One-Minute Book Reviews

September 20, 2010

Funeral of a Small-Town Doctor / From the Memoir ‘The Good Times Are All Gone Now: Life, Death, and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:47 am
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Julie Whitesel Weston grew up in Kellogg, Idaho, in the 1940s and 1950s, when it was “a wide-open, Wild West town” with brothels and gambling dens that attracted men who worked for the Bunker Hill silver mine. Her father, a doctor, examined the prostitutes twice a month for venereal diseases. He also made middle-of-the-night house calls and received venison and elk steaks from patients, whom he asked, “How’s your body?” After setting up his practice, Glen Whitesel stayed in Kellogg until he died in 1978, and sometimes played the snare drum for Tommy’s Trio at the Sunshine Inn.

Julie Whitesel recalls her childhood in her recent memoir The Good Times Are All Gone Now: Life, Death, and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009). In this excerpt, she describes her father’s funeral, attended by friends such as real-estate developer Jim Bening and attorney Bob Robson.

“An honor guard of nurses, each dressed in white starched cap, dress, and stockings, stood like wings on either side of the elaborate coffin at the front of the church. His doctor partners served as pallbearers, along with Jim Bening and Bob Robson, and an extra six of friends, a double ring of hands. Townspeople – miners, wives, businessmen and women, gambling and drinking buddies, Tommy’s Trio, my friends, their parents, teachers, coaches, patients, not-patients — filled the church, spilled out into the parking lot, sang hymns, shed tears. The Episcopal priest, Father McReynolds, who had been one of my father’s gin rummy partners and was shaking with Parkinson’s disease, eulogized him.

“‘How’s your body?’ he began. A low wave of laughter filled the church. ‘No one who knew Doc Whitesel would ever say he was without failings. But I like to think he earned a place in heaven in spite of those failings, common to us all, in one form or another. Glen was our doctor, our friend, and an irreplaceable man in Kellogg, Idaho.’ He faced the casket and added, ‘See you later, alligator.’”

You can learn more about The Good Times Are All Gone Now on the sites for the author and for University of Oklahoma Press.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 6, 2010

The Longest Assault: Antony Beevor’s ‘D-Day: The Battle for Normandy’

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:26 pm
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More than 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action in World War II, more people than died in the German bombings of England

D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. By Antony Beevor. Penguin, 608 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

D-Day has inspired the literary equivalent of an amphibious assault landing. Cornelius Ryan set the tone with The Longest Day, a modern classic of narrative nonfiction that has helped to shape how generations of Americans have seen the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Stephen Ambrose, Max Hastings and others later wrote widely praised books about the campaign that led to the liberation of France from Nazi occupation.

But before the publication of D-Day, no major book about the battle for Normandy had appeared in more than twenty years. In that time, many participants in the invasion, code-named Operation Overlord, had died and left diaries and letters that found their way to historical archives. Antony Beevor makes superb use of newly available primary sources in an international bestseller that gets its first American paperback edition this month.

D-Day is nearly twice as long and much more scholarly than The Longest Day, and it makes heavier use of military terminology decoded in an up-front glossary. It also takes a harsher view of some of the participants in the invasion, especially Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the British officer who commanded the ground troops.

But like Ryan, Beevor has a gift for telling a story through the accretion of humanizing details. In his first pages, he shows Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, “smoking up to four packs of Camel cigarettes a day” as he ponders whether the weather will permit an invasion (and after giving the go-ahead, playing Checkers in his trailer at Southwick Park in England). Later Beevor introduces a British liaison officer and future 6th Marquess of Bath “who had gained a reputation for eccentricity because of some of his trips through German lines and his habit of leading two ducks around on a leash.” Near the end of the book, as the Allies enter Paris, French women stay up all night to make flags and clothes in patriotic colors: “One woman, who made an American flag, cut all the stars individually from an old dress.”

