The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain

Link: You can vote for this review on Amazon-UK here. Thanks.

What is middle age? As human life expectancy changes, so does this marker. I did wonder about those in today’s world who are born with a life expectancy in the 30s or 40s. Surely their teenage years can’t be called their “middle age”. Luckily for the purposes of containing such definitional wild goose chases, Ms Strauch points out quickly that most researchers consider middle age to be between 40 and 68.

Both our body and brain change with age but few of us know that our brain doesn’t decline, if that is the word for what happens to our skin and fitness with age, at the same rate as our body does. In fact, this book aims to show that the change that occurs in the brain isn’t a decline at all but that the brain continues to remain at its peak for longer than we imagine. While our ability to retain bits of data such as people’s names may suffer, our judgment – our knowledge combined with our ability to make connections – improves and we generally start becoming happier. She also explains why the soi-disant midlife crisis really doesn’t exist.

Organised in three parts addressing what changes, why the change and how to improve our brain, the book presents a simplified overview of existing research on the aging of the brain. In the process, Ms Strauch uncovers phenomena such as how the use of both of the brain’s halves – bilateralisation – helps the brain adapt to the changes brought by age, and how myelin (the white matter) continues to grow with age aiding the brain’s processing abilities.

I found the third section “Healthier Brains” particularly interesting. Ms Strauch casts a wide net here, discussing evidence of how aerobic or heart-rate raising exercise helps brain cell growth; and how the beliefs regarding anti-oxidant rich foods, low-calorie diets and ORAC etc have never had a clinical trial; and how low distress and rich social connections can help the brain cope and remain high-functioning.

If you are the sort of reader, who likes to read the bibliography as much as you do the book, then you may be a bit disappointed. This book is not of the calibre of Dr Louann Brizendine’s books on the female and the male brains. Unlike Dr Brizendine, Ms Strauch is not a specialist in the subject of brain science. And that is also why she has succeeded in writing an accessible and simple book on a timely topic.

That said, I think that the book could have been much shorter that the 230 pages (including references) or 198 pages (including Epilogue). I sometimes found myself nodding off because the argument appears to be being made a bit too slowly. Good editing would have made this book a quicker read. The time we saved could have been spent enjoying some time doing a brain gym puzzle perhaps, or eating blueberries and nattering with a friend, all of which evidently would help our brains.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book, written accessibly and simply, has wide appeal. After all sooner than later, most of us will reach “middle age”, however it may be being defined at the time. It is better to understand why and how our brains are changing, if nothing else, then just to avoid worrying.

Mother Pious Lady

Link: You can vote for this review now appearing on Amazon-US here, or on Amazon-UK here.

Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India* is an amusing yet thought-provoking, insightful yet confounding, and relentlessly introspective, with hints of self-flagellation, book. The title is a nod to the specialised language used in the very specialised Indian area of matrimonial ads that appear in the Sunday papers. Over the years, these ads have enabled millions of marriages. A typical ad encapsulates the marital ambition of an average Indian man seeking his own version of Miss World, under the watchful gaze of his mother, often described as a pious lady, who as Santosh Desai points out in the book is probably keener on burning incense than burning brides.

Mr Desai, a man of brands and advertising, has much insight into his generation – my generation – of Indians, into what shaped us, how we are changing and the inevitable what-next. Accordingly, the book is organised in 3 major sections: Where Do We Come From?, New Adventures Into Modernity and Dilemmas Of Change.

Each section features individual chapters that contain several short essays on Indian behavioural quirks as a means to demonstrating what drives Indians. Where Do We Come From? focuses on our need to get value for money (“the Dhania factor”), relationships without the overt need for an immediate gain (“in praise of the unannounced visit”), the need to save and let save face (“the meaning of the slap”), the Indian interpretation of time as a transience (“Indian traffic as metaphor”) and ingenuity in problem-solving (“the power of the imperfect solution”).

