War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells
Narrated by Greg Wagland
Spoiler alert!

When a pod crashes just outside London, our intrepid observer (unnamed protagonist) is at first curious. He watches as a lid slowly unscrews itself, and an alien crawls out. He only makes a run for it when green lightening chases down the watching crowd, scorching them all to death. He runs home, takes his wife to an out-of-the-way town, and for some idiotic reason heads back home. The rest of the book is his adventures on the way back to his wife. It also contains a short couple of chapters about the adventures of his brother in London – just to add some greater perspective of the story. 

Despite the name of this story, War of the Worlds is about three pods that land in the London area it is not an en masse invasion. I think it’s interesting that yet again Wells wrote a book where the characters remain completely unnamed. Perhaps that’s meant to make the story more “autobiographical” or simply to say that events, not names, matter when something like this happens. I like to think of it as the second choice. 

If you’ve read past my spoiler alert, then you don’t mind if I mention that in the end of the book all of the aliens died from bacterial infection because they were not immune to disease on Earth. I think this ending was quite creative and forward thinking at the time. It also gives the reader a feeling of no control. No. We didn’t destroy the aliens with our brains and technology and sheer will to live. They were going to destroy us, and that’s that. But something completely out of our control is what saved us in the end. 

I thought this ending was quite fascinating when I read the book as a teenager. Then, when the Tom Cruise movie came out one of my friends told me “don’t see it, it has the stupidest ending, I’ve heard.” So I expected something really darned stupid to happen at the ending. When it ended, she turned to me to say “I told you so” when I pointed out that this is exactly how the book ended. She was like “it was based on a book?” That gave me a perspective that perhaps an ending outside of our control is too philosophical for most readers/movie watchers of the day? Perhaps we just want to see ourselves be in control of our own fate? 

I think it’s interesting to note that the ending to Independence Day also had a similar ending – a virus killed the aliens, but in this case it was technological warfare and not a biological infection that we had no control over. So metaphorical disease was there, just as in War of the Worlds, but the power was in our hands. 

I’m trying to think of some modern books (besides outwardly religious ones) where a similarly dire situation is turned around by something outside of our control. If I recall, there’s a very popular Stephen King novel that ends in a deus ex machina sort of way. 

The Biology of Desire, by Marc Lewis

The Biology of Desire, by Marc Lewis, narrated by Don Hagen
Neuroscientist and former addict Marc Lewis writes an engaging study of the biological changes that occur in an addicted brain, complete with personal stories about himself and several addicts that he interviewed. Lewis points out that there are two major models for addiction – the disease model and the choice model – and argues why he believes the disease model has outlived its use and is now harming rather than helping addicts. 

The disease model of addiction is highly accepted by clinicians, psychologists, and insurance companies right now. It posits that the more an addict uses a substance, the more his brain changes, and the more he needs the drug. Furthermore, some people have a biological preinclination for addiction – it doesn’t mean that they will become addicts, but the genetic preinclination raises their chance of becoming an addict under the right environmental stimulus. The combination of genetic factors and changes in the brain suggest to clinicians that addiction is a disease. A lot of money, therapy, and medication currently goes into treating addiction as a disease – often successfully.

Lewis argues, though, that changes in the brain and genetic preinclination do-not-a-disease-make. After all, every experience changes your brain – and some events, like falling in love, change your brain in much the same way addiction changes it. Furthermore, much as people have a preinclination for addiction, they also have a preinclination to temperament. For instance, an introverted, agreeable parent is more likely to have an introverted, agreeable child. Despite this heritability, temperament is not considered a disease. So why do we pick-and-choose which heritable brain-changing habits are a disease?

My answer is that addiction is considered a disease whereas in-love and temperament are not considered diseases because in-love and temperament do not generally cause clinically significant impairment in an individual’s ability to function in the workplace and social interactions. And when they do inhibit the individual’s ability to function, then they are considered a disease. 

Instead of the disease model, Lewis supports the “choice” model. People choose to abuse substances in the first place, and continue to make that choice. And when they give up the substance abuse, it is generally because they have chosen that now is the right time to give it up. 

