Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Book Review

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Review:

I have social anxiety. Not terrible social anxiety, but bad enough that it’s definitely had a negative impact on my life. I also have periodic issues with depression, mostly of the chronic low-grade variety, although I’ve had a few episodes that were worse. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns, was recommended to me by a psychologist friend when I asked for help after I started getting panic attacks after certain social situations, and I can honestly say it’s changed my life. Alas, it hasn’t cured me. I doubt there is a true cure, though a therapist might be able to make additional progress. But – and this is still a significant benefit and improvement in my quality of life – I haven’t had a panic attack since first reading the book in 2011, nor have I had one of my deeper depressive episodes. I still feel awkward in many social situations, but I’ve caught myself being braver, and less avoidant of them, and I beat myself up less afterwards for perceived mistakes. Again, not cured, but noticeably better.

Burns is one of the developers of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of psychotherapy that’s well supported by clinical trials for its effectiveness in treating, anxiety disorders, depression, and a number of other conditions. As someone with an internal voice that tends to be self-deprecating and sarcastic at best and cruel and unreasonable at worst, I found the concept of cognitive distortions especially helpful as a kind of mental structure to help me recognize when I was undermining good feelings and exaggerating mistakes. Even simply being able to recognize and label negative thought patterns has been really helpful in reducing both their frequency and their effect on my mental state.

I re-read it periodically as a sort of inoculation against trouble. If you suffer from anxiety or depression like me, I highly recommend it. It may not be an adequate substitute for seeing a therapist in person, but it’s a big step in the right direction if you need help.

IMPORTANT!

If you’ve stumbled on this review and you need urgent help, skip the book and call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255. If you’re not in the US, check out this list of international suicide prevention hotlines.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Earth Then and Now Book Review

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Review:

Here’s a book that really demonstrates the truth of the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words. Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World, by Fred Pearce is an eye-opening collection of before and after photographs demonstrating the startling ways the world has changed in the last 200 years. The book is divided into six sections:

  • Environmental Change – dealing mainly with the effects of climate change, pollution, and natural disasters
  • Urbanization – before and after photos of cities
  • Land Transformation – photos of dams, deforestation, mining and resource extraction, urban renewal, and more
  • Forces of Nature – photos of volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches, hurricanes, and more
  • War and Conflict – before and after photos of war zones, including images of both destruction and recovery
  • Leisure and Culture – a variety of images, including restored archaeological remains, various major construction projects, and much more

A very interesting book to browse through.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

To Marry an English Lord Book Review

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Review:

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, the novels of Edith Wharton, or similar period pieces, I can’t recommend To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace, highly enough. Starting in the 1870s, many wealthy and beautiful American heiresses, snubbed by stuffy New York high society, moved to England, where they married into the British aristocracy, saving many a bankrupt family estate in the process. These matches had surprisingly far reaching consequences for both British and American society, and included Randolph and Jennie Churchill, parents of Winston, George and Mary Curzon, who became the second highest ranking woman in the British Empire after Lord Curzon was named viceroy of India, and James and Frances Burke-Roche, great-grandparents of Princess Diana. The book also focuses a great deal on Alva Vanderbilt and her daughter Consuelo (pictured on the cover), who married the Duke of Marlborough and later shared her experiences in the classic memoir The Glitter and the Gold. (If you’re interested in the Vanderbilt ladies, I also recommend Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age.)

To Marry an English Lord is a well-written, informative, and highly entertaining peek into the lives of wealthy and aristocratic Americans and Brits in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Many parts read kind of like a Victorian People magazine, and the gossip is still as scorching now as it was 120 years ago! My only complaint is the format of the book, which is copiously illustrated and stuffed with so many info boxes and two page spreads on different details that it can be difficult to read. Hard to fault a book too much for providing too much information, though, especially when it’s as fascinating as this one!

Originally published in 1989, To Marry an English Lord has been re-released as a result of the popularity of Downton Abbey, which features an Anglo-American marriage between Lord Robert and Cora Crawley that is similar to those described in this book.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Man-Eaters of Kumaon Book Review

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Review:

A really well-written and fascinating memoir by Jim Corbett, one of the world’s greatest big game hunters, about his experiences tracking and killing man-eating tigers in India, including the infamous Champawat Tigress, who killed 436 people in Nepal and India before being shot by Corbett in 1907. Although I’m an avid hiker, my tracking skills are basic in the extreme and it was really fascinating getting a peek into the mind of a great tracker like Corbett. The amount of information he could pick up from something as simple as a footprint or tuft of hair was mind-blowing. There’s also quite a bit of interesting information about tiger behavior and habits.

As somebody who is morally opposed to big game hunting, there were a few chapters I found sad and depressing to read, because several of the hunts he discusses in the book were in pursuit of tigers who were not man-eaters and who he killed due to their large size or a similar factor that I don’t consider justification for murder. (Later in life, he apparently had a change of heart and refused to shoot any tiger that was not a proven man-eater, as well as lobbying for the creation of India’s first national park to protect tiger habitat.) However, the chapters on the man-eaters were thrilling reads.