Unlike many accounts of the Normandy invasion, D-Day does not end with the battles for the beaches and nearby towns but follows the fighting to the liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944. Beevor shows the grievous toll the campaign took on the Allies and Germans and on French noncombatants — in civilian casualties, ruined cities, suicides or self-inflicted wounds, and cases of “battle shock,” or what is today called post-traumatic stress disorder. He makes clear that even the uninjured faced terrible psychological ordeals. Soldiers had to scrape the unidentified remains of tank crews off the inside of burned-out turrets. Sailors carried the dead on litters to a ship’s refrigerator, “a solution which was not popular with the cooks.”  Victims of battle shock would start running around in circles and weeping “or even wander out in a trance into an open field and start picking flowers as the shells explored.”

Beevor’s great theme and strongest argument is that the heavy Allied bombing and artillery fire liberated France at the expense of Normandy:

“Altogether 19,890 civilians were killed during the liberation of Normandy and an even larger number seriously injured. This was on top of the 15,000 French killed and 19,000 injured during the preparatory bombing for Overlord in the first five months of 1944. It is a sobering thought that 70,000 French civilians were killed by Allied action during the course of the war, a figure which exceeds the total number of British killed by German bombing.”

For all this, the Normandy campaign inspired epic heroism on and off the battlefield, and D-Day includes accounts of exceptional stoicism or selflessness. A staff member at one field hospital expressed amazement at how uncomplaining the wounded were: “It’s such a paradox, this war, which produces the worst in man, and also raises him to the summits of self-sacrifice, self-denial and altruism.” That contradiction may be as old as war itself, but Beevor shows how – for both sides – it showed itself in unique and important ways amid apple orchards and cornfields scattered with poppies.

Best line: Some American soldiers learned conversational French from language books produced by the Army: “Supposedly useful gambits were also provided in daily lessons published by [the military newspaper] Stars and Stripes, such as the French for ‘My wife doesn’t understand me.’”

Worst line: “In their Normandy battles, the Poles had lost 135 officers and 2,192 men.” It may be military jargon, but the implication that officers aren’t men sounds odd.

Published: 2009 (Viking hardcover), Sept. 28, 2010 (Penguin paperback).

About the author: Beevor won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the leading international prize for nonfiction, for his Stalingrad. In an interview posted on YouTube, he talks about topics that include how he used historical sources for D-Day.

Furthermore: D-Day shows the contributions of nations often slighted in accounts of the Normandy campaign, especially Canada. Beevor writes of the pilots for Allied air attacks in the Mortain sector in France: “It was almost an aerial foreign legion, with British pilots, Belgians, French, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Norwegians, Poles, an Argentinian and even a German Jew called Klaus Hugo Adam (later the film-maker, Sir Ken Adam).” A Washington Post review by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley, posted in full on Amazon, tells more about the book.

You can also follow janiceharayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 6, 2010

Patricia Morrisroe’s ‘Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia’ — Counting Ambien Pills, Electrodes, and CBT Sessions

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:41 pm
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One woman’s quest for a good night’s sleep

Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia. By Patricia Morrisroe. Spiegel & Grau, 288 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Patricia Morrisroe once flew to Lapland and spent Christmas in a glorified igloo called the Icehotel, where reindeer pelts covered the beds and the indoor temperature was a constant 20 degrees Fahrenheit. She says she hoped that a visit to a place where daylight lasted only a few hours might help to ease her chronic insomnia.

You don’t quite believe that Morrisroe expected that result from her trip, but she’s such an entertaining writer you’re happy to go along. And it’s not as though she hadn’t tried less extreme remedies for her nocturnal awakenings, a condition known as “sleep-maintenance insomnia.”

In Wide Awake Morrisroe describes her mostly futile plunge into a pool of insomnia treatments prescribed by doctors and others. She tried cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques that made her miserable. She had electrodes pasted to her head at a $3,200-a-night hospital-based sleep lab that “would be the perfect place to set a horror movie.” She took sleeping pills that caused memory loss (Ambien and Sonata) or made her insomnia worse (Celexa). Only meditation made a real difference in her life, and to judge by a recent interview in Salon, its benefits had limits.

