Summer reading: The Hacking of the American Mind

The Hacking of the American Mind book cover

The Hacking of the American Mind
Robert Lustig

Five years ago, UCSF pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert H. Lustig came out swinging with Fat Chance, a well-argued if polemical exposé of how the processed sugar industry has come to dominate food production (and consumption) with disastrous effects. Now he’s back with the even more compelling The Hacking of the American Mind.

Lustig’s thesis is that not one but several industries consciously develop products designed to foment addictive behavior, showing convincingly that the brain-signaling pathways implicated in substance addictions (drugs, alcohol) are the same as those implicated in behavioral addictions (addiction to social media, for example). He lays out in plain language how the dopamine stimulus mechanism works, how it can be abused to the point of permanent damage, how the serotonin production system mediates these reactions, and how some of the very same addictive behaviors actually thwart the behaviors that would promote serotonin production and a healthy balance between the two.

His wide-ranging assault touches on processed food, substance abuse, and most significantly for modern audiences, the profound new role of “attention addiction” — being unable to tear your attention away from social media.

As in Fat Chance, Lustig writes in an informal, direct, highly-readable, no-BS voice that makes it sound like he is in a classroom addressing a small group of students.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Barkskins

Barkskins book cover

Barkskins
Annie Proulx

Though it’s very long, I count it as inspirational in many ways. She inspires the reader to think about the research (the love of historical archival work and stories of the past, the enjoyment of discovery, a fascination with the lives of other people) involved in writing this kind of historical novel. She also leaves us with something like an obsession with trees, branches and leaves, and massive tree trunks and a longing for woods and forests. Though it’s partly a story of the ecological devastation of the forests of North America, it’s also a story of hope that we today will do some healing. It is also an honest and delicate exploration of relations between European settlers and Native American groups.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Climate Changed

Climate Changed book cover

Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science
Philippe Squarzoni

Squarzoni’s graphic memoir recounts his experience in coming to understand the immensity of our changing climate. While he was finishing a previous book about politics, he realized he didn’t know much about climate change, and thus he started to investigate. That investigation led him to a whole new book, one he felt he had to write. Not only does the book inform readers of these enormous changes, it also illustrates how it is we come to understand new and life-altering ideas. One of my students said after reading Squarzoni’s memoir that she felt “changed.” Squarzoni provides no easy answers, but he does open our eyes to some of the most pressing concerns of our day.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Euphoria

Euphoria book cover

Euphoria
Lily King

This 2014 novel is based in part on the life of the famed/notorious anthropologist Margaret Mead. Set in New Guinea in the 1930s, this narrative full of danger and desire is propelled forward by the thrill — and the risks — of seeking out new knowledge. A reviewer wrote in the New York Times, “King’s signal achievement may be to have created satisfying drama out of a quest for interpretive insight.”

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon book cover

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I.
David Grann

Woody Guthrie sang that in his native Oklahoma, “Some will rob you with a six-gun, And some with a fountain pen.” This Western history reveals the full truth of this for the first time, and adds the point that for Native Americans fraud was sealed with multiple murders of the young and the old. Grann, a magazine journalist, has had an epic year with human catastrophes of a century ago. His book on explorers in the Amazon became the film, The Lost City of Z, and his visit to Antarctica, “The White Darkness,” was featured in The New Yorker in early 2018. The dusty oil patch in Oklahoma, it turns out, had healthier weather but many more tragedies. They will make you gasp as you become the explorer.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire book cover

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Susannah Cahalan

At the age of 24, Susannah Cahalan was coming into her own: living in New York City, in a serious relationship, and beginning her career as a journalist for a major newspaper. Just as things felt like they were coming together, everything fell apart when she woke up in the hospital, confused and unsure of who she was. There is a level of vulnerability in this book that is unwavering and brave as Cahalan recalls the month that she fought to convince doctors, loved ones, and herself that she was not lost.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See book cover

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

In his novel, Doerr artfully weaves together the stories of blind French girl and a precocious Nazi boy who meet in St. Malo, France as the town is being bombed by the Allies shortly after D-Day. The book reminds us how courage, imagination, and resourcefulness can enable us to transcend our limitations.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Daytripper

Daytripper book cover

Daytripper
Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon

This graphic novel details the many ways in which the protagonist dies. Each chapter ends with his death and the next chapter begins at a different point in his life and ends in his death. The ultimate result is a moving and powerful examination of what it means to live each day to the fullest, and how to find hope, love, and passion in both the best and worst of circumstances.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: “46 Books by Women of Color to Read in 2018”

Electric Lit logo

“46 Books by Women of Color to Read in 2018”
R.O. Kwon
Electric Literature, Dec. 26, 2017

At the end of last year, the novelist R.O. Kwon put together this excellent list of books by women of color that were slated to be published in 2018. It includes all sorts of writers I regularly try to draw inspiration and perspective from. In her headnote that precedes the list, Kwon urges us: “Let’s read more broadly; let’s try inhabiting one another’s wildly varied, entirely human points of view.”

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


Summer reading: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Stealing Buddha's Dinner book cover

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner
Bich Minh Nguyen

One of the first images Nguyen relates in her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, is of her being mesmerized by the daughter of her host family, Heather Heidenga, reaching into a canister of Pringles and shoving a handful into her mouth.

This “American” memory is the start to the story of her family’s immigration from Vietnam to Michigan in 1975 and her desire to fit into her white suburban community. Instead of her grandmother’s traditional Vietnamese dishes, or her Mexican-American stepmother’s lack of interest in cooking, she longs for Toll House cookies made by Jennifer Vander Wal’s mother, or Mrs. Jansen’s blueberry muffins, made with Jiffy mix. Her imagination carries her into her books she is so fond of reading, eating salt pork (or bacon in her case) just like Laura in Little House on the Prairie, or connecting with Ramona Quimby, who also had to eat boring snacks and resented her blond, pretty neighbor.

Through this coming of age story, we can relate to Nguyen’s struggle with being an outsider. But through her memories, it is her uniqueness that ultimately defines her identity, and her voice is found in this otherness that we all too often try to avoid.

This book is part of the 2017 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!