Book review: Surviving Death

Surviving Death: Evidence of the Afterlife

Surviving Death: Evidence of the Afterlife by Leslie Kean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect a lot of people will have one of two reactions on reading this book. They’ll either roll their eyes and put it down, dismissing it as a bunch of non-scientific hooey, or they’ll allow themselves to admit that definitive evidence may be ever-elusive, but that Kean presents a strong set of circumstantial evidence to suggest that consciousness can and does exist outside of the human body, and can therefore exist after death.

Kean breaks the book into sections and devotes chapters to letting direct witnesses or participants tell their stories in their own words, ranging from classic out-of-body experiences. My favorite is a woman in hospital who floated around and outside the building while suffering cardiac arrest, spotting a blue tennis shoe out of sight on a ledge. A medical social worker later looks for and finds the shoe, which precisely matches the description the patient offered. This story is also a good example of the evidence Kean provides. While you can come up with ways the story might be faked–the patient and social worker may have conspired together, the patient may have planted the shoe herself before her hospital stay–they all seem highly implausible, but not quite impossible, always leaving some room for doubt for the skeptical.

Kean devotes further chapters to past life experiences, “actual death” experiences where the patient is clinically dead for a period of time, and a large part of the book to communicating with the dead through mediums and seances. Kean ends up inserting herself into the story after attending several seances in which she believes she is contacted by two spirits, those of her brother and Budd Hopkins, the UFO investigator, with whom she was acquainted. She also sees physical manifestations of objects like human hands forming out of ectoplasm. If it sounds weird, it’s because it is weird.

Kean admits as much while asserting that she always remained analytical, taking notes and doing all she could to establish the events were authentic and happened as she recollected.

The underlying thesis is that there exists two things we can’t really see or even prove. The first is psi energy–the ability to do things like move objects through thought alone (yes, just like Carrie, but with less burning-down-the-high-school), and the second is that each person has a consciousness or what some might call the soul, that resides within our brains and bodies, but is not bound to them, so that when we die, this essence or soul is released and joins others in another dimension that doesn’t quite overlap ours. It’s established that those in this other dimension cannot easily communicate with us, because they exist outside of regular physical space. But the other dimension is very groovy and peaceful and wonderful, and is why virtually everyone having a near-death or out-of-body experience loses their fear of death.

A good part of the book is spent on various observers debating whether the experiences are created by discarnates (spirits) or through the psychic energy of those who report seeing them. It is notable that those having this debate are only arguing between the two possibilities, not that the phenomenon is fake or staged in any way.

The evidence presented is about as good as can be expected and Kean comes down on the side suggesting the evidence points toward survival (life after death) rather than just being projections made by the living. I found few instances where I thought, “Yeah, but…” in the many examples provided, and this is a credit to Kean’s research and thoroughness.

It’s still all very weird, though.

I went into reading Surviving Death with an open mind, and I remain the same after. I can’t say I “believe” as I haven’t seen any of the things Kean documents, but I also can’t deny that any of it might be possible. I’ve long felt that the world we see and the world that is are two vastly different things, that we only understand a small sliver of what we consider reality. I find this intimidating, but also exciting. And in the end (no pun intended–well, maybe a little), the idea that death–something none of us can avoid–is nothing to fear, but rather something to embrace when it comes, is a welcome one, particularly in western culture where death is treated as something terrible. Myself, I want a wake, not a funeral, and if I am still around in some form post-death I would absolutely delight in freaking out any surviving friends by messing with them. In a good-natured way, of course.

I did feel that the final section on mediums and seances could have been trimmed a bit, as the material starts to feel same-y as Kean documents various mediums and episodes, but it’s a minor criticism.

If you are intrigued by the idea of the consciousness surviving outside the living body, and of life only being one part of the human experience, Surviving Death is easy to recommend.

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Book review: The Inner Runner

The Inner Runner: Running to a More Successful, Creative, and Confident You

The Inner Runner: Running to a More Successful, Creative, and Confident You by Jason R. Karp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, some background: I’ve been running for ten years (since 2009 if you happen across this review some time after 2019), but I’m a late bloomer, as I was already 44 when I started. I can’t say I regret how fast my run times may have been in my 20s because I never saw them!

I’ve read a few books and lots of articles on running. When I began, I researched shoes and other running gear and am glad I did. I still cringe when I see other joggers on the trail in the middle of summer wearing sweat-drenched cotton t-shirts.

