Scarcity Brain by Michael Easter [6/10]

Michael Easter Scarcity Brain review

Michael Easter is a how-to writer focusing on certain aspects of human psychology and how to tackle life, and his area of expertise was signaled by his first book, The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort To Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self, from 2021. His new book, Scarcity Brain: Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewire Your Habits to Thrive with Enough, investigates the same sphere of hormesis (discomfort resulting in benefits). The author writes compellingly: “A scarcity cue is a piece of information that fires on what researchers call our scarcity mindset. It leads us to believe we don’t have enough. We then instinctually fixate on attaining or doing that one thing we think will solve our problem and make us feel whole.” The scarcity loop now “lives” in social media, email, shopping, personal finance, mobile gambling, TV, health, dating, video games, gig work, news. “We can shift scarcity loops into abundance loops.” Much of Scarcity Brain can feel a trifle underwhelming, and Easter’s journalistic style of expanding his personal narratives can feel repetitive, but this is a perky perspective on life that will appeal to many.

Women Talking by Sarah Polley [9/10]

Women Talking review

Canadian writer-director Sarah Polley’s striking, imaginative adaptation of a 2018 Miriam Toews novel, Women Talking, does not hesitate for a second. A colony of isolated Mennonite women finally catch their men raping all and sundry with the aid of horse tranquilizer, and during a brief few days of possibility, delegate a crucial decision to a dozen women who meet in a hay loft. Should they do nothing, fight, or leave? The movie is doubly shocking for only showing memory glimpses of the horrific violence they have endured, and doubly intelligent for revolving around the debate itself, not any fraught aftermath. The hay loft debate, minuted by a gentle young male community member (played with such restrained emotion by Ben Whishaw that he crowns a litany of starring performances), has the air of a stage show debate, but is saved from tedium by a script alternatively deep, light, and even humorous. One can only marvel at the star turns of Clare Foy, Rooney Mara, and Jessie Buckley. The subtle music score by Hildur Guðnadóttir complements the urgent debating. Without a trace of sentimentality, Women Talking builds into an overpowering, tragic yet heroic quest. A stunner.

Attention Span by Gloria Mark [6/10]

Gloria Mark Attention Span review

Over the past few years, a number of books have been published that deal with the issue of the changing world of the data surrounding us and how we attend to it. Some are How-Tos, some are technical treatises. Attention Span: Finding Focus for a Fulfilling Life, by working computer scientist and researcher Gloria Mark, tackles the science of attention, an empirical story, but with an overlay of practical suggestions. The author is a cogent explainer, the subject matter is familiar but well worth revisiting, with informative wrinkles: multitasking (something I used to swear by) mostly fails; Twitter saps attention; there is nuance in attending to the world. I was intrigued to note that she doesn’t find blocking software at all effective, finding that this does not train our attention muscles. She covers different types of attention, including the controversial issue of “flow.” Algorithms work, not in our favor. Declining attention spans are real but fixable. Chapter 13 is titled “Achieving focus, rhythm and balance.” and she espouses learning to observe one’s social media behavior, moving on to planning in advance, and then to conscious self-regulation. All in all, Attention Span is handy and fun to read.

The Crown by Peter Morgan Season 6 [6/10]

The Crown Season 6 review

I abhor the notion of royalty and have no time at all for the British royal family, but a skillfully executed, well-written drama trumps personal dislikes. All this is another way of saying that I have now spent something like two-and-a-half days watching a series called The Crown, and almost the entirety of the six seasons has been quality viewing. (Check out Season 3 (my review), Season 4 (my review), and Season 5 (my review).) Peter Morgan is an inspired screenwriter and producer and director, and he has roped in stellar cast after stellar cast (he changes core actors every two seasons). Every episode’s staging has been impeccable, the music does the job, and the production values and locales and cinematography are the definition of eye candy. Now the finale season, Season 6, is before us, and I have to admit that, unlike the first five seasons, I struggled to even watch half the episodes. The key theme of the six seasons has been to realistically portray one queen’s reign in the global and domestic political and cultural environments of the times, and the tone has mostly been respectful but honestly critical. In the final season, Morgan, perhaps needing to wrap up in a way that jibes with his audience, has hung the storyline on Princess Diana and Prince Harry, and, what’s more, his orientation edges toward romanticizing. Suddenly we are asked to respect, even revere, the Queen, the wayward princess, and the young king-in-waiting. Episodes that move outside the nonsensical inner world of the royals, for example those involving Tony Blair, retain narrative tension, but the inwardly focused episodes are cringeworthy and, more important, rosy-hued. I close my experiencing of The Crown with a sense of disappointment, but potential viewers might well discount my anti-royal attitude. As for the sixty-episode series, I would still class it as a masterclass in film drama.