Given the era and society in which he lived and wrote, I was pleasantly surprised by Corbett’s sympathetic treatment of both the poor Indian villagers he was trying to protect and the man-eaters themselves. There were several very moving passages about the courage of some of the tigers’ victims and would-be victims and their families and neighbors, including a brave young woman who chased after the Champawat Tigress with nothing but a sickle after it carried off her sister. Corbett also treats the tigers with respect and explains the factors that made them into man-eaters, with harsh words for his fellow hunters when he discovers bullet wounds that disabled but did not kill the animal, forcing it to turn to easier, human prey.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Rules For the Dance Book Review

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Review:

I’ve read, well, not tons of poetry, but probably more than most people, and did pretty well in high school and college English classes (I was even thinking about being an English major for awhile), but The Rules for the Dance: A Handbook For Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, by Mary Oliver, really opened my eyes to a LOT of things that I’d been missing in poetry. Some of it now seems blindingly obvious after reading the book – poetry is meant to be recited, so of course the rhythm of the poem would affect the breath of the reciter, and vice versa – and some of it still kind of blows my mind with how many layers of meaning can be fitted into a few short lines. Right off the bat, her analysis of Robert Frost’s Bereft amazed me, for example, and gave me a new appreciation for Frost’s skill (and he was already my favorite poet!)

Copiously demonstrated with examples from famous poems, the book explains the different types of metrical patterns (iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest) and how each one affects the mood and tone of the poem, both by themselves and in combination with each other and elements such as line length, rhyme, and more. It may sound boring, but it’s well-written enough (and the example poems are all good enough) to make for quite a fascinating read. The book also includes a short anthology of metrical poems to practice on.

Whether you want to write poetry or simply develop a greater appreciation for reading it, I highly recommend this book!

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

The Look-It-Up Guides To Mythology Series Review (Mythlopedia)

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Review:

On our wishlist

My daughter loved the Percy Jackson series and I wanted to get her some books to give her a somewhat more accurate understanding of Greek mythology. Unfortunately, my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths seems to have disappeared in one of our moves and she’s still a little young for Hamilton’s Mythology. While I was browsing through the library looking for an alternative to D’Aulaire (which they didn’t have for some reason), I stumbled across this series. It looked funny and accurate (despite a whole bunch of extremely anachronistic slang), so I checked out the whole series and my daughter LOVED them. I’ve personally only read bits and pieces so far, but her reaction was enough to add them immediately to our wishlist.

The full series is:

Hamilton’s Mythology Book Review

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Review:

Although this wasn’t the book that began my love affair with Greek mythology (that was Favorite Greek Myths, by Mary Pope Osborne), Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is the one that confirmed it. I first read it about age 10 and it’s been one of my favorite books ever since.

Although Bulfinch’s Mythology is also an excellent and comprehensive choice for someone interested in learning more about the Greek myths, I think Hamilton is the better storyteller of the two. I especially like how she intersperses clips of the great plays and poems the stories have been passed down in, which give you a feel not just for the stories themselves but the beauty of ancient Greek literature.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Baryshnikov At Work Book Review

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Review:

If you have even the slightest interest in ballet, you’ve probably heard the name of the legendary Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected from the Soviet Union in 1974 and has lived and worked primarily in the United States ever since. First published in 1976, while he was still in his prime as a dancer, this big, coffee table book includes black and white photographs of 26 of Baryshnikov’s roles, taken during rehearsal, performances, and in the studio. Some of the pictures are higher quality than others, but there are many excellent ones. As someone who took ballet classes for many years myself but could not be said to be naturally talented, a bunch of them made me want to weep with envy over the perfect technique and form on display by both Baryshnikov and his partners. Also – not going to lie – some of them are sexy as hell. Heck, most of them. Dancers have the most beautiful bodies.

The photos are accompanied by text written by Baryshnikov himself (with Charles Engell France), discussing each role and some of the thought processes that went into his interpretation of it. I found this a very interesting peek into the mind of a great dancer, but it will likely be more interesting to people with at least some dance experience, as he does use some technical terms. Some of his comments are even pretty funny. For example, he describes his early efforts to prepare for “Pas de Duke” with Alvin Ailey and Judith Jamison as “a cow on ice.”

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

1491: New Revelations About the Americas Before Columbus Book Review

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Review:

1491, by Charles Mann, is one of the best books I’ve read in years. Thanks to a lifelong interest in Plains Indian cultures, I thought I knew more about American Indian history than most white people, and technically I probably do. But this book still managed to blow my mind – repeatedly – with some of the information it contained about pre-Columbian life.

It begins with an argument that will be familiar to most people with more than a passing knowledge of pre-Columbian history: that there were far more people living in the Americas in 1491 than most historians and archaeologists have traditionally assumed. 19th century estimates put the figure as low as 10 million people in all of North and South America, and the mainstream estimate today is about 50 million. Mann argues, carefully backed by evidence from primary sources and archaeological digs, that the population may actually have been closer to that estimated by the “high-counters” – as much as 90-112 million!