I came into The Inner Runner not as a neophyte, then, but as someone who has been running less lately due to knee and other issues. I felt like I was losing some of my mojo, so I figured this book might provide some inspiration. And while its fine for what it is, it didn’t really inspire me at all. Going for a run around the lake got me fired up again, though, and one of the mantras Karp repeats throughout The Inner Runner is to just run. So in that sense, maybe it has helped.

There are some nice success stories and anecdotes here about the running experience, but Karp seems at times confused about the audience. At times it feels like he is giving advice for the wayward runner, and at others it seems like he is trying more to entice newbies into the running life. I don’t think you can effectively pitch a book at both audiences, as their needs and motivations are going to be different.

Karp wears his biases openly–he prefers short, fast runs over longer, endurance-focused efforts, and he is a big believer in running being something that can undeniably make someone’s life better, through the discipline, focus and dedication it requires. He lists many benefits, such as how it is one of the most effective exercises for losing weight, but doesn’t shy away from potential downsides–leg and foot injuries being the prime examples.

I did have an issue with Karp’s repeated use of “pain” being a necessary part in improving your performance. Pain is not good, pain is your body telling you that you’re pushing too hard and should stop. Pushing through pain is not noble or brave, it’s dumb and greatly increases the chance for injury. Sometimes Karp uses the term “discomfort” instead and I actually believe this is what he really means most of the time, but word choice matters and I’d hate to have anyone read this book and come away thinking that if they aren’t hurting while they run that they are doing something wrong.

Overall, this isn’t a bad book. It has a lot of interesting background on the body science of running–Karp is quite knowledgeable on the subject, but it’s perhaps too long and lacking in focus.

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Book review: Contagious

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a short book that feels a bit like a magazine article that got padded out, but it is accessible and both provides explanations for why things are popular, along with tips on how to make your own product/event/thing popular. It generally manages to not feel too much like a sales pitch.

While a lot of what Berger offers seems obvious when he explains it–people are more likely to remember something and share it (“go viral”) if the product is an inextricable part of the message you craft, rather than not being connected at all to an otherwise clever ad, for example–I was left feeling that you can do everything right and still not have your whatever-it-is catch on. Call it luck, karma, coincidence, or something else, it still seems that most products, stunts, messages and so on get put out to the public and die quiet deaths, no matter how carefully they have been created and nurtured to become successes.

Berger outlines the mnemonic STEPPS as the key to how things catch on: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories. Each makes sense. For example, we are by nature inclined to enjoy narratives, so a good story can be an effective way to transmit a message (one of the examples used is the story of the Trojan Horse and how it serves as a warning to be suspicious when an enemy turns friendly without cause). There is also some pop psychology fun in examining how easy it can be to manipulate people (line-ups = product good, no line-ups = product bad), but in a way it’s also a bit depressing to realize how much of everything we see and experience hasn’t just been made for us to enjoy, it’s been crafted in a calculated, even cynical way, to work on our emotions.

Although not especially revelatory, Contagious is a quick, easy read.

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Book review: Stretching to Stay Young

Stretching to Stay Young: Simple Workouts to Keep You Flexible, Energized, and Pain FreeStretching to Stay Young: Simple Workouts to Keep You Flexible, Energized, and Pain Free by Jessica Matthews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was a kid I was nearly double-jointed. I could bend my thumbs back to touch my arms with ease. Today I could do the same if I surgically removed the thumbs first. I am, in a word, inflexible.

As this can have negative effects for both runners and those getting older, two groups I am a member of, I picked up Stretching to Stay Young to see if I could return to at least a little flexibility in my body vs. the immovable board it is now.

I can’t say how effective the book is as I haven’t applied its exercises yet, but I will say that the presentation is thorough, accessible and clear. Jessica Matthews starts with explanations and background on stretching, its benefits, the various muscle groups and so on. She moves on to instructions for a multitude of stretching exercises, each accompanied by a clear color illustration of how to do it. They look simple, even fun.

The bulk of the book then covers sets of stretches tied to recovering from or preparing for specific activities, everything from walking, running and cycling, to sitting for hours in an office chair, talking on a phone and more. She further includes sets for conditions like sore shoulders, necks and more, ending with tips on customizing your workouts.

