Category: reviews

Thoughts on When Brains Dream by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold

Recently, I asked about good science-based books on dreaming. In my initial exploration, I’d come across two books, and picked one of them, When Brains Dream by Anthonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold to see if it fit the bill. It turns out I made a good choice. Zadra and Stickgold’s book is a survey of the history of dreams, dream research and what we know about why we dream. Part lit-review, part explanation of the science involved in sleep and dreams, I found the book to be a good introduction to something which I know very little about in scientific terms. People have all kinds of notions about dreams, but I was looking for a book that was grounded in science and this one fit the bill.

I was introduced to Freud’s theory of dreaming in high school. Even then, I found it to be something less than scientific and more like a fad diet. The scientific study of dreams is somewhat sparse before Freud, it seems, but Freud borrowed liberally from those who did study before him. I think my notion that Freud’s theories were mostly unscientific were confirmed in the review of the science of dreams up to and through Freud’s tenure.

That said, I fell into the camp of believing that dreams were mostly meaningless, a side-effect of memory processing. But as Zadra and Stickgold write:

Some believe that science has already shown that dreams are merely the meaningless reflections of the random firing of neurons in the sleeping brain. Nothing, we believe, could be further from the truth, and we argue almost the exact opposite of each of these claims.

Zadra and Stickgold’s research centers around a framework they’ve developed called NEXTUP: network exploration to understand possibilities. Briefly, NEXTUP,

proposes that dreaming is a unique form of sleep-dependent memory processing that extracts new knowledge from existing memories through the discovery and strengthening go previously unexplored weak associations.

If I understand what I read correctly, these weak associations account for why we dream of things that may be tangentially related to events of the day, but not directly related. These weak associations can also account, in part, for why dreams sometimes seem so bizarre.

The book details the standard set of dreams that people have, which is alway surprising, but their NEXTUP model explains this neatly. I’ve always thought it strange that we have common dreams like forgetting an exam, and I’ve often wondered what people six thousand years ago (before exams) dreamed about in their place. Possibly, they didn’t. When I read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, what I gleaned from it (it was a very challenging read) was that our idea of consciousness emerged only recently, with the birth of civilization, and that prior to civilization, humans awareness was not what we call consciousness today. Maybe they didn’t dream the same way we do?

Another one of these dreams is losing control of a vehicle. I’ve occasionally had a dream where I am backing up a car, and the brake doesn’t seem to work, or the car goes spinning out of my control. Apparently I am not alone.

The book goes into all aspects of dreaming, including nightmare (and how they differ from night terrors), and even lucid dreaming. The book is heavily footnoted, and frequently refers to the studies and experiments used to tease out what we know about dreams today.

I wanted to learn more about dreaming because I’ve been going through a spell of dreams that have me waking up feeling exhausted each morning, no matter how well I sleep otherwise. These dreams are vague, but busy, always busy, and when I wake up from one in the middle of the night and finally get back to sleep, another one starts up. I awake feeling wiped out. This has been going on for a while now, and part of my reason for reading about dreams was to learn if there was any way to tune down this noise so that I wake feeling refreshed, and not like I just ran marathon. So I was surprised and delighted when I discovered the following passage in a section describing types of dreams:

Imagine that every time you woke up, you felt exhausted, not because you slept poorly but because your nights were filled with long, tedious dreams of incessant physical activity such as repetitive housework or endlessly slogging through snow or mud. If this describes your nightly dreaming and ensuing daytime fatigue, you may suffer from epic dreaming.

Right there on the page was the perfect description of what I have been going through. Epic dreams. Even the name sounds cool. Or as my kids might say, “Epic.” How lucky was I to find just what I was looking for on my first try! I felt elated. And then I read on:

Not much is known about this pattern of excessive dreaming other than that it affects women more than men. Sleep lab assessments usually come up clinically normal; and though the seemingly relentless dreams are followed by feelings of fatigue or exhaustion upon awakening, emotions within epic dreams are usually described as neutral or entirely absent. Even when epic dreaming occurs alongside nightmares, it is the impression of dreaming all night long that pushes these people to seek help. Psychological, behavioral, and pharmacological treatments for epic dreaming have proven largely ineffective. (Bold text mine.)

