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Archive for December, 2009

I have long enjoyed Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and now The New York Times and The Morgan Library have run a contest in which readers scrutinize the digitized manuscript of the work.  It turns out that among a number of small, but important, changes, Dickens almost gave the world Tiny Richard instead of Tiny Tim –what a simple edit can accomplish!  Here is the article.  Also, an added Christmas treat is the below video short from Albert Finney’s 1970 Scrooge (a musical).  I am not sure that Dickens would approve, but I find it a tonic whenever this Labrador’s hyperthyroid-induced Christmas blues threaten to encroach.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

December 24th, 2009
9:05 pm

With a big snow predicted for Manhattan, I am searching for reading material to carry me through the long hours between walks such as the character above enjoyed in a previous snow.   Today, I read a fascinating review of a book on Doestevsky at The Wall Street Journal and who could resist the five best books on hypochondria also reviewed here.  Even with expedited Internet ordering and delivery, none will arrive before the first flakes begin to cover the ground and the sidewalks become glacial.  So once again I delve into the old standbys on the shelf –fortunately, they never disappoint.

December 19th, 2009
4:31 am

Today, the Times explores the question of whether it is better to walk with a human companion or a dog… I think regular readers of this site already knew the answer –but some need scientific confirmation to be sure.  Here’s the link and the article:

Is it better to walk a human or to walk a dog?

New research from the University of Missouri has found that people who walk dogs are more consistent about regular exercise and show more improvement in fitness than people who walk with a human companion. In a 12-week study of 54 older adults at an assisted living home, 35 people were assigned to a walking program for five days a week, while the remaining 19 served as a control group. Among the walkers, 23 selected a friend or spouse to serve as a regular walking partner along a trail laid out near the home. Another 12 participants took a bus daily to a local animal shelter where they were assigned a dog to walk.

To the surprise of the researchers, the dog walkers showed a big improvement in fitness, while the human walkers began making excuses to skip the workout. Walking speed among the dog walkers increased by 28 percent, compared with just a 4 percent increase among the human walkers.

“What happened was nothing short of remarkable,” said Rebecca A. Johnson, a nursing professor and director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “The improvement in walking speed means their confidence in their walking ability had increased and their balance had increased. To have a 28 percent improvement in walking speed is mind boggling.”

Ms. Johnson said that because some people are afraid of dogs, the participants were given the choice of walking with a human or a dog as the companion. Ms. Johnson said the dog walkers were far more consistent in sticking with the program than those who were walking with humans.

“In the human walking group, they were regularly discouraging each other from walking,” she said. “Missouri is a hot state. We would hear them saying: ‘It’s hot today. I don’t want to walk, do you?’ ”

The response from participants in the dog-walking group — and their dog companions — was very different.

“When the people came to the animal shelter, they bounced off the bus and said, ‘Where’s my dog?”’ Ms. Johnson said. “And the dogs never gave any discouragement from walking.”

Ms. Johnson said she suspects differences will show up in other areas, like depression and anxiety, although that data are still under review and the final study has not yet been published.

But there were also other subtle indicators of improvement among the dog-walking group. Many people in the dog-walking group stopped using canes and walkers. “They would say, ‘Now I’m physically fit enough to take my dog for a walk,”’ Ms. Johnson said.

December 15th, 2009
6:29 pm

First, J.F. is so happy about the cover for my latest book, A Dog At Sea, due out December 29th, that he has insisted that I repost its image above (I’ve asked him to include it in the “coding” on the side with the other two, but he only mumbles about that being beyond him technically –yet another discipline, Yours Truly fears he will have to study).

Second, Tapestry 100 of “From My Bookshelf” is kindly running a contest on his site in which people can win all three books (so far) in the series.  Please visit. There is also an interview of J.F. by Tapestry from last year to be found here.  Thank you, Tapestry!  Also, a belated thank you to “Rhapsody in Books” for their contest support.  As a side note, Rhapsody has tentatively agreed to participate in a questions for the reviewer segment which we hope to begin on this site soon (wherein Yours Truly will query the reviewer about various issues such as taste, assessment of construction, character development, style, et cetera).

Finally, on the topic of books, I would like to repost a comment I left on the Los Angeles Times website in response to the news that Kirkus Reviews is closing up shop.  Though I might ramble in places, I think I make a few worthwhile points (and was happy to see that The Los Angeles Times posted them  –The New York Times recently saw fit to scrub a post I made with nary an email of explanation, very disappointing.  I may soon be focusing mainly on The Los Angeles Times (could it really come to this for a Manhattanite and the grey lady?) and The Wall Street Journal –dare I say it, reader, but their communities seem much more accepting).  Without further ado:

Dear Los Angeles Times:

