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I said I was going to let this project go for now, but I did promptly check out nonfiction from the library. This book is from a hundreds category I've already read in this year, so it gets classified as a bonus book.

This week I read Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling. The premise of the book is that you can tell a lot about a person by their space. He specifically looks at what are known as "the Big Five:" "the most extensively examined - and firmly established - system for grouping personality traits." The five are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, which he says you can remember by the acronym OCEAN. He has a very short version of a test to measure it in the book, and he refers to an online version you can take. (I did both versions. I'm high on conscientiousness, average on agreeableness, and low on neuroticism, openness, and extraversion.)

As usual, what I didn't like about the book was that it wasn't what I expected. I expected it to be a more concrete field guide to examining other people's spaces. At the end of the book, he does specifically tell us what he learned about two people's offices. But most of the book is focused more on personality research. You can tell he's an academic writer; while there are bits that are more casual and entertaining, there's a lot of "so and so at X university did research and found out this thing."

I did start thinking about what my spaces say about me. Take my desk at work, for example. I have three decorative personal items (I also have two things of lotion, but let's focus on the more interesting things): a small picture frame with my happiness commandments is right up against one of my monitors, my Serenity promo postcard is to the right of them a bit, and my Princess Protection Program calendar is on the wall to the right of that. One of the things he talks about in the book is looking to see how personal people's decorations are to see how much separation they have between their work selves and their home selves. If you didn't know about fandom, you'd think the promo card and the calendar are very impersonal, but if you do know, then you realize they're actually signs of integrating my selves into my spaces.

He does touch on the ways your expertise can affect your interpretation: "When I look through a woman's apartment and see a tube of lipstick, I see a tube of lipstick. Many women looking at the same evidence would see a tube of MAC lipstick, or Covergirl lipstick, or . . . well, as a reflection of my low level of cosmetic expertise, I have already run dry on lipstick brands."

It was an interesting book, and I'm definitely going to start paying more attention to people's spaces - although it seems like being able to carry the book around as a reference (there are a lot of charts and tables and such) would make snooping easier.
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This month I read Mary Roach's Bonk. You may remember that I read Spook last year and said I would read something else by her.

Bonk is hilarious. I laughed so hard I cried. Unlike Spook, some of the best parts of the book are where she talks about her own experiences:
I sent Dr. Deng an email asking permission to come to London to observe the first scan. He wrote back immediately.
Dear Ms. Roach, Many thanks for your interest in our research. You are welcome to interview me in London. . . . However, to arrange a new in-action would be very difficult, mainly due to the difficulty in recruiting volunteers. If you organization is able to recruit brave couple(s) for an intimate (but non-invasive) study, I would be happy to arrange and perform one.
My organization gave some thought to this. What couple would do this? More direly, who wanted to pay the three or four thousand dollars it would cost to fly them both to London and put them up in a nice hotel? My organization balked. It called its husband.

"You know how you were saying you haven't been to Europe in twenty-five years?"

Ed was wary. It was not all that long ago that his agreeable nature, combined with a touching and foolhardy inclination to help his wife with her reporting, landed him in a Mars and Venus relationship seminar that involved talking to strangers about his "love needs."

I pushed onward. "What if I offered you an all-expense-paid trip to London?"

Ed sensibly replied that he would want to know what the catch was.
The part of the book that made me laugh until I cried also involved Ed, in this case mishearing the instructions on a video Mary was watching for research and coming to investigate. And this is after her prologue where she says, "My solution was to apply the stepdaughter test. I imagined Lily and Phoebe reading these passages, and I tried to write in a way that wouldn't mortify them."

If you're thinking of reading the book, I do have two caveats. First, it's not particularly sciency. It's much more about people doing science than it is is about the science itself (although there's a fair amount of that in there too).

Secondly, most of the book is very heternormative, which, to be fair, is probably true about most sex research throughout the ages. It's pretty vanilla heterosexuality too; she talks, at one point, about inventions designed to prevent erections (from a time when even wet dreams were seen as a negative thing) and doesn't quite get to the point where such things are now used in orgasm denial play. Her last chapter does look at the conclusions of Masters and Johnson's Homosexuality in Perspective: "The best sex going on in Masters and Johnson's lab was the sex being had by the committed gay and lesbian couples. Not because they were practicing special secret homosexual sex techniques, but because they 'took their time.' . . . The other hugely important difference Masters and Johnson found between the heterosexual and homosexual couples was that the gay couples talked far more easily, often, and openly about what they did and didn't enjoy." It's interesting data, but the chapter feels a little tacked on, and she goes right back to the realm of heteronormativity: "It seems to me that heterosexuals have come a long way since 1979."

