Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 1 of 2)

Tracker – Alexis Wright

How do you go about writing the autobiography of a man who was larger than life? The short answer is, you don’t. Tracker is not neat, linear life story told in a single voice. Rather, it is a “collective memoir”, drawing upon the ancient traditions of oral histories, whereby one man’s incredible life is related through the stories of dozens of people. Alexis Wright is not a narrator, but a collaborator, bringing together friends, family members, colleagues, politicians, and countless others to paint a portrait – detailed, contradictory, and powerful – of one of Australia’s most beloved Aboriginal leaders.

Tracker Tilmouth was born in 1954, in the latter years of the White Australia policy. He was one of the Stolen Generation, removed from his family at three years old, and raised on the Croker Island Mission. He went on to become the country’s most powerful advocate for the social, legal and economic advancement of Aboriginal Australians, working with the Central Land Council and other organisations in Queensland and the Northern Territory, until his death in 2015.

Alexis Wright has carefully pieced together his life story from the recollections and statements of over fifty contributors, each carefully selected and approved by Tracker before his death. The effect is something like sitting around the dinner table after a large family reunion, listening to everyone hash over their histories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The strongest speaker, though, is Tracker. He is instantly beguiling, his distinctive “voice” booming loud and large from the page.

That’s not an artifact, it would seem: it was how Tracker did business. He was charismatic, skilled in the art of tailoring his message for the listener, informal and crass at times but always disarming with his good-natured humour. He was multi-lingual, able to converse in several Indigenous languages as well as Australian English, and this fluidity of language allowed him to act as a conduit, and a mediator, between groups. Even where all parties shared a common language, Tracker still managed to form bridges across political and cultural divides; he was determined, in every circumstance possible, to create an environment where people felt they could talk to him, and to each other, as a way of finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.





Tracker is a long(!) book, one that requires close and attentive reading over an extended period. Even though I was deeply engaged in the content and very interested in Tracker’s life and perspective, some parts dragged, which I guess would be the nature of any biography told in multiple voices (not all of them will resonate equally for every reader). It follows rough timeline, as you might expect of a biography, in that it starts with childhood and follows the trajectory of Tracker’s life and career. That said, it’s only very loosely structured. Sometimes, the same events are revisited and re-told from different perspectives, the pieces of the puzzle pushed together in a new way to form a different picture. This all seems to emerge organically from the mode of storytelling, rather than being forced or engineered as some kind of gimmick.

Wright doesn’t intervene as a narrator at any stage (she’s so absent from the narrative that where she is referred to at all, it is in third-person), which means there is no umpire adjudicating for the reader the contradictions between the different versions of events, and the different descriptions of Tracker. And it’s not all glowing, let me assure you: Tracker is, at times, criticised for his derision, his sexism, and (for want of a better word) his lack of polish. He was “certainly not politically correct by the standards of polite white civility”, and so it’s hardly surprising he ruffled a lot of feathers.

Where the first half of Tracker focuses mainly on events and achievements in Tracker’s life, the second focuses more on his philosophy, his ideas, and his insights. It’s not dense sociopolitical commentary, mind you – just an airing of Tracker’s vision for economic, social, and legal self-determination for Indigenous Australians. For him, it wasn’t just about the legal ruling or the funding approval for an initiative, it was about the practical impacts for the community, what a given decision or action would actually do to combat the entrenched inequality that still exists in Australia. For all the unwieldy complexity of the issues and challenges he took on, he boiled almost everything down to financial independence: “If it isn’t economically sustainable, it won’t work”. That might not be a popular view in today’s climate, reducing cultural continuation to dollars and cents, and it’s one I approached with much skepticism – but I’ve got to say, Tracker’s way of winning people over is just as effective on the page as it was in life.

Tracker also presents his views on the ever-timely issue of constitutional recognition:

“It is not our constitution, it is their constitution. If you want to be invited to a shit sandwich, off you go. It is not ours, it has nothing to do with us. So we have the stupidity of recognition. What do you recognise? You recognise we own it? If you want to recognise we own it all, give us a treaty. Give us our rights. Give us our property rights. Return the stolen land. Do those sorts of things. Do not talk to us about recognising us because you can do that on a piece of paper, it is not going to mean anything.”