It is worth a mention that as is true of much in India, every behavioural peculiarity can be read in more ways than one. My view on the slapping business in India, for instance, is quite different from Mr Desai’s. In their quotidian lives, every Indian deals in multiplicities and contradictions, of meaning and reality, a theme that is implicit in Indian lives but not quite in this book.

The second section, New Adventures In Modernity, addresses a range of themes such as the Indian view of the family as a unit (“terms of endearment”), the redefining of masculinity (“Salman Khan and the rise of male cleavage”), the emergence of the new Indian woman (“in gentle praise of the saas-bahu sagas” and “the woman, exteriorized”), the phenomenon of celebrity (“of genuine fakes and fake genuines”), the idea of Family as emotional headquarters (“the joint stock family”), continued hyper-competitiveness (“the paranoid parent”) and the negotiation with the old (“retrieving space slyly”).

This section reminded me of something I see in my work with British businesses. Few of those seeking to do business in India realise the daily difficulties that an Indian overcomes to deliver results. Work provides a space to be creative, to be free, to be responsible and to be focused. No concession need be made, of course, but recognising the barriers overcome gives one new respect for what Indians achieve rather than criticism of what they do not.

All along Mr Desai maintains a raconteur’s tone, sometimes with hints of understated humour and sarcasm. The tone changes in the last section, titled Dreams Of Grandeur, where his frustration at the behavioural dissonances of his compatriots becomes evident. He touches upon sensitive themes such as the Indian tendency to claim people of Indian origin around the world, craving western approval but getting offended easily, the growing desire to protect the interests of the few. This section sadly for its promise feels rushed. It could have been used to set an agenda or at least set forth a dialogue but perhaps that wasn’t Mr Desai’s intention.

At 380 pages, it may be difficult to describe it as a breezy read but it really is, even despite its awkward organisation in themes, chapters and then short essays. For my part, I found myself laughing throughout the book. I recognised some things, I cringed at others and yet other things I sneered at, thus confirming what my terribly English mentor in the UK calls my “bourgeoisie credentials”.

If non-Indians, the liberal dose of Hinglish, Hindi and Indian in-jokes may become jarring after a while. As it happens, some of the in-jokes are already being lost as a new generation in their 20s grows up. In fact, my only peeve against this book is that it is aimed for no audience in particular. An irony considering Mr Desai’s strong credentials as a marketing professional. Indians of my generation are reading it for amusement but we hardly are incapable, on reflection, of determining what shaped us through our childhood and teen and early adult years. Those, who are not Indian, may feel a bit alienated while reading the book as it sometimes reads like a swathe of in-jokes. One can argue that amusement is as important a utilitarian function as any other. However I feel it is a missed opportunity to bring this book to wider audiences interested in India and Indians.

Even so the book would be a great cheat-sheet for dealing with a sliver of educated, middle-class Indians of a particular generation – Generation X, if you will. India however is a country in the midst of change, occurring at a pace one can blink and miss. In that respect this book is a balance sheet, not a P&L account. Perhaps a second edition, or an entirely new book, will be in order in a few years, when Generation X ceases to be the generation at the helm of India.

Since no discussion on India and the Indians is complete without the obligatory mention of China and the Chinese, I have to say that a book like this is unlikely ever to emerge from China. For the simple reason that unlike the Indians, the Chinese do not explain themselves, do not debate issues, and definitely do not introspect in public view. But it is, I believe, immensely better to go in with a range of truths than a single official version. Whether you are interested in India for pleasure or for business, reading the book may prepare you much better than you imagine.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Indians of my generation will find the book part amusing, part cringe-inducing but very insightful and perhaps a tad nostalgic for simpler times. But those, who seek to do business in India in the present times, where people of my generation are at the helm of most companies that matter, will probably gain the most from reading a book that explains why we are the way we are.

Honest Signals

Link: You can vote on my Amazon Review here. Thanks.

