Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales

Book 5 of the year is Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks. I remembered reading and enjoying another book by the same author, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Confession: I started this book thinking that he would literally be telling us about his first loves. You know, sweet, heart-wrenching puppy love told by a talented author. But alas, there was nothing salacious or even very emotional. His “first loves” are things like the library in his childhood home. And not-very-well-known chemist Humphry Davy. And a herring-eating club. And a fern-hunting club. If I wanted to read about first nerd loves, I would’ve just gone back to my middle school diaries. (Yes, it’s true that I asked my mom for the Merck Index for Christmas back then).

The book is set up as a series of stand-alone essays that are chapter length. They’re a mish-mash of random ideas, many of which could have become new books, if the author had had more time. I did learn a lot from this book, and it was invitingly written, without the obvious dumbing down that is often done in popular science books. Did you know there’s a town in Belgium where families take on mentally ill strangers as boarders and have been doing so for centuries? Geel! There’s also a chapter on dementia that’s reversible, and due to a B12 deficiency. Another chapter covers insane asylums. I had no idea they used to have farms and gardens where the occupants would work!

In last few chapters, he mentions that he’s near the end of his life and sounds like an old man. He gripes about the lack of physical large-print books. He says it’s not the same to be read to, and he just doesn’t like e-readers because he likes the feel and smell of physical books. I don’t understand why he can’t feel and smell other books (if that’s his thing) and get his reading from an e-reader. Maybe its too much to demand that all our desires be fulfilled by one object. He also rails against how young people these days go around glued to their cell phones, walking into traffic and ignoring their young babies. I’m deeply sympathetic to this gripe and also frequently guilty. My last iPhone report said I spent an average of 2.5 hours a day looking at my phone. I have friends who pull their phones out at social gatherings and mindlessly scroll. But something about his tone makes it easy to dismiss him as a grumpy old man who doesn’t understand the benefits of smartphones. I know he’s a brilliant scientist, I just wish his parting words to us conferred some of his amassed wisdom instead of only grumbling about ways in which things have changed for the worse.

Overall, this was an okay book, but depending on what you’re looking for, his other works may be more enjoyable.

Little Men

For the 4th book of 2020, I read the kind of sequel to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Little Men. I had just watched the 2019 remake of the movie Little Women, and was still puzzled by the ending. Spoiler alert: I read the book, watched three versions of the movie (not all at once) and I still don’t get how Laurie ends up with Amy. Take it from someone who’s ever been into a person with a sibling. Feelings don’t casually swap from one to the next. Not feelings that have been developing over years of closeness, anyway.

I took to reading Little Men thinking maybe there could be some insight there. What I found was the same mediocre writing, the same heavy-handed moralizing and the same predictable “life lessons.” Maybe I’m jaded or maybe I’m too used to modern fiction where there isn’t a clear moral and the author doesn’t follow every story with a paragraph on her own views about what makes a great man. There’s something un-American about her writing. She glorifies poverty. But not just any poverty: poverty accompanied by hard work and diligence. Isn’t that the worst case though? Doesn’t that just translate to inefficiency? If you’re going to work yourself to an early grave, shouldn’t you at least be well-paid?

Maybe the book was written for young children, the same age as the target audience of Der Struwwelpeter: a delightful book of German bedtime stories where grave bodily injury or death is usually the consequence of small children not listening to their parents. Every chapter in Little Men has a standalone story and moral. Of course, nothing ever goes unpunished. The truth is always found out at the end. Those at fault are always brought to justice. It’s the sort of thing you expose children to that will satisfy them in the moment, then lead to a lifetime of disappointment that the world doesn’t actually work that way.

To answer the burning question, did I ever get a satisfying answer about Amy and Laurie? Not really. The best thing I could come up with is that Laurie wanted to keep Jo in his life, and stay close to her always (but we already knew that from the attic scene in Little Women when they’re reunited after his grand Euro trip). Also, he was convinced by her speech that she would never change her mind about marrying him. With Meg married, Beth dead, that left only Amy as a route to stay in the family. No wife outside the family would accept his continued closeness with Jo. Not back then, and probably not even now. Plus, on paper, Amy is an even better option for a society wife: pretty hair, pretty manners, likes pretty clothes. They even have a pretty daughter who’s basically a carbon copy of her mother. Not a bad compromise after all?

