Tag Archives: survey book

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00, 279 pages)

Ever wonder if those fabulous songs, novels and paintings that make life so much more enjoyable can only be created by a few brilliant and troubled people?   Maybe you aspire to be more creative, or you wish it for your children.   Jonah Lehrer, the thirty-something scientific writer, has done an in-depth study of the creative process.   He begins his latest work, Imagine, by focusing the first half on the individual and the way the parts of his brain interact.   The second half of the book explores what happens when groups of people work together in the attempt to be creative.

Because Lehrer is an engaging story-teller, the reader gladly accompanies him as he learns about what led to some of the most memorable individual creativity of recent time.   For example, Bob Dylan is the subject of the first chapter.   Later in the second part the reader hears the back story about some of the most amazing corporate breakthroughs that produced winning products like the Swiffer Sweeper.

This is no magazine quick-read or glossy book with simple highlights to quote at the next family gathering.   Rather, Lehrer blends his discussion on neurology with diagrams and clearly written text that is fascinating, rather than academic or – heaven forbid – boring.   He concentrates on what makes us who we are and our unique humanness.   As progress is being made in the exploration of the human brain, new findings and concepts have come to light.   Our brains can be seen in action through the use of equipment such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.   The results of these studies and experiments that were conducted while scientists were peering into active brains are fascinating.   Lehrer uses the “You Are There” technique to draw the reader into appreciating the scientists and researchers he showcases along with their contributions to understanding creativity.

There are some requirements for achieving notable creativity.   It’s not a matter of being zapped by a great idea.   As Lehrer states, “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of working memory.   For one thing, there is a strong correlation between working memory and general intelligence, with variations in the size of working memory accounting for approximately 60 percent of the variation in IQ scores.”   Moreover, the poems, plays and novels we have enjoyed from writers like W. H. Auden or William Shakespeare, were not produced in brilliant flashes of insight.   The authors dedicated time and energy to writing and rewriting their works until the result was perfection.

Lastly, Lehrer makes a great case for nurturing the youth among us by fostering in them what he calls “the outsider view.”   It’s not memorization or rote school work that will foster creativity; rather, it’s taking a step back, detaching from the obvious and fostering an alternative view.

“According to the researchers, the advantage of play is that it’s often deeply serious – kids are most focused when they are having fun.”

Imagine is a well-paced learning experience that keeps the reader’s attention and is never overwhelming.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Jonah Lehrer earlier wrote How We Decide, which is reviewed here along with The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/the-art-of-choosing/ .

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A review of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (author of How We Decide).

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There’s a Kind of Hush

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown, $26.00, 352 pages)

If you’re an introvert, should you devote your energies to activities that come naturally, or should you stretch yourself…?

Quiet grants a marvelous sense of relief to anyone who has been concerned because they are easily tired by energetic crowds, fierce competition or small talk with strangers.   Susan Cain, a former Wall Street attorney specializing in negotiation, has made good use of her natural inclinication to be an introvert.   This book is the culmination of literally a lifetime of being one of the quiet people.

Ms. Cain took a long, thoughtful look at the existing literature and studies focused on extroversion vs. introversion.   Moreover, she travelled around meeting with various well-respected experts in the fields of neuroscience and psychology to assure that her book would contain the latest in findings.   In addition, Ms. Cain is a consultant to businesses and professionals who are seeking the skills to succeed in a culture that has, within the last 100 plus years, shifted from valuing character above any other human characteristic, to one that dotes on fame, aggression, group thinking and power.   Her expertise and ability to see both sides of the issue lend great credibility to her writing.

The book begins by explaining how we have arrived at a new set of values only recently that has been embraced by business, politics and popular culture.   The current cultural ideal is the Mighty Likeable Fellow that replaced the person who exemplified the Culture of Character in the 19th century when the ideal self was serious, disciplined and honorable.   We are told that Dale Carnegie was the first well-known speaker and teacher to gather the hapless masses to his events so that they may “win friends and influence people.”   His books are still in print and his work is carried on in the 21st century through seminars, etc.

Today’s counterpart ot Dale Carnegie is Tony Robbins whose Unleash the Power Within program has been attended by thousands of people seeking to become the ideal person/salesman.   This reviewer had the experience of staying at a Hyatt Regency atrium hotel where Mr. Robbins was conducting one of his seminars.   I will own up to the fact that I am an introvert who is never-the-less able to deliver speeches to hundreds of folks on topics that matter to me.   And, no, I don’t get sweaty palms or stage fright!