It is extremely likely that in excess of 90% of the population was destroyed in the aftermath of Columbus’s discovery of America, primarily by epidemics of Eurasian diseases such as smallpox, to which the indigenous people of the Americas had little or no immunity, though many were also killed directly through war, slavery, etc. Many of the victims would have died without ever knowing that Europeans existed, but the devastation of the population had long-lasting effects on both native cultures and the American landscape.

Mann goes on to argue that pre-Columbian Indian populations were not just larger and more culturally and technologically sophisticated than previously assumed, but that they also had a greater impact on the American landscape. He argues that what appeared to early European explorers to be untrammeled wilderness was in many cases what remained of once-carefully tended gardens and fields that had become abandoned and overgrown following the holocaust of the local human population. This is the largest and most fascinating part of the book, with examples drawn from many regions and cultures across the Americas. As in the first section, Mann is careful to show the evidence for his claims, and also does a good job covering the opposing arguments in areas where there is much still up for debate, such as a bitter and ongoing dispute between archaeologists Betty Meggers, Anne Roosevelt, and their supporters about pre-Columbian Amazonian cultures.

My only real complaint about the book is that it focuses much more on Mesoamerica than North America, so while the Mesoamerican stuff is extremely interesting and was in many cases totally new to me, there are big gaps in the coverage of North America. Sadly for me, the Plains region is almost entirely ignored, although there is some interesting stuff about the moundbuilding cultures of the nearby Midwest and Mississippi regions.

1491 is also, unfortunately, a somewhat dangerous book, and there is a certain type of person I would be extremely hesitant to recommend it to. It lays out a lot of pretty convincing evidence that humans have had a massive impact on American ecosystems and landscapes for thousands of years; that, in fact, certain iconic American landscapes may have been partially CREATED by human intervention. In certain minds, information of this sort could become a blunt weapon to justify the continued exploitation and destruction of America’s remaining wild places. As someone approaching the book from the perspective of a lifelong environmentalist, however, what struck me over and over again while reading was how careful American Indian land management actually was. Although Mann presents multiple examples of Indian cultures that failed due partially or entirely to ecological overshoot, he also finds many examples of cultures that managed the landscape intensively yet sustainably.

One of the most striking examples comes from the Amazon rainforest, which Mann argues was treated essentially as a massive orchard by pre-Columbian cultures in the region. He argues that the primarily nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures that characterize indigenous peoples in the region today are most likely a historical anomaly – that many of them are likely to be the descendants of settled, agricultural people who survived the epidemics that swept through the region in the 16th and 17th centuries but were forced back into the nomadic lifestyle by demographic collapse. Instead of logging the forest, growing crops for a few years until the soil is exhausted, and moving on as all too many modern farmers and ranchers in the region do, pre-Columbian Indians found a way to preserve the fertility of normally nutrient-poor rainforest soils for centuries through the creation of terra preta. Created primarily between 450 BC and 950 AD, the terra preta soils of the Amazon remain fertile today. Now that’s some long-term planning! Although the population supported by such techniques would have been far lower than the modern world even if the “high counters” are correct, I thought the book offered some very interesting implications for how modern societies could improve the sustainability of our own land management practices.

Highly recommended!

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

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Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace Book Review

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Review:

One of my favorite Russian history books, Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is the “biography” of a lesser known palace near St. Petersburg. Pavlovsk Palace is not as grand as better known palaces such as Peter the Great’s imitation Versailles at Peterhof, or the massive Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, but it’s inspired an unusual degree of devotion in many people across the centuries, starting with its original owner, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Catherine the Great’s daughter-in-law and wife of the ill-fated Emperor Paul (Pavel) I. Catherine took Maria’s first two sons away from her at birth to raise herself, and Maria and Paul were only permitted to see them once a week. Deprived of her children, the artistic and cultured Maria threw her energies into designing and decorating the palace and gardens of Pavlovsk. There is quite a bit of interesting information about Maria, her architects and landscapers, and the different influences on the park’s final design, especially for anyone interested in architecture, fine art, or landscape design.

After Maria’s death, the park was opened to the public and became the site of fashionable concerts (including an extended visit by Strauss) for most of the later 19th century. The Soviets, after initially planning to sell off its treasures, were eventually persuaded by Pavlovsk’s caretaker to turn it into a state museum.

Then came World War II and the Nazi invasion of Russia. There is a fascinating and horrifying chapter about the siege of Leningrad, the deadliest in human history, during which 1-1.5 million civilians died and an additional 1,400,000 were evacuated. Pavlovsk itself was stripped of as many of its treasures as its caretakers could preserve while the Nazi army approached, and these were buried on the grounds of the park or taken to Leningrad or Siberia.  The rest were looted or destroyed by the Germans, who also cut down 70,000 trees within the park and set fire to the palace as they retreated near the end of the war. In the aftermath of the war, with the palace and park in smoldering ruins, its caretakers spent decades painstakingly rebuilding and restoring it to its former glory, and it is now once again open to the public.

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is well-written and absorbing, and will make you love Pavlovsk as much as its author clearly does. I was inspired after reading it to visit the park three times during my semester abroad in Russia and consider it one of the most beautiful spots in Russia.

Here’s a video with scenes from the palace and park:

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)