Naturally, the one problem I came looking for, I found, and that one problem has no known solution.

Still, the book was a success. It was an engaging read, and it gave me the scientific overview of dreaming that I had been looking for. I learned that what I am experiencing is called epic dreaming, and that there isn’t much I can do about it. That’s something. Anyone who is interesting in the science of dreams, should find this book informative and engaging.

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Thoughts on The Big Roads by Earl Swift

When I use something, I like to know about it. I’m interested in the history of things and how they came to be. I’ve used computers for decades, but only recently spent a month or so reading in earnest on the history of computing. I’ve used newspapers for nearly as long, and have always been fascinated by how they work. I’ve read book like Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, or books like Doris Kearn Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Knowing about the things I use help me to see them in new and different lights, or simply better appreciate them for what they are.

Sometimes, however, the things we use are so ubiquitous that we don’t think about them in a conscious way. I’ve written, for instance, about the many road trips we’ve taken over the years, most recently to Niagara Falls. You can’t take a road trip with roads, and yet roads are so ingrained in our lives, that we almost don’t think about them. Or, as Earl Swift writes in his book The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways,

They’ve grown so central to life in a country utterly beholden to the car that they’re almost invisible to most of us, one of those features of the landscape that we take for granted even when we’re on them.

I discovered Swift’s book in the best possible way: by accident. I was roaming our local library branch with the girls when I spotted it on a shelf and it caught my attention. Having just returned from a road trip, I was curious about how our highway system had come about. I knew little, other than that Eisenhower was involved somehow. Swift’s book turned out to be the perfect thing to feed my curiosity.

In an engaging story, Swift covers the history of roads in America from their beginnings. He reviews the birth and growth of the automobile, and then the expansion of a road network across the country to support those vehicles. He details the birth of the concept of a national highway system from its earliest days, decades before Eisenhower, and the eventual evolution of the modern interstate system we have today. Swift tells the story in the best possible way for a book this: through the people involved in its creation.

The story is about more than just the design and need for a system. It covers the politics of its development, how it was financed, the struggles along the way. And it touches on many things related to the roads, like the chain restaurants and hotels that grew alongside the interstates. There was even 3 pages on South of the Border, which we’ve driven past two dozen times, but at which we’ve never stopped. Those 3 pages convinced me that next time, we should.

Perhaps most interesting to me was an observation Swift made about the original vision for the highway system and what it has become today:

Thomas MacDonald and Herbert Fairbank [visionaries involved in the creation of the system] didn’t see it coming, but the system of interregional highways they envisioned is today a place unto itself, divorced from the territory through which it passes. With rare exception, a sense of place, of uniqueness, is undetectable from the off ramp. In place of a local barbecue joint, an exist in the Carolinas is likely to offer an Arby’s or a Chik-fil A. Southern greasy spoons are miles off the main line, shouldered aside by Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. The loathed hot dog stated of the thirties has been replaced by McDonalds.

This resonated with me. Driving long distances on the interstates, as we do when we drive up to Maine or down to Florida, there is a ubiquitousness that separates the stretch of road from the rest of the world. Without road signs, pulling off at an exit ramp in South Carolina looks the same as in Hartford, Connecticut. The feeling I sometimes get is that it is almost as if the interstate is another dimension, a kind of parallel world, a thin place, as Stephen King might say, one from which we can see our world, but at a distance, as if looking at it on a television screen. If you could peel the interstates and their hotel and restaurant-populated exits away from the earth, it could be its own world. I’ve often felt this below the surface, the separation between the the road and the land, but Swift hit the nail on the head with his description of it.