Page 407

This view surprised me a little – not the sentiment, but the vehemence of it – as did his views on the Greens and other environmentalist groups. Tracker pointed out a lot of problems in the ethos of these organisations that I’m privileged enough not to have had to consider previously. For me, Tracker really highlighted – in a way we don’t see often enough – the heterogeneity of “the Indigenous community”. Just like there are a broad range of views within “the gay community” or “the Muslim community”, the First Nations people are a diverse group with diverse views. That kind of nuance is too often lost when, as we’ve seen recently, they’re forced front and center of a political debate.





Another surprise: Tracker was a far less emotional read than I was expecting. Most of the contributors presented their stories in a matter-of-fact way, without the grief-stricken lyrical waxing I suppose I’m conditioned to expect from what is, in effect, a eulogy. This is not a book that sobs into the reader’s shoulder about how sad it is that such a brilliant man faced such hardship, and was lost so young (though it is, of course, extremely sad) – rather, it’s a careful record of the “facts” of a fragmented history, and in some ways, that is perhaps a more fitting tribute.

For her efforts and vision, Wright won the Stella Prize in 2018. It’s hard to imagine that a life as large and far-reaching as Tracker Tilmouth’s could have been captured in writing in any other way, and I’m glad that the literary community has recognised this stunning, epic achievement. I’ll leave the last word to her:

“Tracker was the one who made us look more, and work harder… The holes in this book are the missing stories of hundreds of people who knew Tracker. You can go anywhere in this country and there will always be someone with a great story to tell about Tracker, of something he said or did. Keep sharing those stories. Embellish them. Make his stories your own story. Most of all, be the story. That is what he would have wanted.”

Acknowledgements (Page 617-18)



Religion For Atheists – Alain de Botton

I can honestly say that since I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, I haven’t DNF’d a single book (that’s did-not-finish, for those of you playing at home). I just don’t feel like I can bring you an honest and fair review without having slogged all the way through, even the ones I’m not enjoying. Before I started this reading project, though, I was liable to put a book down if it wasn’t holding my interest, and go on my merry way. That’s what happened when I first tried Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton. Now that I’ve finished reading my way through my original Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list, I figured it might be a good time to go back and revisit some of those earlier abandoned tomes…

Religion For Atheists was published back in 2012, and I picked it up shortly after hearing an interview with Alain de Botton on the Sunday Night Safran program (RIP!) on Triple J. I can’t remember why I abandoned the book exactly – about a hundred pages in, according to where I left the bookmark – only that it wasn’t as funny as I was expecting. de Botton was hilarious in the interview, which is what convinced me to pick up his book in the first place. When the first hundred pages didn’t even elicit a chuckle, I guess I figured it was a waste of my time.

Now, I’m a big believer that a book has to come to you at the right moment in your life – and that’s why I’m ready to give Religion For Atheists another shot. A lot has changed for me since 2012, and I no longer demand that my books be a giggle-fest in order to keep going.

I’m right to go back to it; I am, like de Botton, a lifelong atheist (seriously, I didn’t even do religious education in school, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve entered a house of worship). The cover of Religion For Atheists promises “a non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion”, which sounds right up my alley. de Botton starts off by pointing out that it is extremely boring to ask whether any given religion is “true” or “right” on the question of God and the afterlife (and I heartily agree). In fact, there’s very little about “God” in this book at all, so if that’s what you’re after, you can skip this one.

de Botton also says straight-up that he has no intention of comparing religions with one another (phew!). In his view, all religions evolved to serve the same basic needs: community cohesiveness, and coping with the inevitable pain of life. Religious or not, we all need a little cohesion and coping along the way, so he contends that while the supernatural claims of any and all religions are false (and that can be taken as read), some aspects of them are still useful in their applications for secular life and society. Basically, he’s saying we can all benefit from the wisdom and power of religion without having to get down with any of the woo-woo aspects of it. I’m sold!





