Reviews

Book reviews from the August issue.

Thinking deeper
The Intercultural Mind: Connecting Culture, Cognition and Global Living
Joseph Shaules 

I had expected this book to be mostly aimed at those who work and study abroad and want not just to survive their time away, but to get the most out of it. I was pleasantly surprised that this vastly oversimplifies what the author has actually achieved.

Much like culture itself, this book works on a number of levels. While it does help those who find it difficult coping with being abroad to understand why, Shaules also pulls together an overview of both the influences on the unconscious mind and how this in turn impacts on our interactions with the world.

Although it is written to be accessible to those with little knowledge of psychology, to those that have some knowledge of the subject it is a fascinating case study. Fittingly, for a book on interculturalism, the reader is taken on an enthusiastic and intriguing journey through a surprisingly wide array of sources, weaving a picture of our understanding of our unconscious mind. It was a great pleasure to see familiar cases, such as the oft-cited Phineas Gage, the much studied workings of perception and the use of fMRI all knitted together with the work of Kahneman, plus the author’s, and his students’, own experiences and anecdotes. It all builds to the conclusion that not just our cultural outlook, but all of our thinking is shaped and influenced in a myriad of nuanced and subtle ways that we aren’t even aware of.

This isn’t Shaules first book on the subject. He is clearly both an expert in and passionate about helping people understand the influence their own cultural viewpoint can have. Interestingly, it is written by an American living in Tokyo, which gives the book an occasional slightly American slant, providing an incidental example of interculturalism in action.

Shaules states upfront that culture itself is nebulous concept that is difficult to define, but each chapter ends with definitions of the key concepts as well as a discussion quote taken from withinthe preceding chapter.

With applications outside of the field of international travel and the classroom it is well worth a read to see familiar psychological studies applied to a specific subject in a lively and practical way.

Intercultural Press; 2015; Pb £14.99
Reviewed by Louise Beaton who is an Open University psychology graduate

 

Finding expression
Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music
James Rhodes

This book is the product of a child’s battle to find escape and then meaning from unimaginable hurt to the body and self. James Rhodes was regularly abused by a male school teacher from the age of six. He is now a classical pianist, but still fighting to express his feelings – the Supreme Court recently overturned his ex-wife’s injunction to prevent him publishing (she wanted to protect their son from his father’s distress).

One broadsheet critic complained that the memoir is ‘monotonous’ and teaches us little about Rhodes’s early years and family. Although it may be a literary ‘recitative’ – conversational and frenetic, as if he is in the consulting room – it offers a genuine illustration of the impact of trauma on the human psyche. Children who are groomed, betrayed, exploited and threatened do become disconnected from their families, memories and experiences. Their behaviour is often a monotonous cycle of vulnerability, rejection, shame, blame and helplessness. Discord replaces the harmony and real joy in relationships. Trauma that has no explanation overshadows every aspect of life and tempts destruction of that life. Rhodes shows us the painful truth, and we can either stay with it, or complain that we have heard it all before and demand he offers us a bit of variety. Children who have been abused need people who can stick with them
and bear their repetitions.

This then, is an important memoir psychologically, as it eloquently illustrates the trajectory from sexual abuse that is never properly recognised, to dysfunctional relationships and serious mental health problems.

It also underlines the need for child victims to find expression (classical music in Rhodes’s case), a meaningful narrative and attuned healthy connection with others in order to be able to live with the damaged self. In common with many traumatised children, Rhodes demonstrates that he has not lost the spirit and creativity that draws his audience in and engenders hope. His memoir may not be a work of technical literary note, but it is surely an enlightening piece in terms of the lifelong psychological, social and physical cost of ‘child rape’ as Rhodes more accurately describes his experience.

Canongate; 2015; Hb £16.99
Reviewed by Lynne Hipkin who is a Registered Clinical Psychologist in independent practice and with Kate Cairns Associates

 

Heartwarming
Our Time of Day: My Life with Corin Redgrave
Kika Markham

The late Corin Redgrave, an actor and political activist, was 65 when he suffered a severe heart attack, which led to an anoxic brain injury. In this honest and moving memoir, his wife Kika Markham describes their upbringings and life together prior to his brain injury, before detailing the devastating effect the brain injury had upon Corin and the rest of the family.

Many typical symptoms of a brain injury are touched upon throughout the memoir, such as disinhibition and cognitive difficulties. Corin’s extensive memory problems are evident when he admits he has forgotten his life with Kika. A poignant theme throughout is Kika’s ongoing dilemma; wanting her husband home but being afraid of having to care for him.

The featured extracts from Corin’s journal offer an insight into the thoughts and feelings of an individual with a brain injury. In these extracts, he expresses his disorientation and confusion. It was interesting how, despite these deficits, Corin was able to return to work, showing the often seen disparities between cognitive and functional abilities.

This engaging and thought-provoking book serves to remind practitioners of the enormous strain families come under caring for their relatives. The compassion the family shows for one another in these circumstances is heartwarming. Kika aimed to give comfort to families going through similar experiences: this she does with her accessible and direct writing style.

