Big Little Lies (Liane Moriarty)


This is a complex book on many levels, dealing with many topics, including the challenges of single motherhood, the politics of parents’ activities at school, healing from sexual trauma, and school bullying.  I’d like to mention just one aspect, though: the way in which  behavior difficulties can be passed from generation to generation.  I’ve known at an intellectual level that children who witness domestic violence are more likely to be aggressive themselves by becoming bullies at school.  But I never appreciated it at an emotional level, and ‘Big Little Lies’ truly brought this home to me.  Liane Moriarty also speculates that being bullied as a child leads to causing domestic violence as an adult.  My reading is that this is less clear in long-term studies.  Children who are bullied tend to grow up with depression and anxiety, and even physical markers of stress such as higher levels of C Reactive Protein, but also with a great deal of anger, which could potentially be expressed in unfortunate ways.  But there is plenty of data that witnessing violence in the home is associated with bullying, which is expressed here in the way that a novel can reach deeply inside us more vividly than the most rigorous scientific study.


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Anagrams (Lorrie Moore)


Lorrie Moore’s 1986 book ‘Anagrams’ tells the story of the on-again, off-again  relationship between Benna, who teaches poetry at a community college, and Gerard, a would-be opera singer who is a carpet salesman by day, and a pianist at the Holiday Inn lounge by night. It deals with many themes, among them the hazards of living too much in your imagination, the risks of unrealistic ambitions, and others, but I’d like to mention a single one which spoke to me.  Both characters are fascinated by language, and humor.  While Gerard tends toward silly jokes (“What did one lady cannibal say to the other lady cannibal?” he’s now asking. “ ‘Boy, is my husband in hot water!’ ”), Benna loves to make anagrams out of words that really don’t qualify (moonscape and menopause) and delights in puns. Her daughter’s faithfulness to shredded wheat is ‘cereal monogamy’. Holding an egg roll, she remarks: ‘I am a wok, I am an island’.  

Though corny in a sense, there is something behind it that caught my attention— the pleasure she takes in words and sentences.  To me, language has largely been a means of conveying information, or perhaps of telling stories.  It was a refreshing reminder that it is also a source of pleasure, in and of itself.

Moore also has some interesting insights.  Benna, who grew up in a trailer, comments several times that her mother had no illusions, and didn’t want her children to have any.  At the end of the book, leaving in a taxi to the airport for a lonely winter vacation, she recalls:  ‘Santa Claus is a spirit that lives in your heart, her mother had told her, not believing it right to hoodwink children. But perhaps her mother had been wrong. Perhaps sitting in a taxicab like this on Christmas there was no spirit in your heart. Perhaps there was only an old man, ridiculous and fat, who came into your house through your chimney, too moronic even to use the door.’ To me, the several cases in which she turns around accepted ideas and looks at them in different ways, even if sad, made it a worthwhile read.


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Into the beautiful north (Luis Alberto Urrea)


Having recently finished Luis Alberto Urrea’s ‘House of Broken Angels’, a multigenerational story of the final days of Big Angel, the patriarch of a Latino San Diego family, I opened ‘Into the Beautiful North’.  It is a very different kind of book.  Instead of the summing up of life in old age, it is a story of youth and adventure.  Its heroine is Nayeli, an athletic nineteen year old living in the Mexican Pacific coastal village of Tres Camarones.  She comes to realize that her village faces twin problems: as all the men have gone north to the US, there are no longer babies, and no one to protect the villagers from banditos, the corrupt police and narcotics agents. At about this time the watches ‘The Magnificent Seven’, in which Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen heroically save a village from the bad guys.  Inspired, she sets off the US to find Mexican men to return to Tres Camarones, and at the same time to find her father who years ago left the family and moved to Kankakee, Michigan.    Accompanied by her boss at the taco shop at which she works and two girlfriends, she sets out north on her quest.  In the process, she meets a variety of quirky characters, experiences both the cruelty and terror of crossing the border, but also kindness from unlikely sources along the way.  The book is many things, both a traditional quest tale, a re-telling of ‘The Seven Samurai’, and a study of bravery.  As in much of Urrea’s work, it starts with the life of immigrants, but in its own way reaches beyond to tell a much broader story. 


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Breathe better, sleep better (Anandi)


I am very interested in non-medicine ways of helping sleep, so was very intrigued to come across ‘Breathe better, sleep better’.  Alison Francis, writing under the name Anandi, describes her experiences with insomnia over the course of 15 years, as well as her experiences with a form of yoga centered on breathing as a way to well being and better sleep.

Phrased in my (hopelessly Western) way, yoga can be seen as a multicomponent practice  involving  physical poses, greater awareness and regulation of breathing, and relaxation/meditation, with different schools emphasizing these different parts.  It been shown to decrease arousal and exaggerated stress responses.  Some studies have shown amelioration of depressive symptoms, and some preliminary studies have shown improvement of insomnia (1). Enough data appear to be available for the U.S. National Sleep Foundation to recommend it for insomnia (2).