After reading, I unrolled my exercise mat, recently found buried behind some junk I got rid of, and tried a few simple exercises. Imagine taking a log and laying it down on its side, then asking it to stretch. I am that log. But Matthews addresses this, regularly advising the reader throughout the book to never push to the point of pain, to take it slow, and to allow time for results to appear (she has a chapter devoted to debunking myths, including the old “no pain, no gain.”)

For anyone looking to incorporate stretching into their daily or weekly routine, this guide provides everything you need in a stylish, straightforward format. Recommended.

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Book review: You’re Saying It Wrong

You're Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words--And Their Tangled Histories of Misuse

You’re Saying It Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words–And Their Tangled Histories of Misuse by Ross Petras

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is good fun for word and language nerds. The title is a bit misleading as the authors dig up some fairly obscure stuff to hit that 150 total, but there are plenty of expected words, too.

(I was expecting to see “halcyon” on the list, but apparently I’m one of the few that gets tongue-tied over it.)

The authors also cheat a little by including a few phrases or misunderstood words, but a little cheating is fine when it’s in service of showing how “would of” is wrong and stop writing it!

As you read through the entries it becomes clear that most of the pronunciation trouble arises from a word’s origin in another language, most often French, at least as far as this list is concerned, though Latin and other languages come get called out, too.

And then there are the recurring nautical words that make no sense at all because of drunk sailors slurring everything they say. None of these words come close to being pronounced the way they look–gunwale, boatswain and so on.

I will also happily own up to mispronouncing more than a few words covered here. In my defense, as is the case for most people, I never hear the words spoken, so I am always making a best guess and my guesses seem to line up with everyone else’s, as no one ever corrects me. Or maybe everyone is just too polite to say something.

The book ends abruptly after “zydeco”–there are some endnotes, but it would have been nice to have a brief wrap-up. I also think less-is-more would have worked here, by culling out some of the more obscure words and perhaps expanding on the number of phrases. Overall, though, a neat little book that will make you feel a bit smarter–or dumber.

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Book review: Kiss My Asterisk

Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar

Kiss My Asterisk: A Feisty Guide to Punctuation and Grammar by Jenny Baranick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short, sassy and innuendo-filled collection of tips on grammar and spelling that stays PG despite references to Richard Gere and gerbils. The book is derived from the blog Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares, a title that pretty clearly sets the tone for the book.

I think my favorite thing in Kiss My Asterisk were the examples of the creative spelling used by some of Baranick’s students:

whorable (“I am having a whorable day.”)
thoughs (“I love old black and white comedies. Thoughs are the best.”)
celeberde (“Have you ever met a famous celeberde?”)

While the book on the whole covered familiar territory for me, it did help me to better understand my abuse and misuse of commas, so I consider the purchase as money well-spent. If there are any misplaced commas in this review, don’t blame the author. I am not always a fast learner.

My only serious complaint is how abruptly the book ends. I mean, it just stops and you’re looking at an answer key for the exercises. It was a bit disappointing. The tone, though consistently cheeky, sometimes misses the mark, but I did find myself chuckling more than a few times. There aren’t a lot of books on punctuation out there that can do that.

Overall, recommended, though you might want to read a sample before committing, because if the tone doesn’t work for you, the whole book will be fingers-on-a-chalkboard annoying.

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Book review: In Such Good Company

In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the SandboxIn Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox by Carol Burnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would feel bad rating this book lower than four stars because it is an adorable, gushing and heartfelt love letter to the show Carol Burnett put on for 11 years.

If you are looking for behind-the-scenes dirt, you’ll find none here, save for one brief mention of a troublesome guest star who walked out. Apparently high at the time, Burnett only goes so far as to allude the person was “on something.” Even with the worst guest ever she pulls her punches because she is just that sweet.

Her reminisce does touch on some negative aspects of the era in which The Carol Burnett Show ran, though (1967-1978), particularly the sexism that allowed men to be “commanding” and take charge on their shows, where women were expected to keep quiet and know their place. Burnett, to her regret, played along, finding the absolute nicest ways to raise any criticism when she thought the writing of a sketch was weak, or a particular bit just wasn’t working.

