Monday, September 12, 2011

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

by David Eagleman

The human brain is both an incredible piece of engineering and a very flawed interface through which to experience the world. Every year or two I find it helpful to read something that reminds me of both these ideas. Eagleman, author of the delightful Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, does a terrific job of giving us a tour of the brain in all its biased glory - in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.

The subtitle refers to one of the book's main ideas: that the human mind is far from a singular entity. Just as there are thousands of processes happening at the same time, there are also multiple "voices" in every brain, each contributing to the actions and decisions that are eventually carried out. Our conscious mind, which usually seems to be a singular and consistent narrative telling us what's happening in the world and in our heads, is, in Eagleman's view, like a newspaper giving us an extremely simplified summary of current events. Even those things we think we're currently deciding are more like the slightly-delayed minutes of a corporate board meeting, all of it presented to the CEO as if he or she was the only decision maker.

Eagleman's style is fun, with lots of memorable examples. A lot of the material has been covered before, in other popular cognitive science books, and at times, I wished for a bit more depth to his explanations, but in general I found the book entertaining and thought-provoking.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

My Top 14 Favorite Books Read in 2010

Whenever possible I've linked them to my reviews.

  1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell
  2. Room - Emma Donoghue
  3. The Help - Kathryn Stockett
  4. Ship Breaker - Paolo Bacigalupi
  5. The Hunger Games Trilogy - Suzanne Collins
  6. Little Bee - Chris Cleave
  7. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier
  8. Behemoth - Scott Westerfeld
  9. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate - Jacqueline Kelly
  1. The Story of Stuff - Annie Leonard
  2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot
  3. The Evolution of God - Robert Wright
  4. At Home - Bill Bryson
  5. Justice - Michael Sandel

Monday, January 03, 2011

Ship Breaker

by Paolo Bacigalupi

Nailer is a Gulf Coast kid with a nasty job; he crawls through air ducts on abandoned oil tankers, scavenging copper wiring for his company. It's awful, miserable, toxic work, but it's a living, and also a coveted job among the "beach rats." What's worse, his home life is ruled by his abusive addict father. Nailer works hard to make quota every day and dreams of someday stumbling upon a really choice bit of scavenge, something that will make him rich enough to buy his way to a better life.

Then one day he hits the jackpot.

Of course, things are never as simple as they seem. I won't give away any more of the plot, but I will say that it's a thrilling, well-crafted and satisfying story. Like any other type of fiction, truly great science fiction features deep, memorable, flesh-and-blood characters. After reading Paolo Bacigalupi's short stories in "Pump 6" and his novel, "Windup Girl," I feel like his fiction has reached new heights with "Ship Breaker."