Religion For Atheists is straight-forward in its layout, too: de Botton takes a problem in society, discusses how various religions have attempted to solve it, and then proposes a secular version that we might implement to better our lives. These problems are as varied as “Education”, “Pessimism”, “Community”, and so on. In “Institutions”, for instance, de Botton compares organised religions to corporations, in the ways that they efficiently spread their message, accumulate wealth, and enact social change. He makes the case that we could start advertising values the way that we advertise brands, a kind of late-capitalist conversion that would allow us to use institutional structures in a more positive way.

The sections are interspersed with beautiful photographs and reproductions of religious artworks – the production values of the book are gorgeous, but the best parts are the humourous captions that de Botton has added below each image (see? he IS funny!).

I know fuck-all about most religions (lifelong atheist, see above), so I was grateful to see that de Botton doesn’t assume much prior knowledge. In fact, I think he managed to teach me a thing or two that even religious folks might not know themselves. I learned, for example, that Catholic Mass actually began as a shared meal, more along the lines of the Jewish Shabbat dinner. Workers would down tools to gather around a table (as opposed to gathering to face an altar), and eat and drink to commemorate The Last Supper (I’d heard of that, at least, thanks to The Da Vinci Code). The way we do it today is very different, and would be basically unrecognisable to those early Catholics (and you can make an argument that the changes haven’t necessarily been for the better).





So, what did I take from all this? Did de Botton convert me? Not quite – though I’m not sure he intended to. I really responded to the idea of the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) – an opportunity to reflect on those whom you’ve wronged and how. On that designated day, you seek them out and express contrition. It is “a rare opportunity for blanket forgiveness”, de Botton says, which serves as a balm for those festering resentments that might otherwise tear a community apart. It’s a way of communally acknowledging that we’re all flawed, so we must all forgive one another and be forgiven, and just get on with things. I can certainly see how it would be beneficial, and it’s a perfect example of the type of religious ritual that emerged for purely pragmatic reasons (which is, after all, de Botton’s whole point). We infuse these rituals with “divine” ideas in order to protect them and keep them going, when really, we might not need to – according to de Botton, we could incorporate them into our secular lives and simply accept they are important, without any need for a “higher power” to tell us so.

I also really appreciated that de Botton didn’t oversell or waffle on – Religion For Atheists is actually a surprisingly short book, given the lofty subject matter. The reviews were mixed, of course: given the premise, de Botton was always bound to offend or piss off just about everyone. He said that in writing this book, he wanted to help atheists derive the benefits of religion, but I think (if they’re not too horrified at the whole God-ain’t-real-get-over-it approach) religious people could gain a lot of insight from it, too. Religion For Atheists has a newfound timeliness given the recent revelations of widespread institutionalised sexual abuse in multiple churches. It could really help those believers who are struggling with the organisations of their faith, but are scared to lose the comfort and clarity they get from its tenets and ceremonies.

All told, I found Religion For Atheists thought-provoking and highly readable (this time around, anyhow). I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who’s curious about how stuff works, in general, and society/religion in particular. Plus, I’ll now forever use it as my example of why it’s important to revisit a book you did not finish – if you write it off forever, you might really be missing out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Religion For Atheists:

  • “Some good insights. Some not useful.” – Glenn Wilhite
  • “All the good things about religion, without the Hairy Thunderer bits.” – Daemeon R.
  • “Jesus Christ is missing from the index. How can he write anything about Christianity without mentioning Jesus?” – Wendel L. Thompson

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark

I first discovered the My Favorite Murder podcast back in 2017. I went all the way back to the beginning and binge-listened to every single episode (yes, I’m a podcast junkie, but this one was particularly addictive), and I haven’t missed one since. We fans call ourselves “Murderinos”, and there are tens of thousands of us around the world. The hosts are Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, and they have over 20 million monthly listeners. “You come for the murder, you stay for the camaraderie” they say, and they’re right. Their friendship is the reason their podcast, and now their book, works. Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is their dual memoir published last year (and this copy was very kindly gifted to me by my very dear friend and fellow Murderino, Chent).

