Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think

By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

Authors Hare and Woods, experts in evolutionary development, share many fascinating insights into canine – as well as human – evolution in their book, The Genius of Dogs

While an undergraduate, Hare realized that he was much more interested in studying evolution than in pursuing a career in baseball. He would go on to become a famous anthropologist and author – and also married the research scientist, Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake, and co-author of this book.

Brian Hare starts with the story of their family dog, Tassie, who learned quickly how to distinguish between its own dog toys and those of the new baby – through inference. He then goes on to tell the story of how, as a seven year-old, he would play ball games with his dog, Oreo, who developed skill in reading the boy’s pointing signals. Ten years later while helping his university professor with a signalling game with chimpanzees, Hare commented, “I think my dog can do it.” They gave Oreo the test, and sure enough, the dog passed it with ease. Through further experiments, Hare and his professor proved that dogs are capable of inference. For example, a dog can understand that a human is referring to a new, unnamed object if s/he uses a new word to refer to it. 

Hare uses a table to show dogs' cognition relative to other mammals, such as apes and dolphins. He states:

The genius of dogs is their ability to understand human communication and their motivation to cooperate with us. Their genius is why they are so easy to train. But dogs also have biases and limitations to their understanding of how the world works.

A university professor comments on a study of domesticated foxes in Siberia. Hare sees the congruence in the evolution of these foxes, dogs, and prehistoric humans. No animal was harmed in the experiments. 

This book will appeal to dog lovers, especially those who seek to understand better how dogs think and why they behave as they do. The Genius of Dogs may also prove a great read for those interested in evolutionary development.

Find this title in the Library catalogue.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North

Canadians might be disappointed to learn that Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North is not about Canada.

We sometimes refer to Canada as the Great White North, but the Canada that most Canadians inhabit has little in common with the stark landscapes that author Blair Braverman called home. In the northernmost reaches of Norway or on an Alaskan glacier,these are lands of stark conditions -- brutal cold, perpetual darkness, and little in the way of creature comforts. They are also places of great natural beauty. Often, too, a rough world with very few women, where sexual violence always hovers as a possibility.

Braverman grew up romanticizing The North and craved it as her proving ground. She seized some opportunities and created others, to test herself in the The North that she dreamt of.

In Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, we travel with Braverman to a tiny village in the north of Norway, where she works to fit in with an insular and unwelcoming local culture, to a Norwegian folk school where she learns to dogsled and survive under extreme conditions, and to a glacier in Alaska (the "ice cube" of the title), where she works as a tour guide and dogsledder.

These adventures alone would make an interesting and entertaining book. Braverman's clear, sparkling prose makes a fast and easy read. But Braverman brings another layer to her adventure story: the treatment she encounters as a young woman in a hyper-masculine world.

As an exchange student, Braverman is bullied, demeaned, sexually menaced, and finally assaulted by the father of her Norwegian host family. Frightened and without support, Braverman takes the all too common route: she blames herself. Then she takes that blame and self-doubt, and an ever-present (and not unfounded) fear of sexual violence, with her on her northern journeys.

Braverman blends these threads into a coming-of-age memoir, a travelogue, and an adventure tale.

I love dogsledding and the North from afar, so I was in awe -- and more than a little envy -- of Braverman's adventures. Her descriptions of driving a dogsled through a blizzard whiteout, or taking care of tourists stranded on the glacier, are true page-turners. At the same time, her descriptions of her dogs, and her love for them, bubble with honesty and enthusiasm. Her reflections on her relationships -- with a boyfriend who bullies her, with an elderly shopkeeper who becomes her chosen family, and finally, with a true partner -- are insightful and articulate. Braverman has a great ability to bring out one or two sparkling details that paint a vivid picture, without slowing the pace or getting bogged down in dense descriptions.

I had only one criticism of this book. The narrative jumps between different times and places. In general this would be fine, but with flashbacks and flash-forwards within flashbacks, I was often unable to follow the sequence of events. Was this before or after Alaska? Is this a subsequent trip to Norway or the same one? I couldn't piece together the timeline.

That's a flaw, but not a deal-breaker by any means. I just stayed in the present and didn't worry what happened when. By the time Braverman is ready to mentally and emotionally graduate from the tests she has chosen for herself, I was cheering for her all the way. And I hope it's not a spoiler to say the book has a poignant and very happy ending. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Basque Country: A Cultural History

As a lover of world languages I embrace all things Basque, and would love to immerse myself in a Basque language course as I did with Finnish, Romansch and Breton. I studied each of those three languages in locations where they are still spoken as everyday languages (although I admit finding Finnish courses in Finland was rather easy to arrange). If I ever study Basque it would have to be in Basque Country, or Euskal Herria. I would be in language heaven, yet after reading The Basque Country: A Cultural History by Paddy Woodworth, I would have a tough time deciding where to study: in the Basque Country of Spain or France? Woodworth makes attractive cases for both regions. 

Basque is a language isolate, and is the oldest language of Europe. How did the Basques settle and where did their language originate? I had to chuckle at the opening lines of chapter two:

"The origins of the Basques, and of their language, Euskera, are at once enticingly mysterious and politically contested. This has been a complex combination, and at times a lethal one. A vacuum of hard evidence has sucked in a deal of lunacy."  

Woodworth didn't deal with any of the lunacy, but debunked claims of the language to Neolithic or Stone Age origins. Book chapters dealt with the frontón and pelota, gastronomy, music, fiestas, Basque politics and the ETA, and "The Basques on the Other Side of the Mountains" = the French Basques. Basque literature was one of my favourites among the fifteen chapters. Bernardo Atxaga, undoubtedly the most famous Basque author of international renown was cited throughout the book and more so of course in this chapter. I read Atxaga's Obabakoak before I started to write book reviews and I recall seeing a beat-up Basque edition at Schoenhof's during my last visit. Woodworth wrote about many more Basque authors whose names I have recorded for future interloan requests or Abebooks purchases. 

While a joy to read for those who love Basque culture, I found that my notes were dominated by references to check on-line for photos. Woodworth unfortunately only included a few black and white photos with the text, and dark ones at that. I don't have a cell phone to Google for photos as I read, so I had to wait till I got on-line to find out what some buildings and places looked like, such as the parish church of San Salvador in Geraria, which is described as:

"...so much in the building, from the floor to the obscure complex of arches that makes up the roof, is tilted, uneven, askew. But the curious architectonics of the church are due to something much more deliberate, and much more radical, than awkward location and idiosyncratic workmanship. Move right around the building and you will often find elegant curves, but rarely be offered a straight line."