Morrisroe describes her adventures in a slightly digressive style that at times leads her away from sleep and into such topics as her “snowmobile safari” in Lapland, where she drove a sled pulled by 400-pound reindeer. And she tries a few flaky remedies while omitting any serious discussion of many people’s favorite sleep aid, sex. But she’s such a good reporter and witty raconteur that Wide Awake is the rare book on its subject that might appeal to many people who rarely have insomnia.

Even if you sleep like Rip Van Winkle, you may enjoy Morrisroe’s musing topics such as the vanishing siesta in Spain, a country that has been forced to fall into step with the workday rhythms of the rest of Europe. “Instead of a three-hour lunch break,” she writes, “government employees can now take only an hour, with the result that Spaniards, who don’t start dinner until after 9 p.m., are among the most sleep-deprived people in Europe.” A partial solution may lie in the napping parlors cropping up in Spain, with naps usually sold in combination with a massage. The trend causes Morrisroe to wonder: “Can the Viagra Café MetroNap be far behind?”

Best line: Morrisroe writes after going to a course for doctors in Las Vegas: “In the fifties and sixties, 120 atomic bombs were detonated in the Mohave Desert, right outside the city. Casinos packed ‘atomic bomb lunches’ so guests could picnic hear ‘Ground Zero.’”

Worst line: “Utilizing eight monumental screens, [Sleepwalkers] chronicles a night in the lives of five stylish New Yorkers as they shake off sleep and wend their way into the city to begin their workday.” Morrisroe is too good a writer for that “utilizing.”

Editor: Cindy Spiegel

Published: May 2010

Caveat lector: This review of Wide Awake was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Read Morrisroe’s Departures article on Lapland.

About the author: Morrisroe also wrote Mapplethorpe: A Biography.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda).

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 29, 2010

Psychiatrist Daniel Carlat Diagnoses His Profession’s Ills in ‘Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry’


“Psychiatry has become a proving ground for outrageous manipulations of science in the service of profit.” Unhinged

Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry. By Daniel Carlat. Free Press, 256 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Has the profession of psychiatry lost its mind? You might think so after reading this relentless and mostly successful assault on current practices in the field.

Daniel Carlat focuses in Unhinged on the harm that he believes has resulted from the march of psychiatry away from psychotherapy and toward the better-paying practice of prescribing drugs. And he forges links between that shift and many ills in his field, including scandals at top-flight hospitals, one-sided articles in medical journals, and pharmaceutical-company payments to doctors who hawk questionable drugs to their peers.

Some of the statistics in Unhinged are chilling. In 2006, an estimated 10 percent of all 10-year-old boys in the U.S. were taking the stimulant Ritalin or an equivalent each day, and shabby medicine often accounts for its use or that of other psychotropic drugs. Psychiatrists routinely write prescriptions after 15- or 20-minute consultations. They know so little about the biology of most mental illnesses that they prescribe based on little or no science. And they mislead patients by presenting as fact theories formed by working backward from the discovery that a drug seemed to ease the symptoms of a disease. One of the most popular of those theories holds that depression results from a “chemical imbalance” in the brain:

“… the fact that many antidepressants increase levels of serotonin has led to a serotonin deficiency theory of depression, even though direct evidence of such a deficiency is lacking. By this same logic one could argue that the cause of all pain conditions is a deficiency of opiates, since narcotic pain medications activate opiate receptors in the brain.”

Carlat delivers his indictment in a crisp, journalistic style that serves him well, though he writes with less depth and elegance than his fellow physician Atul Gawande. But he doesn’t take his critique of the profession as far as it warrants. He clearly wants psychiatrists to do more psychotherapy but doesn’t make a strong case that patients would benefit from this – only that they would benefit from fewer bad drugs. He seems to take for granted that psychotherapy “works.”

