We all behave differently depending on the situation

QuietQuiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
by Susan Cain

I had been looking forward to this book for a long time. I watched and enjoyed Cain’s TED talk about introversion and I have seen many positive reviews. Perhaps I had overhyped the book to myself, but in the end I was disappointed – I felt the book was trying to be too many things and didn’t quite hit the mark.

As the title suggests, this book is about people who are quiet, or introverted. An author’s note acknowledges that Cain has followed the popular conception of introversion as an all-encompassing label for quiet people, rather than using one of the various scientific descriptions. (Personally I think that information would have been useful in the main text.)

“We all behave differently depending on the situation. But if we’re capable of such flexibility, does it even make sense to chart the differences between introverts and extroverts? Is the very notion of introversion-extroversion too pat a dichotomy…Aren’t we all a little of both?”

Continue reading “We all behave differently depending on the situation”

We are unconsciously influenced in the most amazing ways


Sensation: the New Science of Physical Intelligence
by Thalma Lobel

I have very mixed feelings about this book. I will try to sort them out during this review, but apologies if it just comes off as a confused mess of thoughts!

Lobel is a psychologist who is interested in how our senses affect the way we think and links that to the way that we think metaphorically – a new area of psychology called “embodied cognition”. Sounds a bit complicated? Here are some examples to show how straightforward an idea it is: holding something warm makes us friendlier; the colour red makes us anxious; the smell of fish makes us feel suspicion. Yes, really.

The examples explored in the book vary quite a lot. Some of them seemed obvious to me (we equate weight and value, for instance), while others were surprising (touching something cold or hard makes us act more sternly). For me, Lobel certainly achieved her stated goal, which is to make readers question whether their senses are affecting their judgement. Am I agreeing to take on extra work because I’m holding a warm cup of tea? Am I choosing not to give money to that homeless person because they’re wearing black? Is that person genuinely good at their job or is it just that they’re tall?

“We are constantly exposed to environmental stimuli and cues…We experience much of our world quite consciously through our senses. But without noticing it, we are also unconsciously influenced in the most amazing ways by the physical experiences our senses convey. “

Which is all very interesting, and Lobel quotes a lot of studies rather than just making assertions. The training instilled in me by Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog meant I couldn’t help noticing that they’re mostly very small studies, but then it is a fairly new area of research and Lobel is careful to say when further studies back up the findings or when they are still needed.

Often, I found that a subject was obvious from one direction – that we think heavy things have more gravitas than light things, for example – but what was really interesting was when this was studied from the opposite direction. We estimate weights as heavier when they are somehow linked to a more serious subject (for instance a book deemed “important” compared with one that is supposedly random). We estimate heights as taller when the person is in a position of power. We perceive people as being nicer if they have a sweet tooth.

Despite the endless examples, Lobel has a very readable style. She is clearly excited by the science and manages to pass on her enthusiasm. She includes examples from books, films and TV as well as anecdotes from her own life to illustrate aspects of embodied cognition, which didn’t always hit the mark for me, but added personality and, coupled with her own involvement in this area of research, gave the book a personal touch.

“I had always thought of my grandfather as tall…In reality…he was on the shorter side of average. The pictures in my hands showed [this] but even then I checked with my mother to verify what my eyes were seeing. Even after learning that the grandfather I had always thought of as being tall was actually short, I still see him in my memory as towering over the rest of the family.”

My one problem with the book is possibly a problem I have with psychology in general – I don’t just want to know how behaviour is affected by sensory input, I want to why and this is only occasionally touched on. Lobel gets a bit defensive in an early chapter about psychology being considered a “soft science” but I can’t help observing that, compared with the other popular-science books I’ve read, this one was lacking that dogged search for the underlying truth, and I missed that.

I also want to know if these findings are universal or if they’re language-based. My guess would be that the link between red and danger and sex is universal, but the link between the smell of fish and feeling suspicion isn’t. But I want someone to tell me whether I’m right and why! Some of my questions were at least broached in the final chapter, but for the most part the answer was that more studies are needed, which I suppose is fair, but unsatisfactory.

