Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Recent Reads

Goat Song by Brad Kessler

I read this book as a time-out from life's daily stresses and wasn't disappointed. Got to know a lot about goats, too, and how cheese gets made. Lyrical writing embedded with sensitivity, interspersed with laughter.

"The nature of empathy bewilders me, how we can feel one way about certain animals and the opposite about others; how we can inflict pain and death on some and shower love on others and feel more deeply for an animal than a fellow human. Do we reserve pity as Aristotle says, only for those who suffer undeserved misfortune? Is that why it's easy to feel for a sick animal or an injured child, those who couldn't possibly have "deserved:" their misfortune? Or is all empathy cultural..."? (p. 144).

Split Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds by Kevin Dutton (pub. 2011).

It took a long time for me to get this book read, primarily because it reads more like an academic text than something written for the everyday Joe. But I stayed with it, because I knew it had important things to say about what it takes for people to be successful at persuasion. Some of the many case studies are quite revealing. I found Ch.7 on the best persuader of all--the psychopath--especially riveting. I hadn’t known that you can actually determine a psychopath via a brain MRI.

“Cases are won and lost not just on the strength of facts, but on impressions. A lot is achieved through the power of suggestion . . . . It’s not just about presenting the evidence. It’s about how you present it,” p. 250.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (pub. 2006) 

This is the widely successful book become movie.  If you read the reviews of lay readers at Amazon, you'll find the commentary decidedly negative.  Myself, I've mixed feelings.  Essentially a journal, it narrates Gilbert's year long quest to exit pain and find balance.  First traveling to Italy, she learns Italian and picks-up its cuisine; then India, where she pursues her spiritual quest to bring mind and body together; lastly, Indonesia, where she finds love.  Along the way, she is forthright about her troubled relationships and failed marriage.  While the book can be delightfully humorous, it often masquerades a deeper pain.  A garrulous writer, Gilbert sometimes takes us to places we don't need to go.  Do we really need to  know of her fondness for masturbating to fantasies of Bill Clinton?  The book's central weakness is that her spiritual quest often seems thrown to the curb.  Nonetheless, Gilbert can be spell-binding in her honesty, wit, and superlative skills in rendering life's sensuous feast.

"As the minutes pass, it feels to me like we are collectively pulling the year 2004 toward us. Like we have roped it with our music, and now we are hauling it across the night sky like it's a massive fishing net, brimming with all of our unknown destinies," p. 130.

Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific by R. V. Burgin (pub. 2010)

I bought the HBO series, The Pacific, last Christmas and wasn't disappointed. That's why I went on to read Burgin's account.  Burgin is one of the marines featured in the ministries, the guy who falls in love with the Australian gal..  If you want a rip-roaring read, a you-are-there experience, then you can't go wrong with this book.  Sadly, in war we often lose our sense of fellow-humanity.  I sense that here about Burgin, whose hate for the "Japs" is manifest on nearly every page.  His narrative, however,  explains its inevitability in is depiction of close combat, loss of friends, and endless savagery on the part of a determined enemy across the terrains of New Britain, Peleliu, and Okinawa.  It's war in all is hellishness.  Ironically, Peleliu and Iwo Jima (the latter not featured) may have been unnecessary to achieving victory over Japan.

"Beyond our ridge lay a shallow valley, then another ridge. whenever our men started to move forward, there was one particular Jap machine gun that would open up. Other enemy machine guns were firing that morning, but this one had us pinned down. He'd been waiting for us all night to cross the ridge and start down the other side," pp.  232-33.

Tropic of Cancer: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti (pub. 2011)

The title of the book got my attention. Having now read the book I confess to being disappointed. I’m a student of global warming and feel it represents the most formidable challenge ever to confront humanity. Parenti, however, has hijacked the issue to set up a Leftist platform for social change. Though the key concepts of mitigation (causes) and adaptation are sound, Parenti trenchantly argues that cold war strategy with its counterinsurgency efforts in Third World Countries has led to destabilization. Additionally, unbridled capitalism in concert with IMF and World Bank policy and NAFTA neoliberalism (i.e., advocacy of free trade and deregulation) have converged with climate change to create and exacerbate an incipient spectacle of poverty, starvation, and mass flight. To adapt, Northern Hemisphere nations need not only to abandon carbon based fuels, but redistribute their wealth, deescalate their violence, and avoid “climate fascism” with its politics “based on exclusion, segregation, and repression.” To his credit, Parenti does provide a mind-bending depiction of South Hemisphere Nations and their dismal future. Like most environmentalist, however, he leaves a gaping hole in excluding the exponential population growth that plays a central role in environmental degradation.

“The political economy of the world is unfair, and immigration is an increasingly challenging social issue that requires new policy—that is to say, climate adaptation based on social justice” (p. 215) “[and]. . .a formal agenda of economic redistribution on an international scale” (p. 226).

Complications: A surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Alui Gawande (pub. 2002)

This has to be one of the very best medical reads I’ve come across, if nothing else, because it's so honest, and thus sobering, in its appraisal of the current state of surgery, impressively done by an insider. Be aware that after reading this book you’ll likely think twice before glibly opting for surgery of any kind, at best, an imperfect approach fraught with misdiagnosis and human error. At times, diagnosis becomes simply going with the best hunch. Divided into three sections, the first, “Fallibility,” focuses on the fallibility of doctors, how even good doctors make mistakes, the nature of their training, and the trademarks of a good doctor; the second, "Mystery," with the abundant ambiguities intrinsic to medicine; the third, “Uncertainty,” on the frequent ethical dilemmas involved in medicine. Throughout the book in layman's language, Dr. Gawande escorts us into the professional lives of surgeons: research, conventions, hardware, case scenarios and even autopsies. Complications is an utterly compelling book you won’t put down.

“With all the recent advances in imaging and diagnostics, it’s hard to accept that we not only get the diagnosis wrong in two out of five of our patients, who die but that we have also failed to improve over time” (p. 407).