Sidebar: The book is gorgeous, of course, but I must say, I was really bemused by the fact that in the blurb the word “bullshit” is censored (stylised as “bullsh*t”), but they let the word “unfuckwithable” fly in full. Weird, eh?

Anyway, I’ve never read a dual memoir before. In fact, this is the first (officially) co-authored book I’ve reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a strange mix of self-help and memoir, like a “Look what we learned by how badly we fucked up!” guide to life. Kilgariff and Hardstark’s transparency about hard times and shitty decision-making is gloriously disarming. They cover everything from self-care, to relationships, to substance abuse, to staying sexy, to not getting murdered.

Ah, murder: you’d think that, given the nature of their brand and the subject of their podcast, that Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered would be full of true crime chat. Not so! True crime is mentioned in passing, of course (given that it’s their passion, and now their life’s work), but it’s not a focus. When they do mention it, mostly towards the end of the book, they steer away from recounting grisly details or glorifying sensational cases. Instead, they use the opportunity to pay respects to victims and families, and call out the toxic habit of victim-blaming.

“… at the end of the day, the only reason it matters is the victim. It’s the victim and their friends and family who will forever be affected by the trueness of the crime long after the killer is caught…”

Page 295

The book’s title, and all its chapter headers, are taken from catch-phrases and in-jokes used in the podcast. Basically, Kilgariff and Hardstark take their winning formula and reproduce it in print, only they’re now talking about their lives instead of murders. Their personalities and tone translate well, and there’s no pretentious attempts at literariness. These podcasters are well aware—and they make their readers well aware of their well-awareness—that they aren’t Professional Authors(TM). There’s no bullshit, they’re not writing like they hope they’ll win the Pulitzer. They’re just two insanely popular women with a huge fan base, responding to popular demand for a book about their experiences. They write as they speak, which they know (based on the weight of evidence) will resonate.





Most Murderinos will already be at least somewhat familiar with many of the stories recounted in Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, but Kilgariff and Hardstark offer more nuanced and detailed insights than they might off-the-cuff in a podcast recording. Their radical vulnerability, their unabashed hanging out of dirty laundry, is very impressive. They are candid and personable, just as you’d hope them to be, and they encourage their readers (as they do their listeners) to eschew the myth of “perfection” and the reverence of politeness. OK, fine, they out-and-out tell readers to “fuck politeness”, and I must say, I agree.

It’s quite funny—I laughed out loud a few times. I’m not sure I’d call Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered a laugh riot exactly, there are a lot of stories of trauma and devastation, but you’re sure to crack a few smiles at least (and if you don’t, you’re dead inside, seek help).

I’m not sure how much this book would mean to readers who don’t already listen to the podcast, though. As I’ve said, it’s generously seasoned with in-jokes, the kind that have already been broadcast to millions and adopted by the die-hard fans as mantras (“stay out of the forest”). Kilgariff and Hardstark are trading, intentionally or not, on the goodwill and emotional investment that already exists. Sure, Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered might win them a few more Murderinos, but I think for the most part, it goes out to the lovers. Still, for them (and I include myself), this book is a slam dunk. It’s like getting to sit in on your best friend’s therapy session. (Oh, yeah, they advocate therapy, a lot—it’s very L.A.)

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is definitely one of the better celebrity memoirs I’ve read, on par with Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. This is what I was hoping to get from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please—my wish has finally been fulfilled. Does that make Karen and Georgia my fairy godmothers? Hope so!

