Sunday, 30 September 2012

"Drop Dead Healthy," by A.J. Jacobs

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

A year or two ago I happened to spot A.J. Jacobs' earlier book, "The Year of Living Biblically," and I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read any other books by him that I could find.  My personal favourite was "The Know-It-All," in which he decided to read the whole "Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In his self-improvement trilogy, after working on his mind and his spiritual side, he turns his attention to working on his body.  He describes his body as "skinny fat," otherwise known as the "python-that-swallowed-a-goat type of body."  His wife is worried about his health - having told him that she doesn't want to be a widow at forty-five - but he is only spurred to action after a health scare which prompts him to re-evaluate his physical fitness.  He decides that his next project will be to look at all aspects of his health and, as with his earlier books, enlist friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) experts to help him on his quest.

I mainly read this book because I enjoyed his earlier books.  That I have been on my own mission to lose weight and fit into my old work trousers again is a happy coincidence.  I have lost about 8 pounds - which I am quite proud of, and keep boring my family and friends with - but that is slightly less than half of what I aim to lose, and I seem to have stalled.  I started by keeping an internet food diary for a few weeks, logging my food on a site that works out your calorie intake, and spending some time on my exercise bike.  The food diary seemed to help, as it made me think what proportion of my food was carbohydrate and what protein.  However, we have got into a busy period at work and I have been remiss recently at keeping my food diary.  I have stayed fairly static for the past few weeks; I don't think I have put any weight back on, but neither have I lost more.  Therefore maybe I could take a few tips from him?

"Drop Dead Healthy" is essentially a lucky dip of different health movements, in which he tries out a variety of theories and crazes for a week or two in order to see which ones stick.  His book is structured in such a way that each chapter concentrates on a different part of the body and its operation, trying to understand how he can optimise the use of his own body which is, after all, "the result of ad hoc evolution and outdated hardware." The chapter on pain made a particular impression on me, quoting a passage written in 1810 by Fanny Burney who vividly describes the experience of having a mastectomy before the invention of anaesthetic.  According to Jacobs, surgery prior to anaesthetic was such a horrendous experience that doctors wouldn't tell you what day they were going to operate on you, preferring instead just to turn up at your house.  This was to decrease instances of patients killing themselves the night before their operation was scheduled.

So, gruesome anecdotes about surgery aside, what did I learn from this book?   I'm not sure that some of the more extreme things he tries would work for me.  I'm sure that a treadmill desk - which is exactly what it sounds - works well if you are a writer working from home.  I doubt it would be well-received in my office at work.  Also, although I can just about manage to multi-task mentally, I am woefully co-ordinated physically.  If I tried to walk/jog on a treadmill whilst typing, I would probably fall off the end of the treadmill, break my ankle (again) and end up putting back on at least the eight pounds that I have lost.  I'll stick to going on the exercise bike while watching "Pointless" and shouting at the dafter contestants.  Likewise the raw food diet, with its increase in flatulence, would not be popular with my work colleagues.  By the way, did you know that it is possible to have surgery to change the timbre of your farts?

There are things that I did take away from this book, such as the impact of chemicals on our health.  This is something that I was already thinking about; I have been trying to use more natural cosmetics, and I have bought a couple of books on making my own beauty treatments.  There is apparently a book called "Slow Death by Rubber Duck," about the impact that chemicals can have on our health.  I thought at first the title was a joke.  Jacobs uses a software programme to digitally age himself, which he uses to remind himself to be healthy in respect of his older self.  Yesterday I had four pieces of chocolate in the house (I am trying to ration myself).  I ate two, and badly wanted to eat the other two.  However I didn't, as I knew that would leave the tomorrow me with no chocolate in the house.  I don't think that is exactly what he means by respecting your future self, but it stopped me eating those extra two bits of chocolate yesterday.  I ate them today.  And then wished I had more chocolate in the house. 