The Basque Country wasn't the first book I had read about the Basques but it was, thankfully, the least sensational. The most striking observation I found wasn't about the Basque past, but rather the present. Woodworth, in exploring the shops that dot the French Biscay coast, lamented the kitschy nature of merchandise. Both the Spanish and French sides realize that Basqueness is marketable and a selling point for tourists who like a "Basque experience" in B&B's and at restaurants, yet in France the stores go overboard with tacky souvenirs. Granted, the French side of Basque Country encompasses the Biarritz beach resorts, yet the shopping experience must nonetheless be a disappointment. I wonder if Woodworth had the same impression that I had when I first visited Amsterdam: every fridge magnet in every souvenir store depicted either a marijuana spliff or a lady of the evening. It was an effort to find a magnet not associated with sex or drugs. When compared to the kitschy French side, Woodworth noted in Spain:

"...you can scour the streets of the old part of Bilbao and only find a single shop selling Basque souvenirs. Even in that one shop, they take third place, after suitcases and belts in the window display."

There were a couple grammatical errors in the text, most of them caused by missing words. However I did encounter the nonword empherality on p. 133, when Woodworth likely meant ephemerality. Woodworth included three pages of further reading resources, and I have already copied the titles by Basque authors. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Born to Run

This is a run-don't-walk review. Fans of Bruce Springsteen: run to find a copy of The Boss' memoirs, Born to Run. This book was seven years in the making, and (like Chrissie Hynde's and Patti Smith's memoirs) written by the artist himself. It is by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching, poignant and gripping, and always profoundly insightful and a joy to read.

Springsteen is an intellectual -- a man of great intelligence who, for better and worse, lives in his own head, analyzing and at times over-analyzing the world around him and his own reactions to it. Because of this, he brings a powerful self-awareness to his life story -- an ability to articulate where his art comes from, and how his personal pitfalls have affected the most important relationships in his life.

Born to Run is also noteworthy for what it is not. It's not a tell-all or an exposé; readers looking for dirt will be disappointed. Springsteen protects his closest friends from exposure, and when it comes to blame, usually points the finger only at the man in the mirror. If there are personal disagreements, they remain personal: Steve and I had some issues to work out, so we sat down and had an honest talk, and moved past them is a typical approach. Even about his first manager Mike Appel, whose one-sided contracts hobbled Springsteen for years, and whose idol was the infamous "Colonel" Tom Parker, controller of Elvis Presley, Springsteen is measured, compassionate, and forgiving, professing a deep affection for him. The story is honest and revealing -- what was in those contracts, why Springsteen signed them -- but there is no anger or blame.

Born to Run is also not a memoir of a fast life through the great trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Springsteen was 22 years old when he had his first drink of alcohol, and has never used recreational drugs. He mentions the rocker's on-the-road sex life, but only obliquely, to let the reader know it existed, and was then outgrown. That leaves rock and roll, and plenty of it.

In the musicians' memoirs that I've read, the most exciting writing has been their recollection of their moment of discovery. Keith Richards, Patti Smith, and Chrissie Hynde were all able to articulate how music -- literally -- changed their lives, how the discovery of a certain music at a certain time altered their chosen path forever. Springsteen can also pinpoint those moments, and his great self-insight and writing talents make it fairly leap from the page into the reader's heart.

Springsteen's writing style itself is deeply evocative. Sometimes his writing takes off on a flight of fancy.
Conditions were generally horrific, but compared to what?! The dumpiest motel on the road was step up from my home digs. I was twenty-three and I was making a living playing music! Friends, there's a reason they don't call it "working," it's called PLAYING! I've left enough sweat on stages around the world to fill at least one of the seven seas; I've driven myself and my band to the limit and over the edge for more than forty years. We continue to do so, but it's still "playing". It's a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night. You can sing about your misery, the world's misery, your most devastating experiences, but there is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away.
Other times, there's a sparking turn of phrase: "He had the shortest highway between his fingers and his heart I'd ever heard". Or a metaphor that brings the truth home.
We'd navigated the treacherous part of the river, the part Mike and I couldn't make, where the current changes and the landscape will never be the same. So, breaking into the open I looked behind me in our boat and I still had my Clark. Up front, he still had Lewis. We still had our own musical country to chart, many miles of frontier to travel, and music to make.
I have been a diehard Bruce Springsteen fan since my teenage years, one of the millions who grew up in the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia area who feel a special kinship with Springsteen and a special ownership of his music. I've been amazed and thrilled that his music has matured along with his fans. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I wondered if the latter half of Born to Run might be a let-down. The story of how a working-class New Jersey boy discovered his talents and navigated the treacherous waters to rise to fame -- that's a gripping tale. But how that now-famous musician lives the rest of his life -- is that going to be interesting, too?

Yes. Emphatically yes. In the second half of Born to Run, Springsteen explores his ongoing relationship with his parents, his struggles to free himself from the patterns of his father, and the struggles, challenges, and joys of learning how to parent. The E Street Band broke up, then reformed, and two of the original members died. There's a long, restorative motorcycle journey through the American desert, and a cross-country road trip of self-discovery. There are fascinating details about Springsteen's writing process. There is poetry in all of it.

Throughout, Springsteen is honest about his struggles with anxiety and depression. He relates the roots of his own issues to those of his father's, whose mental illness, like so many from his generation, was undiagnosed and untreated. Interestingly, Springsteen never says "mental health" or "mental illness" -- simply illness. I thought that was a very interesting and positive choice -- making no distinction between mind and body. Springsteen writes about how he found relief, from both talk therapy and medication, pulling no punches: these drugs saved his life.

Fans may also be interested in the companion CD, Chapter and Verse, which chronicles the music written about in the book, and includes five previously unreleased songs.

