Book Reviews

As an author and teacher, I sometimes come across a book I want to recommend to family, friends, students, and whoever might end up on my web page. My thought is to update this page occasionally with a new book or author that has impressed me as worth the candle. Lately, I have come upon five that I want to pass along:

Rising from the Dead by Dr. Suzanne Humphries, MD, suggests its contents in the words and pictures on the front cover. However, as someone wise once said, “We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover”, or as someone wiser still said, “We should not judge a book by its cover alone.” I think it was Abraham Lincoln credited with observing that a person the age of one of his surly compatriots was “responsible for the look on his face”. That said, the cover and the face of the person in this story say plenty about an extraordinary, absolutely unique human being. In this case, the cover does a good job of suggesting, or at least hinting at, the gripping narrative on the inside. You have to read the book to find out why the face of the author, more than anyone could possibly know by a casual glance, reflects an amazing restoration of life and hope that can be seen in the light behind this doctor’s eyes. This one of a kind book tells a true story that won’t let you put it down. So, don’t start it in the middle of  the night. It seems to grab you by both hands, and by your heart and mind too. As I read through it, the pages practically turned themselves. The seconds became minutes, then hours, until the night had turned to day. It reminded me of conversations, not so long ago, when my dad and I lost track of time until the night was gone and a new day had arrived. The story is written in comprehensible colorful language with a level of intensity, compassion, intelligence, and integrity that comes through on every page and between the lines even in things not said. I’m willing to bet that no reader can possibly anticipate a single one of the many of the twists and turns, the unexpected adventures, that await them in this book about a personal stream of experience that defies all the odds. The story is about events involving people like us. It’s about choices with surprising consequences, and paths that lead where no one else has either dared to go, or where Dr. Humphries seems accidentally, or providentially, to have arrived. The pages will blur not just with the speed of turning them, but the smoke of memories that cloud the eyes. This physics-major turned nephrologist is embarked from the beginning on an unlikely journey into places that her sensible readers might not have chosen on their own, but will be glad, I think, to visit with this remarkable human rising from a grave of medical mythology mistaken for truth ….

Shaw on Neural Dynamics of Neurological DiseaseRecently, I reviewed Christopher A. Shaw, Neural Dynamics of Neurological Disease, 2017 published by Wiley. This book is a potential game-changer for the neurological sciences. Shaw shows why the “atomization” of neurological disorders/diseases is an uncompletable agenda. “Because of the complexity and interconnectedness of the CNS, damage at any level must necessarily cascade to other levels (e.g., cell to circuit, circuit to a particular region, etc.). So-called ‘cascading failures’ will, at some point, trigger a total system collapse” (p. xix). After that point, “no effective therapy will be possible. For this reason, therapies designed to target late stages of disease, namely most at the ‘clinical’ diagnosis stage, will inevitably fail and may simply exacerbate rather than relieve underlying pathological processes” (p. 231).  He explains that instead of “atomizing”, it is necessary to examine neurological diseases from autism to Alzheimer’s “across their respective spectrums of presentation. In this view, the goal will be to come up with a means of addressing multiple risk and causality factors, numerous interactions between genes and toxins, and multiple ‘other’ biochemical and physiological variations across the human population . . . . [I]n place of atomizing neurological diseases and thereby treating them as simple entities in health and illness, treatments will have to acknowledge their overall complexity and thus deal with the reality that complex systems are prone to complex dysfunctional states” (p. 65). He notes that “while controversy still remains about the efficacy of various prophylactic approaches in medicine, few would dispute the key notion that it is better to prevent any of these diseases than to try to deal with the consequences after they have arisen. Such is not, of course, what is done in clinical attempts to treat neurological diseases. And,  . . . , it is virtually impossible to prevent something when one does not know what causes it” (p. 231). In spite of all the complexities pointed to by Shaw, he observes that it should nonetheless be possible to “diminish the current trend toward increased prevalence” of neurological disorders such as autism, parkinsonism, and Alzheimer’s. He argues that given access to necessary scientific understanding people “could choose, for example, to limit the bioavailability of chemicals such as aluminum compounds salts and various toxic agricultural chemicals, not to mention a host of other likely neurotoxic culprits” (p. 287). In the end, he supposes the volitional choices that might be made now may soon become the least desirable forced outcome.