Still, the book is entertaining, and I would, all in all, recommend it.
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I picked up Mary Roach's Spook: Science Tackles The Afterlife off of the "what people are reading" display at the library. I wasn't particularly interested in the subject, but I remember hearing that she's a good writer, and everything I felt like reading off my Amazon Dewey Decimal Project wish list is in the 300s, and I've already covered those this year.

Having read the book, I'm still not particularly interested in the subject, but Mary Roach is a hilarious writer, and I would definitely read something else by her. Of course, some of the funniest parts of the book are her asides and footnotes.
A surgical technique recently perfected at the Swallowing Center at the University of Washington* stops rumination in its tracks.

*As opposed to the Swallowing Center at Northwestern, or the Swallowing Center at the University of Southern California, or the one at Holy Cross, or the Rusk Institute, or the Nebraska Medical Center. Of course, the original "swallowing center" is a chunk of your brainstem that coordinates chewing, gagging, vomiting, coughing, belching, and licking, all with minimal fuss and no funding from the NIH.
A later footnote tells us:
Further Ometer abuse comes from the Centers for Disease Control (the Flu-O-Meter), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - their Splatometer tracks the abundance of flying insects, whose decline spells trouble for birds - and Gary Ometer, former Director of Debt Management for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. I was hesitant to phone Gary, for his title led me to expect a man of, shall we say, high scores on the Shirley Stiffness Tester, but he was a good sport about it. Gary blames shabby Ellis Island bookkeeping for his family's contribution to the Ometer situation.
I was also amused by her description of meeting Alison DuBois:
Perhaps because I'd been reading a biography of the slovenly and bellicose Helen Duncan on the plane to Tucson, it did not cross my mind that a medium could look like a beauty pageant winner. DuBois has long, obedient rust-red hair that turns up just so on the ends and complements her coppery lipstick. Her blush and foundation could have been applied by airbrush, so perfect is the blending. She manages to look made-up at the same time as she looks completely natural and beautiful without device. I can no more understand how a woman does this than I can understand how a woman communicates with dead people. DuBois is paranormally good-looking.
I have to say that the first time I ever saw a picture of the real Alison DuBois, I was shocked by the way she's much, much more glamorous than her TV counterpart.

The weakest chapter in the book is the one wherein "The author enrolls in medium school." I got the sense that she didn't get much out of it but had to say something about it because she'd put in the time and money to attend.

For all that her writing is wonderful and many of her asides are entertaining, there's a spark of irritation in much of what she says about her own experience that made me think that as much as I might like to read Mary Roach's writing, I might not like spending time with her. I was also fascinated by the occasional British-sounding turn of phrase, since she's solidly American.
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My poll about taking library books on vacation was missing an important option: Depressing books on vacation? Are you crazy? If I'd realized Michael Paul Mason's Head Cases was going to be this sad, I wouldn't have brought it with me. In fact, if I hadn't been on a plane, I probably wouldn't have finished it.

Head Cases is a series of case studies of people with brain injuries. I picked the book up off the shelf because I've found other tales of brain injury interesting, but what I didn't realize was that this is told from a social work point of view (Mason is a brain injury case manager) rather than a scientist point of view. Some of the case studies have happy-for-now endings (the thirteen-year-old who is in a school that works for him and who hasn't had a rage episode in two years; the woman who's turned her experience into research on the effect of mindfulness on those with brain injuries), but most of them don't (the man who spends his days drugged in a psych ward because his state won't pay for him to be transferred to an appropriate out of state facility; the man who will soon be released from prison to a world where he won't get adequate medical treatment). More than an examination into those with brain injuries, the book works best as an indictment of our health care system. There aren't enough beds for those with brain injuries, and insurance companies won't pay for the beds there are. The family members in the book are all in debt they can't get out of to pay for care and rehab facilities.

