This book wasn't what I'd hoped it would be, but it was fairly interesting, nonetheless. I was hoping it would be more of a general exploration of how...moreThis book wasn't what I'd hoped it would be, but it was fairly interesting, nonetheless. I was hoping it would be more of a general exploration of how the brain processes and perceives music, but the emphasis here is largely on neurological case studies, many of them recycled from Sacks' previous books such as An Anthropologist on Mars, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and The Island of the Colorblind, all of which I have read and enjoyed at various times but which, frankly, I hadn't needed or wanted to hear about again.
However, Musicophilia did strike a chord (pun intended) in many ways as it made me think more deeply about my own involvement with music and my own brain's peculiarities, limitations, and features. Sacks is a tireless explorer and chronicler of his own mind, and at times I wished I possessed his tenacity of purpose. What intrigued me most was his hypothesis that when one hemisphere or portion of the brain is damaged, other sections may "step it up" to compensate. Indeed, the examples he provided of how patients coped with and adapted to extremely debilitating conditions were fascinating and heartening. As I age and deal with hearing issues, for example, it is useful to understand the mechanisms behind hearing loss and to learn of how others cope with far more striking afflictions.
While many of the cases that Sacks details are interesting, about halfway through the book hearing of one case after another became repetitive. What I was hoping for, but never really got, was a deeper analysis of how the "normal" brain perceives and relates to music. His neurological patients are the exception, not the norm, and he focuses almost exclusively on fairly talented (or, indeed, brilliant) classical performers and composers. There are few examples of people involved in, say, jazz or rock. This reflects Sacks' own interests and experiences, of course, but it seemed like a significant shortcoming.
Ultimately, I couldn't really complain, though, as the title says it all: this is a collection of tales of music and the brain. The book does not claim to be a comprehensive examination of the topic. (less)
I can't fathom why this reader was chosen for this book. His voice and delivery are incredibly annoying. Not only does he sound like a heavy smoker su...moreI can't fathom why this reader was chosen for this book. His voice and delivery are incredibly annoying. Not only does he sound like a heavy smoker suffering from a cold, but his staccato delivery is odd, to say the least. In addition, there is quite a bit of variance in the timbre of his voice, with obvious differences between recording sessions.
This is one of those rare cases where the author would have done a much better job reading the book than the hired pro. (Exceptions to my "authors should never narrate their own books" dictum, however, are Oliver Sacks, Simon Winchester, Bill Bryson, and Neil Gaiman.) I heard Nathaniel Philbrick read excerpts from one of his work at the National Book Festival in DC a few years back and I'm sure he'd have done a much better job than this reader.
I tried to get used to this narrator, as occasionally I find I can mentally tune out the more annoying features of some voices, but I finally gave up in exasperation at the end of the first of ten CDs, just as I was becoming engrossed in Philbrick's account. Guess I will have to find this book in print, which is annoying as I'm having eye trouble and have been relying on books on CD to get my reading fix. (less)
The insights in this book have much broader societal implications than how we behave on the road -- or perhaps how we behave on the road merely reflec...moreThe insights in this book have much broader societal implications than how we behave on the road -- or perhaps how we behave on the road merely reflects our species' failings?
"We have met the enemy and he is us," Walt Kelly once famously penned, but on the road, it seems we fancy ourselves much better drivers than all those people we wish would go away -- the tailgaters or those who leave too much space between cars; the lane-changers or those who stubbornly sit in one lane; those who merge too late or too early; drivers who are going too fast or too slow; and particularly all those S.O.B.S who drive (insert favorite hated type of car here). Yet, as Tom Vanderbilt notes, but we are contributors to whatever traffic jam we're stuck in and by default fall into someone else's notion of a bad driver. We are the enemy.
Vanderbilt begins his straightforward yet complex book with an analysis of traffic jams and their contributing factors, but he soon ranges much further afield, citing studies from a wide range of disciplines. I found much information in this book surprising, not the least of which was learning that the road and car safety features that we rely so heavily upon -- lines on the road, signage, anti-lock brakes, seat belts, driving bigger cars -- can be contributing factors to a false sense of security. I was intrigued to learn that removing road signs could actually lead to fewer collisions in many places.
Other things I was surprised to learn were that drivers tend to pass closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those who are not (perhaps assuming the helmet-wearing cyclists are more "serious" and will not veer in front of them), that cars rather than trucks are the cause of most truck-car collisions, that a surprising amount of the traffic on city streets consists of people looking for parking, and that suburbs can be riskier places to drive than cities.
Much of this has to do with the way we seem to be hard-wired, while some has to do with social conditioning. In one of the chapters that most intrigued me, Vanderbilt analyzes traffic in other parts of the world such as China and India (two places I have been a passenger but not a driver, thankfully) as well as the much safer Scandinavian countries. I've driven in places that felt completely chaotic (Croatia springs to mind) and counted myself lucky to emerge unscathed, and also driven in places that are supposedly difficult to drive such as Italy, the U.K. and other "wrong side of the road" countries, Mexico, and the German autobahn. In these cases, I realize, my perception of being in danger kept me in a continual state of high alert and was probably the main reason I emerged unscathed.