World War II and Pearl Harbor AttackA book I read recently is the story titled Wounded Tiger by T. Martin Bennett published December 6, 2016. I wrote a review at Amazon.com on this one but it seems not to have been published on that web site, yet. In any case, it is easily the best researched narrative about WWII I have ever read, no exceptions. What I like about it, besides the backdrop of the history of the Pearl Harbor attack were all the details about the narrative threads that invariably come together as the story unfolds. Although T. Martin Bennett deserves credit for the writing and research, the only author who could account for the way the streams of experience flowed together in real life is the Lord God Almighty. You have to read it to see this for yourself. It may whet your appetite to consider that the principal protagnonist, who is also the main antagonist, is Mitsuo Fuchida who led the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was an event that occurred about two years before I was born in an obscure little place in New Mexico overshadowed by the Manhattan Project up in the mountains of Los Alamos. That project would result in the explosion of the world’s first nuclear weapon at the Trinity site in White Sands, New Mexico. That secondary event occurred a few months before my second birthday producing a flash that some reported could be seen in my little town 240 miles from the blast. It was discussed by my grandparents at the breakfast table and long afterward into my early childhood and adult years. At my first university posting at UCLA, my first PhD student was a man named Jiro Igarashi from Hiroshima, Japan. As noted in my essay on “what it takes to be a great teacher” I have told about my wrestling coach, Hans Wiedenhoefer who was in Honolulu to play football for San Jose State College on that fateful day in December 1941. Later, my friend Jiro would become the equivalent of the Provost/Academic Vice President of Hiroshima University. Bennett could have benefited from the next book I want to recommend for some of the early conversations that Bennett had to construct as he tried to breathe reality into some of the characters of his story. The later dialogs in the several narratives that flow together become entirely believable as the tension rachets upward even when we think we know the outcome at least in broad strokes. The historical basis of the story is overwhelmingly established and the characters are real. It’s all gotta be true.

Michael Connelly and Lee Child read this guy and recommend himAnother book to recommend is Steven James, Story Trumps Structure. This is easily the best one in the category that I have read. What caught my attention was the title and the notion that surface form is always subordinated to content. Even Dr. Noam Chomsky, who started out promoting the notion that grammar is ultimately dependent on “autonomous syntax” (nothing but structure), was eventually compelled to make a distinction between “surface structure” and “deep structure” by virtue of which he came to admit that one is a great deal more potent than the other. By my lights he didn’t go quite far enough. But Steven James gets all the way home. It’s the meanings in the story that make it work, or not. However, that’s a small part, though a hugely important part, of the amazing lessons this little book contains, illustrates, employs, and reveals in a deeply layered presentation that will boggle the minds of thinking readers. It’s a book where virtually every lesson contains multiple illustrations of the key points within itself that are brought to the reader in surprising and entertaining ways. One example: deeply into the text Steven James reminds us that events have causes and that our readers need to be able to make the connections in a certain order. Cause first, then, effect. He has also just explained why it’s often useful to overcome resistance in the mind of a reader by getting some underling, child, or powerless individual to make a point that no one would accept on the authority of the smartest person in the world. Now, at the beginning of his chapter on the power of what my dad and I in our writings have called “meaningful sequence”, Steven James uses the power of a nobody to make his point. He tells about giving out the pearl of wisdom that sequence matters while a student at one of his workshops turns to his pal and says something like this: “This is amazing! Are you getting this down? The events of our stories are supposed to fall into a cause-effect order. They’re not random!” Well, that’s my clumsy paraphrase. I already sent the copy of the book to my daughter and Barnes & Noble hasn’t yet replaced the copy I just bought and finished reading in the wee hours of the morning. There are so many extraordinary surprises and kept promises in James’s book that you will just have to commit to buying yourself a copy. I already ordered a replacement for mine.

Bonhoeffer

A while back, published in 2010 was Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxis. It concerns events leading up to WWII. More particularly it is about the history preceding the Nazi phenomenon. Perhaps the underlying question that intrigued me the most was how so many people could be swept into the vortex of the downward spiral leading deeper and deeper into the inevitable hell hole that Adolf Hitler and his cronies represented as a bright and promising future for Germany and the whole world. I learned about Bonhoeffer in graduate school but had no idea about the depth of the man until Metaxis took on the task of writing this thick tome. When I first got into it and felt not only the physical depth of the pages but the intensity of the background detailed by Metaxis, I wondered if anyone would be as willing as I was to wade through it all. Yet I found it impossible to put the story down and found my pen underlining as if I were sitting in Dr. Just’s philosophy class at Fresno City College once again. Over and over I marked quotations that I wanted to memorize and to be able to call up in conversations. No one could have made up the characters in the story, nor could any author, other than God Himself, elicit the lines that came from Bonhoeffer’s pen and mouth. In this book and in the Wounded Tiger story, I believe readers who take the trouble to read all three of these works, will see the message that comes through to me. It is absolutely true that we human beings are made in the image of God and that we have the awesome God-given power to create universes in our imaginations that rival, as Chomsky has correctly intuited even in his profound error of equating the real world with fictional ones, the real world that only God could create. My main beef with Chomsky, therefore, must be stepped back a bit. The real world is the only basis, I think, for our having the slightest chance of building fictional worlds in our imaginations, but Chomsky is correct, I now believe, in supposing that human languages, once acquired, are somewhat indifferent to which is which. In any case, Bonhoeffer’s story, together with that of Fuchida, Hitler and Hirohito, shows that there is an Author that outranks the rest and what He writes down is what is. The real world still outranks fictional ones.

 

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