It’s honestly a fascinating book and it has made me more aware of my sensory surroundings and how they might affect me.

Published 2014 by Icon Books.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.


WIN a copy of Sensation by Thalma Lobel

This competition is now closed.


Icon Books have kindly offered me three copies of fascinating new book Sensation by Thalma Lobel to give away to you, my lovely readers. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

With Sensation, the world’s leading expert on the new science of physical intelligence, Thalma Lobel, brings us the first ever popular psychology book on “embodied cognition”: how the body profoundly affects our thoughts, emotions and decisions about everything from the people we like to the ways we work.

By sharing fascinating new findings – like how clean smells promote moral behaviour and sports teams in black jerseys are given more penalties than teams in other colours – Thalma Lobel reveals how shockingly impressionable we are to sensory input from the world around us.

Sensation is the first book to show how vulnerable we are to the unconscious influence of our senses over our minds.


To WIN a copy of this book, just leave a comment before the end of Wednesday 1 October, and then I will pick out three random winners.

If you want to find out what I thought of Sensation, keep an eye on the blog for my review, coming shortly.

Book and film: “I just know that another kid has felt this”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky

I must admit that this book came on my radar because of the film, but both book and film sounded right up my street so I thought I’d check it out. I was completely right – this is a very sweet story. I’ll start with my thoughts on the book.

Charlie is starting high school and as a coping mechanism he starts writing anonymous letters about his life to a stranger, as an alternative to keeping a diary. He documents his discovery of girls, drugs, music and sex but this isn’t a straightforward coming of age tale.

“My brother started saying how my sister was just a ‘bitchy dyke.’ Then, my mom told my brother to not use such language in front of me, which was strange considering I am probably the only one in the family with a friend who is gay…
‘Are you high?’
And again my mom asked my brother not to use such language in front of me, which was strange again because I think I’m the only person in my family who’s ever been high…Then again, maybe my whole family has been high, and we just don’t tell each other these things.”

Charlie is socially awkward and, we gradually realise, suffers from some form of depression and/or other psychological disorder. What it is is never stated outright but there are hints that things in his past have affected him badly. He begins as a thorough outsider but gets taken under the wing of brother and sister Sam and Patrick, who cheerfully embrace alternative culture, in the form of music, drugs and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Charlie is also “adopted” by a schoolteacher who gives him extra books to read.

There are a lot of characters who are damaged in some way, often having suffered horribly as young children, and it is one of the book’s strengths that it acknowledges that this has affected them without making it define them. It is in many ways a joyous book about the good times of being a teenager, and yet serious issues are tackled.

“I just know that another kid has felt this…all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people.”

There are lots of books, songs and films referenced; music in particular is key to the friendships depicted. Which lends itself very nicely to, say, a film soundtrack.

In the world of book-versus-film-adaptation, this is a bit of an unusual case. It’s Chbosky’s only novel to date; he seems to have carved a career as a film and TV writer. Indeed, he wrote the screenplay for and directed the film of this book. So it’s unsurprising that it’s a pretty faithful adaptation, with the same tone and the same key moments.

There are some differences. Some plot strands are necessarily jettisoned, which makes the film less nuanced (I’m thinking particularly of Charlie’s brother and sister here, who both had bigger roles in the book). When reading the book I thought there were hints that Charlie might be autistic to some degree, but there was no sign of that in the film. In the film I felt that the Rocky Horror Picture Show got much more emphasis than I’d expected, which reminded me a lot of Fame (indeed, the two have a few things in common and might make a good double bill).

Overall, I enjoyed both film and book. Neither is a classic but they’re certainly better than average and do a good job of balancing tough subjects with a happy, even optimistic, attitude to life.

Published 1999 by MTV Books.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

A medium as unstable as words

The Alexandria Quartet
Book 1: Justine
by Lawrence Durrell

I had sort-of vaguely heard of the Quartet and then a couple of years ago I stumbled across these beautiful old Faber editions in Bristol’s excellent Beware of the Leopard book shop.

