Good Morning, Midnight: A Novel

Here is my review of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s “Good Morning, Midnight: A Novel” at the New York Journal of Books:

Good Morning, Midnight: A Novel

A debut novel with an intriguing premise. . . . What is left when everything is gone? What does it mean to be alive in the universe and the grandeur of vast emptiness?

Augustine, a 78-year-old astronomer accustomed to remote outposts and solitude, is working at an Arctic research station when catastrophe strikes the planet. Everyone leaves. He remains behind “for the sake of his life’s work.” An enigmatic child then appears, apparently left behind during the hasty evacuation.

Who she is and where she comes from we are not told. She rarely speaks. And yet the hermetic Augustine develops an intensely caring attitude toward her. Questions of loss and identity begin to unfold. Continue reading

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Paradime: A Novel

Here is my review of Alan Glynn’s “Paradime: A Novel” at the New York Journal of Books:

Paradime: A Novel

What a fun book this is. The plot moves. It twists. What we fear will happen does happen. Then unexpected complications set in. And we end up in a place we never could have imagined.

Take this book on a plane. Take it to the beach. But take it with you on a journey that makes you wonder, How much of my life is really mine? Do I control as much of it as I think I do?

The book isn’t about fate or destiny. It isn’t about conspiracies either, although powerful players do conspire in this tale. No, it’s about choices—or failing to make them—and the consequences that follow. It’s about how little, innocuous-seeming actions can set momentous change into motion and challenge us as never before. Do we rise to the occasion with resilience and show our grit? Or do we cave? Continue reading

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The World According to Star Wars

Here is my review of Cass Sunstein’s “The World According to Star Wars” at the New York Journal of Books:

The World According to Star Wars

Why does Star Wars speak to billions? Studio heads hated it. The actors thought it ridiculous. George Lucas feared catastrophe. Yet it became a spectacular success that appealed on many levels.

Star Wars is a modern retelling of The Hero’s Journey, the universal tale of calling and fulfillment described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and later recounted in conversations with Bill Moyers to rapt PBS audiences.

But at the time of the film’s release studio heads had no faith in it. The actors thought it was ridiculous. George Lucas feared catastrophe. And yet Star Wars became a success that appealed on multiple levels to billions worldwide. Continue reading

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Stressed Out? Try Looking at Some Trees

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

The mere sight of greenery will calm your nervous system, guaranteed.

Trees are a natural restorative.

Everyone knows that nature is restorative. But why? New studies suggest that viewing even an image of a tree or a forest canopy bolsters the parasympathetic division of the central nervous system that naturally induces calm. The so–called autonomic nervous system has two parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Both operate outside of conscious control.

The sympathetic division leaps into action during times of fight–or–flight: heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure all increase, adrenaline surges into the bloodstream, pupils dilate, our mouth goes dry, we start to sweat, and our guts switch to standby so that fuel can be diverted to muscle as it turns its stored glycogen into glucose for bursts of quick energy.

By contrast, the parasympathetic division activates the rest–and–digest response: blood pressure eases, pulse rate slows, breathing becomes calm, digestive juices flow, the intestines resume their motility, and the skeletal muscles loosen up. Continue reading

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The Prisoner of Hell Gate: A Novel [Review II]

Here is my review of Dana Wolff’s “The Prisoner of Hell Gate” at the New York Journal of Books:

The Prisoner of Hell Gate

Don’t read this book if you live alone in a remote cabin. Don’t read it if you whistle in the dark to settle your nerves. Its creepiness will unsettle you but good.

Dana Wolff adds a fresh twist to the historical tale of Mary Mallon, the Irish cook better known as “Typhoid Mary” who was the asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever in the early 1900s. Mallon worked for affluent New York families, unwittingly infecting members who subsequently fell sick and died. Finally incarcerated, she spent nearly three decades in permanent quarantine by order of public health officials.

In this suspense thriller, Dana Wolff’s heroine is Karalee Soper, graduate student of public health and great-granddaughter of George Soper, the physician who initially tracked down Mallon and locked her away where she could no longer harm others. Until now, apparently. Continue reading

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Face of a Winner – Washingtonian Magazine, April 2016

Reading candidates’ tics may tell us more than reading their platforms does. A DC neurologist explains.

See article online.



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The Science of Why You Hate Ted Cruz

via Quartz.

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Why Ted Cruz’s Facial Expression Makes Me Uneasy

Note: This piece generated a lot of buzz, even getting me a mention on the Late Late Show with James Corden!

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

What message are the Senator’s atypical facial gestures sending?

Source: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s hard to look at Ted Cruz’s face. He’s said to be a brilliant orator with a sharp legal mind. But his expression unsettles me. I understand that my reaction is visceral and automatic, but as a neurologist it is my business to notice things out of the ordinary and probe them. The Senator’s atypical expressions leave me uneasy.

It’s remarkable how many colleagues and former associates say that they “loathe” Cruz. A Bush alumnus told The New York Times‘ Frank Bruni, “Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.” Former Senate Majority leader Bob Dole says, “Nobody likes him,” while Rep. Peter King sees “malice” behind his visage. According to The Washington Post, screenwriter Craig Mazin, Cruz’s former Princeton roommate, calls him a “huge asshole,” and “creepy.” He’s Tweeted, “Getting emails blaming me for not smothering Ted Cruz in his sleep in 1988.” The distaste for Cruz extends well beyond the US: Germans say Backpfeifengesicht, meaning a face in need of a good punch. Continue reading

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How Your Lie–Detector Chin Gives Away the Naked Truth

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

Speak what you want, but what’s on your mind plays out on your face.