That said, reading this book might be unhealthy.  According to the chapter about the evil that is sugar, even just thinking about sugar elicits an unhealthy response from your body.  So, therefore, reading this chapter which will make you think about sugar will be unhealthy.  And this paragraph, if I am making you think about sugary food, is also probably bad for you.  Sorry.  I am choosing to ignore the fact that I started reading this chapter while thinking how much I fancied a bit of chocolate - I spend about 95% of my waking life wanting chocolate and the other 5% eating chocolate - so this response was probably already happening.  In addition, it is healthier to be more active in your life, so he made me unhealthy because I spent time sitting down reading this book.  Damn you, Jacobs!

I find that A.J. Jacobs' books are both informative and funny.  So I'm still unhealthy, but I know more that I am unhealthy.  Jacobs despairs of the Standard  American Diet (SAD), particularly when he sees a man in the street eating directly from a bag of Doritos as if it was a horsefeed bag.  I'm not that bad, but I could be a lot better.  And he has some great advice in summary: "eat less, move more, relax."

Sunday, 23 September 2012

"Bloodline," by James Rollins

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

My decision to borrow less from the library this year and catch up on my own shelves - and my review pile - has been going pathetically badly.  I'm trying to justify this to myself because my local library is due for redevelopment soon, and I'm making the most of the services before they become more restricted during building work.  My latest library temptation was the new James Rollins novel, as I have read and enjoyed other books in his SIGMA Force series.

In this novel, SIGMA are called in to rescue the pregnant daughter of the American president, who has been kidnapped from a yacht in the Seychelles.  She was travelling incognito with her husband - who was brutally killed - and Painter Crowe, the Director of SIGMA, suspects that there is more to the situation than they are being told.  Why were they travelling in secret?  Is there something nefarious going on in the elite fertility clinic in which Amanda was given the IVF treatment that resulted in her pregnancy?  And is The Guild, the secretive organisation that is the recurring enemy of SIGMA, involved in the kidnapping, as Painter suspects? 

The idea of dirty deeds in a fertility clinic exclusively casts women as its victims, and the plight of pregnant and vulnerable Amanda is effectively realised.  In my opinion, this is probably the darkest and most disturbing novel that James Rollins has written - but this feeling might be due to my gender, given the victimhood and powerlessness of some of the women in "Bloodline." However, it has to be said, that this is counterbalanced by Rollins in depicting Amanda, although physically vulnerable, as psychologically resilient and determined.  In addition to this, there are three strong women within SIGMA who resolutely refuse to become victims and are instrumental in bringing this storyline to its conclusion.  Nevertheless, I wouldn't recommend this novel to a woman contemplating fertility treatment.

James Rollins' novels never fail to be exciting, involving and achieve the goal of being effective thrillers.  In the SIGMA team he has created a well-developed collection of characters and, if he does ever decide to kill one off, every one would feel like a loss to the group.   On Goodreads I have given this 4 stars.  This might seem odd in comparison when I have given other, outwardly more literary, novels a lower star rating.  My justification for this is quite simple: within his chosen genre of writing - adventure with a semi / pseudo scientific or religious hook - James Rollins is one of the best writers around...

Saturday, 22 September 2012

"Sweeney Todd," starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, at the Adelphi Theatre (8th September 2012)

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Warning: there is a bit of rudeness in this post again.

At the end of last year I heard about the new production of "Sweeney Todd" that cast Michael Ball in the title role.  I unwisely made a couple of comments on Twitter - I can't remember exactly what now - disagreeing with the casting.  I was, quite rightly, picked up on this by a Michael Ball fan, subsequently felt guilty, and wrote this.  Despite being sceptical about the casting, as a huge Sondheim fan I took the opportunity to see the production with my parents (but without Mark, who is musicals adverse).

