Category: Great Reads

The joy of Readmill

The last 60 or so books I’ve bought, I’ve bought them via Kindle for iPad. Erin recently introduced me to Readmill, which offers a reading app and a way to share highlighted passages online. People can follow one another, see what they’re reading, see which parts of a book someone found most interesting, puzzling, moving, or troubling by their highlights and comments on the text. Readmill posts your highlights and notes to your profile if you choose.

Readmill continues to improve with each iteration. The last update included an in-app dictionary, something that I find indispensable. Readmill doesn’t yet have the ability to re-read a book. You can re-read it, but the book is considered “finished.” I find re-reading far more pleasurable than the first read. On Erin’s recommendation I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Fantastic stuff! Read it twice. Am now reading Grossman’s sequel, The Magician King.

Some of my favorite random passages from The Magicians:

Use magic in anger, and you will harm yourself much more quickly than you will harm your adversary. There are certain spells . . . if you lose control of them, they will change you. Consume you. Transform you into something not human, a niffin, a spirit of raw, uncontrolled magical energy.

Alice was still watching him. Behind her the mosaic was a swirl of green tentacles and whitecaps and floating fragments. He slid down the stone bench to her end and kissed her and bit her lower lip until she gasped.

He felt his intoxication already turning into a hangover, that queasy neurological alchemy that usually happens during sleep. His abdomen was overfull, swollen with tainted viscera. People he’d betrayed came wandering out from the place in his mind where they usually stayed.

Space was full of angry little particles.

So instead he kept his little particle of shame and filth inside, where it could fester and turn septic.

Most people are blind to magic. They move through a blank and empty world. They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they die.

Learn more about Readmill.

Exercise: Fertilizer for the Brain

Here’s some great motivation to keep up with your running program: John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist who posits that exercise is like fertilizer for the brain. From his book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School:

At the molecular level, early studies indicate that exercise stimulates one of the brain’s most powerful growth factors, BDNF. That stands for Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor and it aids in the development of healthy tissue. BDNF exerts a fertilizer-like growth effect on certain neurons in the brain. The protein keeps existing neurons young and healthy, rendering them much more willing to connect with one another. It also encourages neurogenesis, the formation of new cells in the brain. The cells most sensitive to this are in the hippocampus, inside the very regions deeply involved in human cognition. Exercise increases the level of usable BDNF inside those cells.

Managing the Apollo program: the Thursday Update Notebook

Another compelling anecdote from James R. Chiles’ Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology, this time about how Joe Shea, NASA’s Apollo program manager, managed his program. By 1964, NASA and its contractors had 300,000 people working on the project:

Shea’s main management tool wasn’t that complicated, either, just a looseleaf notebook that his staff filled each Thursday with progress reports, crisis bulletins, and cost figures sent in from every branch of the Apollo program. Shea marked up the pages working through the weekends, then releasing his incisive comments on the following Monday to be answered in time for the next notebook.

Frozen in place

Inviting Disaster–Lessons from the Edge of Technology is a fascinating read that deconstructs catastrophic events and why they happen. Author James R. Chiles’ style as a storyteller is particularly engaging and compelling. The book is filled with fascinating anecdotal asides on technological disasters of all kinds. He recounts a horrific accident at the Hungarian Carbonic Acid Producing Company that is the stuff of science fiction movies:

The company was in the business of removing Co2 from natural gas and selling it. The liquid was stored in small cylinders as well as in four big storage tanks, cooled by ammonia refrigeration. The gas arrived at the plant with traces of water in it that had to be removed. On occasion this stray water caused gauges, fittings, level indicators, and even safety valves to freeze shut. But the plant kept running.

On December 31, 1968, the plant shut down with the indicators showing at least twenty tons of Co2 in each tank. The plant opened again late on the night of January 1. Running short of cylinders to store the liquid Co2, operators directed the flow into storage tank C, which was supposed to have plenty of capacity. About a half hour later, tank C exploded, and its fragments blew apart tank D.

The twin explosions killed four people nearby and ripped tank A from its foundation bolts, tearing a hole about a foot across. In escaping furiously through the new opening, the pressurized liquid Co2 acted like a rocket propellant. Tank A took off under the thrust, crashing through a wall into the plant laboratory, dumping out tons of liquid Co2 across the floor and instantly freezing five people where they stood. The deluge left the room at a temperature of -108F, starved of breathable air, and covered with a layer of dry ice.

Rosanne Cash on Work Ethic

Steven Pressfield ran an excerpt from Rosanne Cash‘s compelling new memoir, Composed.

In it, Cash describes a dream, in which Linda Ronstadt and a man named “Art” are sitting on a couch deep in discussion. When Cash tries to join the conversation, Art dismisses her, saying, “We don’t respect dilletantes.” The dream had a profound effect on Cash: It inspired a new work ethic for singing, songwriting, and, exploring, and performing:

The strong desire to become a better songwriter dovetailed perfectly with my budding friendship with John Stewart, who had written “Runaway Train” for King’s Record Shop. John encouraged me to expand the subject matter in my songs, as well as my choice of language and my mind. I played new songs for him and if he thought it was too “perfect,” which was anathema to him, he would say, over and over, “but where’s the MADNESS, Rose?” I started looking for the madness. I sought out Marge Rivingston in New York to work on my voice and I started training, as if I were a runner, in both technique and stamina. Oddly, it turned out that Marge also worked with Linda, which I didn’t know when I sought her out. I started paying attention to everything, both in the studio and out. If I found myself drifting off into daydreams–an old, entrenched habit–I pulled myself awake and back into the present moment. Instead of toying with ideas, I examined them, and I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I read books on writing by Natalie Goldberg and Carolyn Heilbrun and began to self-edit and refine more, and went deeper into every process involved with writing and musicianship. I realized I had earlier been working only within my known range–never pushing far outside the comfort zone to take any real risks … I started painting, so I could learn about the absence of words and sound, and why I needed them

Further reading on Rosanne Cash and writing: Original Details and the Truth of Experience.

