Mind Over Brain Matter
The Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin
First Line: “We humans have a long history of pursuing neural enhancement–ways to improve the brains that evolution gave us.”
This book is thick, but don’t be intimidated. Levitin does a great job of holding our attention and I found myself jotting lots of little notes during this long read. It’s basically a college crash-course in brain science studies, covering things like memory, productivity, and making decisions. There are some good insights and tips and tricks on how to…what? Function better in the world?
Levitin reminds us that decision-overloads lead to a loss of drive. If all of our brain power is sucked up throughout the day in making petty choices, we end up feeling grumpy and lethargic. (Think: Having to pick the best pen out of 50 options while shopping at an office supply store. Not exactly a life-changing decision, but still mentally exhausting!)
The book goes on to discuss how happy people, calm people, highly successful people–whatever you want to call them– are smart because they know how to liberate their intellect. They understand the value of that “good enough” option and are able to satisfice, or accept the middle path. Not sweating over the small stuff throughout the day helps them focus better when they need to solve a truly tricky problem.
Of course, conserving your mental energy is a lot easier when you’ve got a personal shopper, private chef, PR assistant, etc. You know that quote/guilt trip floating around about Beyoncé having just as much time in the day as you, or anyone else? That’s totally bogus. Highly successful individuals are able to disperse their life/business responsibilities to an entire crew of people. They limit the minutiae of their everyday life through outsourcing, giving them more time and space to pursue more important things.
Even if you can’t afford a personal assistant, Levitin’s offers some practical, scientific advice on how to be more mentally organized. We’ve got the good ol’ “Eating the Frog” approach (i.e., doing the most unpleasant task first thing in the morning, because your willpower will lessen as the day progresses), studies on how to strengthen social ties with transparency (even in the workplace!), and a fun section discussing how the best creative work happens when our brain is in a Flow State.
I finished this read with more hope than despair. There’s much to do to get more organized, focused, and productive, but fortunately Levitin makes it all seem attainable. And it’s a science book, not self-help. So it’s got a great tone for both business professionals and curious intellectuals.
Bottom Line: Your brain doesn’t want you to spend more time on a decision than it’s worth.
I Am Become Overwhelmed
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
First Line: The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”
I don’t frequently turn to this genre, which I suppose is why I picked up the title that started it all. I mean, In Cold Blood is the epitome of true crime, right?
Then again, this is more than a true crime read. It’s a psychological study of violence in America, a historical novel, a horror story that gets under your skin in a twisted, emotional way. Our sympathies are naturally inclined toward the Clutter family, then to investigator Alvin Adams Dewey. But as we delve deeper with Capote’s narrative, allegiance becomes blurred. I leave this book with a complicated sense of pity for the murderers. It’s a disgusting tragedy through-and-through, but the writing sure is done well.
I feel compelled to recommend this book because it challenges the reader. Like Lolita, it’s confusing…we try to create answers for why these characters choose this, or do that, but there is no true, concrete explanation.
The ending only emphasizes this sense of loss. The histories of the death row inmates lodging next-door to Dick and Perry are a strong parallels to the boys’ own downward spiral leading to the Clutter family murders. Since mental health is a highlighted theme here, everyone affiliated with these various crimes becomes a victim in some form or other. Quite unsettling.
Bottom Line: Read it because it’s classic and difficult–then follow it with something light.
Monkey See, Monkey Think?
Animal Wise by Virginia Morell
First Line: “Animals have minds.”
What a fun nonfiction read! It was never really a stretch for me to appreciate elephants and dolphins and dogs as being “smart.” But birds and ants? I never thought they had much going on emotionally or intellectually. That is, until I read this book.
When their home is destroyed, ant societies have meticulous house-hunting methods. They include special scouts who find the property and then return home to bring others to the site one-by-one, in a sort of follow-the-leader/teacher-and-student approach. When faced with a set of objects, a parrot can understand the question, “What’s different?” and answer correctly. They not only know how to make judgements—they can articulate their thoughts, too!
The studies with the larger mammals are no less impressive. The two chapters devoted to dolphins left me in awe. Evidently we humans are not the only creatures with the ability to be creative. One pair of dolphins was able to devise a synchronized water trick on their own…
The scientists conducting these studies have documented some truly amazing animal behaviors. The question, “Are they thinking?” now shifts to, “What are they thinking?”
Bottom Line: Animal-lover or not, this read forces you to take another long look at the world around us.
Country-Vet. Living: Book I
If Only They Could Talk by James Herriot
First Line: “They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.”
It’s 1937 and rookie veterinarian James Herriot has just partnered with the eccentric (but established) Siegfried Farnon in the quaint English countryside of Darrowby. What happens when they get a midnight call for a cow with milk fever? Is there any hope for a champion horse with a torsion? Better yet–how does one treat the irksome “eversion of the uterus?”
Because Herriot continually faces literal life-and-death situations, each chapter is its own mini-adventure. The episodes are emotional and wonderfully comedic. Herriot introduces characters (humans and animals alike) that are distinct. The typical clients are gritty farmers skeptical of his qualifications, yet there’s also Mrs. Pumphrey–a wealthy widow who personifies and spoils her dog Tricki. Thus, Herriot’s work bonuses range from free suppers and slabs of butter, to elaborate party invitations and expensive brandy.
Herriot’s home life is equally engaging. Hilarity abounds when Farnon’s younger brother Tristan comes to stay. There’s trouble with the bill notifications, escaped chickens, and prank phone calls. What’s not to love?
I’m thrilled to say that Herriot’s adventures continue in seven other collections. Each has a permanent place on my “to-read” list, because, as Herriot reflects, “If you decide to become a veterinary surgeon you will never grow rich, but you will have a life of endless interest and variety.”
I think the same goes for reading about a country vet.
Bottom Line: Here’s your chance to job shadow one of the world’s most rewarding careers–all from the comfort of your armchair.
Hang Wallpaper the Hemming-way and More!
The Household Tips of the Great Writers by Mark Crick
First Line: “I sipped on my whisky sour, ground out my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin.”
Once again, the book cover enticed me. But what really sealed the deal for this library borrow was the title. Instructional fiction? With my favorite writers? Cooking and home repairs and yard work as dozens of mini-stories? Why didn’t I ever think of this! Crick is a genius.
The premise of the book is essentially a writing exercise. In each episode, Crick molds his writing style to mimic that of one of the great writers. He starts with the spirit of Raymond Chandler and pairs him with an entrée of lamb and dill sauce. The result is a guy throwing an evening meal together while waiting for some elusive blonde to show up. Two quick pages of first-person narration describing the process of how to cook lamb ending in classic Chandler style: “The blond hadn’t showed. She was smarter than I thought. I went outside to poison myself, with cigarettes and whisky.”
Naturally, I was drawn to the writers with whom I’m most familiar. Jane Austenian women had a discussion of suitable marriage matches while experimenting with eggs and tarragon in the kitchen. The John Steinbeck tone yielded the tale of a destitute young woman fixing risotto with dried mushrooms–humor to the literature lover!
“Painting a Room” completely mirrors the situations of Haruki Murakami’s protagonist in Norwegian Wood and the finale poem “How to Prune the Rose” reads as if it were freshly torn from a Pablo Neruda collection. The pastiches on the playwrights are equally impressive.
The layers to this compilation (the three parts were initially published independently) are profoundly entertaining. It’s study of literary styles–a joke book on the great writer’s ticks and trademarks. It’s a recipe collection and a reference guide for your next weekend project. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Bottom Line: For the perfect gift to a literature-lover, buy this book.