I think my parents were relieved that I liked it, because I did warn them that I would get very ranty if I thought that the production was badly done.  I knew it was going to be good when I wanted to leave during the opening piece of music.  I know how odd that sounds.  I love the opening of "Sweeney Todd," and I think it should be full-on and powerful - if it doesn't make me feel a bit claustrophobic and oppressed, then they aren't doing it right.  In this particular production I almost felt close to tears with its intensity but, in honesty, PMT at the time might have had some bearing on this.  If you don't know the musical, its themes take in the evils of industrialisation and the opening piece of of music has a sudden, piercing factory whistle (or, in one production that I saw years ago, a scream). On my first hearing of the production - courtesy of the OBC recording - the factory whistle scared the hell out of me, which I loved.  I used to miss the fact that the factory whistle no longer made me jump as it did that very first time.  However, because I had fallen from the path of true enlightenment and not listened to any Sondheim for a while, I forgot exactly when it came in so still had a bit of a jump.  It was nice to get that feeling back again.

I am pleased to say that I was wrong to doubt the casting of Michael Ball as Sweeney.  He looked almost unrecognisable (someone told me afterwards that when it first opened there were people who wanted a refund because they thought they had seen it on a night Michael Ball wasn't on) and sounded very different to the tone and timbre that I associate with his singing style.  Apart from the occasional slightly more lyrical parts - like his love song to his razors - his voice was rougher and harsher than I usually think of him sounding.  He has a particularly effective glower.  I think Sweeney should obviously be intense and scary - I still think of Len Cariou as my idea of Sweeney from the OBC - but this was the first time I thought of it as a problem.  Anyone in their right mind would take one look at him and decide that there was no way he would be coming near their neck with a cut-throat (the clue's in the name) razor.  It's also - and explain this to me if you can, because I don't understand it - the sexiest I have seen him.  If anything, my one issue with his performance might be that he takes it too seriously - "A Little Priest" seemed a little bit heavy, whereas I personally think it should have a lighter touch and bring out a bit more of the humour and devilish merriment in their verbal sparring.

Imelda Staunton was great, but I never doubted that she would be.  While I still rate Len Cariou as my most effective Sweeney, I have issues with Angela Lansbury's accent in the OBC.  I possibly prefer Imelda Staunton's Mrs Lovett.  The character should provide the warmth and humour to counterpoint Sweeney's violence - twisted and amoral though she may be - and Imelda Staunton is perfectly cast to provide this leavening.  Yet there is also pathos, sadness and desperation in her portrayal, particularly in her performance of "By the Sea" - Mrs Lovett's fantasy of keeping a boarding house by the sea with Sweeney where "now and then [he] can do a guest in" - in which her hopes and wishes are blatantly ignored by the monomaniacal Sweeney.

This was a production that kept in Judge Turpin's song "Johanna," in which he whips himself while fantasising about his young ward.  There is an effective ambiguity to this song in whether his self-flagellation is the punishment it ostensibly is (mea culpa) or is integral to his sexual excitement.  I normally admire this song because I think it is artistically quite brave and risky, as well as saying a lot about Turpin's sexual perversion.  However, this time, sitting between my parents while watching a middle-aged man whip himself to orgasm, the social discomfort made me wish for the first time that they had cut it out (I'm being facetious - really I'm pleased that they had the nerve to include it).  I'm also glad we weren't sitting near the front, as the actor (John Bowe) really seemed to be going for it and sweat seemed to be flying.  When I go to the theatre I personally prefer not to end up covered with someone else's sweat.  He didn't get a round of applause after this number, which is understandable as somehow it seems deeply inappropriate to clap after a number with a middle-aged man self-flagellating while fantasising about - if you do the maths - a 16 year old girl.

Judge Turpin was my main issue with the production, and it would be unfair to blame the actor for this as he was presumably directed to play the role in that way that he did.  He seemed to be particularly over-the top, almost syphilitically randy.  I'm not surprised that Johanna didn't want to marry him, since he seemed to be groping himself whilst suggesting himself as a possible husband.  I personally feel that this part is more effective if played as outwardly respectable while concealing a heart of darkness.  This judge seemed to be wearing his dark heart on his sleeve a little too obviously.