This book belongs – very, very broadly – with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudges. These books present an exposition of what lies behind human decisions and how those decisions can be better understood and possibly influenced.

The core thesis of Honest Signals, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, is that much human communication and decision-making is about signals. Signals such as clothes and cars can be deliberate and planned, or influenced by emotion or culture. But not so the unconscious or uncontrollable biologically based “honest signalling”, which has evolved from ancient primate signalling mechanisms. The stories quoted in the book are from the data collected by the author and his team using a device called a “sociometer” which is described in some detail in Appendix A in the book.

In the first four chapters, Professor Pentland describes four kinds of social signals; how they can be combined for signalling social roles; how an understanding of the signals and social roles can help read people better; and how group dynamics works and evolves. The last three chapters describe how networks, organisations and societies could be explained or could use the proposed thesis.

Chapters 1 focuses on four kinds of signals which are expensive to fake: influence (which signals control or attention), mimicry (empathy/ trust), activity (interest) and consistency or variability (where the former signals a focused mind and the latter signals an openness to input from others). In this review, letters I, M, A, C/V refer to these signals.

Chapter 2 describes how people use combinations of signals to indicate the social role they are taking, such as exploring (I, A), listening (A, C/ V), teaching (I, M, C) and leading (I, A, C).

I found Chapter 3 fascinating. The author describes how mirror neurons read signals and help develop or construct meaning such as dominance, deception etc. Social circuits formed through exchange of signals in a group situation may explain situations such as mood contagion. The discussion then moves on to charisma, which is an innate talent at reading and responding to social signalling. Signals also change people in an instance of what the author calls “self-inflicted brainwashing”. In group situations, signals, responses to signals and the resultant shifting coalitions are better predictors of outcomes, the author argues, than strategy, motivation, experience or personal characteristics.

Further detail on social roles – task roles (orienteer, giver, seeker, follower) and group roles (attacker, protagonist, supporter, neutral) – are discussed next. A manager or team leader would probably know from experience that 1 30-second slice of a group’s interaction is a reliable indicator of the various group and task roles at work, and that social roles can spread within a group. In an organisational context, such group dynamics can contribute to organisational intelligence.

It is harder to précis the last three chapters which are dense with ideas that could have benefited from a longer discussion. Perhaps future writings will do greater justice to the application aspects of this fascinating research.

Books based on science and research are now commonly organised such that a good half of the book comprises explanatory or technical appendices and a bibliography. This book is no exception. The 98 pages of main text, including an epilogue that makes an important point that much current technology is socially ignorant, are followed by 52 pages of appendices rich in research context, 13 pages of notes to appendices, and 14 pages of bibliography. All in all it took about an hour and half to read the book.

A main limitation of the book is the compact treatment of a fairly vast and promising subject. The description of the theoretical premise pitched in the book is interesting enough but the stories often feel incomplete, half-told, rushed. Quite reminiscent of how an academic thesis includes a section that describes future research possibilities; that section really is an admission of the limitations of the thesis, whether imposed by time or scope definition or something else. The author of a book for popular consumption really doesn’t face these limitations hence the dissatisfying experience. There is also not enough time spent on what in real life could be done with a sociometer or the findings of Professor Pentland’s research with it.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book successfully articulates the concept of primate signalling and provides a quasi-framework that can be put to use in some situations. For instance, it may be handy in several situations including watching politicians and businessmen, and as the author points out, in social and work situations such as negotiation and dating. However if someone then tries too hard to “implement” the framework, it is hardly “honest” signalling and it can all potentially backfire. Recommended for a quick read on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Offence: The Hindu Case

Link: You can vote on my Amazon review of the book here. Thanks. The author has linked to this review on his blog.