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Favorite Murder:

  • “haven’t read…..too busy listening to their PodCast.” – Alison Kramer
  • “…. If I wanted to hear that I should go to therapy a dozen times I’d just listen to my sister rag on me for free.” – Bellingham Bookworm
  • “this book cleared my acne and cured my depression. I love my moms Georgia and Karen, and I LOVED this book.” – Hannah @ A Reading Red Sox
  • “I love staying sexy and not getting murdered. Thank you Karen and Georgia.” – AK
  • “Buy it you true crime lover!!!” – Alex H
  • “I Laughed, I Cried, I Got Inspired! Consider me not murdered.” – Jenna T
  • “Great read! Withstands spilled beer. Would recommend.” – Zack


The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper

I know we live in an increasingly fast-paced world (the news tells me that every twenty seconds), but sometimes I still find myself wondering if a book is “too soon”. It’s been ten years since the Black Saturday fires here in Australia, but when I picked up Chloe Hooper’s book, The Arsonist, I couldn’t help but shudder. At the start of this year, we saw the worst bushfire season on record with blazes incinerating half of the country, and it proved that the wounds are still very raw. I’m still not sure, even now, that Australia is ready for this story.

Black Saturday would be familiar to all Australian readers, but for the benefit of my international Keeper Upperers, here’s a recap: the Black Saturday bushfires burned across the southern state of Victoria on Saturday 7 June 2009, fueled by extreme weather conditions, mismanagement, and (as the title of this book would suggest) arson. It was among Australia’s all-time worst bushfire disasters (and we’ve had plenty of them, so that’s saying something), resulting in Australia’s highest-ever bushfire-related loss of life – 180 recorded human fatalities – and an accommodation crisis for the countless communities ravaged by the flames, with over 3,500 homes destroyed. I wasn’t living in Victoria at the time of the fires, but I remember the wall-to-wall news coverage that went on for weeks, and I’ve lived there in the intervening years. Black Saturday is burned (for lack of a more appropriate idiom) into every Victorian’s memory. Hooper does give what (I hope) would be enough background information in the book itself for any reader, local or otherwise, to understand what happened that weekend.

“Soon it would be known as Black Saturday: four hundred separate fires had burned in Victoria, giving off the equivalent of 80,000 kilowatts of heat, or 500 atomic bombs.”

Page 37

The Arsonist focuses on two specific fires in the Latrobe Valley (though, as per the excerpt above, there were many more): how they started, the investigation, the trial, and the verdict. Hooper has described Latrobe Valley as “the forgotten fire”. At the time, most of the news coverage focused on the larger fires at Kinglake and Marysville; later, the restrictions on news coverage of the trial meant that the public didn’t hear much about it until all was said and done. I guess this is Hooper’s way of correcting the record.

The blurb sets out her purpose: “What kind of person would deliberately set a firestorm? What kind of mind?”





I can only imagine that the first pages were the most difficult to write, the ones where Hooper describes the fire and the initial police investigation into its causes. The details are horrifying: “even when brand-new toilets were flushed, the water was black” (page 35). I was in tears before 40 pages had passed: this is not a book for the sensitive or squeamish. (Seriously, even if you’re thinking “oh, but I’m normally fine with true crime”, don’t assume that you’re prepared for the awful power of fire, and the way that Hooper unravels this story.) She balances these descriptions, though, with more general and historical information – not sugar to help the medicine go down, exactly, but room to breathe between the scenes.

Hooper acknowledges the Indigenous history of using fire as a cultivation tool in the bush, which was a pleasant surprise, and she touches on that history repeatedly throughout. She also describes the DSM definition of pyromania, provides contextual statistics about unemployment in the Valley, and so on. She provides an account of the police arson chemist, George Xydias (who also investigated the Bali Bombings), following the trail of clues that led the police to suspect arson, to the witness reports of a strange man wandering around carrying his dog. That man was Brendan Sokaluk, the man who would (eventually) be charged and tried for the crime.

The Arsonist is divided into sections, each giving a different perspective on what happened that day and in the months that followed: the detectives, the lawyers, and so forth. The opening section, about the fire itself and the initial police investigation, might seem a bit one-eyed at first, as though Hooper is simply saying “here’s a creepy guy who set fire to a beloved area and killed a bunch of people”. But if you keep reading, through to the section with the barrister’s perspective, Hooper starts to claw some of the balance back, bringing in a counterpoint: “here’s a maligned man with intellectual disabilities, who doesn’t understand the gravity of what’s happening, who watches Thomas The Tank Engine, who just wants to see his dog”. Sokaluk is far from a sympathetic character, but Hooper at least makes him multi-dimensional.