I'll close this already-long review with a telling passage that speaks to the style and depth of Born to Run.
I learned many a rough lesson from my father. The rigidity and blue-collar narcissism of "manhood" 1950’s style. An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your terms or not at all. A deep attraction to silence, secrets and secretiveness. The distorted idea that the beautiful things in your life, the love you struggled so hard to win, will turn and possess you, robbing you of your imagined hard-fought-for freedoms. The hard blues of constant disaffection. The rituals of the barroom. A misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives, crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing inside you is barely contained. You use it to intimidate those you love. And of course . . . the disappearing act; you’re there but not there, not really present; inaccessibility, its pleasures and its discontents. All leading ultimately to the black seductive fantasy of a wreck of a life, the maddening boil lanced, the masks dropped and the long endless free fall into the chasm that at certain moments can smell so sweet from a distance. Of course, once you stop romanticizing it, more likely you're just another chaos-sowing schmuck on the block, sacrificing your treasured family's trust to your "issues." You're a dime a dozen in every burb across America. I can't lay it all at my pop's feet; plenty of it is my own weakness and inability at this late date to put it all away, my favorite harpies, the ones I count on to return to flit and nibble around the edges of my beautiful reward. Through hard work and Patti's great love I have overcome much of this, though not all of it. I have days when my boundaries wobble, my darkness and the blues seem to beckon and I seek to medicate myself in whatever way I can. But on my best days, I can freely enjoy the slow passing of time, the tenderness that is my life; I can feel the love I'm a part of surrounding me and flowing through me; I am near home and I am standing hand in hand with those I love, past and present, in the sun, on the outskirts of something that feels, almost . . . like being free.
[This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Monday, October 17, 2016

Unbuttoning America: A Biography of "Peyton Place"

I read both Peyton Place and its sequel Return to Peyton Place in 2009, before I started to write book reviews: 

In 1956 no one had written a book like Peyton Place and it caused a scandal. It was even illegal to import copies into Canada. How times have changed, where everything now is a shade of grey. Unbuttoning America: A Biography of "Peyton Place" by Ardis Cameron is an academic study about this groundbreaking debut novel by Grace Metalious and the New England environment and social conditions of the mid-fifties. It was not a biography of the author or a retelling of the novel itself (for that, I will have to read Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious by Emily Toth). Cameron covered the state of sex in the US, focussing on sexual repression in the early part of the twentieth century and attitudes towards domestic life, premarital sex, infidelity and abortion. The reader must plow through some, in my frank opinion, boring histories about American sexual mores which were all the more unpleasant to read since the text was set in an unfortunately tiny typeface, with endnotes and photo captions set even smaller. I did not enjoy reading this book since the layout was so hard on the eyes. Cameron included several photos of Metalious and Peyton Place book covers and movie posters, so the break from the tiny text was most welcome. I also enjoyed the quotations from letters sent to Metalious, which illustrated the impact the novel had on a wide demographic of readers. That said, the subtitle was nonetheless accurate, as this was indeed a biography of the novel and how it was born out of post-WWII and post-Kinsey America. 

Sixty years after it was written, Peyton Place is now moving from the smut pile to join the ranks of feminist literature. How? Metalious gave women a voice in their personal lives, and the courage to speak up for themselves about all matters sexual. Before the novel, no one talked about back-alley abortions or women who enjoyed fooling around. Those who suffered the pain of incest read about a character in the novel and found the courage to speak up:

"As with so much of Peyton Place, it blasted open silent topics and propelled secrets like incest and abortion into the public domain. Through the characters it was possible to talk about behaviors that were otherwise difficult to discuss."

Letters sent to Metalious read like correspondence between the closest of friends. Writers unburdened themselves of their most intimate sexual secrets, and Metalious even wrote back:

"Because it was frank rather than romantic, female-centered rather than sentimental, Peyton Place represented a radical leap in its conception of women characters, encouraging readers to recognize themselves or one of their neighbors in its pages. 'What hurts in Peyton Place,' one reader notes, 'is that it hits home a little hard.'
"New Englanders were not alone. Across the nation, readers felt the stab of recognition. The women of Peyton Place touched a national nerve, their true-to-life stories simultaneously well known and silenced, the subject of clandestine gossip and a will-to-not-know." 


"Compelled and buoyed by her story, they named the problems women faced but no one would talk about: unhappy marriages, the difficulty getting a divorce, low wages and poor jobs, the stigma of widowhood, single motherhood, and the sheer lack of public discussion."

Peyton Place opened up the bedroom door and its readers found out that they could escape if they wanted to. Others saw the open door as a welcome sign to enter. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an outstanding book -- meticulously researched, but written in a compelling, accessible style, and with great humanity and compassion.

Author David J. Morris unearths the social and cultural history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the US. He surveys the potential treatments. He explores the role of social justice in our understanding of PTSD.

But above all, Morris confronts the meaning of trauma, in society and in his own life. Morris was a U.S. Marine stationed in Iraq. After narrowly escaping death, he returned home questioning everything he thought he knew -- and eventually having to face the reality of his own trauma. Morris' dual role as both researcher and subject give this book a unique power as history, social science, and personal essay.

People have known for centuries, for millennia, that traumatic events produce after-effects, but different cultures in different eras have explained those effects in different ways. The modern history of trauma is linked to the carnage of 20th Century war. And our current understanding of PTSD owes everything to the Vietnam War, and the experience of returning veterans who publicly opposed the war.

In this way, the history of PTSD encompasses a history of 1960s and 1970s peace activism, especially of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group that began a sea-change in the culture of the United States. As a student of peace, I found this part fascinating.

Taking this even further, Morris links PTSD and social justice. Powerless and marginalized people are more likely to be traumatized by one or more of the four principal causes of PTSD: war, genocide, torture, rape. Taking a social and cultural perspective forces us to confront a world that causes these traumas. In this view, PTSD is not so much an illness as a moral condition brought on by the worst of human society.

The United States Veterans Administration (VA) sees it quite differently. To the VA, PTSD is strictly a medical condition. And this matters greatly, because research about PTSD is almost entirely funded and controlled by the VA. Explaining trauma as purely medical or biological doesn't address the causes at all. In fact, it does the opposite -- it normalizes PTSD as a natural consequence of unavoidable circumstances.

As for treatment, Morris surveys what's out there and finds most of it useless. VA hospitals and insurance companies prefer therapies that can be "manualized" -- made uniform, with a certain number of treatments and little or no emotional engagement from the therapist. Statistically, these types of therapies appear to be useful -- until one learns that the numbers don't include all the patients who drop out! Talk about cooking the books: everyone for whom the treatment isn't working or, in many cases, is actually worsening their symptoms, is simply ignored.