On the Move by Abrahm Lustgarten [9/10]

Abrahm Lustgarten On the Move review

On the Move: The Overheating Earth and the Uprooting of America, written by an accomplished journalist, is climate migration’s equivalent to that recent masterpiece, Jeff Goodell’s Heat: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet. As the author puts it, “roughly half the population of the United States lives in the regions that are shifting outside of America’s ideal climate niche for human habitability. Just how large, then, will American’s great migration be?” The author travels to the crucible case of Central American countries wracked with drought, streams of refugees heading north. He recounts how even the most liberal Mexicans, committed to absorbing migrants, eventually need to harden their hearts and turn back the hordes or ghetto-ise them. He paints a picture of the same unsupportable waves of climate migrants surging in bubbles of agonized poverty and death toward the Mecca countries of the world, America in particular. He outlines the growing sophistication of science that explores, to increasingly granular levels, those segments of Earth unsustainable as temperatures rise, wildfires proliferate, seas rise, and storms intensify. If today only a sliver of Earth is truly uninhabitable, research indicates that by 2070 twenty percent of the planet will fall into that category. He covers the emerging detailed science of how migration unfolds, both in dire areas and in the United States. And American climate migration is today’s reality, first from utterly burnt out towns and utterly flooded coastal areas, then more slowly from the unsupportable heat in Phoenix and similar places. The author dates our U.S. climate migration, the most significant since the post-Civil-War northward “Great Migration,” to “years ago” before now. Overall, superbly written, brilliantly researched, On the Move is troubling, essential reading.

Killers of the Flower Moon by Martin Scorsese [5/10]

Killers of the Flower Moon review

Didn’t we all hang out for Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour magnum opus, Killers of the Flower Moon, based on David Grann’s ferocious 2017 nonfiction expose of American-Indian killings in the 1920s? Having missed out at the cinemas, I waited for the streamer offering and sank in for what I hoped was a classic Scorsese triumph. Alas, the film is a drastically overlong mess. For every scene dramatically and starkly posed and filmed (the best ones are the violent ones), there is a scene announced without scripting prompts, often baffling, or a dull plod of a scene underpinned by cheap throbbing music. Leonardo DiCaprio is valiant as Ernest, the easily led bad guy / fall guy, but his scripted dialogue is turgid, his scowls are false, and I cannot believe Grann’s novel treats him as a dumb clod as the film does. Robert De Niro offers a shallow villain and Lily Gladstone, while sometimes offering moving, plaintive tableau images, portrays her Osage victim as a klutz. The film’s overall tale of terrible wrongs committed in the name of money is virtuous but the entire storyline is telegraphed early and never properly dramatized. The denouement is sloppy. Overall, Killers of the Flower Moon may be worth watching for Scorsese completism but is a sorry coda to an illustrious career.

How Not to Age by Michael Greger [8/10]

Michael Greger How Not to Age review

Dr Michael Greger is a quirky, heartfelt crusader for better, evidence-based (his saying is “put it to the test”) health, especially relating to diet, and his consistent push over years has been the Whole Foods Plant Based diet, which is effectively veganism plus resisting ultra-processed foods in favor of whole foods such as legumes and vegetables and fruit and whole grains. His earlier books, principally How Not to Die and How Not to Diet, are touchstones for the WFPB movement, of which I’m a proponent. Unlike most public doctors espousing healthfulness/diet/etc., let alone the many “influencers” in this space, Greger does not sell supplements or behind-paywall memberships or courses, and all book sales go to charity, so his integrity is unimpeachable. His latest, How Not to Age: The Scientific Approach to Getting Healthier as You Get Older, is his most ambitious, a brick of a book even allowing for 13,000 references hived online. The 2020s is a heady time of meomentous research into the intricacieis of aging and healthfulness. Greger outlines the eleven recognized pathways of aging, including some that might be familiar, such as cellular senescence and telomeres, and others that sound like science fiction, e.g. IGF-1 and mTor. Then, drawing on fundamental research but also the clear evidence of the world’s Blue Zones, which max out on centenarians, Greger outlines thirteen elements of an “optimal anti-aging regimen,” including diet, exercise, weight, sleep, and stress management. He covers how one might do one’s best to “preserve” sixteen human functions, from bones to skin to mind to vision, before a final eight-point “recipe” called “Dr. Greger’s Anti-Aging Eight.” The book is a triumph of distillation and condensation and serves as a go-to reference. It is less successful as a readable book, being over-jammed with scientific findings, but it remains invaluable. Buy How Not to Age and stick it on your shelf next to the cookbooks.

