Hair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.
Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?
The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.
Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.
Memoirs are a popular form of bibliotherapy, not only for the authors who find therapy in sharing their thoughts and words, but also for the readers who are lucky enough to come across the right one at just the right time. This is the case for Reasons to Stay Alive, a kind of hybrid self-help/memoir by British novelist Matt Haig. Even if you’ve never experienced clinical depression, it’s certain that someone in your life is struggling with it right now.
Haig’s warm confessional tone and conversational prose makes this an easy book to pick up, despite its heavy subject matter. The author recalls a moment at age 24 when a thought led to a strange, tingling sensation in his head that was followed by an immediate, suffocating state of depression — anxiety and anguish so horrific that the only way he felt he could deal with it was to end his life. Haig lays out what it’s like to fight battle upon battle in your own mind, barely making it from one day to the next. He also shares the things that saved him, his own “reasons to stay alive,” which included his family and the dedicated girlfriend who eventually became his wife. Haig allows that while he has come a long way from this lowest point, he hasn’t completely gotten over depression, and never will. He shares his coping mechanisms, but is forthright in telling readers that depression is not the same for everyone, as minds are unique.
He informs readers that depression is one of the most deadly diseases on the planet, and that suicide accounts for over one in every hundred fatalities in the U.S. and the U.K. He speaks from personal experience when he says that, despite this statistic, “people still don’t think that depression really is that bad.” This accounts for various unhelpful directives he’s been given along the way, like “Chin up!” and “Mind over matter!”. These fall under a chapter entitled “Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations.”
Reasons to Stay Alive takes on its delicate subject matter with heart and humor, giving readers a sure-fire gambit for starting conversations about what it means to battle depression. Matt Haig’s honesty and candor are a welcome gift.
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a publishing phenomenon. Released mid-January, it debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, where it remains. This poetic memoir of life and impending death has the feel of an important book, one that will be read and talked about for years to come. It shines a light on what it means to be human.
Kalanithi was about to complete his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, when he began experiencing crippling back pain and weight loss. Initial X-rays looked fine, but the possibility of cancer was always in his mind. He chalked up his symptoms to long, grueling days in the operating room and his aging 36-year-old body. He admitted that while he was an authoritative surgeon, he was a meek patient.
Weeks later, when fierce chest pains began, he was forced to confront what he knew all along. A CT scan and subsequent tests revealed stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful examination of a life cut short, a memoir rich in introspection and unsparing in emotion. When his health problems began, Kalanithi was under a tremendous amount of stress. The completion of his residency was all-consuming. His wife Lucy, an internist herself, had some doubts about their marriage and was planning some “alone time.” His diagnosis proved a game-changer.
Not only did his wife stay, but the couple decided to accelerate their plans to have a baby, continuing the circle of life. Kalanithi shared his most intimate hopes and fears with readers, as he witnessed his daughter’s birth from his own fragile, uncertain state of health.
He underwent various treatments, soldiering forward not knowing how much time he had remaining. He continued to work on the manuscript that became this book, all the while buoyed by faith and his large family. When he died in March 2015, Lucy completed the book, adding an epilogue of her own to fill in her husband’s last weeks. This section is both wrenching and cathartic for anyone who has sat with a loved one during their final hours. Kalanathi’s dying wish was to leave behind a legacy in print. A true polymath, Kalanithi held both a BA and MA in English literature; he was also a student of philosophy. All of this informs his writing. When Breath Becomes Air ensures he will live on, remembered not only for his story, but for his eloquent words.
Video gaming is one of the most rapidly growing and ever evolving hobbies of the 21st century. The gaming industry grosses more money each year than the movie and music industries combined. With figures like this, it’s no surprise that a gaming counterculture has arisen, eager to create and share games that shun traditional styles in favor of a more indie appeal. In The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture, notable game designers, players and critics sound off their opinions on the current trends and directions of both the AAA and indie game movements.