Morris himself feels that therapeutic talks with an empathetic person with some training goes further than neuroscience can. "What they [the VA] seem to want instead," Morris writes, "is mass-produced, scalable, scripted therapies that make for compelling PowerPoint slides."

I have PTSD, and much of The Evil Hours brought a shock of recognition -- the feeling that someone else is expressing your own thoughts, saying exactly what you've been thinking all along. Morris perfectly articulates how trauma plays out in one's life, the depths of change it brings about.

Morris writes: "We are born in debt, owing the world a death. This is the shadow that darkens every cradle. Trauma is what happens when you catch a surprise glimpse of that darkness.”

In the immediate aftermath of my own trauma, while trying to write about my experience, this is exactly the image I fixated on. We are, all of us, dancing on the edge of a great precipice, usually unaware of how terrifyingly close we are to that edge. Then something happens, and we understand it, not in some theoretical way, but immediately and profoundly, perhaps in a way humans are not equipped to understand. We talk about "the fragility of life" but we don't know what that is -- until we do. Then we spend a lifetime trying to live with the knowledge.

"One of the paradoxes of trauma," writes Morris, "is that it happens in a moment, but it can consume a lifetime. The choice of how much time it is permitted to consume is usually in the hands of the survivor."

The Evil Hours may be very useful for people who are figuring out how to stop PTSD from consuming any more of their lives. It is certainly a must-read for anyone interested in the effects of trauma on the human mind. [This review was originally published on wmtc.ca.]

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind

The phrase “Conceptual categories” is a technical term for something we all do whether consciously or not. When we see a tree we know it to be a tree because of our concept of trees. The tree you see over there fits the category in your mind called tree. Sounds simple enough---but it isn’t. What I have described is called the correspondence theory of truth in epistemology. To have knowledge according to this theory two things have to happen. My concept has to be correct and my concept must be correctly linked to the experienced object “out there.” There is much controversy with this theory. For starters there is the troubling worry about how I can be certain I have the right concept (is it the same as yours? What about the guy living on the other side of the planet?), and can I be certain the object out there really is the thing I think it is, be it tree or whatever.  You might think this is just an academic problem that philosophers spend way too much time pondering. Yet suppose we aren’t talking about trees, suppose instead we are talking about a landmine that you think you may have just stepped on. Questions of knowledge and certainty would suddenly loom large wouldn’t they?

George Lakoff (co-author of the celebrated title Metaphors We Live By) has written an account of the latest multidisciplinary findings on the cognitive act of categorizing. His thesis is that the old way of construing knowledge, which I have called the correspondence theory of truth, has been largely discredited. Why? Because research in cognitive sciences, psychology and linguistics has shown that objectivism as understood in correspondence theories of truth, that is the idea that there is one concrete and correct way of experiencing a given object, is simply not true.  Instead of this old objectivist view of knowing Lakoff’s own theory, which he calls experiential realism, takes each person’s experience as being uniquely her own. This is a much more relativistic approach to epistemology. Relativism is an ancient bugaboo of philosophy and Lakoff knows it.

What is at issue isn’t the truth of how we come to know the things we know, but the nature of reason itself. You can intensify the significance of these findings by saying our whole understanding of what it means to be a knowing, acting human being is being altered by what cognitive scientists are discovering. That is some heady stuff.  Is the mind like a machine? If it is like a machine how does it connect to the things out there to know them? If there are objects out there won’t they necessarily transcend the mind? Lakoff declares all of these ideas discredited, but it is that word, transcendence, that I think is really behind the motivating spirit of this work, or more accurately the attack upon any notion of transcendence as a guiding principle in epistemology.  The idea that we are minds in bodies (or more traditionally phrased, souls in bodies) and that the world has been created with purposes and meanings out there to be discovered by these minds in bodies is an old idea that science has long wanted to discredit. Minds, souls and essences are very hard to locate under a microscope. Cognitive scientists maintain there are no spirits, souls, or minds capable of existing independent of the body and no essences to things. We are thoroughly biological beings in a physical world and we use our various different conceptual schemes to categorize the world in unique ways. The way you categorize your experience is different, not better or worse, than the way I categorize my experience. This is the new, revolutionary science of the mind.

The problem is this understanding of our situation is not new and hardly revolutionary. As I read through the book I kept asking myself, is the picture of the philosophic tradition being presented here correct? Have philosophers since ancient times simply taken it as common sense that we are minds/souls working to have our ideas correspond correctly with the essential natures of the things in the world? Just about every word (concept) in that last sentence has been debated by philosophers for over 2000 years. As soon as Plato drafted the first version of his theory of Forms (transcendent, eternal essences that are the real objects of knowledge) there were philosophers lined up and ready to challenge him on the idea of disembodied ideas. This is precisely Aristotle’s main complaint of his teacher. Despite what Lakoff maintains, philosophers have never wholly endorsed the correspondence theory of truth. It has been widely known and for a long time that the theory has its problems. Indeed it has been widely known that the notion of a soul in a body is problematic. Medieval theologians, thinkers one might assume would be most readily accepting of a correspondence theory of knowledge based on a soul seeking to know God’s creation, were aware of the issues with the rather puzzling notions of souls and essences.

What is interesting in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things is the attempt to deal with the charge of relativism. If you see the world in your unique way and I see it in my unique way, can it be said that we share a world? What is it that is being shared? Clearly there is something “out there,” independent of you or I. One could say it transcends us, even if it doesn’t transcend our various ways of categorising it. This is the stuff that philosophers find endlessly intriguing. Lakoff has not ended the debate on the question of how the human mind comes to know the world, but he has contributed to it. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Genius of Birds

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman was an analysis of avian characteristics. When we think of animal intelligence, all too often mammals come to mind. Yet the traits that some bird species possess surpass the abilities of most mammals, and that includes humans. Ackerman divided her book into eight chapters, each focussing on a specific trait, such as the ability to use tools, vocal virtuosity and spatial and temporal ingenuity. We are introduced to some specific species such as the New Caledonian crow, whose craft of hooks and tools from barbed pandanus leaves is unmatched in the avian intelligence of any species. 