The Alexandria Quartet

Except they only had two of the four books. By chance, a few weeks later I found a matching third in another secondhand book shop. But no sign of a fourth. Cut forward almost two years to Tim buying me the the fourth book from Abe Books and I could finally start reading! By coincidence, 2012 would have been the year Durrell turned 100 years old so the Guardian Reading Group chose The Alexandria Quartet as its book for March (these days it is published as a single chunky volume), and through that I was able to garner some insights from people much cleverer than me as I went along.

Which helped. Because this is not a straightforward book. It is a pensive, thoughtful musing upon events an unknown time ago, in an unclear order, narrated by an unnamed narrator. The language is beautiful, evocative, poetic even. The true main character is the Egyptian city of Alexandria, at a guess in the 1930s, and Durrell lovingly brings to life the streets and waterways of this exotic mishmash of cultures. The people of the book are the city’s rich and educated few, so they come from all over the world and various walks of life.

The narration is jumbled throughout, but particularly so at the start. For several pages it skips from thought to thought, without explanation. Various names are mentioned but no-one properly introduced. Early on the narrator quotes the line “It is idle to go over all this in a medium as unstable as words” and later says “(I am inventing only the words.)”

And it continues like this, but with some of those thoughts being a memory, so that details are slowly filled in. Very slowly. It took me most of the book to figure out what its story is, and even then I feel a real pull to get started on the next book in the quartet to clarify some of the many details left partly obscured.

To give some idea of the story, the narrator was in a relationship with Melissa, an exotic dancer in a nightclub with frail health, but fell for Justine, the great Alexandrian socialite whose reputation for beauty and sexual intrigue goes before her, and who is married to the rich, powerful banker Nessim. The narrator and Justine embark on an affair, despite the narrator claiming to love Melissa absolutely and to be afraid of Nessim. From the start it is clear that things did not end well and the narration gradually gathers momentum as it builds towards the conclusion of this part of the story.

But the point isn’t the story. The point is the exquisite language. On the Guardian threads there was talk of the whole thing being more about psychoanalysis than characters in a story and perhaps if you know more than me about psychoanalysis that may be the case, but I loved all the characters and, unusually for me, was not bothered by the slowness of the emerging story. I was entranced by the words.

“Far-off events, transformed by memory, acquire a burnished brilliance because they are seen in isolation, divorced from the details of before and after, the fibres and wrappings of time. The actors, too, suffer a transformation; they sink slowly deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory like weighted bodies, finding at every level a new assessment, a new evaluation in the human heart.”

The narrator pulls his tale together from a number of sources, including his own journals, a novel written before he arrived in Alexandria about many of his friends there, and three of Justine’s diaries, which he has been given. He frequently quotes from these, even substituting names in the novel with those of his friends. So he is undoubtedly unreliable, and I am sure the subsequent books will contain multiple about-turns that will force me to re-evaluate what I have learned, or think I have learned, so far. I can’t wait.

First published 1957 by Faber & Faber.

See also: my reviews of
Book 2: Balthazar
Book 3: Mountolive
Book 4: Clea

Talking books

by Knut Hamsun
translated from Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad

A few months back I went along to a new book group at a local pub. I only found out about it a few days beforehand and didn’t even know which book they were discussing, so that was an odd start to the evening but it was a great night. I met some new people, found out more about my adopted city and talked a lot about books. The chosen book turned out to be Hunger, which was already on my TBR, and the discussion about it inspired me to dig it out and give it a try.

The unnamed narrator of Hunger (except for when he gives himself pseudonyms) is a young, struggling writer, battling with his pride and the difficulties of getting paid to write, with the result that he is often starving or even homeless. The lack of food and warmth plays with his mind and the story delves into a dark psychology that to me seemed far more advanced than its publication date of 1890.