One important dictum I took away from this book is that drivers are in more peril when they assume they're safe than when they are on the alert for danger. It is, ultimately, our own inattentiveness that is the greatest threat to our safety on the road.
Toward the end of the book, Vanderbilt mentions that after September 11, 2001, there was a marked increase in traffic fatalities. The obvious reason, of course, was that those too skittish to fly were driving instead, and so put themselves at greater risk. This was the springboard for Vanderbilt's trenchant analysis of real vs. perceived risk, which I found quite illuminating. Why do we, as a society, tolerate the great number of traffic deaths per year (approximately 40,000) yet remain on constant alert for terrorists, who, all told, have caused some 5,000 deaths since 1960 in the U.S.?
A lot of the reasons we don't recoil in horror at these grim traffic statistics, it seems, have to do with our ideas of what is acceptable: it is more acceptable to die doing something with a perceived benefit (getting where we want to go) and under our own autonomy (e.g. we are the drivers, not someone else) than to have little or no autonomy or perceived benefit.
When we are in "control," it seems, we feel that it's not such a bad thing if, for example, we have a beer or two before getting behind the wheel or talk on our cell phones or text while driving, which, studies have shown, put us at much greater risk. We might even feel quite indignant when we see other drivers holding cellphones to their ears or coming out of a bar and getting into a car. And it is speed, above all factors, that kills, yet we stubbornly resist lowering speed limits and regard it as our god-given right to proceed at a "fair" speed: e.g. ten miles over the posted limit.
Thus Vanderbilt leaves us with the undeniable conclusion that regardless of how sophisticated our machines become or how deftly we engineer our roads, it is ultimately our own psychological limitations that bedevil and endanger us. We have met the enemy. He is us.
A note on the reader, Marc Cashman: Mr. Cashman was, I thought, the ideal reader for this book. I'm a picky listener but not a single feature of his voice, phrasing, timing, or emphasis bothered me; on the contrary, I felt he greatly added to my enjoyment and understanding of the book. I'll be seeking out other books read by him. (less)
I recently returned from a 2-1/2 week trip to China, where I spent three days in Hangzhou. My husband and I found this guide quite useful and informat...moreI recently returned from a 2-1/2 week trip to China, where I spent three days in Hangzhou. My husband and I found this guide quite useful and informative, giving us insight into the city and steering us in the right direction. What I found particularly admirable was that this guide's listing headings give the name of each item both in English and Chinese characters. Having the names written in Chinese was critical as cab drivers in China speak little or no English, and saying something like "Take me to Hafeng Road" was useless. Instead, I'd whip out my iPad, find the bookmarked page of this guide with the relevant listing, and point to the Chinese characters. Worked every time. In other cities, I was reduced to taking screen shots of Chinese websites for the places I wanted to visit so that cab drivers could understand where I wanted to be taken. My Fodor's and Lonely Planet guides did not provide this essential Chinese information. (less)
The relevant sections for the parts of China we were in were fairly helpful, but I will think twice before I buy more electronic travel guides. Simply...moreThe relevant sections for the parts of China we were in were fairly helpful, but I will think twice before I buy more electronic travel guides. Simply put, they are a pain in the butt to deal with. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find things in them. You can't dog-ear an iPad, alas!
Also, both this guide and Lonely Planet's have one major failing, in my opinion. None of the listings gives the names in Chinese characters, which I found to be the most critical thing. For instance, if I needed to take a taxi somewhere, saying something like 'Take me to the Nanjing Museum' to a taxi driver was useless. Taxi drivers spoke almost no English and even my most earnest attempts to render place names authentically fell flat. The only thing that worked was having the name of the place I wanted to go to written out in Chinese characters and pointing to it when I got in a cab.
I don't think it would be too much of a stretch for the editors of these guides to ensure that the Chinese characters for hotels, major sights, restaurants, etc. are listed in the headings. (less)
I like the background information that LP provides (history, culture, etc) but I am rethinking my new policy of only taking travel guides downloaded t...moreI like the background information that LP provides (history, culture, etc) but I am rethinking my new policy of only taking travel guides downloaded to my iPad. Using them is more cumbersome and frustrating than I'd like. While saving on weight, I end up losing time. It's a trade-off.