Lewis spends the great part of this book describing why he feels viewing addiction as a disease is harmful to addicts as well as unhelpful for treatment. When an addict views his problem as a disease, then he might feel helpless to make his situation better. Whereas if he views it as a choice, he recognizes that he has power over this problem. You might notice that this is in stark contrast to the first step of AA in which the addict accepts that he is powerless over his addiction. In fact, in the stories of Lewis’ interviewees, none of them mentioned AA or NA as a helpful tool for stopping their addiction. 

Lewis also points out that although medication and therapy generally help the individual to give up alcohol to begin with, there is a very high relapse rate. And that is because although the individual doesn’t want the negative effects of his addiction, he has not yet accepted the choice to give up the drug.

Lewis claims that many people view the choice model and the disease model as mutually exclusive, but he believes that they are not. I would tend to agree with him on this. I don’t see the harm in viewing addiction as a disease – in fact, I think this model would be very helpful to a certain subset of addicts – it provides them a reason to say “this is not my fault, I have a disease, and I need to live as healthy a life as I can in order to not let it ruin my life.” But I also think the choice model is helpful to another subset of addicts – it provides them the ability to say “I have the power to choose not to use. I am not powerless.”

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map

Written by Steven Johnson, Narrated by Alan Sklar

Reason for Reading: Science, Religion, and History group read

Genre: Non-fiction – Medicine and History

The Ghost Map follows Dr. John Snow on his quest to discover the cause of a terrible cholera outbreak in Victorian England. Johnson makes investigative epidemiology so interesting that I could almost see it dramatized (and fictionalized) into a TV show – people DO love their investigative TV! 🙂 But that’s beside the point, I guess. At the time of this outbreak in 1854, the popular theory for the spread of cholera was miasma – deathly air that carried disease. After a LOT of investigative footwork, Snow drew a map of the cholera outbreak, demonstrating that the pattern followed streets that led to a particular well (the Broad Street pump) rather than following a circular pattern you’d expect with the spread of bad air. This map, and the investigation leading up to its creation, revolutionized epidemiology. In fact, many consider Snow the “first epidemiologist.” 

I really enjoyed this book. The writing was engaging (it had a few boring parts in the end when Johnson was describing the map in great detail – I think that may be a problem with listening to the audio book rather than actually reading it, though). The subject was fascinating. Sklar did a good job of narrating the book, and except for the very end with the description of the map, I was quite pleased with the book’s audio version. If you have any interest in epidemiology, or the history of medicine, I highly recommend this book.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

2012 Book 22: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2/5/2012)

Reason for Reading: This book was recommended by a couple of friends. It’s been on Mt. TBR for quite a while now.

My Review: 4/5 stars
One Hundred Years of Solitude chronicles 100 years of a family (of Buendia) and a village (city) that the “first of the family line” founded. The prose is lyrical and flows as smoothly as a river. That is, sometimes there are rapids and other times calm. The genre is magical realism, and it is fascinating watching the magic evolve with the family and village. After finishing this book, I’m not 100% certain what Marquez meant by it, though. It has anti-war and anti-oppressive-regime themes, but there’s something more that I haven’t quite put my finger on yet. I may need to re-read it after letting it settle for a while.

The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

2012 Book 12: The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (1/25/2012).

The Emperor of All Maladies is a sweeping “biography” of cancer covering archeological/ancient history to present-day. It is very well-informed, well written, and thorough. Definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in the history of cancer or medicine. Well-deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 2011. I think it was written with the popular reader in mind (he DOES tell us what DNA is at the beginning of the book), but the book quickly delves into terminology and topics that I suspect would be very heavy to someone who doesn’t already know a little about biology/medicine. This is especially true in the second half of the book. Mukherjee also is SO thorough that the book becomes extremely long, which is difficult for those of us with a short attention span. Also, I got great amusement out of his formulaically inserted personal patient pieces. It was good that he had them (they broke up the difficult scientific passages) but I could tell that they were written by a scientist and not a journalist (i.e. they were comprised of literal rather than emotive descriptions). Being a scientist myself, this made me chuckle (alas! an emotion). However, I think the personal patient pieces were interesting and elicited enough emotion to engage the readers. They worked for me, anyway. 4/5 stars.