Some birds imitate human speech, such as parrots, while far more species imitate other birds. Even among birds that do not copy others, their own call must be learned by the chicks from their parents. Some species, such as the mockingbird, can acquire up to four hundred calls. Ackerman states that all birdsong is learned, much like a human parent will teach a baby how to talk:

"Johan Bolhuis, a neurobiologist at Utrecht University, remarks on how strange it must seem to an outsider for scientists to be comparing birdsong with human speech and language. 'If we were looking for some kind of animal equivalent, wouldn't we look to our closest relatives, the great apes?' he asks. 'But the odd thing is, so many aspects of human speech acquisition are similar to the way that songbirds acquire their songs. In the great apes, there's no equivalent at all.'"

There are several theories about birds' uncanny ability to navigate flight paths that are global in their range. How can birds, such as the arctic tern, travel from pole to pole and not get lost? I saw arctic terns in Iceland on the island of Grímsey and as far south as the island of Tristan da Cunha. How can any bird not lose its way going these colossal distances? Ackerman analyzed numerous test results which focussed on various areas within birds' brains, their ability to sense magnetic fields, infrasound and even olfactory detection. She was left with a strong case that all of these sensory skills are needed in avian navigation. Science may have to admit that a bird relies on all of these skills of perception and not just on one. I did learn how flocks of birds coordinate their movements so that hundreds act in precise unison:

"We've since learned that the spectacular collective behavior of flocking birds (and schooling fish, herding mammals, swarming insects, and human crowds) is self-organized, emerging from simple rules of interaction among individuals. Birds are not 'transfusing thought.' communicating telepathically with their flock members to act in unison, as Selous surmised. Instead, each bird is interacting with up to seven close neighbors, making individual movement decisions based on maintaining velocity and distance from fellow flock members and copying how sharply a neighbor turns, so that a group of, say, four hundred birds can veer in another direction in a little over half a second. What emerges is almost instantaneous ripples of movement in what appears to be one living curtain of bird."

Ackerman provided plenty of data compiled from both field and laboratory testing to back up her wondrous claims. She provided generous endnotes and her acknowledgements were filled with the names of experts in the field, so The Genius of Birds had the backing of science by scientists. It was presented in a style to appeal to all readers, even those without a background in bird knowledge. Although I prefer notes to have superscript numerals to indicate their ordered presence in the endnotes section, in this case it was smart to leave them off. The flow of the read would have been ruined had the eye been drawn to so many superscripts. I would have been obligated to refer to the back of the book each time. As it was, when I finished reading a chapter I thumbed to the end and read all of the notes so the antecedents were still fresh in my memory.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Saving Normal: An Insider's Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life

Thank goodness for Saving Normal: An Insider's Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life by Allen Frances, M.D. This book was written in response to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The fifth edition of the DSM, known officially as DSM-5, has been plagued with controversy ever since it came out in 2013 for its alleged hypermedicalizing of the human condition. What used to be considered quite normal behaviour and merely part of the range of emotions we experience in our lives might now be considered a mental disorder, and faux conditions are now labelled official "diseases". Just taking a longer time to mourn for a deceased loved one might get you tainted with a diagnosis of melancholia. And don't get me started on the explosion of bogus diagnoses of ADD and ADHD, as well as childhood autism. With the exception of severe autism, all of these three "A" diagnoses do not exist.

Those are my views. I am no psychiatrist, yet I am not alone. I side with the author, Allen Frances, in the belief that the current state of American psychiatry has seen an explosion in wholly useless diagnoses resulting in the hypermedicalizing of millions. Allen Frances is no antidrug purist or enemy of psychiatry. He is the most qualified person who can make any of these claims, for he was the chairman of the DSM-IV Task Force and part of the leadership group for DSM-III and DSM-IIIR. He is professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University School of Medicine. The prior edition of the DSM has his name on it, so you can bet he knows whereof he speaks. So what happened in between the publication of the DSM-IV in 1994 and the DSM-5 in 2013? There is one answer, and it's a biggie:

"DSM-IV was a bit player in the continuing march of diagnostic inflation. The major engine was drug company marketing. Three years after DSM-IV was published, Pharma lobbyists finagled an unprecedented reversal in federal regulations to allow advertising directly to consumers."
Watch the American evening news at 6:30. Or watch "60 Minutes" on Sunday. The only commercials you will see will be for pharmaceuticals. "Ask your doctor" the ads say, but you only do this after you have heeded the message in the commercials and have already diagnosed yourself:

"The ads were usually misleading but devastatingly effective. Patients self-misdiagnosed and asked their doctor for the magic pill that would correct their chemical imbalance. The doctors listened. Patients who requested a drug they had seen advertised were seventeen times more likely to walk out of the office with a prescription. The massive advertising had put the companies in charge of diagnosis."

Pharmaceutical companies have the keys to the kingdom:

"The business model of the pharmaceutical industry depends on extending the realm of illness--using creative marketing to expand the pool of customers by convincing the probably well that they are at least mildly sick. Disease mongering is the fine art of selling psychiatric ills as the most efficient way of peddling very profitable psychiatric pills. Manipulating the market is particularly easy in the United States because we are the only country in the entire world that allows drug companies the freedom to advertise directly to consumers."

The drug companies love that they can advertise on TV. In the past nineteen years they have tried to sell disease by convincing viewers that something is wrong with them. Your child can't concentrate? It's ADD. Toddler is fidgety? He's bipolar. Can't remember where you left the car keys? You've got mild neurocognitive disorder. Why are people so gullible to accept these bogus diagnoses? Frances writes:

"Society has a seemingly insatiable capacity (even hunger) to accept and endorse newly minted mental disorders that help to define and explain away its emerging concerns."

Yes--"explain away". That's the key verb if I ever heard one. Our society does not take responsibility. We love to blame others for our mistakes. Did your toddler fall into the gorilla pen at the zoo? Blame the zoo. Did you fall into a fountain while keeping your eyes glued to your phone as you texted while walking? Blame the mall. Do you have difficulty concentrating? You have a mental disorder called Adult ADD. And you need medication for it. How did Frances, the Chair of the Task Force for the DSM-IV, feel about the new edition?

"DSM-5 has just been published--not a happy moment in the history of psychiatry or for me personally. It risks turning diagnostic inflation into hyperinflation--further cheapening the currency of psychiatric diagnosis and unleashing a wave of new false epidemics."