This view clashes with that of respected critics of the profession such as the social scientist Robyn Dawes, who drew on decades of research for his brilliant House of Cards, which argues that psychotherapy itself is a con game: There is no evidence that psychiatrists or psychologists are better at counseling than minimally trained civilians, and both types of professionals have strayed so far from their roots in the study of human behavior that they offer little more than glorified intuition.

Unhinged may have the worthy effect of prompting patients to demand better explanations for why certain drugs are recommended for them — and it would be welcome for that reason alone — but it has little to say to people who remain unconvinced that psychotherapy would be better than the cavalier prescribing of Prozac or Wellbutrin. If psychiatrists are as willing as Carlat suggests to pimp for drug companies, why should Americans trust them with their deepest secrets?

Best line: “ … psychiatry has become a proving ground for outrageous manipulations of science in the service of profit.”

Worst line: Carlat says that an Ambien drug rep named Valerie once gave him a gift worth about $25, and later that day, he saw a patient and thought, “Why not prescribe Valerie’s drug for this patient?” That phrasing is too neat. Carlat also appears to be rationalizing in some of his comments on why he served briefly as a paid drug-company rep for the maker of Effexor.

Caveat lector: This review of Unhinged was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ, and some people in it are composites.

Furthermore: Carlat is a psychiatrist in Newburyport, MA, specializing in psychopharmacology, and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine.You can follow him on Twitter at a @dcarlat (www.twitter.com/dcarlat). Carlat tells why he quit giving paid talks for drug companies in the New York Times article “Dr. Drug Rep.” Some of the material in Unhinged about brain scans appeared in different form in an article he wrote for Wired, “Brain Scans as Mind Readers?”

Contrary to the date you see under the headline, this review was posted on May 31, 2010. WordPress appears to be having technical problems that have led to scrambled dates. For this reason, I’ve removed a May 30 post about my forthcoming review of the young-adult novel The Things a Brother Knows.

You can follow Jan Harayda (@janharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 24, 2010

Has Psychiatry Lost Its Mind? A Review of Daniel Carlat’s ‘Unhinged’ Coming Soon

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:36 am
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In late 2007 the psychiatrist Dan Carlat wrote a provocative article about why he quit giving paid talks for drug companies, many about Effexor, an anti-depressant that causes high blood pressure. Now he’s back with Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry (Free Press, 256 pp., $256), a book that indicts his profession for shunning therapy for the more lucrative practice of prescribing medications. A review of the book will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews.

May 21, 2010

An Art Critic Poses for a Portrait by Lucian Freud / Quote of the Day From ‘Man With a Blue Scarf’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:03 am
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Next week booksellers will converge on New York for the trade show BookExpo America, where publishers roll out their summer and fall titles. One of the most noteworthy of the forthcoming books about art is Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud(Thames & Hudson, October 2010). Beginning in late 2003, the art critic Martin Gayford spent seven months posing for Lucian Freud, whom some regard as the greatest living realist. Gayford sat for two portraits and describes the experience in Man With a Blue Scarf. Here is an excerpt:

“The experience of posing seems somewhere between transcendental meditation and a visit to the barber’s. There is a rather pleasant feeling of concentrating and being alert, but no other need to do anything at all except respond to certain requests. ‘Would you mind moving your head just a little?’, ‘Could you move the scarf just an inch? As it is, it looks a little bit “dressed”.’At moments sitting seems almost an embarrassingly physical affair: an enterprise that concerns the model’s skin, muscles, flesh and also, I suppose – if there is such a thing – self.”

This excerpt comes from an advance reading copy of Man with a Blue Scarf. Some material in the finished book may differ.