It also works as an interesting look at the war in Iraq. At one point, Mason had a chance to travel to Iraq to see how the military is dealing with trauma at the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad Air Base where "record time from admit to operating room is eighteen minutes - and that includes CAT scan and lab work." Balad treats both American soldiers and Iraqi victims. Soldiers are patched up and put on medical transport planes to Germany, then home. Iraqi civilians are patched up and sent home with inadequate medical supplies to a life where no one knows how to take care of them and they could be killed for receiving American aid. Balad gives their expired medical supplies to a local Iraqi hospital where the doctors are afraid to leave the hospital for fear of kidnapping. "Had Heekin not received a full dose of morphine to alleviate the leg pain, he may have been able to receive the Military Acute Concussion Evaluation (MACE) at Balad, a twenty-minute neuropsychological test that the military now gives to every American wounded in a blast. The test has only now become compulsory; no similar evaluation occurred for the first four years of the conflict, contributing to the speculation of high numbers of undiagnosed injuries. While the MACE may someday be administered beside football fields and boxing rings, it has one significant limitation. The test does not cross the cultural divide; Iraqis don't receive it."

If you're at all interested in the social and psychological effects of brain injury, or the way our health care system doesn't meet the needs of those with brain injuries, this is definitely a book worth reading, but it's not a hopeful book, and part of the last chapter had me crying in the airport gate area.
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It's May 11, and I just finished reading my Dewey Decimal book for April. I only read one and a half other books in April, so it wasn't just this book.

The book was Bodies We've Buried by Jarrett Hallcox and Amy Welch. Jarrett and Amy run the National Forensic Academy, "the world's top CSI training school." The book takes you through all of the things they cover in the Academy's ten-week course. I read it on the suggestion of someone from my writing group, and it's definitely a worthwhile read if you're writing a murder mystery. It's also worth noting that they talk a lot about how no one who comes through the Academy knows anything about half the stuff they cover before they get there - so a small-town PD without a trained CSI might miss things in your book.

The book is also surprisingly funny, which might make it more palatable to any squeamish types. (I'm not, so descriptions of dead bodies and blood and maggots didn't bother me.)
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This month's book was Secrets of the Savanna by Mark and Delia Owens. The real reason I never get around to reading the things people have recced to me is that I'll be browsing the "what people are reading" shelves at the library and find something that sounds interesting, which is how I found this book.

Mark and Delia Owens spent decades in Africa studying wildlife and advocating for conservation. In 1986, they made their way to North Luangwa National Park in Zambia, where they wanted to study elephants. They also created a project to loan money to the locals to start their own businesses so they would have some source of income other than poaching.

The book is interesting. I somewhat expected it to be more of a continuous narrative than a lot of the nonfiction I've been reading, and in some ways it is. There's a logical progression from chapter to chapter, and yet, most of the chapters would still be able to stand alone.

I think I was misled by the inside flap because I expected the book to be more about elephants, when it's really more about the people involved, and most especially Mark and Delia. At some point, they do talk about how they'd always planned to do more studying of the elephants but that the realities of running the project kept getting in the way.

It's an interesting story anyway, and it traces, in fits and starts, the path from their arrival to the attempted destruction of the project by corrupt officials. Mark and Delia don't go back to Africa in the end - they settle in Idaho and work "to recover remnant populations of grizzly bears and wetland habitats in the Pacific Northwest" - but the project lives on. "Maybe someday we will return to Marula-Puku and Fulaza, but that is not really important. What matters is that Gift keeps having babies, that Hammer is distributing seeds, and that the winterthorn still sings," Delia says in the end.