Frances maintains that there is no magic pill for our mild mental ills. What we might be experiencing as depression, anxiety or restlessness is just a normal part of the human condition. We will get over it on our own. He maintains that sure, we should monitor ourselves, but there is no need to rush to a doctor to get a prescription just because we're feeling under the weather. And there are millions of Americans who are now feeling under the weather all the time. Ironically their unnecessary prescriptions are making them less healthy. They have developed addictions to these drugs and deleterious side effects such as obesity, one of the most common consequences of psychiatric medication. And sadly, they are not getting the psychiatric help that they need. And that really is all they likely need: consultation with a psychiatrist and not a prescription. Frances cannot stress this enough in Saving Normal, that psychiatric care is all too often denied those who need it the most. An overwhelming number of patients on some kind of psychiatric medicine obtained their prescriptions from their primary care physician (PCP). These doctors, Frances maintains, are too rushed and above all too inexperienced to diagnose a psychiatric disorder. They are all too willing to write a prescription, often for a drug the patient himself asked for, and shoo the patient out of the office:

"The inevitable result has been diagnostic inflation and massively excessive medication use. It makes absolutely no sense to do most of our psychiatric diagnosis and treatment in primary care settings. Accurate diagnosis requires expertise and simply can't be done properly in the seven minutes most PCPs now get to spend with patients--especially when the patients have been primed by false advertising to demand the wrong thing. Overprescription of psychotropic medication by PCPs has become a serious threat to public health, but has pushed Pharma revenue through the roof. There is almost never a justification for the use of antipsychotic and antianxiety medication in primary care, but it is done all the time."

Drug companies are calling the shots; they've out-Trumped the media on an NRA scale. How can you convince people that they're not sick at all, when:

"With an assist from an overly ambitious psychiatry, all human difference is being transmuted into chemical imbalance that is meant to be treated with a handy pill."

Frances filled Saving Normal with chapters on psychiatric fads of the past, present and future. We can relive witch hunt hysteria, multiple personality disorder (diagnoses of which went through the roof after the movie "Sybil" came out in 1976) and the most recent tragic fad, that of ritual satanic abuse in American daycares. The chapters on the present fads was most interesting, especially the sections entitled "Attention Deficit Disorder Runs Wild" and "Autism Becomes Fashionable". Frances got it right with that one: parents cart out their fashionably autistic children on talk shows half expecting the studio audience to throw them coins in a bucket.

In spite of the psychiatric doomsday the DSM-V brings, Frances is cautiously optimistic that we will not end up drugging the entire population in Huxleyan soma. The solution to the current state of hyperdiagnosis is not to be in such a rush to find a solution:

"The lesson for me was that diagnosis needed to rest in order to let research catch up. It made no sense to keep rearranging the furniture of descriptive psychiatry, creating new diagnoses or altering the thresholds of existing ones, based only on the whims of the experts who happened to be in the room."

Indeed. Dump the drugs, put your cellphones down and go outside. Kids, adults, everyone: get some exercise. Frances--as well as science--make the case for improved attention spans and relief from depression simply by weaning yourselves from your phones and electronic devices. Unplug yourselves, or you will truly be foolish people.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov was written in 2013, two years after the Supreme Leader Marshal Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father, the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il. Lankov was a Soviet-era exchange student who studied in Pyongyang and his fluency in Korean endeared him to his teachers and gave him access to the North Korean public. This book was unlike other modern accounts of the DPRK which I have read, in that it painted thoroughly dismal portraits of the future of the North after the inevitable downfall of its totalitarian system of government. I have read--and reviewed--quite a lot about the DPRK already, yet no book went as far in its detailed scenarios about the state of the northern half of the Korean peninsula after the Kim regime collapses. Yet before we get to the future of the DPRK, we have to deal with its past and present, and Lankov kept his history confined to the first chapter. The author thankfully did not bore me to sleep with his Korean War history, as I am prone to doze off when I read war stories. Thus I confess a personal prejudice for war histories in general.

Kim Jong Un inherited a country that is worse off that at any time since the Korean War. The DPRK continues to struggle as a nation punished by sanctions and does not want to see another famine. What can it do to feed its population if its economy cannot provide? The answer, surprisingly, seems to be by not reforming its economy:

"Unfortunately for the common North Koreans, the Pyongyang leaders' unwillingness to emulate China has very rational explanations. North Korean leaders stubbornly resist reform not because they are ideological zealots who blindly believe in the prescriptions of the Juche Idea (they do not, and the idea itself is too nebulous to be a guide to a practical policy anyway) nor because they are ignorant of the outside world. They are neither irrational nor ideological--on the contrary, they are rational to the extreme, being, perhaps, the most perfect bunch of Machiavellians currently in operation. The North Korean leaders do not want reforms because they realize that in the specific conditions produced by the division of their country, such reforms are potentially destabilizing and, if judged from the ruling elite's point of view, constitute the surest way of political (and, perhaps, physical) suicide."

Lankov asserts that any reforms would trigger the end of the Kim regime. Once the population tastes reform, it will demand more. The North Korean elite fears an Arab Spring or a Ceaușescu-style purge if reforms are introduced, therefore no one is willing to implement any kind of change out of fear of losing one's elite privileges. Without a new economy, the North is left on its own, and can only get attention by stirring up trouble. And the DPRK has perfected the art of rocking the boat by blackmailing its enemies and even its few allies:

"Indeed, from the North Korean point of view, it did not merely confirm that blackmail works, but rather confirmed that blackmail works wonders. One could hardly find a better confirmation of the efficiency of Pyongyang's usual tactics--first make a crisis, then escalate tensions, and finally extract payments and concessions for the restoration of the status quo."