May 19, 2010

Phyllis Theroux Writes of Finding Love Online and More in ‘The Journal Keeper’ — Meditations on Life After 60

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm
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The Journal Keeper: A Memoir. By Phyllis Theroux. Atlantic Monthly Press, 281 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, Phyllis Theroux moved from Washington, D.C., to a drowsy Virginia town that lacked stop lights but had a house she could afford after a divorce left her in financial peril. She looks back on six years in Ashland in this collection of edited diary entries that reads less like a journal or memoir than a series of meditations for the age of Match.com, the dating service that led her to the man she married in her mid-’60s.

For part of the time covered by this book, Theroux lived with her idiosyncratic mother, who moved in after developing macular degeneration. And The Journal Keeper makes clear that many people would benefit from having such a loving caretaker for their final days. Theroux writes on her mother’s 85th birthday: “My present to her is to be at her disposal for an entire day.”

But the reticence of The Journal Keeper robs it of the force of May Sarton’s trailblazing Journal of a Solitude and more recent accounts of growing old, including  Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End. Theroux omits most dates on entries and is so polite to friends and relatives that she gives you little sense of those people and the events that define them. She mentions that her daughter is coming for a 10-day visit and then says nothing about their time together, which leaves you wondering what happened, one of many dropped threads in the book.

Nor does Theroux make you understand how, for someone educated by Dominican nuns, she became so drawn to alternative spiritual disciplines. In Ashland she has sessions with an “energy healer” and writes approvingly of Gary Zukav and Eckhart Tolle, both favorites of Oprah. And she finds more than one kind of inspiration in the writing classes she teaches to pay the bills. After a stop-and-go courtship, she discovers that her “premarriage mood of doom” has lifted: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde and only went out of it two days ago.”

Theroux calls The Journal Keeper “the spiritual equivalent of a personal light box” that avoids “dark developments” and favors the insights she gained from them. This approach leads to more than a few overwrought metaphors and pseudoprofundities. And the insights in the book tend to be less memorable than directly observed incidents that Theroux serves up with little or no commentary. One occurred when friend’s 8-year-old son looked up at a sky full of snowflakes and said, “This is the best day of my life.”

Best line: No. 1: “Living in a small town is like being in a play.”

Worst line: No. 1: “A funeral is like a train station waiting room. We’re all going to board that train someday.” Except that the people in a waiting room aren’t necessarily waiting for the same train. No. 2: Quoted above: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde … ”

Published: March 2010

Watch the trailer for The Journal Keeper.

Furthermore: Theroux is an essayist and the author of books that include Peripheral Visions and California and Other States of Grace: A Memoir.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to The Journal Keeper: Journal of a Solitude.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 28, 2010

True Stories of Defectors From a Communist State: ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

A foreign correspondent describes life in one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships in a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. By Barbara Demick. Spiegel & Grau, 314 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick adapts the structure that her writing teacher John Hersey used in his great Hiroshima, which tells the stories of six people who survived the bomb that fell on their city. But she makes the form her own in this wonderful book about a half dozen North Koreans who fled the hereditary communist dictatorship of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il.

Demick focuses on the early 1990s and afterward, when North Korea “faded to black” after the Berlin Wall fell and the old Soviet Union ceased to prop up its economy. Unable to maintain its power grid, the country lost most of its electricity. People couldn’t watch television, read at night, or go to movies or restaurants. “Even in parts of the showcase capital of Pyongyang,” she says, “you can stroll down the middle of a main street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.”

The Kims tightened their grip to keep residents from learning the extent of their oppression. North Koreans could not use the Internet, watch movies and television programs not made by the state, travel to nearby towns without a permit, or call or write to relatives in South Korea. And during the famine of the 1990s, many could not eat. An estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans died because the regime would not work with governments that might have helped. Many survived by eating grass, corn husks, or ground pine bark.

Demick shows the catastrophic effects of all of it by tracing the lives of four women and two men from the city of Chongjin, all of whom escaped to South Korea by dint of forged passports, bribed border guards, or other cloak-and-dagger efforts. Some of her most moving stories involve the legions of sick, orphaned, or abandoned children whom two of her subjects, a pediatrician and a kindergarten teacher, were powerless to help.