Earlier posts on the topic of body language and emotional intelligence explored:

So, on to our next question …

During the President’s meeting with Putin. Source: YouTube/silver start NY SITI

How could your chin possibly reveal what’s really on your mind? The answer, as usual in counterintuitive scenarios like this, is that emotion plays out strongly on one’s face. That much is obvious: we read others by reading their expressions and gestures, both of which are driven by emotional circuits over which we have little control. Continue reading

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Bernie and Hillary Naked on Stage

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

My previous post examined Ted Cruz’s odd facial expressions. Now, on to the Dems.

Hillary Clinton palm down

The “Hands-Down” pose implies conviction. Source: Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

One of Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses in her fight for the Democratic nomination is that she does not come off as sincere as Bernie Sanders. Critics point out that she flip–flops often, reversing her stance on issues such as gay marriage, immigration, gun control, and the Iraq war. Clinton answers this charge by saying that her decisions are simply based on the “best information we have available,” although more often than not they follow a shift in public opinion.

The word “conviction” does not come to mind when describing her. Continue reading

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The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups

Here is my review of Erika Christakis’ “The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups” at the New York Journal of Books:

The Importance of Being Little

“What she describes is the end of childhood as we once knew it.”

Early learning is social. And yet little kids are forced to navigate a “system designed by and for adults,” one focused mistakenly on delivery methods rather than the logic of how youngsters learn.

To Erika Christakis, Lecturer in Early Childhood Education affiliated with Yale University’s Child Study Center, schooling and learning are two different things. This matters when three-quarters of preschool children now receive care at facilities and not from their immediate families. Young children are asked to conform to adult timetables for circle time, naptime, feeding, and so on rather than the other way around. In one study she cites in this well-researched book, 25% of Los Angeles kindergarteners were allowed no time at all for free play. Continue reading

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Selfies Kill More People Than Sharks Do

Inattention and a need to show off are the biggest killers of all

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

Concerns for personal safety increasingly outweigh those for self survival. What has changed?

In 2015, nineteen people were killed in selfie-related incidents, and many more injured themselves. During the same period, eight people died of shark attacks.

How did we reach the point where the need to show off on social media outweighs common sense for seeing danger and the instinct for self-preservation?

Self-absorbed selfie shooters have fallen from cliffs, crashed their cars, and electrocuted themselves while posing for their followers atop train cars. Three college students died while trying to snap a selfie in front of an oncoming train. Others have shot and killed themselves while posing with guns. In a spectacular blowout, two Russians in the Urals posed with a hand grenade with the pin pulled out. The photograph survived as evidence of their inattention. A distracted Cessna pilot in Colorado lost control of his plane and killed its occupants. In Portugal a Polish couple fell from a cliff into the ocean after stepping over a safety barrier to take a selfie with their two children, who lived to witness their parents’ death. Seven youths drowned on a lake in India when their boat tipped over as they stood up to pose for pictures. Continue reading

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Memoirs of a Hypnotist: 100 Days

Here is my review of Marcos Lutyens’ “Memoirs of a Hypnotist: 100 Days” at the New York Journal of Books:

Memoirs of a Hypnotist: 100 Days

“An art installation that challenges [and shows] that preconceptions are the enemy of new ideas.”

Some books surprise the reader beyond expectations. This is one such a book. Marcos Lutyens, who inhabits the artistic branch of the famous Lutyens family (the other branches are architecture, music, and literature) is known especially for his installations in the quinquennial documenta exhibits of contemporary art. Continue reading

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Ambivalence in Addiction

Smartphone addiction is no different from the hard-drug physical kind.

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

Ambivalence is a defining feature of addiction, even with smartphone screens.

Ambivalence is a prominent feature in addictions whether of the physical or behavioral kind. Valence is the positive or negative weight one assigns to an event, object, person, or situation. Being ambi-valent (Latin, “both”) means that one is simultaneously of two minds. Importantly, the two minds are contradictory rather than merely different.

In practical terms, an addict wants to stop but can’t. This is what it means to be addicted and what non–addicted people often cannot grasp. They come at it from their own perspective of being able to moderate and stop drinking, smoking, or taking their pain pills without a struggle. But addicts continue despite severe experiences with negative consequences such as arrest or loss of job, family, home, and health. Because this behavior makes no sense to the non-addicted, they speak of moral failings or lack of willpower. Governments criminalize drug use even though it exacerbates the problem. Penal approaches don’t address the out-of-whack wanting system in the addict’s brain that produces the demand for the addictive substance whether it is crack cocaine or a smartphone screen. Incarceration isn’t a deterrent at all, and the same goes for most well–intended disincentives. What might this tell us about which countermeasures to ubiquitous screen distractions are most likely to succeed? Continue reading

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How About Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons

Here’s my review of Bob Mankoff’s How About Never—Is Never Good for You?: My Life in Cartoons at the New York Journal of Books.

“If you want to win The New Yorker cartoon caption contest, read this book. Read it, too, for a behind-the-scenes peek at the enterprise that makes us smile.”

First off, The New Yorker doesn’t have a cartoon editor. It has an Art Editor, they’ll have you know. It pays draftsmen (and ladies) fortunate enough to grace its pages not by the drawing, as logic might suggest, but by the square inch. This results in otherwise inexplicable paychecks such as $362.24 for a drawing that’s accepted.

Thursday's Out

Posted with permission.

These and similar idiosyncrasies make The New Yorker the quirky institution that it is, which is precisely why Bob Mankoff’s visual and verbal musings about his decades at the magazine are delightful reading for everyone who has been either awed or intimidated by its pages. Continue reading

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