I have to say that my mother liked the production less than my father and I did; I think she was a bit squeamish about the throat cutting (which wasn't too graphic except, probably for emphasis, Judge Turpin was a bit blood-spurty).  I was actually more surprised that this production is probably the most graphic I have seen in bringing out the sexual violence and madness in the story.  The dumb show of the forced seduction of Benjamin Barker's wife by Turpin was particularly unambiguous.  The beggarwoman  - Lucy - is clearly sexualised in approaching men, but so were the inmates of Fogg's asylum.  One mad woman very clearly had a hand busy under her skirts. I felt that this aspect of the production - with the possible exception of the overly-priapic judge - was very effective.

This was an excellent production which, despite my initial doubts, I am very glad that I saw (I am writing this on 22nd September which, by coincidence, I think might be the closing night of the production).  I bought the cast recording as a memento, which serves as a fine reminder of the show (although, oddly, omits the Judge's whipping song - OK, maybe not that oddly - and the shaving contest with Pirelli, which were both in the stage production).

See, you have to give me some credit, at least I admit when I am wrong: Michael Ball was great after all...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

"The Haunting of Hill House," by Shirley Jackson

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I picked up this book from the library on a whim because it is such a classic of the horror genre.  I have big pile of books to read at the moment, and I almost decided to take this one back unread.  However, once I read this brilliant first paragraph, I was hooked and had to read it:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.  Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.  Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
 In "The Haunting of Hill House," Dr Montague invites a disparate selection of people to a supposedly haunted house.  The one thing they all have in common is that he believes that they might have some level of psychic ability.  Many of those invited don't turn up, but Eleanor does (who was connected to supposed poltergeist activity when she was 12), as does Theodora, who had showed some psychic ability in a laboratory experiment conducted by the doctor.  They are also joined by Luke, who isn't supposed to be psychic but is there as a representative of the family who owns the house. Of course, there are nefarious and dark deeds contained within Hill House's upright walls - and the experiment is darker than Dr Montague had imagined.

When I started reading this book, it occurred to me early on to check the date when it was published (1959).  It is unusual for me to do this - in the main, the books I read are comparatively recent - but I wondered when it was written in terms of the genealogy of the haunted house genre.  My awareness of this date also meant that I began to read it in terms of what I knew of McCarthyism, conformity and the repressive fifties in America.  It's an interesting way to read the book, and especially the interaction between Eleanor (conformist, quieter, always worried by how others see her and paranoid that she is being mocked) and Theodora (more a free-spirit, a new woman, self-possessed but also self-obsessed).  On the cusp of a new decade, Eleanor seemed to represent the old oppressions of society while Theodora was looking to a future of new freedoms.

This is more a horror novel of creeping dread and suggestion than gore which, as a wimpish reader of horror, is how I prefer it.  I read Jackson's novel as essentially a twofold character study.  The first character that Shirley Jackson focuses on is Eleanor, who is a study in downtrodden introversion.  Her life was given over to caring for her ailing, demanding mother and, since her mother's death, she has been living with an equally domineering sister and brother-in-law.  Her life has constantly been on hold to others, and she is a dispossessed character with no home of her own and no secure sense of self.  The other central character is that of the malevolent house itself, which seems to react to its new inhabitants and manipulate them.

Shirley Jackson's novel has been adapted for film twice under the title "The Haunting" - the most recent with Liam Neeson as the doctor - and, in the normal way of these things, the book is much, much better.  If you have seen the film and not been impressed, please don't be put off reading the book.  if you like ghost stories, it's definitely worth it.  

Monday, 10 September 2012

"The Long Earth," by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

The Long EarthI should confess my bias by confessing straight away that I really enjoy Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.  As "The Long Earth" isn't Discworld and is based on a more sci-fi than fantasy premise, I was initially less sure about whether I would enjoy this novel. 

In "The Long Earth," our whole concept of the planet we live on is changed in a day.  The blueprint for a gadget called a stepper is released on the internet.  The stepper, which can be made by all and is available to all regardless of wealth or status, allows the user to move from our earth to a string of parallel variations that are waiting to be explored.  There are a small number of natural steppers, like our hero Joshua Valiente, who can step from world to world without a stepper box, and a small number of phobics who cannot move between earths even with a stepper.  Joshua, as a natural stepper, is recruited by Lobsang - an artificial intelligence which claims to be a reincarnation of a Tibetan monk - for a journey to explore all the variants or our planet.

