliver Sacks, you will love this. If you like “unusualness” and maybe even mystery stories, this is for you. Go get it. There are even some optical illusions you can play with (just don’t do them on the train – you’ll look like an idiot).
Don’t fancy reading? Ramachandran has also presented his cases in a two-part BBC4 documentary.
I got this little gem from Ben’s sister for Christmas – once upon a time, I expressed a wish to have a pet squirrel (they are ADORABLE) and she has remembered that ever since. So here was my first step!
From one of the brains behind the beautiful The Gruffalo (book is brilliant, the short film is lovely), here is a short book about squirrels. Whilst it is not advised to actually attempt to keep a squirrel as a pet (have rats instead), this little number is worth having a read for its wonderful illustrations alone.
Apparently based on a 1910 children’s encyclopaedia entry, this book advises plenty of nuts, and a large cage preferably with a trapeze. It’s charming and entertaining, and 10p from each book sale goes Save Our Squirrels!*
There’s not much else to say without spoiling the story, and I can’t exactly show you illustrations, so instead, here are some photos of me, feeding squirrels in Battersea Park.
*It’s great that they’re donating, but as the book costs £9.99 RRP, you would have hoped the publishers could have been a bit more generous…
Well, at the start of 2010, I resolved to read more. And I think I’ve done pretty damn well. Here, as we stand at the edge of the abyss, and the last dregs of 2010 filter away, I can happily say that I have read quite a few books this year.
It’s been tricky, too: throwing myself into a scientific discipline at the last minute (shut up, physicists: psychology so is a science. It has ology and everything) meant that I faced a lot of academic reading, in the form of text books and journal articles. But in between all of that, I have managed a grand total of 39 books this year – 23 non-fiction, and 16 fiction (where I’ve listed text books, that’s where I have actually read them, cover to cover). And this is what they were:
- 30.01.10 – Nicky Hayes – A First Course in Psychology (nf)
- 09.02.10 – Matt Ridley – Nature Via Nurture (nf)
- 01.03.10 – James Hogg – The Three Perils of Man (f)
- 07.03.10 – Adam Phillips – Monogamy (nf)
- 22.03.10 – John Marzillier & John Hall – What is clinical psychology? (nf)
- 24.03.10 – Aldous Huxley – Brave New World (f)
- 30.03.10 – Terry Pratchett – Nation (f)
- 22.04.10 – Walter J. Freeman – How Brains Make Up Their Minds (nf)
- 15.05.10 – G. K. Chesterton – Father Brown Stories (f)
- 19.05.10 – Russell L. Ackoff, Herbert J. Addison & Sally Bibb – Management f-Laws (nf)
- 20.05.10 – Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (f)
- 26.05.10 – Siri Hustvedt – The Shaking Woman or A History Of My Nerves (nf)
- 29.05.10 – Terry Pratchett – Thud! (f)
- 02.06.10 – Oliver Sacks – The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (nf)
- 23.06.10 – Wilkie Collins – The Woman in White (f)
- 29.06.10 – Joseph Conrad – Heart Of Darkness (f)
- 02.07.10 – David Hume – On Suicide (nf)
- 05.07.10 – *Iain Banks – Complicity (f)
- 22.07.10 – Jonathan Weiner – Time, Love, Memory (nf)
- 26.07.10 – Christopher Fowler – Spanky (f)
- 14.08.10 – Robert Winston – Human Instinct (nf)
- 22.08.10 – Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas (f)
- 28.08.10 – American Psychological Association – Concise Rules of APA Style (nf)
- 08.09.10 – Andy Field & Graham Hole – How to Design and Report Experiments (nf)
- 13.09.10 – Nick Braisby (ed.) – Cognitive Psychology: A Methods Companion (nf)
- 20.09.10 – Ken Kesey – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (f)
- 07.10.10 – Steven Pinker – The Language Instinct (nf)
- 12.10.10 – *Paul Broks – Into The Silent Land (nf)
- 21.10.10 – Daniel Levitin – This Is Your Brain On Music (nf)
- 31.10.10 – Oliver Sacks – Musicophilia (nf)
- 07.11.10 – The Poetry and Short Stories of Dorothy Parker (f)
- 10.11.10 – Alain de Botton – Status Anxiety (nf)
- 11.11.10 – Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (f)
- 14.11.10 – Richard P. Feynman – The Meaning of it All (nf)
- 29.11.10 – *Andrew Solomon – The Noonday Demon (nf)
- 04.12.10 – Iain Banks – The Bridge (f)
- 26.12.10 – Axel Scheffler – How to Keep a Pet Squirrel (f)
- 27.12.10 – Dr Liz Miller – Mood Mapping (nf)
- 29.12.10 – Michael S. Gazzaniga – Nature’s Mind (nf)
And I’ve just started the first one for 2011. How about you? Did you chomp through some good reads this year? Which were your favourites? I’ve put an asterisk by my three absolute favourites this year, and massively recommend them.
I should probably start by saying I did not like this book. In fact, there are no significant redeeming features, in my honest opinion. So, if you have read this book, use this book or like this book for whatever reason, then please give this review a miss. Because I didn’t like it, this review will mainly concentrate on WHY I didn’t like it. These opinions, being opinions, are not debatable.