The Brain that Changed Everything

Esquire Magazine’s November issue has a fantastic profile on Henry Molaison and his remarkable brain.

Brain surgery, whatever the era, always requires at least two frightening qualities in its practitioners: the will to make forcible entry into another man’s skull, and the hubris to believe you can fix the problems inside.

After a bicycle accident at age seven, Henry experiences seizures that increase in frequency and severity–into what the scientific community now call tonic-clonic seizures. He barely graduated high school–suffering ten or more seizures a day.

In 1953, Henry visits Dr. William Beecher Scoville, who performs brain surgery when anticonvulsive drugs fail. Dr. Scoville removes the hippocampus, amygdala, and uncus from both of Henry’s brain hemispheres, calming his seizures at the expense of his memory.

The feature article–a fascinating read–was written by Dr. Scoville’s grandson, Luke Dittrich.

Concussions: football–your weekly dose of brain damage

Sports Illustrated published a compelling article on long-term brain damage in NFL players–the cumulative effects of weekly hits to the head. Dr. Ann McKee, an associate professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University, studies the brains of deceased NFL players to better understand cumulative trauma to the brain:

This slide of a cross-section of a human male brain, magnified 100 times, showed scores, maybe hundreds, of tiny brownish triangular bits of a toxic protein called tau, choking off cellular life in the brain.

“This is Louis Creekmur,” said McKee. “You can see there are hardly any areas untouched by the damage. Like with Wally Hilgenberg, it is widespread in Louis Creekmur. I would call it incredible chaos in the brain. Louis was demented when he died.”

Lou Creekmur: 10-year NFL offensive lineman, Pro Football Hall of Famer. Wally Hilgenberg: 15-year NFL linebacker, one of the key members of the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters defense.

Dr. McKee has studied 14 brains of former NFL players–13 of those, she diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)–the same condition that affected Louis Creekmur and Wally Hilgenberg. While Louis Creekmur was demented when he died other players developed ALS and behavior problems from repeated head trauma.

Read the whole article: Concussions: the hits that are changing football

Further reading on what can happen to survivors of traumatic brain injury: Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason.

On Original Details and the Truth of Experience

In a 2008 New York Times Measure by Measure column, Rosanne Cash writes about the power of original details in writing, and about writing as work and as discovery:

Facts are not necessarily the best indicators of the deepest human experience. The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy–glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels—all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.

The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything — these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury…it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room.

Cash says that as a writer, you must suspend your certainties to find out what’s really true. That takes work:

Real artistic accomplishment requires a suspension of certitude. E.L. Doctorow said that “writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” He may not have been referring specifically to songwriting, but it applies. Great songwriting is not a poor man’s poetry, or a distant cousin to “real” writing. It requires the same discipline and craft. Bright flashes of inspiration can initiate it, but it cannot be completed that way.

Original details are the “facts” in great writing that create meaning:

But in the space where truth and fact diverge, a larger question arises: if the facts don’t lead us to meaning, what does? Perhaps a willingness to live with questions, not answers, and the confidence to ascribe meaning where we find it, with our own instincts as guide.

See a Penny, Pick it Up

As a child, I remember feeling joy at discovering a penny on the street. Today, if I even notice a penny, I step right over it. I never bother to stop. Do you?

How many other small treasures do I miss, or worse, dismiss during my day as unworthy of my time and, more importantly, my attention?

American author Annie Dillard says pennies (instances of beauty and joy) are all around us and we’re missing out if we don’t take time to fully experience them.

In Seeing, the second chapter of A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard urges us to rediscover joy by paying attention, and to:

“Cultivate a healthy poverty of simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted with pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

In fact, Dillard says paying attention is our obligation:

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is be there.

I know what I’m going to do, the next time I find a penny.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Book cover-The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr, isn’t so much a memoir as a story of survival. Karr recalls her rags-to-riches-to-rags upbringing in Leechfield, Texas (and later Colorado) in the early 60s–a place where “a slow race” was the definitive competition among the kids–where you pedaled just slow enough on your two-wheel bike to be in last place, without tipping over.

Next to her sister Lecia (pronounced “Lisa”), Karr’s father Pete, a hard-drinking oil refinery worker who spent his life punching the clock and paying his union dues, was the most stable influence in her life. Her alcoholic, pill-popping mother, Charlie Marie, was given to dramatic outbursts. She ignored her kids and longed for the glamour of New York in the 40s.

Karr’s recall is vivid and detailed–so consistently detailed, that as a reader I sometimes questioned where the memoirist left off and the storyteller began. For a person who experienced several traumatic events–rape at age seven, sexual assault later on, and her mother’s violent mental breakdown–you’d think you’d want to forget as much of your childhood as possible. But The Liars’ Club is, as Karr notes, about healing “…through exposure.” Through writing the book, Karr found that her family’s “…distant catastrophes became somehow manageable. Catharsis, the Greeks call it.”

The book takes its name from Pete Karr’s group of buddies who met to drink and shoot shit. The card-table lies he told were the most benign in the book–exaggerations and half-truths about his upbringing and experiences. Charlie Marie Karr’s lies were altogether different, the kind of lying American poet Adrienne Rich said is done “with silence.” The silence Charlie Marie kept after her first husband left one day with their two young kids nearly destroyed her, until she too, found her distant catastrophes somehow manageable by exposing them to Karr during a Marguerita-soaked mother-daughter evening.

This book is worth your time.