This is a high concept novel.  My natural inclination is to compare it to the Discworld, but I think to do so does this novel a disservice.  This doesn't have the same level of humour and word-play as Pratchett's Discworld novels - although there are humorous moments - and you might be disappointed if that is what you expect.  It is, however, very inventive and should be judged on its own merits.

In my mind, to call something high concept can have negative connotations: it implies for me that a novel has a tricksy idea at its core, often at the expense of character.  A high concept novel can risk having a brain with no heart.  Thankfully, this is not the case with this book.  The character of Lobsang is my personal favourite, from whom much of the humour stems; a capricious artificial intelligence with an oddly big ego for a monk.  His character - oddly the most human in the novel, with all the connotations of frailty, hubris, curiosity and foolishness that the word "human" can entail - almost alone makes the novel worth reading.

When I began reading this book, I had assumed that it was a stand-alone novel.  It was only when I was part way through that I heard an interview in which this book was spoken of as the first in a series.  My first thought was dismay; it took me a while to get into the world(s) of this novel, and I already feel that I have too many series that I follow.  However, I had changed my mind by the end of "The Long Earth," as it feels like there is a lot left in the central conceit of parallel earths that can be explored in future novels.  I am looking forward to finding out where they take the idea and the characters next.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

"Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science," by Mary Roach

Creative Commons License
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Warning: this post might be a bit rude, as is the book cover of the version that I read.

This is a fascinating book.  However, I almost got put off reading it when I flicked through the book - a bad habit for which my husband tells me off - by the phrase "occasional complication of childbirth" when paired with "rectovaginal fistula".  This had a similar wince-inducing, leg-crossing effect on me to that which I imagine a man has to the word "vasectomy" or to reading what Kinsey did with the bristled end of a toothbrush.  Men should be warned: male members (pun intended) of the readership will find likely find this book induces more winces in them than in the women.

Mary Roach's quest through the annals of sexuality takes her out of the library and into the unique laboratories of more recent sex researchers.  She even becomes a subject of study herself in the absence of willing volunteers for their research.  These male and female sex researchers are constantly fighting for funding, and fighting against public and academic preconceived ideas that the work they do is somehow dirty and prurient.  She spends time with some people - male and female - who specialise in artificially inseminating pigs (and apparently the natural underarm smell of the human male contains the same pheromones as a sweaty boar: one study shows that you can entice women to sit on a chair in a dentist's waiting room which they normally shun by spraying it with a can of Boarmate).

One thing that I love about Mary Roach's books is her strong sense of the absurd, which is readily shown in this book (she writes some of the funniest footnotes I have ever read).  She also hints at one thing that I felt reading this book; some of the animal experiments that she writes about seem to say more about human sadism that human sexuality.  It takes an unique mind to think of clonking a post-coital female hamster on the back of the head so that you can then cut her open and see how far the sperm has travelled.  Mary Roach includes a few animal species on which variations of this experiment have been tried, but the hamster somehow seems to be the most special.  In a non-vivisectiony animal experiment, I was particularly fond of the researcher who put underpants on rats - line drawing included - to discover if wearing polyester has an effect on male fertility (the result of this experiment can be summed up in this phrase: guys, stick to cotton).

I recognised the names of some of the sex researchers in this book because my PhD was on American drama and male homosexuality in the twentieth century.  I read quite a bit of early sexology from researchers such as Kinsey and Havelock Ellis, so I was familiar with some of their stranger ideas (Havelock Ellis thought that gay men were particularly fond of the colour green and were unable to whistle).  There were also many researchers and experiments of whom I was previously unaware.

I would recommend this informative and funny book to all but the young and impressionable, the squeamish and the prudish.  For those of you who fit into any or all of these categories and who aren't planning to read this book, I finish this review with the line drawing of a rat wearing underpants from the polyester study by Dr Ahmed Shafik.  Enjoy.  It's amazing what you can find on the internet.