I think perhaps this is why I deliberately avoided the interstates on our most recent road trip, driving west across New York state on blue highways. What a difference it made. We could see the land, the beautiful scenery, and at times we could drive thirty minutes or more without spotting another car on the road.

The interstates were invented for speed and safety, and they get us to our destinations quickly. As the kids have gotten older, what used to be a 3-day drive down to southern Florida now takes two days. And we’ve driven from Orland back to the Washington, D.C. area in one full day. But there is a trade off for the speed and safety. You lose the character of the places you pass through. They are blurs, names on a GPS screen. You lose the taste of the local food, and laughs of the local people.

The interstates were constructed to get us quickly over long distances, but like flying over the country, there is a lot of miss when you are on them.

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Thoughts on Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

Way back in 2005 or 2006, my brother-in-law1 introduced me to David Sedaris’s books. He did this one evening by describing to me some of the funny stories Sedaris recounts. They were indeed funny, and the events of that evening seemed to mimic the humor of what I was hearing. At the time my brother-in-law was in school and I was staying with him. The room had two single beds each of which was on rollers, one on one side of the room, the other on the opposite side. Apparently, the floors of the rooms were bowed in toward the center of the room and throughout the course of the night, the beds rolled toward the center of the room.

For some reason, I never ended up reading a David Sedaris book. That happens sometimes. There are always more books to read. Recently, however, I decided to change that. A few years back, Sedaris came out with a book called Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. This was a collection of diary entries that Sedaris culled from journals he’s kept most of his life. I was mainly attracted by the word “diaries.” I have a fascination with diaries, having kept my own for a quarter century now. I enjoy dipping into John Quincy Adams’s diaries now and then, or the Journals of Henry David Thoreau. I have a theory that there is an entire history of civilization waiting to be told in unread diaries, journals, manuscripts. Sometimes, these come to light, and add real, practical color historic events. I also happened to note that Sedaris has a second volume of his diaries, A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020, coming out in October. So why not give them a try.

Try them I did, and I flew through the book, laughing more often than not. But there were several striking similarities between Sedaris’s methods for keeping his diary and my own. In the introduction, for instance, he writes,

I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change.

When I started my own diary in 1996, it was with the express idea to record events, rather than feeling. I took Isaac Asimov as an example. This is how he wrote his diary. Over the years however, my feelings changed (ironically) and eventually, I began to record my feelings about things as well.

In 1979, Sedaris says, “I began numbering my entries.” I began doing this in 2017. My idea was that if I wanted to index my diary, I could key the index to the numbered entry, which I maintain from one volume to the next, so that I didn’t have to worry about page number. I’ve kept this up ever since, writing entry #1 back on October 13, 2017, and writing entry #1933 this morning.

One final similarity I noted:

Another old-fashioned practice I maintain is carrying a notebook, a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that strike me, not in great detail but just quickly.

I’ve written often about how I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket. Originally, it was a shirt pocket, but now it’s just my back pocket.

Reading Sedaris’s diaries was both fun and interesting. He is funny even in his diaries. But it was also interesting to see the progression of someone who went from scraping for various manual labor jobs to someone who eventually lived in Paris and London, toured for his books, and became a successfully writer. I think this kind of thing is heartening to many writers who start out feeling like they will never amount to much.

Diaries are a tricky thing to consider from a literary perspective. People writing for themselves are writing for an audience of one. The writing is not designed to be the polished prose presented to the public. Stephen King calls this “writing with the door closed.” I think anyone who writes a diary understands this, although there are some diaries that read like prose: John Quincy Adams and Henry David Thoreau are two that come to mind.

I thought some of the funniest things that appeared in the diary were imagined retorts Sedaris had to people or events taking place. In particular, his description of some of the writing he did for his French teacher while learning French are absolutely hilarious.