The writing is brilliant, and draws you on even when the narrator is incomprehensible or the storyline particularly dark, both of which happen often. There are dozens or more moments that stand out as somehow key – sleeping out in the forest one night (which struck him as a romantic idea and a potential source of food but turned out to be cold, wet and a long walk from the city); trying to sell the buttons from his overcoat to a pawnbroker; turning down a food coupon because he has told the police he is a rich man who lost his key, though it seems that surely they see through that lie and the writer hasn’t eaten in so long…

I completely agree with the member of the book group who said that she often wanted to scream at the narrator, he’s so frustrating. Although his pride does wear down eventually, for a lot of the book it gets in the way of him getting money or food. I did sympathise to a certain point. He seems to find it funny to tell lies to random strangers, including policeman, which is sometimes entertaining but other times costs him dearly.

I also think that the narrator probably has serious psychological issues that may have preceded the starvation. He has extreme highs and lows, achieving euphoria in his hunger or his writing but also stark depression. It’s a pretty extreme experience being described and it affected me deeply that the high moments were such small, simple things like a sunny day or decent night’s sleep. Interestingly, I don’t think eating was ever described as particularly pleasurable. In fact, he often vomits because the rare food he gets he eats too quickly, or it’s too rich.

One thing we discussed at the book group was the question of translation. This book is old enough that it has been translated into English multiple times. There were three or four versions round the table. This could mean that members of our group had very different experiences from each other. I wonder if all those who liked it most read the same version?

Thanks Hombre Mediocre for the book choice and for starting the group. I look forward to our January meeting.

First published in Norway in 1890.
This translation first published by Canongate Books in 1996.

Bizarre like wasabi chocolate

The Character of Rain
by Amélie Nothomb
translated by Timothy Bent

I discovered Amélie Nothomb five or six years ago and I love her quirky style. Her books are novels and yet in most of them she casts herself as the main character and uses her own life for the bare bones of the story. She has a surreal sense of humour and, assuming any of it’s true, an interesting life to draw upon.

This book covers Nothomb’s first three years, which were spent in Japan where her father was the Belgian consul. The very fact that her main character is so young and yet narrates in the first person suggests that the story must be mostly fiction, and that’s before taking the heavy Kafka references into account.

The early part of the book covers the first two years in immensely strange fashion and could not possibly be considered to be a serious straight of-this-world story, but rather an odd analogy for the development of the ego – as I said, Kafkaesque. This is also borne out in the French title of the book: Métaphysiques des tubes – the Tube being her metaphor for a baby (things go in one end and come out the other, with not a lot else going on). I’m not sure if us Brits are considered less au fait with philosophy and the nature of things or if the UK publisher just found that title too plain weird.

The bulk of the book deals with the third year in the child’s life, giving the book an ending point that has particular significance in Japan. Traditionally the Japanese believe that children are gods until the age of three, at which point they fall from grace and join the rest of mankind. Nothomb briefly recounts this belief partway through the novel but it is clearly the basis for the entire story.

The child is introduced to us as God. As it becomes self-aware, it narrates as though the world revolves around it – “naming” people and objects, for example, through its first words. If these were truly the thoughts and actions of a two-year-old child it would be an extremely precocious toddler, and maybe Nothomb was, but more likely the far-too-adult speech is used to convey the point – the child gradually becoming aware of more of the world and, even at this early age, losing some of its security. There is also a lot of secrecy, of “me versus the world” which, as far as I remember, is a pretty accurate way of describing childhood.

There is an extent to which this book is also about Nothomb’s love for Japan. Her family left Japan when she was five and she returned there for a few years as an adult. The land of her birth clearly holds a special place in her heart and this is eloquently conveyed in the intense, passionate voice of the child.

The English title, by the way, has a neat little etymology of its own. “Rain” is one of the meanings of the kanji character for the child’s name (it would be interesting to know if the word actually is said “amelie” – anyone know?) so the title could just mean that this is about the development of a character called Rain. However, the child is also a water-lover and holds a particular fondness for heavy summer rain, imbuing it with various significances.

For a short book, this isn’t a light read but it is enjoyable and stays just this side of too plain weird for my taste.

First published in France in 2000 by Editions Albin Michel.
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Faber and Faber.