The majority of the book, though, are reminisces of Burnett’s favorite episodes, sketches, characters, musical numbers and guest stars. She lavishes praise on her own cast and the many people who appeared on the show and you can’t help but come away with how incredibly kind and generous she is. It made me want to go back in time to be on the show. Especially if I could go back in age, as well. :P

I was 14 when the series ended in 1978, but I watched the last four seasons or so and loved it nearly as much as Burnett herself (though I was a little impatient with the musical numbers and I didn’t catch a lot of the references in their movie parodies–though I still clearly remember the trampoline in their Airport ’75 spoof).

There are a surprising number of photos included (Carol watched every episode as research for the book) and while they are screen grabs, they immediately took me back to the 70s (the contemporary fashions are as tacky as you’d expect), the nostalgia hit immense and satisfying. If you read the ebook on a tablet, the photos are in color as a bonus.

If you expect deep insights or as I mentioned earlier, dirt, you may come away disappointed, but Burnett walks the reader through the entire production of the show from first script reading to taping, with lots of amusing bits sprinkled in. In the end, this was what I expected–a fond look back at Carol Burnett’s favorite part of her long career, showcasing her own personal highlights from her show–and it is the warmest, friendliest book I’ve read in a long time.

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The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon

The Writer's Guide to Training Your Dragon: Using Speech Recognition Software to Dictate Your Book and Supercharge Your Writing Workflow (Dictation Mastery for PC and Mac)The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon: Using Speech Recognition Software to Dictate Your Book and Supercharge Your Writing Workflow by Scott Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that sets out to do one thing, in this case guide you through using voice dictation with Nuance’s Dragon software to improve your writing output. And author Scott Baker succeeds in providing a concise, clear and confident set of advice, covering everything from set up to hardware recommendations, the common pitfalls to avoid and more.

A lot of the advice also applies in general terms to using any kind of voice dictation, though Baker as much admits that Dragon is the only credible option for the best results (and is more expensive now that the Premium version has been discontinued in favor of the pricier Professional version). Dictation has the potential to dramatically improve your writing speed on first drafts–Baker advises against using it for editing, as do other authors I’ve read who are otherwise strong advocates of dictation–and Baker encourages the reader/writer to use it whenever they can.

He also addresses a problem people generally have with voice technology, whether it’s dictating or just speaking a command to your smart phone–it can feel somewhat embarrassing to do in public. Baker gamely insists people won’t care and my transit rides suggest he may be right, but he provides solutions ranging from dictating in your car on the ride in to work, to dictating as you leave the train and head to the office. With the increased speed of dictation over writing, even 10 or 15 minutes can yield great results.

Baker’s website also includes video tutorials for buyers of the book, as well as a blog where he regularly reviews microphones and other hardware, as well as provides a useful bunch of links to resources ranging from books, microphones, software and other accessories.

In all, this slim volume is an excellent way to acquaint yourself with Dragon dictation software, but more than that, it’s a good primer on why dictation is worthwhile to begin with, full of practical advice and good tips.

Recommended.

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Book review: Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World

Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the WorldPost-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World by James Ball
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The biggest issue with Post-Truth is that the people who could most benefit from it will never read it. In fact, they’d likely just disregard it as more “fake news.” For someone like myself, there is little in here that is revelatory. I am only too aware of the rise of not just fake news (both real and imagined) but also what author James Ball calls “bad news,” which is not to say someone is calling to tell you your pet hamster Binky just had a very unfortunate accident, but is rather a description of news that is poorly researched and presented, or otherwise fails to meet the standards one would expect from a reputable news source.

Ball does devote a chapter at the end on ways to combat the rise of BS, but it is, perhaps by design, a combination of the obvious (“if you want to be trusted, be trustworthy,” “try not to succumb to conspiratorial thinking”), the somewhat depressing (entreaties to essentially dumb things down, wear your biases openly, and try to look anti-establishment even if you aren’t, because the tide has turned against the establishment) to the exceedingly unlikely (like asking people to go outside their bubbles. While on the surface it makes sense to step beyond your proverbial echo chamber–Ball advises following “thoughtful people” on the other side–it entirely skips over how one addresses or interacts with the more problematic people at the fringes that are driving so much of the BS into the mainstream. How does one even find a “thoughtful” racist, much less engage them meaningfully?).

Some of the suggestions are appealing, though. I particularly like the concept of the tech giants funding an independent news organization as a way to combat the death of newspapers and other news media. But even if such an organization existed, you would still have plenty of news media that are more interested in pushing an extremist agenda propped up by lies and distortion.