Where to start? Probably at the beginning, is best. When this book was first released, I read an interesting review of it in the Guardian. So, when I saw this book in my local BHF book shop, I thought “what the hell” and thought I’d give it a go. I have never read a self-help style book in my life, and now I know why.
Dr Liz Miller is an ex-neurosurgeon, and so you would expect her to be a sensible woman of science. She’s not: she is full of absolute crap. I was willing to sit through her sad stories of struggling through her breakdowns (she says in the text that she is bipolar, but she doesn’t specify what type. I suspect cyclothymia), and to start with, her advice is pretty sound. However, it is also common sense: keep a mood diary so that you can try and see patterns in mood vs. time of day, events, foods, etc.
Anything that didn’t fall under this header of “common sense advice” was not useful at all, and in fact made me rather angry. One of my common gripes is preachy, self-righteous types: Miller is one of these. Her favourite thing to preach about, it would seem, is food. I knew this would be a problem from the Introduction, where she gently declares a war on meat, alcohol, and processed food. Later in the book, she all but blames mood disorders solely on what we eat.
Let me get one thing straight: PROCESSED FOOD WILL NOT MAKE YOU DROP DEAD. You do not need to be on a “raw food diet” to be happy. Let’s look at the evidence: you know plenty of people who eat microwave meals, take aways and stuff from tins on an almost daily basis, and yet they are functioning perfectly. And then there is “Doctor” Gillian McKeith. I’m sure you’ve all been forwarded a copy of the McKeith vs. Nigella email (they’re both 50, and yet…) She doesn’t look like a happy bunny. She looks fucking miserable.
Fair enough, we’re all sensitive to different foods in different ways – I’m not all that susceptible to caffeine, but I am more careful about alcohol nowadays. And I think that’s the key: you do NOT have to give up everything fun or delicious to live well. You need to know your own body. And that’s where Mood Mapping MIGHT be useful: just for finding patterns in your mood in response to external stimuli. But you do NOT NEED TO BUY THIS BOOK (RRP: £12.99) to be able to do that. Food is not the root to aaaaaall your problems.
On a housekeeping note: Miller needs to get hold of a better proofreader. Even my casual, half-attentive reading of this book (often accompanied by a background of Christmas TV and the sound of family members reading articles from the newspaper outloud) spotted a whole menagerie of errors. Most hilarious IMHO was pp. 237-8, and the supposed “Causes of bipolar”…
“…Bipolar disorder can also start after head injury, treatment with anti-malarial drugs, particularly mefloquinine, head injury, childhood abuse, drug abuse…”
And later on in this ridiculous list of madness and repetition: post-traumatic stress disorder. WHAT?! PTSD is a mental illness in its own right, not a “cause” of bipolar. I think she’s getting confused: violent mood swings are not the only characteristic feature of bipolar. They are a symptom. And guess what? They just so happen to be quite a significant symptom of PTSD, too. Just because someone is having severe mood swings does not mean they have suddenly “come down with” bipolar disorder.
I’m trying to keep this short, so here’s the last and most important reason why I hate this book:
“…what my research and experience did prove is that mood and its associated chemicals respond more to the five keys to mood than they do to drugs. By physically managing your mood, it is often possible to dispense with drugs entirely.” (p. 233)
My, that’s a sweeping statement. And, “prove”? Really? Please, tell this to anyone suffering from psychosis, or chronic, major depression. Some people simply cannot function without medication. Some people can’t even cope WITH medication, it’s that bad. MY research and experience INDICATES this. Read a far better and more realistic account of mood disorder.
By all means, I am not poo-pooing Miller’s personal trauma and experience of the mental health system, but that is what it is: a personal trauma. She found something that works for her. Good. She has no right to prescribe it to others.
Man, I love Iain Banks. This is now the third of his novels I’ve read (excluding his sci fi) and he has yet to disappoint me, even slightly.
Whilst The Bridge still doesn’t top Complicity for me (man, THAT is a good book), it is still a truly great book. Banks is, as always, imaginative and involving, skirting the border between fluid prose and wild streams of consciousness. And again, as always, Banks covers some difficult ground, being quite explicit about violence and sex. Banks is not for the faint-hearted: you have been warned. This is far less aggressive than Complicity however, so might be a good way in for Banksian virgins.
The Bridge starts off with a car crash, and we see it from the POV of the victim – in the chaos and confusion, the “narrative” (if it is even that) is punctuated by fear and pain, and the stream of consciousness is a bit hard to follow. But stick with it: the fog lifts (a bit) very shortly.
What follows is our protagonist’s journey through his subsequent memory loss (he is given the name John Orr because he can’t remember his real one) and his recovery from the crash.
The main part of the novel follows Orr around the strange world of the Bridge, a society built on, you guessed it, a huge bridge. It’s a surreal mix of the otherworldly and the profoundly human. However, we do get glimmers of reality intermittently in Orr’s “dream” chapters, and it swiftly becomes very difficult to discern what is real from what is not.
I can’t say much more without divulging huge spoilers, so I will leave it there in the hopes that I have already whetted your appetite enough.