In this book, Anandi describes the yogi traditions of prana, the energy force of life, and the vayu, the aspect of prana related to breathing.  She says ‘At last I found that the breath was my teacher, not the obsession I developed for getting myself into even more challenging yoga poses.’ From that beginning she created a five week program of exercises, which she describes clearly. It is a thoughtful book, well written and gives a sense of caring as she makes a strong case for understanding the role of breathing in well being.


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A horse walks into a bar (David Grossman)


‘A horse walks into a bar’  is on the surface the performance of an Israeli stand-up comic in a small-time nightspot. The audience, not surprisingly, is expecting comedy— and it gets it— but the jokes are interspersed with his story of growing up, and his feelings of desolation at the death of his mother, while at age 14 he is away at a military preparatory training camp.  As the evening progresses, we realize this is his last performance, and that he invited a childhood friend, now a retired judge, to see it and presumably pass judgment.  A number of interesting things come up in the narrative.  One that struck me is that then the camp commander was notified of Dov’s mother’s death, he immediately made arrangements for him to be transported to the funeral, but none of the staff actually told him what had happened.  His only knowledge was that he overheard one of them refer to him as ‘the orphan’.  On the long drive to the funeral, the driver is uncomfortable, since the topic of death seems overwhelming, so he tells jokes.  Though Dov never quite says it, one wonders if this led to his lifelong profession of telling jokes as a way of dealing with loss.  

The audience, expecting a lot of laughs, doesn’t know how to react to Dov’s performance. Over the course of the evening, some get up to leave.  Others are intrigued by what is happening. To me, it is a good example of how we develop narratives to make sense of our lives.  As John Sutherland put it, ‘Human beings are storytelling animals’.  ‘A horse walks into a bar’ envisions how one man found a unique venue to tell his story.


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On going home again


‘Less’, a novel by Andrew Sean Greer, has an interesting passage I thought I’d share with you. A man, having left his older lover, realizes that while he has moved on, he always believed that the man he left behind hasn’t changed and is still right there waiting for him. ‘I hadn’t known that I assumed he would wait there forever in that white bed below his window. I hadn’t known I needed him there. Like a landmark, a pyramid-shaped stone or a cypress, that we assume will never move. So we can find our way home. And then, inevitably, one day—it’s gone. And we realize that we thought we were the only changing thing, the only variable, in the world; that the objects and people in our lives are there for our pleasure, like the playing pieces of a game, and cannot move of their own accord; that they are held in place by our need for them, by our love. How stupid.’

I thought this was interestng, as it’s an experience many of us have.  If we close a door and move on to something else, there’s a tendency to imagine that the places and people we no longer see are in a kind of time warp, unchanging, while we go on to other things.  It can be a disconcerting surprise, then to discover that they, like you, have continued to change, and likely are no longer as we remember them.  Home is a moving target.  A cherished childhood house has new occupants. A person we left behind has gone on to have their own experiences.  It makes you realize that ‘home’ is a memory inside you, not a place or person, now undoubtedly changed. But it’s still possible to get comfort from the memory of home.


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'The Sleeper and the Spindle' (Neil Gaimon)


Having spent most of my life studying people who either sleep too little or too much, I was naturally intrigued by the title of  'The sleeper and the spindle'. In it, a young queen learns that in the neighboring kingdom there is a kind of sleeping sickness, which is rapidly expanding and will soon threaten her own territory.  Though on the threshold of a wedding about which she has mixed feelings, she dons her armor, and escorted by three dwarves (the first hint that she herself was once Snow White, long-since awakened) travels to the other kingdom in search of an enchanted castle surrounded by thorns.  There she finds a beautiful young woman in an endless sleep, whom she awakens with a kiss. Now the story takes another twist: the awakened beauty turns out not to be an innocent victim, but rather (without giving too much away) is a malevolent figure, who ultimately gets her just comeuppance. The queen, having saved her kingdom from the sleeping sickness, makes some decisions of her own.  Instead of returning to marry her handsome prince, she rides off with the dwarf sidekicks, in search of new adventures.

Gaimon, then, has woven together two fairy tales, 'Snow White' and 'Sleeping Beauty'.  Both in their original forms portray beautiful young women who are passively asleep, awaiting a man's kiss to save them. In his telling, Snow White grows into a capable, active figure who can conquer castles and save others with her own kiss, before riding off to explore the world.  Even more interesting to me is the sleeping beauty, who in my Disneyfied view was always such a sweet innocent victim, who turns out to be something else entirely.  I realize there is a large scholarly literature on the dark side of fairy tales, but what a great reminder that Gaimon has given us that things are not always what they seem.


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'The Science of Sleep'


I'm happy to say that my new book, ‘The Science of Sleep', is now available. In it, I've tried to describe the basic science and sleep physiology which make it easier to understand sleep disorders and their treatments.  It is lavishly illustrated with both graphics which present the science visually as well as artworks which make a point about some aspect of sleep. I hope you enjoy it! 