Each chapter of the book is written by Mark or Delia, and the chapter heading tells you who wrote it. Delia has more of a tendency towards flowery prose, although Mark doesn't quite escape that, and I was struck by the gender division of Delia writing about camp life and animals and Mark writing about politics and flying the helicopter. I really liked the way Delia, especially, made connections to previous chapters. She tells us about the gifts from her grandfather, and comes back to them. She considers the baboons and their troop, and comes back to talk about building her own troop. She tells us about joining women for a coming-of-age ceremony, and comes back to the feeling of connection she gets from it. I also like the unintentional connections to other things I've read, especially when Delia talks about her grandfather.
In later years, when he could no longer go hunting, he would shake his head and say, "There ain't as many birds as there used to be HiDe." He would almost whisper, "There used to be so many doves they'd darken the sky when they flew over a cornfield. At dusk you could hear the ducks landin' on the river from half a mile away. You never heard so much squawkin' and carryin' on in your life. We didn't figure our shootin' would make a dent in 'em. But I reckon we did." He stopped short of saying the game warden was right all those years, but that's what he was admitting, and he felt bad, real bad.
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This month's book was Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. I'd read something about the book several months ago (I have a vague recollection that it was a blog post about an interview wherein someone asked Lehrer about Kanye West, possibly either at Marginal Revolution or Mind Hacks), and when I saw it on the new books shelf at the library, I picked it up.

I'm finding it interesting how many nonfiction books are more like a collection of essays than a coherent whole; this book fits into that mold.

The basic idea behind Proust Was a Neuroscientist is that artists have anticipated many things that neuroscience is only just now realizing. It's an interesting premise, and a lot of the things artists have known before neuroscience seem somewhat like common sense.

The book was certainly interesting, although I think it might have been more interesting if I'd read more (or, rather, any) of the works he references. I think my favorite chapter was "Auguste Escoffier: The Essence of Taste," about cooks and chefs discovering that umami is real before neuroscientists found the receptors for it on the tongue. It made me hungry, and revealed why my first attempt at black beans really needed tomatoes or salsa added to it. (Tomato sauce falls in his list of "potent sources of L-glutamate.")

In the chapter "Igor Stravinsky: The Source of Music," he tells us:
Over time, the auditory cortex works the same way; we become better able to hear those sounds we have heard before. This only encourages us to listen to the golden oldies we already know (since they sound better), and to ignore the difficult songs that we don't know (since they sound harsh and noisy, and release unpleasant amounts of dopamine). We are built to abhor the uncertainty of newness.

How do we escape this neurological trap? By paying attention to art. The artist is engaged in a perpetual struggle against the positive-feedback loop of the brain, desperate to create an experience that no one has ever had before.
Without artists like Stravinsky who compulsively make everything new, our sense of sound would become increasingly narrow.
This makes me think I need to start listening to new music. I know I've noticed my own tendency to not bother with music I don't already know.

My favorite bits of the book are the entertaining commentaries and summaries of the works he covers. About George Eliot's Middlemarch: "Many depressing pages ensue." About Proust: "A sickly thirty-something, Proust had done nothing with his life so far except accumulate symptoms and send self-pitying letters to his mother." About Gertrude Stein: "If she is remembered today outside college campuses and histories of cubism, it is for a single cliché, one that is almost impossible to forget: 'A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.' Although Stein used this aphorism as a decoration for dinner plates, it now represents everything she wrote. This is the danger of avoiding plots."

Lehrer's concluding "Coda" is a manifesto of sorts in which Lehrer criticizes current popular science books and proposes a new way of marrying art and science: "What the artists in this book reveal is that there are many different ways of describing reality, each of which is capable of generating truth. Physics is useful for describing quarks and galaxies, neuroscience is useful for describing the brain, and art is useful for describing our actual experience." I'm not overly convinced by his argument. I think it's obvious that science and art describe different truths, and I'm not sure Lehrer's book successfully mixes art and science, although it is an interesting exercise in literary criticism by way of neuroscience.
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October's book was Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul. The book is, as it says, a history of American Birding. Since it's over three hundred pages long, I really have to wonder what a longwinded history of American birding would look like.

The book is an interesting survey of American birding, including the ways in which birding and ornithology have intersected and separated and intersected again over the years. Weidensaul weaves in his own birding experiences as jumping off points for the history, which works instead of being annoying, which it could easily be. I particularly appreciated his skill in choosing entertaining anecdotes and humorous quotes:
One woman wrote to say she was so unhappy because the cats in her neighborhood killed birds. We were going to write back and suggest that she collect the murderous felines and read the Audubon circular to them; but we restrained ourselves and advised her to feed the cats. (Elliott Coues, quoted on page 143)

The introduction to every volume carried the same put-up-or-shut-up message:
The reader is reminded again that this is a cooperative work; if he fails to find in these volumes anything that he knows about the birds, he can blame himself for not having sent the information to

--The Author
(Cleveland Bent, quoted on page 182)
He also does a very nice job of including the contributions of women from times before women started being included in academic and other ventures outside of childbearing.