The North Korean tactic of issuing nuclear threats then reaping the rewards--all on its own terms--has led some diplomats to say enough is enough. They are calling North Korea's bluff, knowing full well that the North will never launch a nuclear missile against the South or any of the ROK's western allies. To do so would be an act of suicide. The strategy of leaving North Korea alone, letting it rant to an empty room, is new, yet has not proven to be entirely effective, as the North has perfected the art of getting whatever it wants regardless of international pressures. It is much like trying to say no to wailing baby:

"The North Korean regime is thus not going to respond to either pressure or rewards, and this is increasingly obvious to the interested parties. There is therefore a great--and growing--temptation to say that North Korea is better to be forgotten and safely left alone. This is the essence of the 'strategic patience' strategy, which has quietly become the mainstream thinking of the US foreign policy establishment after 2009. In essence it says that the United States is willing to talk to North Korea, and maybe even 'reward' it with some monetary and political concessions, as long as North Korea does what the United States wants it to do--that is, starts dismantling its nuclear program. If it doesn't do so, the United States should, as strategic patience promoters insist, ignore North Korea's antics, since North Korea isn't going to be all that harmful anyway. A somewhat similar attitude seems to be dominant among the South Korean Right. These people believe that aid and political concessions make sense only if North Korean leaders agree to policies that are seen as 'rational' by Seoul.
"This reasoning might be attractive, but it seems to be unrealistic. North Korea has not the slightest desire to be left alone. Indeed, they cannot afford to be left alone. In order to compensate for the innate inefficiency of their economy, they need outside help, delivered on their specific conditions. So far, the best way to squeeze this aid has been to appear dangerous, unpredictable, and irrational. Therefore, they will continue to appear thus, attempting to cause more trouble for those countries and international forces from whom they hope to squeeze some resources. The alternative is not really attractive--either to survive on meager and perhaps diminishing returns of their nonfunctioning economy or to become excessively dependent on just one sponsor (China)."

Lankov believes that the North cannot sustain itself and regime collapse is inevitable. When this will all happen is the question. The author supplied multiple scenarios of reunification, none of which involved a peaceful transition and blending of states. The irony is, as the Korean War falls further into history, more and more South Koreans do not want reunification. They see the costs they will have to bear to support their impoverished countrymen and say no thank-you. The mainland Chinese are worried that regime collapse will send a flood of starving unskilled North Koreans across its border, so they aim to keep the status quo. The international reaction is to leave the North Koreans to lie in their own threadbare bed, yet pretty soon the bedposts will rot and the mattress will fall down. What then? No one wants to deal with this inevitability.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance

Insanely rich bankers and investors, Popes (and not always good Popes), champions of humanism, Godfathers to the rich and powerful, supreme diplomats, facilitators for some of the brave early practitioners of experimental science, extravagant patrons of the arts, and experts at marrying into royal dynasties. The Medici clan were, if nothing else, an extremely busy household. From humble beginnings (the first recorded mention of the family occurred around the year 1230) in the hills and valleys near Florence to the very pinnacle of power in the Italian peninsula and beyond the Medici are, and have been for generations, a fascination to everyone interested in Renaissance history.

Not all but many members of the Medici family had unquenchable ambition. They were smart, that’s for sure. Their ancestors started off as money changers probably hauling around a little cart in the local piazza exchanging florins for lira or scudo (all kinds of different coins were in use at the time). This is nothing revolutionary. Lots of families were doing similar work. But like I said the Medici had ambition---and smarts. With mathematical principles as their tools (maybe “weapons” would be a better analogy) they figured out how to exchange their coins for higher profits. Then they turned their efforts towards making money lending at interest (they even managed to maneuver around the delicate religious prohibition against usury—the history of this concept is interesting in its own right and worth researching). From there they became shrewd investors with an eye for quality. They bribed the right people (you never want to bride the wrong people, it’s just not profitable) and eventually got themselves the coveted title of “Bankers to the Pope.” Money just seemed to come looking for them at that point.

The Medici were a lot of things but they were not nobles. The nobility have never liked upstarts (not much has changed in this regard). To break through that barrier (again ambition and smarts) they doled out florin like animal balloons at a carnival. Oh the parties! Nobody schmoozed like the Medic schmoozed. Fast forward three generations and you find Medici blood in French, Spanish, and Germanic royal families. Cosimo and Lorenzo were smiling in their graves.

As you and I know the good times don’t last, they never, ever do. How does one describe what was lost to the Medici over time? I want to say “vitality” but that doesn’t capture it. The “spirit of ambition” comes closer but is still lacking; there was plenty of luck and serendipity in what they managed to accomplish. It seemed Fortuna’s gifts were whittled away with each passing generation. The family just didn’t have it anymore. Read the chapters on Cosimo de’ Medici and then read the chapters describing the life and times of Gian Gastone de’ Medici and you will understand what I mean.

The rise and fall of this awesome family is captured brilliantly by Paul Strathern. His historical biography of the family has a great narrative arc. The final chapter left me with a sense of melancholy as though with the passing away of Anna Maria Luisa the world had lost something special. And it did.

One last bit of business. You should know this book is more than a biography of the various Medici family members. You could read the book and walk away with a rich understanding (and appreciation) for the Italian Renaissance as an important historical era in the development of western civilization.  The big artists of the time, and individuals like Galileo Galilei and Savonarola, all make appearances in the story. All in all a great read.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Spain: The Centre Of The World 1519 - 1682

Robert Goodwin has written a history of imperial Spain that has an almost novelistic quality in its presentation. The book is divided into two parts. Part one, titled simply Gold, covers the era of expansion when Spaniards built one of the world’s largest overseas empires. Part two, titled Glitter, covers the era of decline when the Spanish empire, overstretched and bureaucratically encumbered, had to contend with a series of costly wars and an extraordinary currency inflation. It was in this glitter age, however, that the greatest of Spain’s artistic achievements were accomplishment.

I am noticing a trend with many of the historical non-fiction books that I read these days. They all begin with a prologue or introductory chapter that details a particularly dramatic scene from history. In Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682 the prologue describes the first treasure ships arriving at Seville from the new world. The ships carry large golden disks once the property of the Aztec emperor but now held in the hands of sweat and grime covered conquistadors whose heads are filled with dreams of land and titles, normally the preserve of nobility but up for grabs at the right price. These harquebus carrying warriors wait anxiously to present their emperor Charles V with this incredible gift. It is one of those moments in history when it seems the universe holds its breath. Charles V, whose eyes must have matched the circumference of those disks once he saw them, would have understood immediately the significance of this prize. The disks meant empire. The colonies could now be properly settled and managed, the wars abroad were now winnable, the issues domestically could now be resolved and all of it paid for by American gold and silver.

The rise of Spain was rapid. It began with the joining in marriage of the crowns of Castile and Aragon. This union was consolidated by the very capable Charles V who did much to expand and consolidate the early empire. His son Philip II brought the empire to its height before witnessing the beginnings of its slow but inevitable decline. Spain had produced some fantastic art during its rise but in its decline art reached a level of beauty and influence that has remained an impressive legacy. Names such as Cervantes, Velazquez and El Greco belong among the most illustrious in human artistic endeavour.