There is a certain vulnerability about sharing one’s diary with the world–at least while one is still walking the earth. I’ve often wondered if John Quincy Adams considered posterity when writing his own diary. Did he know that people would be reading it more than 200 years later? Could Leonardo Da Vinci have imagined people would be reading his notebooks half a millennia after they were written? Sedaris has made some of his diary available and I was thoroughly entertained by it. I am already looking forward to October when the next volume comes out.

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  1. He has written here for the blog. Check out his hilarious tribute to Tommy Lasorda.

Thoughts on Billy Summers by Stephen King

Note: I never know what is a spoiler and what isn’t. I think it varies by person. With that said, it is possible there are spoilers in what I have written below, but I don’t think I give anything significant away. Still, that is my own judgement so if you haven’t yet read the novel, be warned, here may be spoilers.

Before I ever read a Stephen King novel, I was convinced he was overrated. This was back in my teens and twenties, when I thought I knew everything, and most of my reading was limited to science fiction novels. The first King novel I read was Salem’s Lot and I wasn’t sure how I liked it that first time. Looking back, I see it wasn’t because of any flaw in King as a writer, but in me as a reader. It has since become one of my favorite King novels.

Since then, Stephen King has become one of my favorite fiction writers, precisely because he does the unexpected with his stories while the momentum of publicity still carries him as a horror writer. I look forward to each new release, and I was fortunate enough to be on vacation when King’s latest novel, Billy Summers, came out.

On its surface, this latest novel is a thriller of the Jack Reacher genre: a loner assassin-for-hire takes one last job before calling it quits. But that’s the thing about King. There are layers and layers to his stories, or as Jake Chambers might describe them, “there are other worlds than these.” The “surface” story is for those readers who want to put in the work to see what is underneath. For me, as a reader, putting in the work is what reading is all about. If I don’t want to have to do any work, I’ll watch a TV show.

What, then, are these other worlds?

Billy Summer’s story is told in first person, and at the beginning, Billy seems very simple, almost slow. He is clearly regarded as a world class shot, and he has a reputation that proceeds him. He comes across as a slightly more intelligent Charlie Gordon at the opening of Flowers for Algernon. But this is a ruse. Billy is much smarter than he appears (there are layers and layers to Billy, other worlds beyond these). Billy chooses to show only his “dumb self” to his clients. Billy is well aware of this.

Billy’s cover story for his current job is as a writer who has to buckle down because he’s been partying too much. His “agent” finds him a quiet place to live somewhere bordering the South in the U.S., a small town called Midwood. There, Billy waits for his prey, and in the meantime, pretends to live the life of a writer, one in which is writes his own story as cover. He even recognizes his relationship to Charlie Gordon:

Can he really write a fictionalized dump self version of his own life story? Risky, but he thinks maybe he can. Faulkner wrote dumb in The Sound and the Fury. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, is another example.

I’ve read that King dislikes the term “meta-fiction” but that is what much of his fiction is, and at least part of what makes it great. He did it as early as Carrie, where the story itself is made up, in part of newspaper articles, diary entries, etc. It became almost a signature of some of his best work, Misery being one example. How many of King’s great characters are writers? How often do references to King’s own work show up in other King books? He took this to an extreme in the Dark Tower series, where Salem’s Lot, the novel, plays a pivotal role, and where Stephen King himself shows up as a character.

In Billy Summers, it is the novel that Billy writes that becomes the work-within-the-work. That novel serves to provide us with Billy’s background, and how he became an assassin. King is aware that the “one last job” story is almost cliche, and he tackles it head on when Billy considers the job:

Billy doesn’t mind. He’s thinking of all the movies he’s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then “one last job” is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes badly. Billy isn’t a robber and doesn’t work with a gang and he’s not superstitious, bu this last job thing nags at him just the same.

And what does King do? The unexpected. The job itself goes off without a hitch. Pretty early in the overall story, too. Indeed, I was surprised when Billy carried out the job successfully as early as he did, and wondered what would possibly carry the remaining two-thirds of the novel. Then, after the job is done and things are beginning to settle down, Billy meets Alice Maxwell, and the novel really takes off.