Also, both this guide and Fodor's have one major failing, in my opinion. None of the listings gives the names in Chinese characters, which I found to be the most critical thing. For instance, if I needed to take a taxi to a museum, saying something like 'Take me to the Nanjing Museum' to a taxi driver was useless. The only thing that worked was having the name of the place I wanted to go to written out in Chinese characters. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch for the editors of these guides to ensure that the Chinese characters for hotels, major sights, restaurants, etc. are listed in the headings. (less)
Slogged my way through seemingly endless annoying anecdotes and smarmy comments (not to mention a thicket of exclamation points) to glean a modicum of...moreSlogged my way through seemingly endless annoying anecdotes and smarmy comments (not to mention a thicket of exclamation points) to glean a modicum of information from this book. There are about 40 pages worth of useful content in this 264-page book. The rest is the author's belabored exhortations on various things that will be different in China (toilets, manners, transportation, and, well, you name it) plus entirely too many recollections of personal travel mishaps, such as the time he sprained his ankle, all told in the manner of a potty older uncle who has gotten a bit tipsy and cornered you at a family get-together. You want to tell him to go to hell, but, of course, you can't. To say he's verbose would be an understatement. This guy is one of those people who takes the simplest idea and stretches it out to excruciating length. Here's a sample of what you're in for, chosen more or less at random:
"When you travel it's essential to stay hydrated. Human beings can go for a long time without food, but we can't live for long without water. When you're traveling your body has to work harder to get used to new surroundings; you do a lot more walking and expend a lot more energy than you would ordinarily. In addition, most of us tend to do our traveling in China during the hot summer months, when almost all the large Chinese cities often see temperatures between 90 and 100 degrees, with very high humidity. When traveling in China or anywhere else in the world, carrying a supply of water around withh you on each day's outing is absolutely essential."
Okay, this might be helpful.... that is, if you're an idiot. Anyone out there not aware that we need to drink water? Or that China is hot in the summer? Yeah, I thought so. The author doesn't leave his water lecture at that, though, and prattles on for several more pages on the dangers of drinking tap water and where to buy bottled water and other liquids, ending the segment with his usual exclamation-ridden exhortations. My right hand itched to take up the editorial pen and carve the whole dissertation down to a single paragraph.
Honest to god, I'm swearing off these low-cost "survival guides" downloaded from Amazon after this one. (less)
About two-thirds of this book concerned the decades before and after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, most specifically the political maneuverings of var...moreAbout two-thirds of this book concerned the decades before and after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, most specifically the political maneuverings of various leaders, especially during and just after the Cultural Revolution. In the center of the narrative is the protracted death of Chairman Mao, with a focus on the motives and political fates those who jockeyed for position around his deathbed, such as the Gang of Four, Hua Guofeng, and Deng Xiaoping (though admittedly the latter, in disgrace at the time of Mao's death, was nowhere near Mao's deathbed). The most interesting parts of the book for me dealt with how the country dealt with the chaotic legacy of the Cultural Revolution, and particularly how Deng bloodlessly moved China onto a path of economic recovery.
However, I'm not entirely sure that grafting this political narrative onto the devastating earthquake made much sense. At times I was irritated by the author's tendency to flit episodically from recounting one person's experiences during the Cultural Revolution or that person's life after the the earthquake, shuttling back and forth between times and places. There was a loose organization to the book that never made much sense to me. At times I felt the author was more interested in cherry picking the most sensational personal stories rather than engaging in meaningful analysis. If the book had focused on either the earthquake or the behind-the-scenes political machinations, I think I'd have gotten more out of it.
I enjoyed reading this book though I had strong reservations about the author's impartiality. What I came to think of as "women's boosterism" seemed t...moreI enjoyed reading this book though I had strong reservations about the author's impartiality. What I came to think of as "women's boosterism" seemed to motivate much of her commentary on Cixi, whom she hails as a modernizer who has never been given her due. Since I'm not well versed in the history of China during this period, I can't say how valid Chang's views are, but there's little doubt that she got carried away in her role of chief Cixi apologist and defender.
The book also suffered from swings from the elevated (e.g., discussions of world geopolitics and political philosophy) to the prosaic (long passages describing what the empress ate, how she dressed, what pastimes she enjoyed, and so on). While these descriptions may have been intended to make the empress seem more real and sympathetic, sometimes they simply trivialized the subject.
But, on the whole, the book did succeed holding my attention, as it is far from dry and is written with some verve. Most importantly, it motivated me to read more about the subject -- at which point, no doubt, I'll be better able to assess the book's faults and merits. (less)
The cynical narrative voice in this 1962 political thriller/murder mystery, not to mention the the world-weary but sterling protagonists, Lt. Colonel...moreThe cynical narrative voice in this 1962 political thriller/murder mystery, not to mention the the world-weary but sterling protagonists, Lt. Colonel Grau and Inspector Prevert, made this an engaging read. Though the reader knows the identity of the killer fairly early, the background story involving the plot to assassinate Hitler and the end and aftermath of the WWII more than compensates for this foreknowledge. A complex and chilling portrayal of the killer, whom the reader sees "up close and personal" through the eyes of an innocent, rounds out this satisfying thriller. (less)
This was the third book of contemporary essays on China that I've read recently, and it is by far my favorite so far. (The other two were Oracle Bones...moreThis was the third book of contemporary essays on China that I've read recently, and it is by far my favorite so far. (The other two were Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present by Peter Hessler and China in Ten Words by Yu Hua.) Fallows journalistic training gives this book an edge and insight that the other two books, which seemed to me to be mired in personal circumstances, lacked.
Each of these essays appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and while in the past I've been underwhelmed by such compilations of previously-published articles, in this case the book had both a satisfying flow and range of subjects that held my interest. And, most importantly, I got a great deal out of reading on topics as diverse as the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to the Chinese government's control over internet access. Particularly eye-opening was an article explaining why the Chinese can't afford to stop feeding dollars to America -- because China's own dollar holdings would be devastated if it did.(less)