Friday, March 28, 2008

The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

The next book on my list is The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs. If you read Esquire (or EW before that), you know (editor-at-large) Jacobs' work. He's pretty hilarious. Before I start blogging about The Year of Living Biblically though, I thought I should post about his previous book: The Know-It-All.

I enjoyed this book so much. His wit, his humor, his candor made me laugh out loud so many times. Jacobs took a year to read the Encyclopedia Britannica from beginning to end. The book is broken up by entries in the Encyclopedia, and Jacobs explains how many entries affected him - or whether they did at all.

If the book wasn't packed away for a big move we have coming up, I'd provide an example or two. Maybe in a month or so. For now, here's the review from Publisher's Weekly:

Imagine, the original Berserkers were "savage Norse soldiers" of the Middle Ages who went into battle stark naked! Or consider the Etruscan habit of writing in "boustrophedon style." Intrigued? Well, either hunker down with your own Encyclop├Ždia Britannica, or buy Esquire editor Jacobs's memoir of the year he spent reading all 32 volumes of the 2002 edition—that's 33,000 pages with some 44 million words. Jacobs set out on this delightfully eccentric endeavor attempting to become the "smartest person in the world," although he agrees smart doesn't mean wise. Apart from the sheer pleasure of scaling a major intellectual mountain, Jacobs figured reading the encyclopedia from beginning to end would fill some gaps in his formal education and greatly increase his "quirkiness factor." Reading alphabetically through whole topics he never knew existed meant he'd accumulate huge quantities of trivia to insert into conversations with unsuspecting victims. As his wife shunned him and cocktail party guests edged away, Jacobs started testing his knowledge in a hilarious series of humiliating adventures: hobnobbing at Mensa meetings, shuffling off to chess houses, trying out for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, visiting his old prep school, even competing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Indeed, one of the book's strongest parts is its laugh-out-loud humor. Jacobs's ability to juxtapose his quirky, sardonic wit with oddball trivia make this one of the season's most unusual books.

More on Jacobs' attempt to live by the Bible (will he kill magicians or sacrifice oxen?) in a future post.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Female Brain, Finale

I finished this book last night. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot. After she talks about the teen brain, Brizendine goes into talking about women's brains and love and sex, pregnancy and motherhood, perimenopause and menopause, as well as sexual orientation and postpartum depression.

It's amazing all the changes our brains go through in our lifetime. Our brain is completely different in structure after we have a baby. It's then again different - due to decreasing estrogen - after menopause. While I was reading this book, I found myself nodding my head so many times, because she was talking about the exact feelings I feel. Or the exact behaviors I've seen in mothers I know or more mature women.

You know, I seriously believe, more than ever, that we're pretty amazing people considering what all goes on inside our heads. I look forward to reading The Male Brain, which Sarah said Brizendine is currently writing, and learning whether or not men have any brain changes as drastic as ours.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

R.I.P. Jon Hassler

Here is a post I wrote about Jon Hassler back in November, featuring an article from MinnPost, about his health problems and his will to keep writing.

Here is his obit in today's Star Tribune.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fiction vs. Memoir

Margaret B Jones (real name: Margaret Seltzer) is the latest memoir writer to come clean about some fabrications in her book, Love and Consequences. Turns out Seltzer took inspiration from the lives of people she knew and pretended those moments were her own. Several authors have come under fire in regards to this issue (you had to be living under a rock not to hear about Oprah's throning and dethroning of James Frey).

Memoir is a difficult genre. Is it memoir if you are truly writing about yourself, yet you make up some of the dialogue you just can't remember from age 5? Or, maybe that in turn makes your story fiction?

Two of my favorite books, Shannon Olson's Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, are strongly based on her life. Yet, because a few fictional elements are included, the books are considered fiction. I heard Olson speak once after her first book came out. Being mostly about her struggle to find love, her book could also be thought of as a little hopeless - thought it's hilarious at the same time. For this reason, her editor suggested Olson give readers hope by putting some sort of happy love moment near the end. So she did - but it didn't really happen to her. And her book is fiction. For good reason?

What are your thoughts? Can memoir take any liberties?
Do you have a favorite memoir? Do you question any of its content?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Female Brain, Part II

This book is so full of information. Here are a few more things I found interesting. It looks like a lot, but I'm hardly scratching the surface.

