Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky

“A large percentage of what we think of when we talk about stress-related diseases are disorders of excessive stress-responses.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback,560 pages.
Read from March 27, 2019 to April 24, 2019.

When this book was recommended to me I thought it was a self-help book for whatever reason. It’s not. Not really. And for that, I’m grateful as it’s one the most clever, accessible, and engaging science reads I’ve come across.

Sapolsky is a professor of biological sciences, neurology and neurological sciences and based on his candid writing style, is exactly the kind of prof you would go out of your way to take a class with. He writes about the science he is passionate about and includes funny personal anecdotes and relevant studies to his work. If you don’t read the footnotes in this book you’re really going to miss out as it was one of my favourite aspects of this book. Seriously, hilarious.

Sapolsky’s book opens with some biology basics that is a nice refresher on high school content. It may feel technical at first, but as Sapolsky points out, he uses the lingo so much through the book and explains it in such simple terms that it’s easy to progress through the chapters. He takes you through how stress affects every single aspect of our body. It’s actually deeply unnerving to read and, dare I say it, stressful! The funny footnotes and candid comments that Sapolsky makes throughout the book are necessary to counterbalance the anxiety-inducing facts he is laying on you about prolonged stress and disease. Sapolsky also discusses why our stress response is different than that of all the other species in the worlds and how our modern world doesn’t do our stress responses any favours. The also talks about why our stress response is essential, despite some of its faults.

In a way, what Sapolsky is stating isn’t anything we didn’t really already know it’s just nice (scary) to have the science behind it. He also explores the social and political aspects of stress as well and how it plays in with the science of stress. For example, being poor gives you a higher chance of having stress-related diseases. Of course, this makes sense when you have trouble meeting your basic needs which are the number one cause of major stress in any species. Additionally, he also explores how relationships and religion can play a part in easing or exasperating stress and stress-related diseases.

“Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine on a large scale.”

The book concludes with a short chapter on what you can do to help combat prolonged stress to reduce your chances of getting a stress-related disease. I was actually hoping there would be more in this chapter after all the anxiety-inducing stress facts Sapolsky loads you with, especially considering some major stress factors are from uncontrollable circumstances. I genuinely enjoyed reading this book and I think it would be a good read for anyone interested in an engaging science read on our modern lifestyles. However, this book may not be the best book for excessive worriers or hypochondriacs, probably best to stick to self-help books on stress if you consider yourself one of these types.

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 314 pages.
Read from April 11, 2019 to April 17, 2019.

Readers of this book either love it or hate and I would say that both opinions would be valid. The book covers a large scope of history specific to Czechoslovakia with manipulative, provocative, and dynamic characters. The majority of the book is set in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s and specifically during a time of political reform called the Prague Spring. Milan Kundera, the author, is of Czech origin but has lived in exile in France since 1971, where he became a naturalised citizen in 1981. Milan’s books were banned under the communist rule in Czechoslovakia and remained banned until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Readers have speculated if any of the characters in this book and many of Milan’s others are in any way autobiographical, to which Milan responded in a 1985 interview with New York Times,

“No character in my novels is a self-portrait, nor are any of my characters the portrait of a living person. I don’t like disguised autobiographies. I hate writers’ indiscretions.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows the lives of two men, two women, and one dog and how their lives intertwine during the years of political upheaval in Czechoslovakia. Tomas is a womanizing surgeon who marries the young and vulnerable Tereza, despite his inability (unwillingness) to be faithful. He claims to love Tereza more than anything but cannot give up seeing other women and battles his feelings for Tereza through the entire novel. Tomas even taunts her in her sleep by whispering in her ear his infidelities which causes Tereza to have horrendous and violent dreams about him with other women. Tereza is miserable and mad with jealousy but the two of them just can’t seem to be apart. The two of them have a delightful dog named Karenin who adores Tereza. One of Toma’s long-time lovers, Sabina has a similar nature to Tomas in how she treats her lovers but she has a turbulent history of her own that has made her that way. Franz is one of her lovers.  Each of the characters works their way through their turbulent relationships and personal faults as the country fills with the uproar of communism.

This prose of this book is undeniably poetic and beautiful giving it redeeming qualities long past its intriguing story, though not every reader has felt that way.

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body.The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

Many find Milan’s writing dry and dull, while others, myself included, find it to be brilliant. As I opened this review, readers either love or hate this book because is like an invitation into this place of history and into the lives of these people and if you’re not interested in either from the beginning the book will do little for you. The depth at which Milan exposes his characters is rich and at times unnervingly honest. He discusses love and personal faults in a way most would not find romantic but at least poetic and realistic, giving the topics their own unique sense of beauty and awe. Toma’s is not good to Tereza with his womanising ways but as the backstory on each character grows you find fault with each character and see how they tend to create their own dynamic miseries making you empathise with them all on one way or another.

I would recommend this book for those that enjoy literary fiction, history and historical fiction, philosophical or poetic prose (especially if you enjoyed Proust) or honest and flawed characters.

The Monsters We Deserve by Marcus Sedgwick

“Almost everyone has an inborn need to create; in most people this is thwarted and forgotten, and the drive is pushed into other activities that are less threatening, less difficult, and less rewarding. In some people, that need to create is transmuted into the need to destroy.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 145 pages.
March 10, 2019 to March 11, 2019.

This book is one of those delightful Goodreads finds. A reviewer I follow gushed about how brilliant this book is and after reading the description I was hooked.

A horror writer is staying in a remote cabin in the French Alps to finish a book he is struggling to write. The author is drawn to the classic horror novel, Frankenstein, but not because he enjoys the book, in fact, he despises it. As the narrator draws his own conclusions about the horror genre in an attempt to write his own book he discusses the weak points of Frankenstein, details of the author, Mary Shelley’s history and life, all the while making philosophical remarks about how we create our own monsters along with the nuances of the reading and writing processes.

“Orwell’s vision of our terrible future was that world– the world in which books are banned or burned. Yet it is not the most terrifying world I can think of. I think instead of Huxley– …I think of his Brave New World. His vision was the more terrible, especially because now it appears to be rapidly coming true, whereas the world of 1984 did not. What’s Huxley’s horrific vision? It is a world where there is no need for books to be banned, because no one can be bothered to read one.”

As the story progresses the narrator begins to be visited by ghosts, first by Mary Shelley herself and then by the characters in her book. As the narrator navigates this dreamlike horror, he realizes that he is going to have to face the monster of Shelley’s creation and of his own.

This short novel leaves the reader wondering what actually happens to the narrator and how much of this tense story is real or metaphorical. The writing is smart, highly creative and very well paced making for an engaging read. The story reads like a diary or an essay that focuses on the unique writing process of a horror story, the act of creation itself, and of course, our own personal monsters. I particularly enjoyed the author’s comments on the creative process and how he looks at writing in general as they’re bookmark worthy spots if you need help breaking up a writer’s block.

“The binary colour of words on a page give the sense of simplicity and clarity. But life doesn’t work like that. And neither should a good story. A good story ought to leave a little grey behind, I think.”

This book may not be for everyone however as its approach and topics are slightly unusual. The story is a quick read so its a good candidate if you’re looking to catch up on your reading goal or even if you’re looking for something exceptionally different than your usual reads. If you love horror, are familiar with the author, or are a writer yourself, you may find this book is perfect for you.