In the end this is a bleak book because, though Ball never explicitly says so, you are left with the impression that most people are easily-snookered idiots, and that perhaps we have only made it so far as a civilization because a strong minority has pushed against the ignorant masses. But for now the ignorant masses seem to be winning–or rather, allowing the autocrats they adore to win.

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Book review: Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration: Learn to Nurture a Lifestyle of Creativity

Conquering Writer's Block and Summoning Inspiration: Learn to Nurture a Lifestyle of Creativity (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 5)Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration: Learn to Nurture a Lifestyle of Creativity by K.M. Weiland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love short books on writing, it’s so easy to blast through them and then apply their lessons–provided they include advice on overcoming procrastination, of course.

Weiland’s slim how-to covers everything from cultivating the mindset for ideas, establishing good habits and how to deal with the inevitable feelings of “my writing sucks now and forever more.”

The specific tips for avoiding writer’s block itself are copious and for the most part familiar to anyone who may have read similar guides, ranging from the easy to follow (“Take a break”) to the may-need-a-few-tries-to-work (“Show up every day” and “Just start typing”).

This is another perfectly fine book for a new author to peruse, or for anyone who yearns to write but is unhappy with both the quality and quantity of their output. There’s nothing revelatory, but Weiland’s writing style is light, engaging and the brevity of the work (and use of lists) makes it serve as a handy reference you can return to time and again

Recommended.

Now I just need to write something other than reviews on writing books. :P

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Book review: Plot Gardening: Write Faster, Write Smarter

Plot Gardening: Write Faster, Write SmarterPlot Gardening: Write Faster, Write Smarter by Chris Fox
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a perfectly cromulent book on outlining a novel and Fox goes into detail on two popular methods, the traditional three-act approach and the perhaps less-familiar story circle.

Running with the gardening metaphor, Fox provides step-by-step instructions and illustrates them with examples from several popular movies (relying primarily on Star Wars) and also drawing from his own work–including examples where he failed, and then learned from the failure.

Each chapter has exercises to follow at the end and Fox knows a lot of people will just read straight through, so he has thoughtfully included all exercises again at the end of the book.

Overall, there’s not much more you could ask for in a book about outlining a novel. Fox explains everything in a clear manner, provides examples, and even throws in a bit of neuroscience here and there. Despite all this, I never found the book overly engaging, perhaps because I’ve always resisted outlining my stories–and I can’t claim they’ve been better for this lack, either.

Still, don’t let my own indifference sway you–this is a well-constructed template on how to outline a novel and would serve any new novel writer well.

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Book review: Confessions of an Alien Hunter

Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist's Search for Extraterrestrial IntelligenceConfessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Seth Shostak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fun read and my biggest complaint is that it came out in 2009 (just as the Kepler space observatory launched) and hasn’t been updated, so there’s a lot of near-future discussion about systems that have since come online.

Conversely, we still haven’t detected extraterrestrial intelligence since then, either. :P

Some might be put off by Seth Shostak’s breezy writing style, peppered with puns and humor, but I felt he always pulled back just in time to let the hard science and sober speculation take over. And if you’ve seen Shostak on TV–having more than a casual interest in astronomy, aliens or some combination thereof makes it likely, as he’s not just SETI’s senior astronomer, he’s also their main go-to for interacting with the media–then the light tone is not surprising. He is passionate about his work, but he is a wonderfully droll person. I suppose that may help when you’re willing to offer straightforward commentary on episodes of Ancient Aliens.

Despite being nearly a decade old at the time of this review, the book remains a thorough examination of SETI’s history, its goals, and its then-current operations. Shostak brackets the nuts and bolts of SETI with his own background leading up to joining the group, and offers tidbits from his work as an advisor on films like Contact and the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (he helped them make the scientists sound more like real people and less like jargonbots).

A lot of the book centers around the inevitable questions arising from SETI–what would SETI do if a signal was confirmed? How might the public react? What would aliens look like? How long will it take to scan the visible galaxy? Is it all just a goofy waste of time?

People who favor the “waste of time” side may not be moved by Shostak’s arguments, but most others are likely to come away with an appreciation of SETI’s work, and perhaps even a sense of hope in the continuing search for signs of intelligent life somewhere out in space.

Recommended. (But an updated version would be spiffy.)

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