After a long day filled with much discussion among licensed professionals who were deliberating very serious public health, safety and welfare matters, I adjourned to my third floor hotel room that was facing the atrium.   To my dismay, at 9:30 p.m. the Robbins acolytes proceeded to perform the famous fire walk, complete with chanting, whooping and hollering.   Needless to say, I fled to the far corner of my room, pushed earplugs into position and wished for it to be over soon.   By 11 p.m. I was exhausted and nearly in tears.   Finally, the last fire-walker completed the dash and the group disbanded.

The above-described event could have been exciting, stimulating and entertaining; however, it had the opposite effect.   When I returned home and described the goings on to my immediate co-workers back at my office, most of them could not understand why I didn’t rush down to enjoy the excitement.   That puzzled and even upset me.   Some 15 years later Ms. Cain’s book recently came into my possession and it has provided the answer to that old puzzle.

As in any engaging survey, Quiet begins with a few historic elements that capture the reader’s attention – Rosa Parks’ refusal to obey the bus driver in 1955 along with background on Carl Yung and other pioneers in the study of psychology, as well as clearly identifiable introverts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.   It proceeds to explain the logic behind today’s culture from a popular perspective and moves on to the physiological reasons behind the brain’s response to stimulus.   From there it explores the geographic clustering of introversion and extroversion in societies around the world.   Lastly, Quiet offers really helpful suggestions for understanding the difference between the two types.   (Actually, the extroversion and introversion tendencies that people have can be plotted graphically and they are more of a band with locations rather than two poles.)

If you’re wondering if you are more introverted or extroverted, or if you have a good idea, this book is well-worth the time and money to broaden your understanding of how we function in today’s atmosphere of fame and larger-than-life personalities.

As Ms. Cain so engagingly states, “If there is only one insight you take away from this book, though, I hope it’s a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself.”

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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A review of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

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Help Me

Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time by Paul Hammerness, M.D., and Margaret Moore, with John Hanc (Harlequin, $16.95, 272 pages)

Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World by Sam Sommers (Riverhead Hardcover, $25.95, 304 pages)

Often the focus of self-help books is the reader’s feelings of discomfort, inadequacy or anger.   That said, the two books reviewed here are pragmatic and filled with specific science-based ideas formulated by well-respected professionals in their respective fields.

The first book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time, was written by the team of Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Paul Hammerness, M.D., Margaret Moore, a certified wellness coach and cofounder of Harvard’s Institute of Coaching with assistance from John Hanc, an associate professor of journalism and communications at the New York Institute of Technology.   The premise of Organize Your Mind is that daily stress is produced by too much to do and this overload, in turn, produces a sense of helplessness.   The book looks at how your conscious actions can bring about a sense of mastery and control to daily life as well as assist in long-range planning.

Each area discussed is introduced by Dr. Hammerness in what he calls “The Rules of Order.”   Each of the rules is about brain functioning and how it relates to ones’ actions and feelings.   The six rules are followed by pragmatic action steps outlined by Coach Margaret.   Accompanying each rule are highlighted sidebars filled with explanations and contextual comments that enhance the reader’s experience.   Dr. Hammerness includes suggestions for readers whose issues extend beyond the scope of the book.   He takes a kindly attitude and suggests that there are situations where professional help beyond that offered in the book is indicated.

The chapters and rules are cumulative which allows the reader to follow along and build skills.   The tone of the authors’ writing is non-judgmental, realistic and yet not a buddy-buddy one.   There are really good puns scattered in the text.   Alas, this reviewer is not able to quote any of them as an advance uncorrected proof was provided by the publisher.

Highly recommended.

The second book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World was written by Sam Sommers, a remarkably young-looking psychology professor at Tufts University.   Sommers is also an expert witness who is called upon to testify as to whether actions and statements are racially motivated or merely meaningful descriptors that may be admitted as evidence in court proceedings.

This book is an excellent complement to Organize Your Mind that can be best appreciated if read as a follow-up in the reader’s self-improvement strategy.   Sommers makes good use of scientific findings to support his conclusions.   However, his assertion is that introspection will not bring someone to discover the means to the life they wish to have.   Rather, his focus is on the ways that environmental influences assert significant power over the decisions people make and the actions they take every day.   Watchfulness and awareness of the context (location, group or ethnic background) in which one finds one’s self can lead to a significantly different outcome, such as summoning police assistance, questioning odd behavior or just realizing that people mindlessly parrot what they think is true.   An excellent parallel can be made with reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, particularly Tipping Point.   Several of the studies he cites are common to both books.