Offence : The Hindu Case is one in the series, Manifestos for the 21st Century Series, published in collaboration with the Index on Censorship. Some of the other books in the series argue the Muslim case, the Jewish case and the Christian case. The books in this series have upset many, who feel the books are blasphemous or even seditious. To that extent, my view is that only free speech purists may be able to read the book without getting agitated or angry. I have had the opportunity to attend a Free Word event in London in October 2009 where Mr Tripathi and Ms Shamsie, author of the Muslim case, were speaking and faced much cross-questioning from the audience, not all of it laudatory or unabashedly appreciative.

Back to this book. At 116 pages, including references, it is a quick read. But it has not been so easy to review it. I read the book about three months ago. Since then much water has flown in the Ganges, so to speak. The artist, MF Husain, the story of whose persecution in India runs through the book, has renounced his Indian citizenship and taken Qatari citizenship. The book opens with Husain’s story, then proceeds to demonstrate how Hindu nationalists are systematically catalysing censorship and bans, and revising history to suit a narrative, which is entirely at odds with India’s constitution (which creates India as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic), and with India’s history and indeed Hinduism’s history as an inclusive philosophical movement. By focusing on Rama as a deity, Hindutva seems to be constructing a discourse on “offence” which is inspired, for want of a better word, by monotheistic religions such as Islam, shunning the richness and plurality of the religion’s mythology and traditions.

To construct his argument, Mr Tripathi draws upon the writings of and conversations with some of India’s leading contemporary thinkers and historians, as well as influential cultural icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. Indeed Mr Tripathi also cites Wendy Doniger, who is not the most popular western commentator on Hinduism. However Hindu nationalism revivalists in India also have help from native Belgian and American commentators, none of whom is remotely as scholarly as Doniger, who has spent several years studying Hindu texts.

This book is a snapshot of India’s recent events. It is a book about India’s present, not India’s past but there is also a disturbing prospect of a future trajectory that is potentially reductive, exclusive and revisionist.

Some readers, especially of the Hindu persuasion, may feel agitated, frustrated or confused while reading the book. Indeed recent books that are less than effusive about Hinduism have evoked highly polar reactions from Hindus. For instance, while discussing Doniger’s recent book, I asked a particularly upset lady if she had read the book. Without a hint of irony but with all the puissance of righteous rage, she said: “Why, no self-respecting Hindu will ever read that book!”. While not representative, the line captured for me the difficulty of having an informed discussion about religion in general and a religion such as Hinduism in particular, with its plurality and diversity.

Others will find this book thought-provoking and may take on the opportunity to explore Hindu scholarship in detail. Mr Tripathi’s is a perspective that needs to be shared widely. India cannot remain India Shining by excluding from its future narrative a good 20% of its people.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: This book is not to everyone’s taste and many are bound to take offence. It will however enthrall those who remain ever curious about religion and its role in political and societal narrative. I think those interested in India but confused by the rapidity and complexity of the moving feast will find the book an interesting introductory read too.

Obliquity

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

On the cover of Obliquity, John Kay’s new book (hardback edition), Tim Harford pronounces it “persuasive”. Yet Harford’s subsequent column in the FT on March the 18th, 2010, titled “Political Ideas Need Proper Testing” suggested that he is far from persuaded by Mr Kay’s argument. That wasn’t a good start to reading this book.

John Kay’s core thesis is that that in any setting, there are multiple, often conflicting, goals; and that instead of a linear rational model, the best approach to problem-solving is oblique, an approach for which he coins the neologism ‘obliquity’.

The book is organised in three parts. Part one explains how the world abounds in obliquity, citing specifically how success in finding happiness and profits (in a business setting) does not come from direct pursuits, and how the rich people are not the most materialistic. There are amusing stories but Mr Kay cherry-picks the arguments, that bolster his thesis, and ignores how some of the least materialistic rich men cited were also single-minded in their pursuit of money.