King fans will not be disappointed by some of the references in the novel. The small town in which Billy first stays, Midwood, seems remarkably close to Mid-world. Perhaps it is one of those “thin” places that King often writes about. Later, a pivotal scene takes place on a dirt road in Hemingford Home, Nebraska, a town that fans of The Stand and a few other King stories will recognize. Sidewinder also makes an appearance in the novel.

Billy Summers embodies what I like about most Stephen King stories: it is a fun read, and if all you’re looking for is edge-of-your-seat entertainment, it delivers. But it also delivers so much more, if you are willing to work for it.

Billy Summers by Stephen King, Scribner, August 3, 2021

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My Latest “Science of Wonder” Book Review Column Is Up at InterGalactic Medicine Show

Just a quick note to let folks know that my latest book review column for InterGalactic Medicine Show is now online. In this month’s column I review two great books: The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick; and Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele.

If you are interested to find out what I thought of these books, head on over to IGMS and check them out.

Mad Fox Brewing Company

Yesterday was Kelly’s birthday and she selected, for her birthday dinner, to go to a local restaurant we’d never been to before called Mad Fox Brewing Company. The restaurant is located in the City of Falls Church, a short drive from where we live. After work, we put the kids in the car and headed over. It turned out to be a really good dinner.

Max Fox is a brewery and they brew all of their own beer in house. You can’t get the beer outside the restaurant. They had a good selection of beers, two of which I tried. I started with the “Two Continents” IPA, which was moderately strong at 7% ABV, but tasted good. Later on, I had their special “Punkin” brew, which I didn’t like as much as the IPA. It was a lighter beer, designed to bring out the spices but I thought that is sacrificed too much of the beer flavor.

They had a number of specials for dinner that sounded excellent, but I had to go with their meatloaf mignon. I hadn’t had meatloaf in decades, but the way it was described on the menu made it sound virtually irresistible:

Bacon-wrapped, chorizo-tillamook cheddar stuffed meatloaf with roasted garlic potato puree, pancetta-corn relish.

Even the presentation was amazing. Here is what it looked like when it was served to me:

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The meatloaf was held together around the circumference by bacon. The sauce was delicious, as was the meatloaf itself. Even the pancetta corn relish was to die for.

Kelly had the salmon fillet, described as,

Grilled salmon over sweet corn puree, fava bean succotash, piquillo pepper coulis

The kids ordered off the kids menu, and the restaurant was very kid-friendly. The service was excellent, the food was terrific. We all really enjoyed it. It’s a place we’d definitely come back to. Indeed, we identified it as a restaurant that would be good to take my sister and brother-in-law, as well as my in-laws.

If you are looking for good food in a family-friendly environment, be sure to check out the Mad Fox Brewing Company in Falls Church.

My Latest Book Review Column Is Online at InterGalactic Medicine Show

When I was asked to become the regular science fiction book reviewer for InterGalactic Medicine Show, I was also asked to come up with a title for the column. Alethea Kontis, who does the fantasy book reviews has a clever column title, “Princess Alethea’s Magic Elixer.” What we ultimately settled on for my column title is “The Science of Wonder.”

In my September column, I review a newly reissued edition of Robert Silverberg’s classic 1970s novel Downward To the Earth. And for those who are fans of short fiction and anthologies, I also review Gardner Dozois’ latest Year’s Best Science Fiction, 29th Annual Edition. Head on over to InterGalactic Medicine Show to see what I have to say.

While you are there, check out the latest stories and the terrific interview that Darrell Schweitzer did with Dr. Stanley Schmidt. And take look at the absolutely stunning cover by Eric Wilkerson for Issue #30.