The chapter structure of Situations Matter follows that of a survey book.   Sommers does tie back to his beginning hypothesis that we see the world as a “what you see is what you get” sort of place.   (The computer shorthand is WYSIWYG.)   He also makes good use of examples from his university classroom exercises.   The tone of the book is friendly and it reads like a transcript from the psychology class you wish you’d taken.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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You’re Getting To Be a Habit With Me

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Random House, $28.00, 400 pages)

Charles Duhigg is a highly educated (Harvard and Yale) business reporter (The New York Times), who is the epitome of the thorough investigative reporter.   In past weeks, Duhigg and his publicist have been circulating a flurry of teaser articles and Twitter posts that include excerpts from his just-released book.   The teasers are eye-catching because most folks in the USA shop at Target, buy household air fresheners (unless they are featured on A&E’s Hoarders) and like to think that the choices they make are acts of free will.   He has also been travelling on an aggressive cross-country tour of major media outlets.

As to whether folks really have the ability to make their own choices, not really, according to Duhigg.   His book supports a hypothesis that most, if not all, daily activities are the result of a habit loop consisting of a cue, routine and reward.   This behavior loop is applicable at the personal as well as organizational and societal levels.   Granted, the author has met and exceeded the burden of proof imposed by such a strong theme; however, too much of a good thing is not always the most pleasing event.

This reviewer was immediately interested in the book after reading an excerpt that focused on Target stores and the extensive shopper profiling that takes place thanks to a sophisticated computer program that slices and dices purchasing data.   A quick glance at my to-be-read shelf revealed an advance reader’s edition (ARE) of this very book.   A few chapters into the book, a familiar feeling arose.   It was similar to the one you get after watching a movie that had fabulous trailers/coming attractions but left little for the actual theater experience.   That’s how this reviewer felt – a bit let down, after reading The Power of Habit.   All the catchy and engaging information was in the teaser articles.   Absent these elements, the book became a traditional survey (overview) of the force of habit.

The sonorous, heavy tone of the text may have been lightened with the final editing process.   It’s doubtful that the notes and sources section was reduced.   It occupies nearly 20% of the book!   Hopefully, the charming diagrams made it to the release version.

Recommended for readers who are extremely curious about the force of habit.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Power of Habit was released on February 28, 2012.   The original title on the ARE was The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It. 

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A review of The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong by David Shenk.

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Be True to Your School

Practical Genius: The Real Smarts You Need to Get Your Talents and Passions Working for You by Gina Amaro Rudan (Touchstone, $24.99, 203 pages)

Ready, set, GO!   Professional development and training coach Gina Rudan can be a bit overwhelming as she enthusiastically offers up her philosophy for success.   Summed up it is – Be the best you by mining deeply held inner goals while simultaneously exploiting people who may be able to assist your climb upward.   Oh, and always maintain personal integrity by selflessly promoting the ones your are using.

That’s quite a challenge; however, Ms. Rudan offers herself as the poster child for this method.   She jumped ship from the Fortune 500 employers of her past to begin a second career as a consultant.   Clearly, the field of personal development is a crowded one that spans several decades.   M. Scott Peck, Jack Canfield and David Shenk immediately come to mind.   Dr. Shenk is listed because he too has written a book specifically focused on the topic of genius, The Genius in All of Us.   His view of genius and ways to achieve it are expressed in a calm, well-considered approach.   (A review of the book will be posted next on this site.)

Ms. Rudan’s target audience appears to be the 35-40 year old female who is at a point where she is stuck in her professional life.   The spin for Rudan’s method is a bit titillating with “the Other G spot” and dating rules for those who can assist with a climb into practical genius status.   She stresses the need for personal congruity – a balance of hard and soft assets.   It is at the intersection of one’s marketable skills (hard assets) and personal passions, creativity and values (soft assets) where the Other G spot exists.   Finding that spot and making it yours is the point of the book.

Each element of the process is thoroughly developed; however, this reviewer found the bouncy enthusiasm and perspective shifts in the early chapters a bit unsettling.   Moreover, the rambling in some sentences makes the case for keeping it simple:

Expressing your practical genius is not about expressing the limitedness of our personalities or egos but more about expressing wonder of the depths of the oceans of who we are as complex multi-dimensional creatures.