Part two explains why problems cannot be solved directly. Here he dwells upon how rational models fail to capture the real dynamics of political decision making. He devotes time to demonstrating why this is the case where plural outcomes may exist, and complexity and incompleteness may mar our understanding of the problem. He also proposes that obliquity is a better term for Charles Lindblom’s coinage,”muddling through”, as an explanation of political decision making. Further he makes the case that the more one participates in or studies something, the better one understands and abstracts its complexity, its essence. Having spent several years in my doctoral research on political decision making, I felt he picked once again Lindblom because it is amenable to his thesis. Several better explanations of political decision-making have followed Lindblom’s and they cover more ground than Mr Kay does in this section of the book.

The third section, comprising shorter chapters, explains problem-solving in a complex world using stories from the real world. This was the quickest read in the book yet I found myself feeling dragged through it. Stories from several unconnected walks of life are great for anecdotes and dinner party conversation, but make a book feel like a jigsaw being forced together

To those given to seeking single labels for people, it is seductive to see Mr Kay as an economist. His wider philosophical grounding and interest is visible in the book as he illustrates his points using examples from history, urban design, football and evolutionary theory amongst others. Yet despite such ambition and possibility, the book is perhaps best described as a “light” read. One gets the feeling that Mr Kay tried to do a Gladwell on the topics of complexity and decision making but did not get far enough.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: Probably a good read for a long-haul flight but not very strongly recommended if you have better options.

The Checklist Manifesto

Link: You can vote on my Amazon Review here.

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right comes close on the heels of Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists. Both books are about lists and both emphasise the ability of lists to bring about order and control. Both books attracted me because I am a consummate list-maker. More “practical” than “poetic”, a taxonomical distinction that Eco proposes in his book, I write my lists in blue, striking out the “done” items in red, thus also making it a motivational tool. It is therefore safe to say that the title of Gawande’s book was immediately attractive.

Despite my prejudicial preference for lists and reading about lists, it is a credit to the engaging quality of Atul Gawande’s writing that the book kept me absorbed for the 3 hours it took to read all 193 pages of it.

The author proposes “checklists” as a functional tool to deal with the limitations of human knowledge and the possibility of making mistakes in the face of complex problems. Using stories from construction management, airline piloting and disaster management, and surgery, he shows how checklists can be used to break down complex tasks into simpler steps, thus helping prevent expensive mistakes. The author delves further into two kinds of lists (Do-Confirm or Read-Do) using a story from how the airline manufacturing industry writes their “user manuals”.

Early on, he points out that checklists are not some silver bullet, and that there is judgement involved. Some situations may benefit from checklists, while others may not need any. Later in the book, he also admits that to many, lists are protocols and embody rigidity. He then proceeds to illustrate why this needn’t be so and to demonstrate the importance of team work and how checklists enable that discipline, especially in disasters.

I found Chapters 7 and 8 most interesting. The stories told so far describe the complexity of the work/ task itself but these two chapters introduce another layer, that of institutional complexity.

Chapter 7 details the WHO sponsored study to examine if checklists made any difference to safety, infections, post-surgery deaths in 8 quite disparate hospitals around the world. The settings varied from a hospital in Tanzania where 4 surgeons, aided by 5 untrained anaesthesia staff, work on thousands of surgeries; to one in New Zealand that has 92 anaesthetists for some 20,000 surgeries per year, a number also dealt with in an Indian hospital using just 7 anaesthetists. The settings were also culturally diverse adding a layer of complexity not foreseen in the design of the checklist. For instance, the author mentions a different kind of English being spoken in an English NHS hospital, and observes the interplay of gender segregation and professional responsibility in a Jordanian surgery theatre. The results – from using the checklist – regarding reduction in technical problems, complications, infections and deaths were encouraging, for all cultural settings and even allowing for the Hawthorne Effect.

In Chapter 8, much mainstream media coverage of Jan 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson River” is debunked while the author tells the story of the pilots Sullenberger and Stiles and their calm use of appropriate procedures, while their cabin crew prepared passengers for and then monitored safe evacuation, to strengthen his thesis. The other half of Chapter 8 particularly resonated with me because I work with investors and entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by the stories of the 3 investors who have incorporated checklists into their investment decisions, favouring dispassionate analysis over irrational exuberance, so to speak.