One of the topics most frequently discussed in The State of Play is the concept of player identity. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural,” Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” and Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross’ “Your Humanity Is in Another Castle” all make great arguments for more diversity in every aspect of the characters players control and interact with.
Zoe Quinn, creator of the notable indie game Depression Quest, details her harrowing experiences developing, launching and living through her game and gives readers a glimpse into what it was like to come under fire during the infamous #Gamergate movement of late 2014. Merritt Kopas’ essay “Ludus Interruptus” makes a great argument for much more open-minded views of sexuality and acts of sex in Western gaming. Despite making massive strides in both technical and creative compositions in the past few years, video games have still remained very old-fashioned when it comes to sex and how it’s initiated, portrayed and perceived in media.
Readers who identify as gamers or are interested in the increasingly complex culture of video games should read The State of Play. Games are currently one of the most powerful creative mediums for expression, offering users the chance to become fully immersed in their experiences through interaction. The State of Play is a fantastic, unprecedented collection of reflective literature on different experiences from every angle. Every essay is spliced with Internet links and footnotes leading to resources for further exploration, and there is much to be learned.
“What was he thinking?” is the first line of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, and anyone who has ever given birth to or even encountered a teenager at some point may very well have uttered that same question. Being a teenager is difficult, and interacting with a teenager can also be very hard. Luckily, Dr. Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt are here to answer that particular query: The answer is brain science.
In The Teenage Brain, Jensen breaks down the tumultuous and terrifying teenage brain, a long-neglected niche in the field of brain study. While more has been learned about the human brain in the last 10 years than the whole of human history, the startling revelations of what actually happens to us in those years from 12 to 22 are just recently becoming well known. While past research has been quick to blame “hormones” for every idiotic thing teens do on a day-to-day basis, Jensen points out, it is really the teen brain’s inability to deal with those surging hormones that is the real culprit. As she explores the myriad of ways that teens are wired for impulsivity and poor decision-making skills, we get a better sense of why everything is a big deal to a teen. Minor inconveniences seem like life-and-death situations to teenagers because in their blossoming dendrites they are!
This book is written in such a way that doesn’t intimidate or talk-down to the reader. Chock-full of helpful information on everything from risk-taking, driving, sex, drug and alcohol use, video game addiction and the differences in the genders (and with plenty of great ammunition for winning that argument against your teen who wants to wear earbuds while studying), this is the perfect read for parents, educators and everyone who enjoys working with young people in this age range.
So the next time you think you’ve had it up to here with your teen, take a deep breath, remember this book and think that it isn’t personal; it’s just brain science.
Ask parents to share their deepest fear and, inevitably, it involves something tragic happening to their child. In Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall: A Father’s Memoir in 424 Steps, Mainardi writes about the intersection of grandeur and error which led to his son’s disabling cerebral palsy. On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss examines modern medicine’s sometimes controversial practice of vaccination.
424. That’s the number of footsteps taken by Tito Mainardi as he and his father walk to Venice Hospital where he was born, and where physician error resulted in his brain injury. It’s also the number of brief passages that make up this small memoir in which Mainardi finds connections between art, architecture, music and history, and relates them back to Tito and his illness. Profoundly moving and structured by concentric links, The Fall demonstrates that tragedy and beauty may not be such a dichotomy after all.
Red-faced and screaming or silently stoic: either way, it can be tough as a parent to put a child through the often painful series of recommended inoculations. Even more difficult would be wondering if your child’s autism was triggered by a vaccine or passing on those shots only to see a child hospitalized with whooping cough. Biss looks at the varied reasons behind a parent’s decision to decline immunizations, which include African and Middle Eastern Muslim fears of a western plot to harm their children via the polio vaccine to American concerns about greedy pharmaceutical companies or political agendas pushing unnecessary and invasive medicine — all of which compromise the “herd immunity” protecting communities from disease outbreak. On Immunity provides a thoughtful view on the impact of vaccines on contemporary public health.