The later chapters get down to business with boxed hints for the reader and lengthy descriptions or definitions of what Ms. Rudan thinks is the ideal mix of characters that will become the players in the reader’s life changing drama.

Given today’s legions of unemployed and underemployed persons, this book may have an audience in persons seeking more than just putting food on the table and a roof over one’s head.   Then again, maybe it does not.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Gotta Serve Somebody

The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion by Herman Wouk (Little, Brown and Company, $23.99, 192 pages; Hachette Audio, $26.98, 5 CDs)

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, all the different planets, and all these atoms with their motions, and so on,  all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil – which is the view that religion has.   The stage is too big for the drama.”   Richard Feynman

Having a scant knowledge of Herman Wouk (the movie version of “Youngblood Hawke”) and having a great appreciation of Richard Feynman (the book Feynman’s Rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow) put this reviewer in a one-down situation for listening to the audio book, The Language God Talks.   Moreover, the author’s age of 94 at the time of the book’s completion puts him in my late father’s generation.

The book is brief, a five-CD set.   Bob Walter, the narrator, provides a worldly and mellow voice that one can easily believe to be reminiscent of the author’s.   The smooth wording lends itself well to an audio book.   Sometimes, the somewhat self-indulgent musings of the author drift along pulling the listener into a past that is only partially shared.   Yes, the space age is fascinating and was most riveting at the time of the biggest breakthroughs.   However, those glory days are nearly gone as are the days enjoyed by Mr. Wouk.

In fairness to the author, his works will, no doubt, keep their places on required reading lists for some decades to come.   The quality of his writing puts him far ahead of many of his generation.   His Hebrew scholarship is quite notable and admirable.   Perhaps the comfort he has found in his studies is well matched with the acquaintances he shared with the luminaries of science and philosophy like Richard Feynman.   Wouk’s exploration of science versus religion is a personal one – and not a new one – but his efforts in that regard are exhaustive and lengthy by his own statements.

For this reviewer, the book felt like an honest retrospective of an enormously intelligent man reaching the end of his life’s path.   The book also seems to fulfill a personal promise of exploration that he has kept to himself.   Being honest about why we believe what we believe is something that few in middle age or younger actually ponder.   Perhaps it is left to the last part of life due to the enormity of the subject.   It would be a good listen for persons of any age, as exploring the meaning of life is a most worthwhile pursuit.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy of the audiobook was provided by the publisher.   Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and Life by Leonard Mlodinow is available as a trade paperback book (Vintage, $14.95, 192 pages) and as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.   Also recommended is The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Mlodinow (Vintage, $15.00, 272 pages).

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Somebody’s Watching You

The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do by Eduardo Porter (Portfolio Hardcover, $27.95, 304 pages)

“There was a time when the United States offered workers a shot at prosperity.”

“The nicer the nice, the higher the price / This is what you pay for what you need. / The higher the price, the nicer the nice. / Jealous people like to see you bleed.”   Sylvester Stewart (AKA Sly Stone)

Author Eduardo Porter relies on well-known and documented studies for background in supporting his thesis that each thing we decide to purchase has a price.   The price does not always make sense to us.   Moreover, some prices are so attractive that they lead us to make wrong-headed decisions.  

Porter has divided his study into nine elements, each of which carries enormous importance for almost everyone.   The chapter devoted to things reveals some surprising conclusions such as that auctions are searches for fools, those who would actually pay more than an item’s true worth.   The most compelling chapter for this reviewer is about the price of life.   While life is generally perceived as priceless, there are strict rules regarding the criteria used to arrive at the specific figures for victim compensation awards.   (Talk to any law student who has taken Torts and he/she will explain this further.)

The direct approach taken in this book may be a bit jarring for some readers.   And the discussion of the price of women contains phrasing that is sometimes confusing.   This reviewer needed to reread certain passages in order to understand – or attempt to understand – the conclusion(s) drawn by the author.  

This survey book is reminscent of others that have used an organizing principle, like The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, to bring the reader to an intended conclusion.   Recommended – although the price of $27.95 for just 300 pages seems a bit high!

Ruta Arellano

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   “A fascinating journey through what we see every day – but do not think enough about.   Eduardo Porter makes you think hard about the corporate interests at work behind the veil of prices (and much more).”   Simon Johnson, co-author of 13 Bankers.

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