The title is deceptively simple for this is a profound book, written accessibly and clearly. It is a defence of rational, systems-thinking approach to solving complex problems, to creating team work and collegiality amongst narrow specialists while ensuring desirable outcomes, no matter what the setting.

Managers, entrepreneurs, investors as well as professional project managers such as event planners would do well to read, ponder, internalise and practise the idea proposed in the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: The varied examples from learned professions such as surgery, airline piloting, construction management and investing should make the book broadly readable.


The Tiger That Isn’t, or why you needn’t be afraid of numbers

Link: You can vote on the Amazon review of this book here.

“I think numbers are the best way to represent the world’s uncertainties”, “I see numbers, I question them and I can interpret them for the less numerate”, “I see numbers and I freeze”.

These three possible options are based on a rough categorisation of the attitudes I have seen towards numbers. Depending on my mood, they can amuse me or cause me despair.

In fact, I believe that, with the right degree of scepticism, and a willingness and an ability to question numbers both in absolute and relative terms, it is possible for everyone to make sense of numbers thrown at us every day. That is pretty much the premise – and the promise – of The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through A World of Numbers, by the journalist Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, an Oxford Don. The book delivers brilliantly on the premise and the promise.

The introduction of the book says, rightly, that it is written from the point of view of the consumers of numbers; in fact, it is written for the consumers of numbers, which means people like you and me. Each chapter presents some examples that illustrate a typical problem with comprehending numbers, and then proceeds to demonstrate how to see those numbers in context and how to make sense of them. There are, in addition to the introduction, eleven chapters dealing with numbers-related issues including Size, Chance, Averages, Risk (my personal favourite), Data (my favourite heading in this book “Know the Unknowns”) and Causation. While most of the examples are British – understandably because both authors are British – it is not difficult for the reader to apply the ‘lessons’ to numbers being bandied about in his or her own country.

Aimed at the non-numerate reader, the tone of the book is easy, the language accessible, the explanations lucid. Yet the book is not patronising in the least, which, in my book, is a considerable achievement in explaining apparently complex things. At 184 pages in all, it is not a hugely difficult read; the section on Further Reading will serve those, whose curiosities are piqued and whose courage with numbers restored on reading this book.

Reviewing this book is not easy. I could summarise all chapters for you, but it would be pointless. Yet not saying much about the contents of the individual chapters may make the review meaningless.

So here is a possibility.  If some numbers in the news have been bothering you, do leave a comment and I shall try and explain them in a manner consistent with that suggested by Blastland and Dilnot. It is however worth every one of the 90 or so minutes you will spend on the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I am known for buying books as presents for friends of all ages. This book would make an ideal present for a curious teenager, as well as those adults who have let 10 simple symbols terrify them for years. For younger readers, I would suggest conversations around the themes of the chapters so that they can get a feel for the numbers being bandied about.

Um…: Slips, Tumbles, and Verbal Blunders, And What They Mean

Link: The Amazon Review is here.

Um…, as I shall refer to the book, is an unusual book on many counts. I read books in several non-fiction genres. But books, that marry genres, such as food memoirs of MFK Fisher or Mark Abley’s language-cum-travel memoirs, find favour with me.

I read Um… on an oblique recommendation from a friend, who was reading it too. I found it overall a fascinating book especially for those with an itch for being pedantic about language, grammar and its uses and abuses. Was the friend trying to tell me something? There is a thought I shall leave unexplored, because I believe we are quite direct with each other and need not bother with dropping hints.

At a good 252 pages, not including the useful glossary and appendices, Um… pre-requires the reader to have a deep love for languages, in general. It would also add greatly to the enjoyment of the book, if the reader is curious about linguistic quirks and history.