Books Received, August 2012

Since I became the science fiction book reviewer for InterGalactic Medicine Show, publishers have been kind enough to send me books to review. So far, I haven’t been able to review the books I’ve been sent, mostly because they are either (a) not science fiction; or (b) they are science fiction, but are Book n in a series, where n > 1. I can’t possibly go back and read books 1 through n-1 prior to reading book n. And so while I have accumulated a nice little stack, I have stuck to books that seem interesting to me–which at this stage are stand-alone novels, anthologies or story collections.

That said, I promised in an earlier post to list the books I receive once each month. I neglected to do this for August, so here are the books that I received in August:

  • Fate of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner (TOR)
  • The Unincorporated Future by Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin (TOR)
  • Chasing Spirits: The Building of Ghost Adventure Crew by Nick Groff (with Jeff Belanger) (NAL)

That’t it for August. I’ve already received at least one book for this month, but I’ll list it in the next post.

And a fews hints that will help increase the likelihood that I will review a book:

  • It should be clearly science fiction (not fantasy, not horror).
  • It should be a stand-alone novel, or an anthology, or short story collection.

One final note: I already have the books I will be reviewing for my November column (and I’m very excited about both of them). That means the next “open” month at the moment is January 2013.

My latest review column is up on InterGalactic Medicine Show

Remember: I pinch-hit the book review column for 2 months while Alethea Kontis was on her book tour. My second review column is now up. If you want to know what I thought of Redshirts by John Scalzi or Taft 2012 by Jason Heller, head on over to IGMS to find out.

And, as is sometimes the case with pinch-hitters, I guess I did okay, because the good folks at InterGalactic Medicine Show asked me to stay on as the regular reviewer for science fiction. Alethea and I will trade off months, she reviewing fantasy one month, me reviewing science fiction the next. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. My next review column is slated for September, and Alethea will be there in between with some fantasy book reviews for you. Should be loads of fun!

A rental cottage in Castine, Maine: small-town bliss in a family-friendly setting

We just returned from a vacation up in Castine, Maine. I’ll have more to say about the wonderful time we had on vacation, but before I do, I just had to write a review of the place at which we stayed because it was remarkable and the rest of the world needs to know about it1.

Castine is a small village in Maine, located on the eastern portion of a peninsula that juts out into the Penobscot Bay. We–and by we I mean Kelly, myself, the Little Man and the Little Miss–stayed at a rental cottage that seemed perfectly situated, with the mouth of the Bagaduce river spread out in front and a long dirt road, like the tail of a yawning lion trailing behind. The owners, Bob and Sam Friedlander, live in the house just across the driveway from the cottage. They rent out the cottage in the summer months, when the weather in this part of Maine is at its best. And it is no surprise that the cottage is booked for most of the summer because it is the perfect vacation spot for families looking for a quiet, small town setting with lots of activities for adults and children alike.

The cottage itself is built into a converted garage, although you wouldn’t know it from the inside. Walking into the cottage you find yourself standing in and entryway that overlooks a rustic, comfortable living room and dining area, surrounded by windows that look out onto a river sprinkled with sailboats, moorings and lobster traps.

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The living room contains a wood-burning stove, although in July and August, it is unlikely, you’ll need it. Nor do you need air conditioning. Open the windows and let the fresh cross-breeze cool the rooms. Those breezes are like the trade winds in Hawaii. The cottage is stocked with books, games, and maps. There is a television in the living room, although I doubt you’ll ever need to turn it on. And for those who simply cannot completely disconnect from the world at large, there is even wireless Internet access.

Read more

  1. Fair warning: the cottage owners are family, but I’ve never allowed that to preclude an honest review, especially when the experience was as grand as ours.

My first guest book review column for InterGalactic Medicine Show is now online

Remember, I am pinch hitting the book review column in June and July for Alethea Kontis, who has been on her book tour to promote her new novel, Enchanted. My first guest book review column is now online. In it, I take a look at the Million Writer Awards anthology by Jason Sanford, and 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Head on over to InterGalactic Medicine Show to check it out.