In some circumstances, 10 percent may seem insignificant. A $50 item listed at 10 percent off, in reality, only saves you $5. Yet Dan Harris, in his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story, demonstrates that his 10 percent increase in the happiness department really has made a significant difference. Harris is the co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline. His years of covering international combat, followed by hard recreational drug use, culminated in an on-air panic attack about 10 years ago. Realizing that his greatest battle was with the “voice in his head,” Harris researched non-traditional remedies which led to Buddhist meditation and mindfulness development as a way to improve health and his outlook on life.
Described as a book written for, and by, “someone who would otherwise never read a spiritual book,” 10% Happier provides plenty of practical, authoritative information about meditation and its benefits, as well as Harris’ own journey to master his internal struggles. His time at a meditation retreat is especially telling of his progression and introspection. Along the way, readers learn about his career, his encounters with famous figures like the now-notorious Ted Haggard and James Arthur Ray, and his time with news legends like Peter Jennings. Some of the laugh-out-loud moments include his research into famous gurus like Eckhart Tolle, as well as his memories of yoga class as a child.
I recently read The Last Best Cure, and much of Harris’s research and experiences affirm the lessons in that book: There are scientifically founded ways to “green” your mind and repair your brain’s damaged pathways. Hilarious and well-written, this book steers clear of being a hokey, clichéd self-help guide. I especially recommend the audio version, which Harris narrates.
Baltimore author Donna Jackson Nakazawa discusses her latest book, The Last Best Cure, on Wednesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. at the Perry Hall Branch, sponsored by the Friends of the Perry Hall Library. The award-winning science journalist and writer recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her book.
Before The Last Best Cure, you authored another book about autoimmune diseases, The Autoimmune Epidemic. What insights or new knowledge did you gain between that book and The Last Best Cure? What was going on in your life prior to writing these books?
The Autoimmune Epidemic focused on how modern chemicals in the world around us and in our diet are overwhelming the human immune system, contributing to rising disease rates and chronic illnesses. The Last Best Cure takes this research a step further and investigates “psychoneuroimmunology,” a new field of study that investigates how mind states, such as anxiety, fear, worry, rumination, anger and pain, can end up damaging our immune function in much the same way as environmental chemicals. Prior to this, I was struggling with my own health crises. The Last Best Cure is my chronicle of a one-year doctor/patient experiment to see if altering my mood state might shift my inflammatory markers and perhaps even improve my physical well-being.
The Last Best Cure has received much critical praise, described as a book that will offer hope for recovery, and change and save lives. What is the most important insight or piece of information you want readers to take away from your book?
I want people to know that there already exists an understanding as to how we can activate the healing potential of the brain. Understanding how to do this gives us powerful tools, ways to change the messages our brain is sending to our cells and our body. Everyone deserves to live the life they want, and these tools can help us all achieve a greater sense of well-being, and even joy.
You were already an award-winning science journalist and writer when you began writing these last two books. What was it like writing professionally about a topic that was also very personal to you? Were there any “aha” moments for your own life as you were writing?
At first, I was only going to write about my personal experiences in the introduction to The Last Best Cure, but my editor thought readers would want to read more about how I also went on this transformational journey myself. She thought it would help convey to readers that we can all take this journey, no matter what physical or emotional health challenges we face. There was so much that I realized along the way about adversity, self-respect and how they play a role in adult illness. Now I’m profoundly grateful to have taken this journey: Life is sweeter, relationships are better and it’s a better, more meaningful way to live.
In addition to being about healing and recovering personal joy, The Last Best Cure is a story about a health epidemic. What steps do we need to take now to secure a better health outlook for future generations?
We need to absolutely, completely and radically change how we view the doctor/patient relationship. If we keep up the current “medical factory” model we’re going to see very little progress in managing chronic health issues. Right now, 133 million adults in America have chronic illnesses, not counting the 22 million with addiction – and these numbers are rapidly climbing. The tools to help patients participate in their own healing and facilitate greater well-being exist; it just requires that physicians incorporate new practices into their doctor/patient paradigm. In order to do this, we must change the way we as a society view treatment, health care and the doctor/patient relationship.