“Facing a food shortage, many North Korean families conducted a brutal triage of their own households – they denied themselves and often elderly grandparents food in order to keep the younger generation alive,” Demick writes. “That strategy produced an unusual number of orphans, as the children were often the last ones left of entire families that had perished.”

Many of the homeless found their way to the train station in Chongjin: “That was where people went when they had nothing left and no place else to go. It wasn’t quite like giving up and lying down by the side of the road. The movement of the trains created an illusion of purpose that kept hope alive against all odds.”

One man told Demick that on some days, the cleaning staff removed as many as 30 bodies from the station. It is far from the worst of the catatastophes described in Nothing to Envy. To get such stories, Demick had to earn great trust from defectors who had grown up under one of the world’s most xenophobic regimes. On the evidence of this book, she deserves every bit of it.

Best line: “North Korea was chronically short of chemical fertilizer and needed to use human excrement since there were few farm animals. Each family had to provide a bucketful each week, delivered to a warehouse miles away.” This requirement existed under Kim Il-sung, the communist dictator who led North Korea from 1948–1994.

Worst line: Demick says in the last line of Nothing to Envy that the lives of her subjects “like Korea itself, remain works in progress.” But by the time you get there, you can’t hold the cliché against her.

Recommendation? Go for it, book clubs.

Published: December 2009

Furthermore: Nothing to Envy has made the longlist for the 2010 Samuel Johnson Award for nonfiction and was a National Book Awards nonfiction finalist.

Read an excerpt from Nothing to Envy here.

About the author: Demick is the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in Ridgewood, NJ, and wrote: Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes American literary culture on her Fake Book News (@fakebooknews) page on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 27, 2010

Hot Air Blows in From Academia – Quote of the Day / Ben Yagoda in ‘Memoir: A History’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:12 am
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Ben Yagoda writes in his recent Memoir: A History (Riverhead, 291 pp., $25.95), a survey of personal narratives the from 5th-century Confessions of St. Augustine to the present:

“In the 1980s, an unfamiliar pronoun began to appear in works of academic philosophy, history, literary criticism, anthropology, and other fields: ‘I.’ An especially popular formation was ‘I want to argue that,’ introducing a clause that, twenty years earlier, would have been the entire sentence.”

April 25, 2010

Are We Hard-Wired for Conformity? Virtual-Reality Pioneer Jaron Lanier’s ‘You Are Not a Gadget’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:14 pm
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The risks of defining ourselves by templates

You Are Not a Gadget Review: A Manifesto. By Jaron Lanier. Knopf, 209 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Is the flowering of the Internet is turning us into a nation of container plants? Virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier thinks so. In this polemic, he argues that we believe we’re expressing our uniqueness when we launch blogs, join Facebook, or leave comments on websites.

But too often, we’re pruning our personalities to fit programming decisions made decades ago and the software designed around them. And the cost is steep for people who give away much of their best work online – all those “journalists, musicians, artists, and filmmakers who are staring into career oblivion because of our failed digital idealism.”

Lanier at times wanders into abstruse topics such as the difference between Bachelardian and Goldingesque neotony or seems to be auditioning for a spot on Oprah’s couch next to Eckhart Tolle. But he salts You Are Not a Gadget with enough life-giving anecdotes to find an appealing middle ground between writing for science-fair winners and for owners of PCs for Dummies. Yes, he tells us, it’s true: Computers scientists really have figured out “how to hack into a pacemaker and turn it off by remote control” in order to kill someone.

Best line: “The phase of life we call ‘childhood’ was greatly expanded in connection with the rise of literacy, because it takes time to learn to read.” “Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am.”

Worst line: “Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence.”

Published: January 2010

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her FakeBookNews page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews. bit.ly/DKTolle

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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