The Mindful Body by Ellen J. Langer [6/10]

Ellen J. Langer The Mindful Body review

Social psychologist Ellen Langer has been championing the concept, now rather bastardized, of mindfulness for a long time. In The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Lasting Health she argues that a positive, mindful approach can radically improve health, through a form of union between body and mind, in ways that the medical profession can scarcely believe. Telling stories of her own experience but also of decades of highly original, imaginative research, Langer advocates for a new positivity. Rejecting standard diagnoses adhering to “normal curves,” calling for youthful attitudes, and pushing for aggressive mental approaches to aging and ill-health, she paints a beguiling picture for people in their “middle years” such as myself. A fluent stylist who can sometimes under-emphasize the novelty or beauty of her ideas, Langer will find sceptics among the general public reading this, but if you are ripe for the notion that there is more to health than pure physical mechanics, a stance underpinned by her research, you will find The Mindful Body to be most rewarding.

Rethink Your Position by Katy Bowman [8/10]

Katy Bowman Rethink Your Position review

Books about stretching and strengthening are, by definition, generally only for those seeking to improve their bodies. Some such books seek to draw in a more general audience, and I belong to that group. I read two such books in 2022-2023 but the net result was no change. Katy Bowman’s Rethink Your Position: Reshape Your Exercise, Yoga, and Everyday Movement, One Part at a Time is different, at first glance a bit homespun, but quickly rewarding reading. The author has a way with encouraging words and her simple photographs and diagrams are beguiling. I fell under the book’s spell. One suggestion, a simple one, the Head Ramp, is an invaluable exercise, although “exercise” is not quite the correct term for this activity, since it refers to a near-constant decision to stop hunching the head downward, instead lifting the top of the head and sending the head backward. Many of the author’s suggestions are like this, not something one does daily or weekly or whatever, but a new way of being physically in the world. I value her tips on how to improve hand and arm mobility; and how to interrogate the subtlety of “touching one’s toes,” by distinguishing moving forward via hips versus via spine. Some of her tips/routines I find easy, such as the calf stretch that comes from the toes of one foot being raised up on a block or rolled-up towel; presumably being a jogger helps with this one. Other bodily movements that look simple tax me, such as hanging from a high bar (sounds easy, doesn’t it?). Overall, Rethink Your Position comes recommended if you possess any curiosity about moving and “being” physically in the world.

1000 Words by Jami Attenberg [8/10]

Jami Attenberg 1000 Words review

Novelist Jami Attenberg came to personify the strange provenance of NaNoWriM0, National Novel Writing Month, the challenge to spend November writing enough each day to complete, yes, a full novel. Her exhortations to pump out 1,000 words each day, struck a chord and over time, other writers chipped in to help her encourage writers, and the end result is this book, 1000 Words: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round. The book is exactly what it says, the spirit of NaNoWriMo expanded into one of those writing how-to books such as the classic Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Attenberg, who is a judicious stylist and a prodigious worker, as well as being a kindly soul, offers a range of advice over the book, covering the four seasons, and over fifty other writers contribute pithy letters of advice and support. Books such as this can seem vacuous unless you are either desperate or primed to write the skin off your life, but if this is the book you need, well, 1000 Words delivers and with oomph. I found that a couple of the external missives chimed perfectly with my current writing situation, and I also enjoyed some of Attenberg’s lyrical bullet-point exhortations, such as this one: “We all need support. We all need the time to write. We all need feedback, even if it’s just from one other person. We all need to read. We all need a vacation. We all need to feel valuable or recognized. We all need to feel safe.” More specific writing/editing advice such as this—”There are two questions I ask myself repeatedly about my writing until I’m so far along in a project I don’t need to ask them anymore. They are: Who are you writing this for? What do you hope to accomplish with this work?”—arrived just in time to benefit my current work. All in all, 1000 Words is the perfect gift for anyone you know who clearly longs to write but cannot, for whatever reasons, commence the actual labor.