Are there any new books in the works?
Yes, one due out at the end of next year called Childhood Interrupted: How Adversity in the Past Writes the Story of Our Future – And How We Can Change the Script (Atria/Simon & Schuster). It’s a deeper, more extended study of how childhood adversity can create changes in the brain and in our immunology that impact our health long into adulthood – and what we can do to reverse those effects as adults. I’m telling cutting-edge stories of science, about how even very common forms of childhood adversity can reset our immune system to be more stress-reactive, sparking a state of chronic low-grade neuroinflammation for life. I want to help readers understand how the stress we meet in childhood can determine our lifelong "set point" for emotional reactivity, inflammation, disease and depression – and what we can do to reverse the impact of early adversity and trauma years later, in adulthood, to regain our physical and emotional well-being.
How long has the Baltimore area been home to you? What do you like best about living in this area?
My family moved to Baltimore four years ago from Annapolis; my mom and my husband’s parents were already living here, so it just made sense. What I like best about Baltimore is its people. Baltimoreans are real, genuine, honest, intellectual, creative, smart and energetic. They’re committed to their community and engaged in making this a better place to live. We love it here. It’s a vibrant place to be.
To learn more about The Last Best Cure, please visit the author’s website or link with her on Facebook.
We don’t expect very much from babies. They are supposed to be cute and cuddly but almost everything else has to be done for them. They can’t walk, talk, eat without assistance or clean up after themselves. And when one does something ridiculous it’s almost natural to say, “Oh, they don’t know any better; they’re just a baby.” But what if, in some ways, they did know better? In his new book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale, would argue that they do.
Through his research at Yale and consulting the research of others, Bloom has found that even very small babies as young as three months have a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong, that they use to evaluate the people and the world around them. This sense, acquired at such a young age or perhaps even innate, can influence the moral development of a person through adulthood. But this nascent morality has its limits. Bloom describes how babies and young children are also less compassionate towards strangers and develop cultural biases that can lead to such negative behaviors as bigotry and indifference in the face of suffering.
Though his research is very new and his conclusions contain a fair bit of supposition, Bloom makes a very persuasive argument that our moral development and sense of justice is established at an astonishingly young age, and that it affects us throughout our lives. This is a great pick for those interested in evolutionary biology, psychology, childhood development or the study of ethics.
David Oliver Relin did not live long enough to witness the publication of his new book, Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives. It is a top-notch, inspiring account of two brilliant physicians from opposite ends of the world, one a Harvard-educated adrenaline junkie from America, and the other a disciplined trader's son from a remote Nepalese village. The unlikely duo combine their generous talents for one lofty goal: to cure preventable blindness. In 1995, they founded the Himalayan Cataract Project as a way to treat thousands of impoverished Himalayans in that isolated, mountainous region.
For ophthalmologists Geoffrey Tabin and Sanduk Ruit, the means to an end seemed simple yet difficult. In developing countries, cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness among the poor, including children. In wealthy countries, it is a common and treatable ailment of the elderly. "Some conditions of existence are more painful than others," Ruit tells Relin. Ruit would know; growing up, the nearest doctor was a six-day-walk away. He watched as his siblings died of curable illnesses.
Relin transports readers to Ruit's temporary eye hospital, formerly a filthy military post in the village of Kalikasthan, where young and old shuffle in from scorching heat to have red-brown dust scrubbed from their faces. The high energy Tabin, who early on abandoned a medical career to pursue athletic passions, was inspired by Ruit. Together, their respective stories led the dynamic pair to their calling. Thousands have been cured with their simple surgery that costs a mere pittance.
Relin, who co-authored the now controversial bestseller Three Cups of Tea with Greg Mortenson, committed suicide in November 2012. In telling this compelling and hopeful story of two medical pioneers, the author was not immune to the poignancy of what he was witnessing. When an elegant 56-year-old seamstress, who was forced to sell her sewing machine, finally sees again, Relin thrust into her hands a wad of bills. "For a sewing machine," he said.