The Salt Fix

Book 3 of this year’s reading goal was The Salt Fix by Dr. James DiNicolantonio. I have to admit that this was a self-serving choice. I am a salt fiend. I’m the one adding salt to almost every dish. I knew that this book defends unrestricted salt use, and I wanted to see what its arguments were. I learned about this book from a fasting group based on the recommendations of one of my personal bibles, The Obesity Code.

The writing is sometimes hokey, like it’s your dad who’s talking, but the book is full of references to extensive research you can look at yourself. There’s also a helpful timeline at the end. Basically, The Salt Fix shows the danger of medical professionals making up “common sense” stories about how physiological processes work. The idea that high salt intake causes high blood pressure was never borne out by research: it was just a hypothesis that “made sense” to medical professionals. The recommended solution of reducing salt intake was provably dangerous and was never shown by any study to significantly lower blood pressure. In fact, the research showed that the salt reduction caused increased rates of cardiac arrest and stress to the kidneys.

In short, if you have normal kidneys, you should eat as much salt as you like. Normally functioning kidneys can easily filter out extra salt with no adverse effects. Salt to taste! The book also shows that there is an ideal level of salt intake, and this is higher than recommended by the government. The good news is that there’s no need to try to monitor salt usage: apparently your body gives you cues (like salt craving, or thirst) in response to insufficient or too-high salt intake.

I do love when well-researched books give you permission to do what you were already doing, don’t you? Now, when anyone tells you they’re reducing their salt intake, or that you should watch it with all those salty snacks, you can tell them to read this book.

The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets

Just finished my second book of 2020: The Miracle & Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets. Their story is actually really sad, but it may not have seemed that way from the outside. They were famous from birth for being the first documented set of surviving quintuplets, and their popularity meant they had state of the art everything and a trust fund from all the advertisers eager to use their images to sell everything from milk to household appliances.

The strange thing about their lives is that they were kept as wards of the state, separated from their parents and other siblings, until they were almost 10 years old: far longer than medically necessary. The Canadian government was concerned about their image being exploited for profit, but didn’t actually protect them from their fame. They were put on display, with thousands of tourists observing them daily — just not for profit. Despite the daily shows, they claimed that living in their specially designed hospital under the care of nurses and doctors was the simplest and happiest time of their lives.

What struck me was how reasonable each decision about their care seemed in the moment. It made sense to move them to their own hospital when they were babies because they were medically fragile. It made sense for the Canadian government to be their legal guardians because it was the only way to get them out of a contract to be exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair. In a way, it even made sense to keep raising them in their hospital home, because that was the only place they knew as home, and their parents lived across the street and visited often. Plus, they weren’t close with their parents.

The book left me with a lingering sadness for them. They were raised in such a regimented way that they were adrift as adults in the world. Two became nurses, two tried to join the convent: all were a little lost on what to do once no one was telling them, moment by moment, what they should be doing. How would things be different if they had been born today? Well, they’d be instant Instagram influencers. In 50 years we’ll be reading biographies about multiples that were Insta-famous from birth, and in 50 years, there will be someone else who feels sad for their fate.

New Year, New Book Reading Goal

50. Yeah, I am going to try to read 50 books this year. No specific requirements. Nothing too ambitious. Everything from young adult romances to classics or memoirs. Okay, most of the books I read have been introduced to me by NPR. You know, because I like having that voice of reason constantly in the background when I perform the mind-numbing necessities of life. Like dressing myself, cleaning the refrigerator, cooking, managing finances… you get the idea.

Right now I’m reading The Gifted School. It was sold on NPR as a “lite” version of the real life drama around Varsity Blues. I wanted to read it because I’ve always wondered why we spend resources teaching to the bottom (children who are in 5th grade and can barely read) and the very bottom (children who are so profoundly disabled that they’re incapable of acquiring language) of the talent pool, while ignoring the top. Doesn’t seem worth it, in terms of ROI. This book helps me understand why that might be.

If a school teaches only the 1% (top of the talent pool, not the 1% by wealth), and pours resources into doing so, parents of the 99% will be wielding pitchforks. Especially when you consider that if entrance exams to these schools include any objective component of testing that’s correlated with IQ, the school will end up looking like Stuyvesant: mostly white and Asian. Then, because in polite society, we cannot admit the well-established existence of a race-IQ gap, we must conclude that the admissions policy is racist.