- Girls understand tone of voice right away, boys don't. This is why boys don’t respond when you tell them no sternly, and why girls realize when you’re sad and show empathy at such young ages (this is due to the high levels of estrogen that flow throughout girls for 24 months during infancy, while boys only have that for nine months).
- Baby girls need eye contact right away, while boys like to look at everything else. This stays with girls throughout life, so if parents/boyfriends/spouses don’t look us in the eye or don’t 'hear' us, we feel we’re doing something wrong and we try everything we can to make them see us.
- Baby girls in the womb and those just born can feel their mom’s stress and this affects the kind of child they become. If one daughter is born when mom is happy and carefree and another is born during a period of stress and depression, the two girls will take on those corresponding demeanors.
- The author also talks about why females tend to shy away from confrontation (we’re lovers, not fighters – seriously, hormones in our brains make us this way). She doesn’t leave out our bad traits either - how we can be bossy and manipulate others to get what we want. This starts at a very young age for girls, and whether we learn to curb it or not probably depends on our parents and ourselves.

- The next chapter dives in to the teenage years. Whoa. I now understand why I was the way I was when I was a teenager – and I wasn’t even as bad as some other girls. Our estrogen surges take a back seat between ages 3 and 13, and then it goes out of control again. These monthly fluctuations of estrogen are what makes us desire to be liked by the opposite sex and feel the need to have a close circle of girlfriends.
- I thought it was very interesting when the author talked about how teenage girls NEED to gossip and talk with their friends for hours each day because it gives off a major happiness in our brain. If our friends are taken away from us (either by moving, grounding, fighting, etc.) we’ll become impossible to deal with – moody, depressed and angry. She stresses that this doesn’t mean teenage daughters should have the run of the house, but that it’ll take a little understanding and compromise to keep them healthy and happy.
- She also talked about cliques. In the days of cavemen and women (and currently with primates as well), females banded together to protect their young from any sort of predators. Because we’re lacking in the confrontation department (we don’t want to risk ruining our relationships), these cliques are our way of protecting ourselves. We know our girlfriends will stand up with us against any bullies.

This all makes perfect sense to me. I’m so glad I’m learning this now because when my niece reaches this age (or if I were ever to have a daughter myself), I feel I’d be better prepared for the nightmare that can be teenage girls. But at the same time it also gives insight into boys, and I feel I understand my little nephews better, too.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Female Brain

I've switched gears now, and I'm reading The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D. I was walking around B&N yesterday and there was a table of books just about the human brain. This one caught my eye; I've always been interested in the differences between the female and male brain. In this book, Brizendine talks about the physical differences between our brains, as well as the hormonal differences. I've only just begun, but here are a few things I've learned so far:

- Some parts of the female brain change up to 25 percent every month. This is why sometimes we can feel jerked around easily - near tears one moment, happy the next.

- The hormones in our brain are so strong, they can dictate what we find important and hold value to.

- Men and women use different brain circuits to solve problems, process language and store emotion.

- In the brains centers for language and hearing, women have 11 percent more neurons than men. We also have a larger hippocampus - the part of the brain that helps with memory (why you remember more details than he does) and observing emotion in others. Men, on the other hand, have larger processors in the amygdala, which triggers aggression.

- While boys and girls are equally intelligent, throughout life females may choose more social careers over those in the maths and sciences because their brain/hormones want them to find a career where they can interact with others and one that will allow them to raise a family and take care of others.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Florist's Daughter

Sorry for the lack of posting. Too much work and winter sickness has kept me from reading anything this past week. But I started The Florist's Daughter, by St. Paul author Patricia Hampl, this morning. I've never read Hampl's work before (which is probably a disgrace for a writer from the Twin Cities) so I'm excited to get going on this one. Here's the synopsis from B&N online:

From Patricia Hampl, the author of Blue Arabesque, comes this thoughtful and affecting memoir, a meditation on the death of her parents. As Patricia holds on to her dying mother's hand with one hand, she begins to write her obituary with the other. "She would have expected nothing less," Patricia explains. "For the dutiful writer-daughter scribbling in the half-light, holding the dying hand while hitting the high points of her subject’s allegedly ordinary life that is finally going to see print."

From here, Patricia reflects on growing up middle class as the daughter of a florist and his wife in St. Paul, Minnesota. Whereas her father, a true artist, was obsessive about his flower arrangements, he was also inattentive to the outside world. She recounts the Midwestern values he clung to, even as he was losing his business to cheats. She also begins to understand how her mother, the feisty and distrustful daughter of Czech immigrants with an uncanny ability to tell a good story, almost lost her mind fighting their enemy.


In
The Florist's Daughter, Hampl once again exhibits her ability to capture the complexity and depth of her subjects, suggesting that what is most personal, can also be most elusive.