In return for all this, the author, Michael Erard, a linguist and a PhD in English, presents with irreverence and panache, this work of ‘applied blunderology’ – or ‘word botching’ as a back cover reviewer describes it – that aims to examine how verbal blunders happen, what they mean and if they matter. This chronicle of the history of verbal slips, tumbles and blunders from the time of Reverend Spooner to President George W. Bush is written accessibly with humour, and has been edited tightly so as to be free of the bloopers that are its subject.

The 11-chapter book starts with the story of Reverend Spooner who lends his name to ‘spoonerisms’. As usual, the facts are not half as fun as the story, which is not the writer’s fault, but the story has been told well, which is to the writer’s credit, especially since he weaves with it the story of the changes in the understanding of human cognition.

A longer second chapter on the Freudian slip follows dispelling or at least challenging the commonly held notion that a Freudian slip must hint at something sexual or repressed. Soon after reading the chapter, I addressed the said friend, as ‘My <Name>‘ instead of ‘Mr <Name>‘. However since he too had read the book, I was able to retract my mistake quickly and without embarrassment on either side.

‘Some Facts about Verbal Blunders’ discusses the origins and peculiarities of blunders and slips, how they vary from person to person; how they indicate a person’s physical, emotional and mental state; and how there really are knows-better and doesn’t-know-better types of errors in human speech. Erard says he is fascinated by ‘knows better’ type of errors and by how they get treated like some sort of moral failing (note to self: I need to start checking my tendency to proof-read nearly everything set in front of me, including Um… and to stop wondering how he knows me so well.).

The chapters that follow discuss technical, social and biological aspects of language, and speech disfluencies; the brief history of ‘Um…’ and the story of Toastmasters. My favourite chapter in the book was Erard’s assessment of President Blunder, oops, Bush and how societally pre-determined and inextricable from their speaking abilities our expectations of ‘leaders’ are. The book concludes with the author’s hope of note on the future of blunderology, that we may come to watch, forgive and enjoy our blunders.

Erard warns readers that a side-effect of reading the book may be that a pedant’s antennae become unusually fine-tuned to listening for and catching disfluencies, boners, eggcorns, mondegreens and (what I call) “snooperisms”, not just in others, but in oneself too. That certainly was my experience. I also began to notice much more my own self-correction tendencies as well as those of others.

The book is not an easy read all through, but that is probably just my experience. Some chapters, in my view, seriously need the non-linguist to re-read. I also read rather rapidly so sometimes delayed connections made in my neural circuits require me to return to the text. This book has not yet had that second outing with me. The writing style changes in difficulty levels sometimes, so the time taken to read and absorb may vary from chapter to chapter. This too could be a side-effect of the fact that I am trying to take some notes which I condense into the book review, and may not apply to a reader, reading for fun.

Overall, a great read. Set aside about 6-7 hours for it and they will not have been wasted.

Star rating: 4 out of 5.

Usefulness note: An advantage of such a book available in festive times of the year is that it solves the problem of buying a present for the dedicated and curious pedant(s) in one’s life. This book makes it to my to-gift list this year.


Only As Good As Your Word

Links:  A link to this review can be found on the author’s blog here. The Amazon Review is here.

My reading backlog is being dented rapidly even as I keep adding books to the pile called to-read. As far as I can, I intend reviewing those books here, or on Amazon-UK, or both.

This post’s title refers to Susan Shapiro’s eponymous book.

At 400 pages, this book demands a lot of time and attention from the reader. Amazingly enough, it took me just 1 day – albeit the whole of that day of my weekend – to finish it. This is down to Susan Shapiro’s writing style which is simple, conversational, light and fast-paced. At times, the breathlessness, with which she might regale a story in person, comes through quite amusingly.

The book is the story – or more accurately, the stories – of Susan Shapiro’s relationships with her writing mentors, interwoven with her running of a very popular writing group in her apartment for many years, her professional progress as a writer all set against a rather rich tapestry of New York’s Jewish society and New York’s publishing world’s glitterati. When the said writing group is dismantled, a student says “I am going to need therapy”. That therapeutic element, in essence, is the sublimation of Shapiro’s relationships with her mentors. She refers to more than one mentor as being like ‘her father’ with whom she appears to have a rather emotionally distant relationship, and then a protégé as ‘her kid sister’.