In some respects, the news is quite sad since it is about people losing employment and an institution that has been in existence since 1933 closing its doors. On the other hand, the fact that Kirkus opened its doors in 1933 is instructive and should give all of us in the business of the word hope. After all, 1933 was the depths of the Depression and yet Kirkus started a 76-year run then. What does this tell us? First, let us hope that in the depths of our current economic strife, young guns are already preparing the way for the next cultural institution. Second, my guess is that Kirkus, like so many literary ventures, started small, responded to real needs in the market, met them with quality, but then grew beyond the market’s capacity to support their infrastructure. Startups are nimble, 76-year old enterprises typically are not especially in response to revolutionary changes in the way information is disseminated (i.e., the Internet). Of course, the wrongheaded trend toward everyone thinking that their opinion about a book is just as worthwhile as anybody else’s is part of the reason, but I can’t help but wonder if in addition to this trend (the product of a widespread, self-satisified narcissism), Kirkus and other reviewers have helped to write their own grave by too often rubber stamping trash and not hewing to anything but subjective reviewing criteria (a recent review of Dan Brown’s latest by Janet Maslin is a good example). Perhaps, people simply don’t need the kind of reviewing that has been churned out in recent years and Kirkus’ failure is telling us this. Also, as much as I love books, I cannot help but think that the numbers of books produced every year (of which Kirkus’s astounding 5,000 titles reviewed represented but a small percentage of the total) is also a deterrent to the collective attempt to determine quality. Simply put who isn’t overwhelmed by the quantity of books to the point of drowning –how can a cultural direction be found in this kind of chaos, where taste and selection is governed by public relations budgets and strategic, highly-priced, store displays? Maybe, the real blame lies with publishers who have abandoned their role as gatekeepers of quality in a possibly suicidal preference to throw titles against the wall and see what sticks while rolling the dice on the high advance, big-ticket blockbusters.

December 12th, 2009
3:50 am

As you know, Yours Truly is always interested in matters of the brain and especially memory.  The man pictured above is a Mr. Henry Molaison.  He is one of the most famous amnesiacs in the world and his brain is now the subject of a public dissection being broadcast over the Internet.

Here is the link to the story and the first few paragraphs of the article:

SAN DIEGO — The man who could not remember has left scientists a gift that will provide insights for generations to come: his brain, now being dissected and digitally mapped in exquisite detail.

The man, Henry Molaison — known during his lifetime only as H.M., to protect his privacy — lost the ability to form new memories after a brain operation in 1953, and over the next half century he became the most studied patient in brain science.

He consented years ago to donate his brain for study, and last February Dr. Jacopo Annese, an assistant professor of radiology at the University of California, San Diego, traveled across the country and flew back with the brain seated next to him on Jet Blue.

Just after noon on Wednesday, on the first anniversary of Mr. Molaison’s death at 82 from pulmonary complications, Dr. Annese and fellow neuroscientists began painstakingly slicing their field’s most famous organ. The two-day process will produce about 2,500 tissue samples for analysis.

A computer recording each sample will produce a searchable Google Earth-like map of the brain with which scientists expect to clarify the mystery of how and where memories are created — and how they are retrieved.

“Ah ha ha!” Dr. Annese said, as he watched a computer-guided blade scrape the first shaving of gray matter from Mr. Molaison’s frozen brain. “One down, 2,499 more to go.”

Dr. Annese carefully dropped the shaving into fluid. The procedure is being shown live online:

December 5th, 2009
4:12 am

Where would we be without Edgar?  This New York Times’ article is an informative diversion (though I take issue with the notion that the corpse was neatly cut up in “The Tell-Tale Heart” since its narrator is of the decidedly unreliable variety and thus nothing he says can be taken at face value).

Without further ado, the article and the link:

RICHMOND, Va. — Edgar Allan Poe took good care of his corpses. They are neatly cut up and craftily stowed beneath floorboards (“The Tell-Tale Heart”); they are walled into ancient catacombs where nothing is likely to disturb their well-earned eternal slumber (“The Cask of Amontillado”); they are encased in coffins that somehow permit them to emerge to take care of unfinished business (“The Fall of the House of Usher”). But the living — some of whom become those corpses — have a much harder time of it. They obsess, brood and hate; they are possessed by bizarre impulses; they wrestle with inchoate forces and often succumb, scarcely knowing the scope of their perversities.

That has pretty much been the fate of Poe as well. This year is the bicentennial of his birth, and while he never earned a secure living, was often sucked into alcoholic maelstroms, was unable to hold a job without incinerating his prospects and regularly lashed out at his literary contemporaries — while in life, in other words, he was a miserable conglomeration of self-justification, remorse, genius, fury and failure — as a corpse he has flourished mightily. And not just because of his inventive creations of the modern detective novel, horror tale and science-fiction story. Contemporary Goth subcultures feed on the themes that ooze from Poe’s work. And celebrations have been widespread and plentiful.

In October in Philadelphia, Poe was feted with the third international conference devoted to his work, where for three days the subjects of discussion included the association of the author with themes like Baroque aesthetics, the sublimity of disease…

December 1st, 2009
4:04 am