Hooper draws from court transcripts and other documents to provide the reader with as much detail and context as possible, in a mostly-linear timeline. She doesn’t offer conclusions or judgements; in fact, Hooper is barely present in the book at all. She writes from a detached third-person perspective (until the final chapter, her coda, where she describes the process of researching and writing the book, and her attempts to reach Sokaluk for an interview). It’s the same approach, the same “vibe”, as the Netflix series Making A Murderer (actually, if you liked that show, this is definitely the book for you!).

While The Arsonist is ostensibly about Sokaluk and his trial, it has broader significance. It’s about the struggles of regional and rural Australians, especially those living in coal mining towns. It’s about poverty. It’s about climate change. It’s about our understanding of mental illness and neurodevelopmental disorders, and how they’re handled in our educational, medical, and judicial systems. And, of course, it’s about arson. Hooper taught me a lot about the nature of this type of crime – not just the person who commits it, but how it is investigated and prosecuted. Very few bushfire arsonists are ever “caught” – around 1% is the best estimate. Given that 37% of the many bushfires in this country are deemed “suspicious”, that number seems jaw-droppingly low.

While The Arsonist is meticulous and detailed, it’s not necessarily comprehensive. The subsequent Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires is mentioned a couple of times, but not covered in depth. Hooper ends the book with Sokaluk’s imprisonment, and the reactions of his family and community to his conviction. Don’t come to The Arsonist expecting “answers”. It’s not a thrilling police procedural where the bad guy is hunted down by the good guys and gets what’s coming to him. It’s an intimate portrait of a man who was found guilty of a horrendous crime, with many questions left lingering as to how, why, and even whether.

I recommend The Arsonist to true crime fans who worry that they’re completely numb after endless accounts of grisly serial murders. And, of course, I recommend it to all Australians who remember that day – but only if you think you can stomach it. (Seriously, trigger warning for fire and general horror!) Perhaps it’s too soon, perhaps not, but either way I’m grateful to Hooper for her attention and dedication in recounting this story and recording it for posterity.

If you want to know more about the Black Saturday fires and Brendan Sokaluk, I highly. recommend Brendan Sokaluk: Inside The Mind Of An Arsonist from the ABC, and The Burning Question, an episode of Australian Story.


The Brain That Changes Itself – Norman Doidge

Roll up, roll up: it’s time to learn a thing or two about your thinking meat. Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and brain researcher, and he’s taking it upon himself to educate the world on the science of neuroplasticity. And what is…? Well, neuroplasticity is the fun notion that your brain isn’t an immutable lump of hard-wired neurons, but a wonderfully malleable organs that changes and grows and adapts to everything we throw at it, across our entire life span. Presenting his magnum opus: The Brain That Changes Itself.

The cover promises “stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science”, and that might be a bit of an overstatement but Doidge does use case studies to teach us all about the brain’s capabilities. There’s the story of the young woman who was born without half her brain, and yet manages to function almost normally with her existing half doing twice the work. There are parents and children who have cured learning disorders, people with vision impairments who regain some of their sight, and many, many stroke patients that regain functionality beyond even the most optimistic of expectations.

The chapter on phantom limbs, focusing mostly on phantom limb pain, was the most interesting to me. Doidge takes us through the development of mirror boxes, and their applications as treatment for phantom limb pain in amputees – a fucking ingenious idea that has brought so much relief! Doidge also offers up some really interesting insights:

“Pain is [the central nervous system’s] opinion on the organism’s state of health, rather than a mere reflexive response to injury… the brain gathers evidence from many sources before triggering pain… pain is an illusion… a construct of our brain.”

The Brain That Changes Itself (Norman Doidge)

I really learned a lot from The Brain That Changes Itself and it was a really interesting read, but… well, it’s not without its problems.