A final note to say that one “dream” mentions Peniel Heugh, or the Waterloo Monument, which I recognised by Banks’ description, before it is even named in the text. And that’s because I’ve been there. Here’s photographic evidence, taken on my mobile back in July this year:
Hope you get a chance to read this book. I stormed through it in a matter of days, despite my impending lab report deadline – it is simply that exciting and engaging. But then, Banks has a good track record in my books.
Yes, that’s me, reading in bed. Shush.
This book took me a long time to read. I had to put a lot of effort in to reading it. Usually, that is a sign that I am finding the book boring, or a chore. That is not true in this case: the sheer effort involved here was to overcome the deep sense of sadness held within the pages.
Andrew Solomon’s comprehensive masterpiece on depression is an incredibly painful read, especially if the experiences described are familiar to you. I’m fairly certain that everyone knows someone who has at some time suffered from clinical depression (whether mild or major), and it is still even now treated with some awkwardness, to say the least. As Solomon points out, “our society has little room in it for moping” – a common phrase thrown at depressives is “pull yourself together”. Solomon relates an incredibly provocative life event (which lead to his third breakdown) in which he dislocated his shoulder pretty badly: knowing his own body and how he reacts to prolonged physical pain (they are a large cause of his depressive episodes) he calmly asked the doctors at A&E to look up his psychiatric history in order to hurry along pain relief. He knew that without pain control, he was likely to plunge into a deep depression. Rather than listen to their patient, and be sympathetic to his suffering by offering a psychiatric consult, doctors told him: “Pull yourself together and stop feeling sorry for yourself”. He was also accused of being “uncooperative” and “childish”. Solomon later lapsed into suicidal ideation and later ended up having a minor breakdown.
Solomon bases this book around his own experiences of major depression (including three breakdowns, thousands of dollars worth of therapy and a rainbow of medications) but this is by no means a self-indulgent, autobiographical look-in. He relates stories from many cultures and classes, from people of all walks of life, all sharing a terrible common ground. Solomon shows us the world of self-help groups, animistic rituals to cure depression in Senegal (the ndeup ritual, in case you want to pursue further reading), the quiet world of Greenlandic depression and the ignored population suffering below the poverty line. All are fascinating. All are equally distressing. Much of it made me angry. All of it moved me deeply.
You know what you’re getting in to from the first page of the first chapter: Solomon tells us, truthfully, that “no matter what we do, we will in the end die”. It does not get any cheerier, even when Solomon devotes a chapter to statistics. But it is illuminating: within the first ten pages, I was already thinking that this should be essential reading for anyone working with depressives, be they psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, helpline volunteers… It explains an awful lot, and does so without fear and without apology.
Solomon mentions in the foreword that he is not a doctor or a psychologist, and this is a purely personal book, with interpretations only, and is not a substitute for appropriate treatment. However, early on, he throws away common misconceptions about depression: for example, that it is “just chemical”. Well, if you want to be accurate, EVERYTHING is “just chemical”, but that doesn’t make it any less personal or painful.
Depression isn’t intrinsically linked to suicide, but a lot of depressives do think suicidal thoughts (even if they do not enact suicidal acts). It’s incredibly sad to consider the logic behind suicide: the pain so great that you wish everything could just go away, forever. Solomon includes a beautifully poignant quote from one of my old favourites, G. K. Chesterton:
The man who kills a man kills a man.
The man who kills himself kills all men.
As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.
But it is not all doom and gloom (hah!). Solomon also shares with us his journey towards managing his depression, as well as the stories of others, and how their lives were turned around by patience and treatment. The final chapter of the book is lovingly titled “Hope”, and Solomon ends his work beautifully, asking us to “Hold on to time; don’t wish your life away. Even the minutes when you feel you are going to explode are minutes of your life, and you will never get those minutes again”.
In his foreword, Solomon warns us that he is “not a doctor or a psychologist or even a philosopher”. I disagree with the last part, and I urge you to read this book.
The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist
I was a wee bit disappointed by this book. I think Richard P Feynman is brilliant, and therefore maybe I was expecting something utterly ground breaking. Maybe it’s important to remember that this book is actually a transcript of three John Danz lectures which professor Feynman delivered in April 1963 at the University of Washington. As a result, the book tends to be a little fragmentary, a few points are repeated, and a little unfocussed. Perhaps, had Feynman gone back to this and refined it, we would be left with a more comfortable and satisfying read. As it stands, it might benefit from you reading it aloud (as if you were giving it as a lecture, live).
That said, this small work does reflect on some important topics, mainly the use of science to society. What makes for good scientific practice? What is the true value of science? Can scientists really believe in God? And, my personal favourite, why is it, that with the advances of scientific research in the modern world, is there such widespread belief in flying saucers, homeopathy and astrology?
Feynman also discusses scepticism at length, and in the final lecture he explores how science has been abused. Whilst nothing strictly ground-breaking, Feynman is a hugely respected scientist but also a great teacher and philosopher. A nice quick read for anyone interested in science, philosophy, scepticism, and the philosophy of science.
And as another reviewer has pointed out: Yes, it rambles, but then so do scientists!