Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

by by John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman

The author attempts to explain for the layman, but ends up using masses of neurological jargon and acronyms, about the role exercise plays in sharpening our mental processes. Boiling it down to the basics: moving our muscles produces proteins that play roles in neurogenesis and the repair of synapses.  It also helps the production of hormones such as serotonin and norepinephrine that regulate mood.  Therefore, Ratey argues, daily sustained aerobic exercise is a sure cure-all for depression, ADHD, the ravages of aging, raging hormones in menopausal women, addiction, phobias, etc.

He makes his point with study after study, but this certainly could have been a more readable book.  First, as noted, Ratey can’t help using baffling medical jargon like LTP (long-term potentiation, or the ability to attach synapses), BDNF (a protein that strengthens brain cells), cortisol, dendrite, VEGF (growth factor), all of which is overwhelming for the average reader.  Some of it could easily have been skipped to no detriment to the argument.  Second, he then becomes repetitive.  In each chapter, he explains how  studies show that movement elevates these receptors, factors, and proteins; but really, once is enough.  I think the book would have been improved had it had an introductory chapter that showed the hard science, then focused on case studies, for example, only making passing references to the science chapter as needed.  Instead, Ratey seems to think he must explain the biological processes each time. Third, he comes off as a zealot, and he has the unfortunate blinders of a zealot: he recommends, without fail, 45 minutes of sustained aerobic activity four days a week, two days of intensive aerobic activity, with focus on strength training, balance, new skill sets (so karate or yoga rather than just running), and social interaction.  Yes, I’m sure that would be fantastic, but it’s preposterously unrealistic for the average American, let alone one recovering from addiction or depression.  Certainly, Ratey notes often enough that people should start out slow, consult their doctor, and so on, but it’s clear he has no patience for anything but the highest level of activity, and devotes almost no space to developing a slow, reasonable build-up to fitness.  The information is good and the science interesting, and Ratey may be perfectly reliable, but the tone of his book is something like that of a cult member or a car salesman. 

two stars

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

by Bill Bryson

A memoir of the humor and travel writer’s childhood and adolescence in Des Moines, Iowa in the ‘50s, which he characterizes as an era of material comfort, production, consumption, happiness, endearing naïveté, embrace of changes the future would bring, and a general carefree attitude.  (The title comes from a super-hero fantasy he indulged in as a child.)  Lingering with affectionate nostalgia over the baseball parks, unique mom and pop shops and department stores, childhood games, and newspaper routes of his youth, he mostly takes the wistful tone of the man who thinks the world has been going downhill ever since he personally left school.  He does touch on some of the bleaker aspects of the decade, such as the lax attitude toward dangerous substances, the cold war, nuclear proliferation, a fascistic and pharisaical tendency toward censorship in the government, and some very ugly racism – but as a child in a nearly totally Methodist, white middle-class neighborhood, these did not touch him.  Indeed, he characterizes himself as a perspicacious child (though a very poor student) who, for example, saw immediately that the ludicrous duck-and-cover drill would not save him from nuclear explosions, so chose to ignore them.

Normally I am wary of memoirs by people who have not lived especially interesting lives (and everyone seems to think their own childhood, with its same cruel kids’ games and wide-eyed wonder as everyone else’s, deserves a book).  I would probably not have read this book, despite having read and enjoyed others by Bryson, if it weren’t part of a project in which others choose books for me to read.  As it is, Bryson more than justifies the innate arrogance of the memoir.  For one thing, he is supremely funny: some passages had me uncontrollably laughing, literally until tears streamed down my face.  While wit and an amusing turn of phrase are common enough, outside of Wodehouse and Adams it’s the rare writer who can cause actual bouts of laughter.  Second, underneath the bright nostalgia is a very real lesson: that what was arguably one of America’s happiest periods coincided with an open mind to scientific advancement, self-sustaining manufacturing and farming, and local entrepreneurship flourishing before the rise of faceless and flavorless monolithic corporations.  Truly an era that is gone. 

four stars

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sarum: The Novel Of England

by Edward Rutherfurd

The story of the small portion of humanity that settled in and developed Salisbury (“Sarum”: being an abbreviated rendering of the Roman name Sorbiodunum) from the stone age to the 1980s.  Following the struggles, fortunes, tribulations, and remade fortunes of five lineages, the novel details how waves of invaders (Cro-Magnons, Normans, Romans, Vikings) changed the landscape, economy, and culture, from Stonehenge to livestock breeding to Cathedral building, but then were in turn changed by it and became part of its fabric.

I had some mixed feelings while reading this book.  At 897 pages, it’s a hugely ambitious project – indeed sometimes Rutherfurd casts his net far wider than Sarum itself, following some of Salisbury’s sons in the American Revolution or at D-Day.  But high ambition alone does not ensure quality.  Certainly it is an achievement in itself simply to tell such an epic tale.  But the proof is in the telling itself.  And here the prose is, at times, purple at best and clunky and awkward at worst.  Some sentences are as in danger of toppling as Salisbury Cathedral’s spire, so packed are they with meandering clauses.  Further, the book is astonishingly riddled with comma misuse – I found one egregious comma error literally at least every four pages, which raises the question of whether the book was proofread at all.  Finally, there is Rutherfurd’s authorial style, which is preachy and intrusive, especially in the early chapters, where he feels the need to step into his fictional world and explain in sometimes lengthy paragraphs the science or geography behind what a character was doing, as if to assure the readers that he’d done his research before popping back behind the curtain again.  Or he might begin a section under the rubric with, for example, 1244, only to state a few paragraphs in that in order to really pick up at that point, “we must first go back a little.”  Then why did he begin in 1244?  Why not just tell the thread of the story from that earlier point, or have the characters refer to the slow changes that came before? These anachronistic authorial intrusions would have worked better, if he really had to have them, as endnotes to each chapter, rather than breaking the narrative so jarringly.  On the positive side, the way he charts the evolution of Sarum’s economy, for example, is astounding and commendable.  But what really makes the book work is the human adventure: each time he dips into a past era, there is a poignant or dramatic or thrilling vignette, a short story involving one of his five families, that underscores the vicissitudes of fate and the indomitable spark that keeps humanity going through the fortunes and failures that time brings.  With a heavy-handed, level-headed editor, this could have been a brilliant book.  As it is, it’s an impressive curiosity.  It was a chore to read at times, but I’m not sorry I read it all.

three stars

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Mauritius Command

by Patrick O'Brian

The fourth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series.  Languishing at home on half pay, Jack is unexpectedly given a commission to go as acting Commodore to the Cape of Good Hope, where he will direct a small squadron to take the French-held islands of Mauritius and Reunion.  The captains under Jack’s command are slightly jealous, but they are motivated primarily by their differing natures, whether harsh taskmasters or eager to please and ineffective.  After some easy victories, helped along by Stephen’s psych-op machinations, a particularly bloody battle ensues.  Defeat looms, but Jack’s pure bulldogged determination turns the tide, until the victory and glory is taken from his grasp by one of his own allies.

While I believe that this series really takes off in the next two books, this is a vibrant and thrilling historical novel.  Focusing heavily on the nautical warfare – and its specific, archaic jargon, such that several passages may as well have been in Greek to me – and the rigid manners of the era – a window to the psychology of the culture, as recorded by the ever-perspicacious Stephen, it makes for a rich historical excursion.  It also is a delight in rewarding the careful reader; plot points are made via inferences through a single line of dialogue, rather than tedious filler.  Another very enjoyable and erudite entry. 

four stars