One has to ask whether for her, every relationship is one prolonged therapy session and exactly when is it that an issue can be deemed “resolved”. Other readers may feel differently about this common thread running through the book, but to me, it was a bit ennui-inducing after some time.

But it is a credit to the book that I still read on.

The most valuable bits are the last 2 chapters: How To Have A Protégé, and How To Get Great Gurus Of Your Own. To budding or growing writers, the tips are brutal but spot-on.

No matter how keen you are to find your own voice, the author’s note before the table of contents is instructive: “Some names and identifying characteristics of people portrayed in this book have been obscured so they won’t divorce, disown, hate, kill, or sue me.”

Rightly so, it is there at the beginning. A rule all writers ignore at their peril.

After all, “a true friend walks in when everybody walks out” , but as Shapiro asked herself (page 262), “who’d be there for you when you were up”. Worth pondering. No matter how tempting it is for a writer to find – and write and publish – juicy stories about one’s family, friends and community, it is always worth having someone who loves the writer and will be happy for her success when it comes, admittedly at its own pace.

I recommend the book highly, but not as the only book to have in the arsenal of a budding writer.

On Amazon, I gave it 4 stars. I recognise it is autobiographical but some of the book is too self-obsessed and too neurotic for my liking; some details of internecine feuds were also avoidable. There are a few, not many but a few, distracting spelling and grammar bloopers in the book, which could have been edited e.g. “none of them ARE”.

Star rating: The book deserves all its 4 stars for the many gems for writers and freelancers, scattered generously through the book.

Usefulness note: The book will interest both budding and established young writers.

The Interesting Bits

Link: The Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on the ‘helpfulness’ of this review.

On the Amazon Vine programme, I picked Justin Pollard’s The Interesting Bits: The History You Might Have Missed to read and to review.

I spent almost a whole day and then some, reading the book. As I was going to review it, I also made notes which made the whole thing rather time-consuming.

At just short of 300 pages, this is not a small book, but its being organised into 20 chapters makes it manageable.

Written by one of the writers of QI, a quirky quiz programme on the BBC hosted by the polymath Stephen Fry, the book is a treasure trove of historical tid-bits and trivia. It is no encyclopaedia but inside one finds gems such as Oliver Cromwell’s Welsh ancestry, the origins of the word ‘bunkum’, the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the Indian war of independence of 1857 (the Indian Mutiny if you prefer the British historical framing) and the country name that is an acronym (Paksstan if you are keen; go ahead, work it out!).

Each chapter begins with a quote that captures the essence of the chapter. For instance, Chapter 6 ‘What’s in a name?’ cites R S Surtees, in “Three things I never lend – my ‘oss, my wife, and my name‘. The questions addressed all relate to the theme so the said chapter addresses the curiosities behind Gordon Bennett, the Bob in Bob’s Uncle, the original Tommy, Uncle Sam and nosy Parker.

The style of writing is accessible and although intentionally funny, does not appear laboured. The book – as far as I could see – is remarkably free of typographical and grammatical errors. The parental rating within and between chapters may vary. My original intent was to hand over my 1st edition copy to my 8-year old godson. However having read it, I am inclined to wait for 2-3 years so that I do not have to field any tricky questions from him yet.

This is a book that needn’t be read in a sequence. In fact it is best enjoyed by randomly opening a page and reading whatever questions are contained on that page, as I did. Rather like a tin of mixed biscuits – some plain digestives, some cream cookies, some jam-centred tarts, where the best way to enjoy is to dip randomly into the tin, pick one out and relish it.

After all, it is about “the history you might have missed”.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book would make a good Christmas present for a 10-12 year old with a curious bent of mind and a nose for trivia.