The author seems to have an opinion about the sorts of kids who would attend such schools, and what their parents must be like. The white parents are all overbearing, pushy, or over-invested. The kids are either good little models of what their parents wanted, or, in the case of Xander, the “weird genius chess player scientist” trope. Only one character doesn’t have overbearing parents and isn’t a mere trope. Or maybe he is. He’s the one who lives in poverty and helps his mom and grandma clean houses for a living. What’s the message here? There are no normal/likable/sensible rich white people? The only reasonable people are people of color? His grandmother preaches against going to the gifted school because she’s afraid it will make him puffed up with self-importance. This is a strange moral. Isn’t wasted potential a lot worse than becoming a little cocky? Plus, with grandma to keep him in line, is that even a real concern?

I haven’t gotten to the shocking secrets sold in the synopsis, but I’ll write another post if it’s anything worthwhile. For now, I’d say that while this book is an easy read, it’s not great, and I wouldn’t recommend to anyone unless they happen to be interested in the subject matter. Or unless they want a stereotypical representation of “liberal elites” so they can feel morally superior.

Sleep Hygiene

I visited a friend earlier this year, and we were out with his wife at a board game party having a grand ole time. At some not-unreasonably-late hour his wife said “I have to go home now, it’s my bedtime.” I thought this was strange: I haven’t personally had a bedtime since middle school. I responded “It’s fine: tomorrow’s a holiday, so no one has a bedtime!” She narrowed her eyes at me and said, “Well, *I* maintain good sleep hygiene.” Can’t argue with that! We left the party and (one hopes) got back in time for bed.

I had no idea what the phrase “sleep hygiene” meant at the time. What she said to me made me wonder if I was somehow a dirty sleeper. I mean, sure: I drool. Luckily for me, another friend soon recommended a book which explained everything. It’s by Matthew Walker, and it’s called Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.

Other than the basics of what exactly we mean by “sleep hygiene” (a simple google search can answer that), the book describes research on the phases of sleep and each of their relevance in our waking lives. It answered some questions I have always had such as:

  • Why do I work on a math problem for hours and feel completely stuck only to wake up from a nap with the correct solution?
  • Why do I show more improvement in piano the next day than after an hour of practice?
  • Why do I feel more hungry if I didn’t sleep well the night before?
  • Why do I have worse self-control if I’m sleep deprived?
  • Why was it so hard to wake up early and go to sleep early as a teenager?
  • Why do old people sleep less?
  • Can you actually die of sleep deprivation?

Anyway, I highly recommend the book. It’s one of my bibles now, along with Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Dr. Jason Fung’s The Obesity Code. Though I am not quite as strict about bedtime as my friend’s wife, I have learned a lot from the book about the myriad of benefits of a good night’s sleep and the perils of not sleeping enough. Plus, now I have science on my side when I argue that it’s good for me and not just pure laziness that I sleep as much as I do!

Life-changing, indeed

I just read Marie Kondo’s “the life-changing magic of tidying up” in one afternoon. I think it’s one of the most touching books I’ve ever read, and even after memorizing her philosophy and putting her method to use, I would still keep a copy of this book on my bookshelf.

The introduction sounds a bit like an infomercial, talking up the (unproven) benefits of tidying, which are said to include weight loss, better looking skin, and even finding your purpose in life. It was a little off-putting (after all, I’m reading this book, so I’m already sold on the idea of tidying) but power through it. It does get better.

So, this isn’t a technical guide. It’s not one of these no-nonsense “10 steps to a cleaner house” sort of things. Where you get rid of X things every day or you clean K square feet. It isn’t antiseptic that way. Her book is more like a philosophy of life. Why won’t you need to tidy ever again? Because you’ll have gotten rid of most of your things. But the point is: you can clearly live without those things.

What drew me to this book was the premise that we should only have things we love. The things we own should spark joy, she reiterates throughout. She personifies things in what is perhaps a Shinto tradition. I grew up as an only child and did the same. I felt very sorry for the stoplights, doing their jobs throughout the night even when there were no drivers to benefit from their labors. It becomes much easier to let go of my things and to quiet the internal monologue (“but that was expensive” “I’ll wear it when it’s warmer out” “I could wear it around the house” “I could still need that someday” “I haven’t read that yet”) when I think about how my just things want to be useful to me and I’m shoving them into a dark corner of a closet to die slowly of neglect. That’s sad. Sadder than slavery and the holocaust combined. And it’s my fault. But there’s something I can do about it.

I can set my things free. I can give them a better life with someone who will appreciate them and use them. My things and their new owners can be happy together. The beautiful thing is that my old items won’t go to waste. They’ll go to Goodwill, or clothing swaps. They’ll be sold on the dozens of selling apps I have or given away on Yerdle. I only hope they will bring joy to someone else.