What I like about the book is that the author takes imaginative liberties with his historical materials. He provides the reader with a possible (all be it hypothetical) dialogue between notable historical figures. For example, there is a brief discussion about art between the Emperor Charles V and the painter Titian (who though born in Italy spent much of his productive life as Spanish royal court painter), and a spiritual tete-a-tete between St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. There is also an extended discussion of Cervantes’ famous work, Don Quixote. History with some literary criticism thrown in—wonderful. 

Goodwin has done justice to the dramatic story of the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. If you like reading about the histories of countries and/or kingdoms, and if you like your history to be entertaining, then this book will satisfy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Do No Harm: Stores of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Sometimes . . . I will pause for a while, rest my hands on the arm-rests, and look at the brain I am operating on. Are the thoughts that I am thinking as I look at this lump of fatty protein covered in blood vessels really made out of the same stuff? And the answer always comes back—they are—and the thought itself is too crazy, too incomprehensible, and I get on with the operation. (p. 67–68)

With Oliver Sacks’s death in 2015, the world lost a brilliant neurologist and a highly skilled science writer. Sacks’s accessible case studies of people with neurological disorders in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and several other bestselling books introduced me and millions of others to the fascinating mysteries of the brain. I never tire of reading neuroscience case studies, so I was happy to discover Dr. Henry Marsh’s recent contribution to the genre: Do No Harm: Stores of Life, Death and Brain Surgery.

Drawing from his decades of experience as a brain surgeon in London and in Ukraine, Marsh introduces readers to particular brain tumours or conditions—a different one in each chapter—and then goes on to detail his surgical interventions as well as his interactions with the patients he helps and the patients he cannot.

Marsh excels at describing the surgical approaches and tools he uses for each procedure, making readers feel as if they are in the operating theatre with him. I now understand, for example, how the tiny aneurysm clip works—or sometimes doesn’t—by gazing down the binocular operating microscope with Marsh and watching as he painstakingly clamps the six millimetre titanium life saver across an aneurysm’s fragile neck while wrestling with a faulty applicator.

While most of the stories in Do Not Harm end well, Marsh is frank about the ones that don’t. He discusses his mistakes and failures of judgment with candour, and challenges his patients and his readers to confront the uncertainty and risks inherent in any brain surgery. Marsh is honest about how he still agonizes over his choice of words when communicating with patients. He tries always to deliver just the right mix of optimism and realism for each situation, and he sometimes fails to do this well. 

It becomes clear throughout Do No Harm that Marsh has little patience for bureaucracy and inefficiency in the public health care system—England’s National Health Service, in his case. He is bitingly critical of his hospital’s bed management policies and surgery scheduling practices, and offers a particularly potent example of how digital health records can get in the way of timely patient care. While Marsh’s criticisms are coloured by bitterness and even a touch of arrogance at times, there is much value in seeing how public health care and hospital administration can look from a surgeon’s perspective. 

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Marsh’s premise that “neuroscience tells us it is highly improbable that we have souls” (p. 378), you will appreciate the expanded sense of wonder and mystery that Do No Harm will stimulate. As Marsh summarizes mid-way through his book:

Our sense of self, our feelings and our thoughts, our love for others, our hopes and ambitions, our hates and fears all die when our brains die. Many people deeply resent this view of things, which not only deprives us of life after death but also seems to downgrade thought to mere electrochemistry and reduces us to mere automata, to machines. Such people are profoundly mistaken, since what it really does is upgrade matter into something infinitely mysterious that we do not understand. There are one hundred billion nerve cells in our brains. Does each one have a fragment of consciousness within it? How many nerve cells do we require to be conscious or to feel pain? Or does consciousness and thought reside in the electrochemical impulses that join these billions of cells together? Is a snail aware? Does it feel pain when you crush it underfoot? Nobody knows. (p. 378)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender

I'm a big fan of The Pretenders, but more than that, I'm a Chrissie Hynde fan. To me, she has always been the epitome of the female rock frontman. She's the whole package - guitar player, singer, songwriter, commanding stage presence, pure rock image, and smoldering, tough-girl beauty. I was naturally interested reading her memoirs, even more so when I learned she wrote the book herself, without a professional writer.

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender is aptly titled. Hynde's story is one of rash decisions, massive drinking and drug use, and a sizeable amount of danger. It's also a story of following your heart more than your head (often disregarding your head altogether), about loving music and the rock ethic so intensely, that only that life will do.

Hynde was ready and willing to live a nomadic, stripped-down life, without regard to commercial success, and often without material comfort at all, because comfort and success and everything that goes with it didn't matter. Only music and the rock life - and the true connections that she felt through those - mattered.

So while this review in The New York Times reads Reckless as a cautionary tale, I do not. To me it is simply an honest account without judgment. There's no doubt that Hynde's choices sometimes led to pain and suffering, but there's also no doubt they led her to her most authentic and fulfilled life. She's clearly not advocating a life of drug use and reckless decisions. She's just telling us that's what she did, for better or worse.

The book's subtitle - My Life as a Pretender - is apt, too, as Hynde often saw herself as an impostor, and maybe still does to some extent. Throughout the book, she is self-deprecating about her own talents. It isn't false modesty. It's her an honest self-appraisal from someone who has lived "on nerves and feelings" (as someone Hynde and I mutually adore once wrote) and can't quite understand how her crazy life led her, at least sometimes, to success.

In Reckless, Hynde spends a long time recounting her young years, growing up in Akron, Ohio - her constant sense of alienation, her electric discovery of her musical soul, the scary and dangerous and occasionally fun situations she found herself in. Her pilgrimage to Europe - first London, then Paris, then, after a disastrous attempt to live in the US again, settling in to live in London permanently - is also documented in quite a bit of detail.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, The Pretenders still have not formed. The formation of the band, their early writing and recording, and the deaths of two members of the original lineup, all happen very quickly at the end of the book. I was left with a lot of questions.

The writing itself is very uneven, veering from moving and lyrical, and often humourous, to clunky and ridiculous. The book is sometimes extremely raw and revealing, and sometimes hazy and guarded. Some particularly rough times that Hynde survived - the subject of many book reviews - are recounted only cryptically.

Overall, though, it's a fascinating read. If you've ever fantasized about the rock-and-roll life - ever wondered how a misfit girl from the American midwest ends up leading a bunch of British men in an iconic rock band - and especially if, like me, you love Chrissie Hynde - this book is very entertaining. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]