The book ends on a message of conservation and Weidensaul's affirmation of the birding for the enjoyment of watching birds and understanding of their ways school of thought over the obsessive checking off of lists school of thought.

Overall, it was an interesting book. Some of you might enjoy it; for [ profile] archivecats, this is upgraded to highly recommended.
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I stayed home sick on Thursday and, somewhat appropriately, used the time to finish Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

The book, in case you haven't heard of it, is the story of Lia Lee, a Hmong girl with epilepsy (the Hmong term for epilepsy literally means "the spirit catches you and you fall down"). The book chronicles the clash of cultures as her traditional Hmong family and her American doctors each do what they think is best for her. Along the way, Fadiman weaves in the history of the Hmong.

The book is fascinating, both for the story of Lia and for the history. It's also heartbreaking, both for what happens to Lia and for how that affects the people around her.

The biggest lesson I took away from the book is that in the case of cross-cultural, cross-language communications, you don't need an translator to do a straight translation of the words, you need a cultural broker who can bridge the connections between the people and the cultures.

I highly recommend the book.
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This month's book was How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman. I loved all of the fascinating case studies he uses to examine how doctors reach conclusions and either stick with them or do more investigating and questioning to make sure they haven't missed anything.

The most interesting insight, to me anyway, comes from chapter 6, "The Uncertainty of the Expert."
"Most of what we do in pediatric cardiology, we make up. In fact a fraction of what is routinely done today in my speciality, I made up," [Dr. James] Lock said with a grin. That is because children often have such unique problems with their hearts that there is little precedent. But, Lock continued, "you simply have to do something. The big problem is that most people assume that once it's made up, it's actually real. Especially the people who make it up themselves. Then they think it came straight from God."
The second most interesting, and certainly the funniest, bit is the single footnote in the book, which appears in the introduction: "I quickly realized that trying to assess how psychiatrists think was beyond my abilities. Therapy of mental illness is a huge field unto itself that encompasses various schools of thought and theories of mind. For that reason, I do not delve into psychiatry in this book."

As fascinating as the book is, it's a little loosely put together. Each chapter is its own narrative (one, or most of one, chapter appeared in The New Yorker at one point), and they don't really hold together as a coherent whole. Chapter 5, "A New Mother's Challenge," seems especially out of place. His conclusion of that tale is more about faith than medicine.

The last chapter is the practical one, which ties together all of the previous case studies and analyses of doctors' thought processes and gives the average patient "a series of touchstones that help correct errors in thinking." Groopman's touchstones are:
  • Tell your story again, from the beginning.
  • Tell your doctor what you're most afraid of, even if you're afraid to do so. "A relative had died of a pulmonary embolus, and she was terrified that this was the cause of her chest pain. After she told me, she admitted that she'd been scared to say it, since doing so might make it true.
  • Physicians should review any tests again, and may need to repeat tests, even though it's expensive.
  • You can specifically ask, "What else could it be?" "Is there anything that doesn't fit?" "Is it possible I have more than one problem?"
  • Get a referral. "I have learned to say to my patient, 'I believe when you say something is wrong, but I haven't figured it out yet.' And since I can't figure out your problem, I continue, I should send you elsewhere, to a physician with an independent mind who likes to tackle complicated cases."
  • Get an explanation of the treatment. "Recall the study of forty-five doctors in California caring for more than nine hundred patients. Two thirds did not tell the patients either how long to take the new medicine or what its side effects could be."
  • Physicians need to make time for thinking. "The inescapable truth is that good thinking takes time. Working in haste and cutting corners are the quickest routes to cognitive errors.
The other conclusion the book reaches, which isn't explicitly laid out again in the epilogue, is that, for good treatment, doctors and patients have to be a good match. Patients whose doctors don't like them do actually get worse care, and most patients who think their doctors don't like them are right. Groopman also makes the point that a doctor who is perfect for one patient, would be terrible for another. So even though it's time-consuming and expensive to try out different doctors, it is important, and it does make a difference.


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Ruth Sadelle Alderson


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