For starters, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis published a review of The Brain That Changes Itself, and it highlighted a lot of issues with Doidge’s work. It states, quite plainly, that neuroplasticity is basically irrelevant to the study of psychoanalysis, and pokes some serious holes in Doidge’s apparent belief that his psychoanalyst background gives him enough knowledge in the field to hold himself up as a brain expert. Now, I’m comfortable saying that I’m not sure I agree entirely that neuroplasticity is “irrelevant” per se to the practice of psychoanalysis (note: I did complete a Bachelor of Psychology with honours a few years back, so I’ve got some level of insight), but I can still kind-of see their point. The chapter where Doidge focused specifically on psychoanalysis, his bread and butter, got pretty woo-y, and seemed to drift away from the more rigorous scientific approach he took in other parts of the book. As fields of study, psychoanalysis and neuroscience diverge pretty widely; I’m not saying there’s no cross-over, but Doidge does draw some pretty long bows.

Personally, I was more concerned with Doidge’s descriptions of experiments performed of animals in the pursuit of neuroscience. The Brain That Changes Itself features, in nearly every chapter, graphic descriptions of some really horrid experiments that Doidge (ever the “rational scientist”) doesn’t critically examine. In fact, he doesn’t even mention or acknowledge that, say, sewing a monkey’s fingers together might present something of an ethical issue. He does describe – rather dismissively – one PETA intervention in research conducted by one of his interviewees. It’s clear from the way that he writes that he sits firmly on the side of the researcher. It would actually be an interesting exercise, if you’re up for it, to read The Brain That Changes Itself side-by-side with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, to get two different perspectives on this issue.



Just to really hammer home for you how un-woke Doidge is: he uses quite a few ableist terms, which is really jarring given the otherwise supportive and positive tone of the book. He also has a random burst of puritanism, preaching about all the ways in which pornography destroys any chance of having healthy sexual relationships… or something? He really wasn’t too clear on that point. I don’t think Doidge intended any harm, and he maybe didn’t realise he came off sounding like an ableist prude, but that doesn’t excuse him. If he, or his publishers, had made a little more effort to approach sensitivity readers, these issues could have been resolved with one more vigorous edit (unlike his attitude towards animal testing which is, frankly, abhorrent, and clearly deeply ingrained).

The Brain That Changes Itself ends pretty abruptly; there’s no real conclusion or anything, which I found super-weird. Doidge offers a couple of appendices that are basically longer, broader chapters – talking about culture and the internet and whatnot, in the context of neuroplasticity – then he dives straight into his acknowledgements and notes. It’s an especially odd choice given how linear the book is. This is not the type of non-fiction book that you can just flick through, reading chapters that interest you willy-nilly. Doidge tackles some pretty hefty neuroscience, and he does so by building upon each previous story and delineating relationships between concepts and experiments. If you try to jump in mid-way through, you’re going to have a hard time (and you’re going to miss a lot). So, why wouldn’t Doidge make a point of concluding properly? Bringing all the pieces together and cementing them in the reader’s mind? It seems a really odd choice.



Anyway, in the end, even with all its issues, The Brain That Changes Itself is still chockers with interesting information, and I guarantee you’ll learn something. It’s not as witty and folksy as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, but it’s not as much of a mind-fuck as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. If you’re interested in how your thinking meat works, you’ll get a lot out of it, but I’d recommend strongly against having it be your only source of information in this field – it’s flawed in many respects, and the best way to compensate for that is to fill the gaps with other books that do it better.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Brain That Changes Itself:

  • “Starts out strong, then trips into a bizarrely puritanical neofreudian rathole, then clambers out. An informative and inspiring book overall, but, uh, wow.” – nIMNqcJz
  • “GOOD BOOK” – John Hoover
  • “My husband grabbed this as soon as it arrived so I’m waiting to read it.” – cook hobbyist
  • “Exciting book, very well written and great news for us older folks.” – Robert C. Rand
  • “The first half is helpful but then…………” – Warren Overpack
  • “To much usless info” – Anthony Izzo


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