Oberon Books; 2014; Hb £16.99
Reviewed by Natalie Jones who is an Assistant Psychologist, St Andrew’s Healthcare

 

A book for all
Landmarks
Robert Macfarlane

‘This is a book about the power of language – strong style, single words – to shape our sense of place.’ So begins this field guide to the literature Macfarlane loves, which doubles as a word hoard of wood, water and earth. There are thousands of terms from dozens of languages and dialects for specific aspects of landscape, nature and weather. That specificity is key – Macfarlane writes about writing ‘so fierce in its focus that it can change the vision of its reader for good, in both senses’. And his own precision achieves just that… there are not many books I would call life-changing, but this is one.

As with any good magician, I couldn’t begin to describe how Macfarlane operates. How does he, and each author he reveres, conjure a thicket of verbs, qualifiers and metaphors, yet simultaneously slash through sentences to reveal simple and striking images? I am so in thrall of him that the idea of ‘reviewing’ his work is laughable. All I can do is offer a particular example of why this book should be required reading for psychologists as well as for lovers of language.

Macfarlane fantasises about the existence of a ‘Counter-Desecration Phrasebook that would comprehend the world’, a ‘glossary of enchantment for the whole earth’. This is no academic exercise: ‘once a landscape goes undescribed and therefore unregarded,’ writes Macfarlane, ‘it becomes more vulnerable to unwise use or improper action’. This is what happened on the Brindled Moor of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. In 2004 the engineering company AMEC proposed Europe’s largest wind farm, beginning a three-and-a-half-year battle over the nature and the future of the moor. At the heart of the struggle was language: those for the development dismissed the island’s interior as ‘a wilderness’, ‘abominable’, ‘a vast, dead place’. The islanders, around 80 per cent of whom expressed opposition to the plans, realised they faced a daunting task where, in the words of islander Finlay MacLeod, ‘the necessary concepts and vocabulary are not to hand; it is therefore difficult to make a case for conservation without sounding either wet or extreme’.

So the islanders began to salvage and create accounts – through narrative, poems, paintings, photographs, maps and more – which might restore both particularity and mystery to the moor. One of these ‘moor-works’ was made by Anne Campbell and Jon MacLeod, a booklet entitled A-mach an Gleann, or ‘A known wilderness’. They mapped their moor walks, reconstructing the memory maps of ‘the people who traversed this landscape before and after the peat grew, naming features to navigate their way round’. In this way they filled the island with ‘drifts of sparkling bog-cotton, ‘scarlet damselflies’ and hundreds of words for peat alone. Amidst 10,924 letters of objection, the moor was saved.

Macfarlane quotes Tim Dee: ‘Without a name made in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds and our hearts.’ That is why this is a book for all – it gives a glossary for the natural world to talk back, and for us to listen. Words, wherever or however we use them, can ‘keep us from slipping off into abstract space’.

Hamish Hamilton; 2015; Hb £20.00
Reviewed by Dr Jon Sutton who is Managing Editor of The Psychologist

 

A manual for better living
Science for Life
Brian Clegg

This is a very sensible little book, despite its being written in a style as accessible as most health journalism. Within the first few hundred words, some very prudent advice has been given. This, for example, on diet: ‘Don't eat too much – if you are putting on weight, eat less. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables (and don’t make them into smoothies as this ruins the valuable fibre)… It’s not strictly part of a diet, but add “don’t smoke” and “take sensible exercise” and you’ve got an instant health plan.’ Which sounds as reasonable as something that Michael Pollan may write, yet in this book the edicts are backed by evidence stronger than anecdote.

A few wise rules are reiterated. Correlation is not causation. Take journalism reports with a pinch of salt. In a kind of hybrid of an anti-Daily Mail and the debunking of headlines that @NHSchoices occasionally provides, the author reminds us that the endless task of sorting every item into the binary categories of things that cure and things that cause cancer is creating a false dichotomy. He reads the research papers that are the germ behind the headlines, including the up-to-date stories such as diet fizzy drinks causing weight gain and diabetes that hit the tabloids at the end of 2014, and summarises the original research.

The book is not purely about diet and health – though this will be a popular section. There is also advice on the environment, psychology, knuckle-cracking, TV violence and wine critics. Short chapters drill down to the real knowns on self-esteem and the Mozart effect (the study that sales of Baby Mozart CDs are predicated upon was only done on students). One essay considers the way that we all use patterns and heuristics to navigate the world and, with a grimace-making flourish, highlights the annual cost of my workday coffee habit.

And herein lies the issue that could dismay the many authors and publishers: despite whole genres of diet books and self-help it seems that just one smallish book can summarise the whole of current knowledge on how to live well and that it can do so rather better than most.

Icon; 2015; Hb £16.99
Reviewed by Sally-Ann S. Price FRCS who is Neurosurgery Senior Registrar, Southmead, Bristol

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