Ordering information:
       It can be obtained in both print and electronic editions at the University of Chicago Press websire:

      For ordering the print edition in the US, the Amazon link is:

      For ordering the print edition published by Ivy Press in the UK, the Amazon link is:


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Heroes of the frontier (Dave Eggers)


I realize I've only recently reviewed Dave Egger's 'A hologram for the king', but thought this one as well is worth briefly describing. Like 'Hologram', this is about the spiritual growth of a middle aged person on a trip far from home.  This time the main character is Josie, a forty-something dentist, who is fleeing a relationship with Carl, her live-in lover of many years who has moved to Florida and is now engaged to a younger woman, her dental practice which is being destroyed by a malpractice suit, and the stultifying life in a small Ohio town.  She goes to Alaska, as far as she can go in America without leaving the continent, and travels in a rented RV known as 'the Chateau' with her eight year old son and five year old daughter.  In a way, it is a 'road trip story', a  picaresque chronicle of her dealing with all sorts of eccentric characters. There was 'Grenada Jim' the ex-marine RV park manager with whom she had a brief liaison in a lawn chair outside her camper, Charlie, who loves magic shows on cruise ships, and the prison inmate conscripted into being a temporary fireman, who fixed her flat tire.  And then there were confrontations with forest fires, avalanches and snowstorms. The interesting thing is that what began as an attempt to escape gradually turns into self-discovery. She learns that what she had been looking for outside in another person could actually be inside herself: 'Josie knew, then, that better than searching for a person of courage—she’d been on this search for years, dear god—better and possibly easier than searching for such people in the extant world was to create them. She didn’t need to find humans of integrity and courage. She needed to make them.' Like all good books, this one can be read on different levels. It is an entertaining account of madcap adventures up north, and at the same time is a story of personal growth. And lest it seem too simple, at the end, as Josie, having successfully battled a snowstorm warms herself in front of a fire, feeling content, the author reminds us: 'But then there is tomorrow.'


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A hologram for the king (Dave Eggers)


Dave Eggers' 2012 novel 'A hologram for the king' is the story of Alan Clay, an American representative of a high tech company, sent to Saudi Arabia to obtain a contract for IT services.   The plan is to travel to the new 'King Abdullah Economic City' (KAEC for short), for a sales presentation which includes an interview with a London executive who appears as a holographic figure on the stage.  Alan, who has confidence in sales going back to early days in the Fuller Brush Company and then as an executive in Schwinn Bicycles, has confidence he can sell anything, and has the additional advantage of having briefly known one of the king's nephews many years earlier.  
Alas, he is in for a surprise.  It turns out that the fabled Economic City is a mostly empty construction site far away in the desert, consisting of a black office building, a pink condo building and an information center.  He and his staff are placed in an un-air conditioned tent with only intermittent wifi with which to create their high tech presentation. He wonders when he can expect the king:  
'—So days, weeks? he asked. —Yes, they said.'
       As Alan waits day after day, we learn much more about him.  It turns out that he is in bad shape financially.  As an executive of Schwinn Bicycles, he had pushed for moving the manufacturing overseas, only to ultimately find himself without a job.  He is in debt after a subsequent ill-fated effort to build custom bicycles near Boston, and can't find the money to pay for his daughter's forthcoming college tuition.   
Throughout the seemingly endless waiting, Alan keeps up hope, ignoring hints about the growing economic ties between Saudia Arabia and the Chinese.  One day the King arrives.  He watches the holographic presentation, and leaves without a comment, not even giving Alan a chance to mention his knowing the royal nephew. Alan watches the King go to the black office building, in front of which are vans with Chinese lettering. Shortly afterwards, the King emerges with some Chinese businessmen, shakes hands warmly, and departs in the royal limousine. The Chinese, who did not have to wait in the desert tent, and had known just when the king would arrive, have gotten the contract.
Throughout this time, two inter-related themes have been dominant-- waiting, and hope.  The reader is inevitably reminded of Samuel Beckett's 1953 absurdist play 'Waiting for Godot', and just to make sure, Eggers quotes it in the epigraph: 'It is not every day that we are needed.'  But of course, part of waiting is hope, and Alan Clay is the champion of hope.  Even after the King has left, Alan is reluctant to go home.  He  talks to the Saudi representative, saying perhaps there are other services he could provide, other companies whose services he could present.  The representative says this is possible and that he will look into it.
   'He wasn’t being sent away, after all, and he couldn’t go home yet, not empty handed like this. So he would stay. He had to. Otherwise who would be here when the King came again?'
Like any good book, this one can be read on many different levels.  One way of seeing it is as a commentary on the naïveté of the American businessmen, who think that the lights and sounds of a fancy holographic show will be all it takes to wow the more innocent Saudis.  In reality, the Saudis are not so easily manipulated, have controlled the game from the beginning, and have have achieved the end they wanted.
Another level on which I'd like to focus is the persistence of Alan's hopefulness, which seems both impressive and sad at the same time. Thornton Wilder captured both aspects of it in 'The Eighth Day': 'Hope, like faith, is nothing if it is not courageous; it is nothing if it is not ridiculous.'  Alan has been compared to the hapless Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a salesman'. But Willy's unrealistic expectations lead only to a sad death, while Alan's hopes sustain him, even in the face of overwhelmingly poor odds.  My own reading is that this flawed man's faith that if only he tries hard enough, one day things will get better, is an important part of being human, and even heroic


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