Monday, August 1, 2016

The Genius of Birds

The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman was an analysis of avian characteristics. When we think of animal intelligence, all too often mammals come to mind. Yet the traits that some bird species possess surpass the abilities of most mammals, and that includes humans. Ackerman divided her book into eight chapters, each focussing on a specific trait, such as the ability to use tools, vocal virtuosity and spatial and temporal ingenuity. We are introduced to some specific species such as the New Caledonian crow, whose craft of hooks and tools from barbed pandanus leaves is unmatched in the avian intelligence of any species. 

Some birds imitate human speech, such as parrots, while far more species imitate other birds. Even among birds that do not copy others, their own call must be learned by the chicks from their parents. Some species, such as the mockingbird, can acquire up to four hundred calls. Ackerman states that all birdsong is learned, much like a human parent will teach a baby how to talk:

"Johan Bolhuis, a neurobiologist at Utrecht University, remarks on how strange it must seem to an outsider for scientists to be comparing birdsong with human speech and language. 'If we were looking for some kind of animal equivalent, wouldn't we look to our closest relatives, the great apes?' he asks. 'But the odd thing is, so many aspects of human speech acquisition are similar to the way that songbirds acquire their songs. In the great apes, there's no equivalent at all.'"

There are several theories about birds' uncanny ability to navigate flight paths that are global in their range. How can birds, such as the arctic tern, travel from pole to pole and not get lost? I saw arctic terns in Iceland on the island of Grímsey and as far south as the island of Tristan da Cunha. How can any bird not lose its way going these colossal distances? Ackerman analyzed numerous test results which focussed on various areas within birds' brains, their ability to sense magnetic fields, infrasound and even olfactory detection. She was left with a strong case that all of these sensory skills are needed in avian navigation. Science may have to admit that a bird relies on all of these skills of perception and not just on one. I did learn how flocks of birds coordinate their movements so that hundreds act in precise unison:

"We've since learned that the spectacular collective behavior of flocking birds (and schooling fish, herding mammals, swarming insects, and human crowds) is self-organized, emerging from simple rules of interaction among individuals. Birds are not 'transfusing thought.' communicating telepathically with their flock members to act in unison, as Selous surmised. Instead, each bird is interacting with up to seven close neighbors, making individual movement decisions based on maintaining velocity and distance from fellow flock members and copying how sharply a neighbor turns, so that a group of, say, four hundred birds can veer in another direction in a little over half a second. What emerges is almost instantaneous ripples of movement in what appears to be one living curtain of bird."

Ackerman provided plenty of data compiled from both field and laboratory testing to back up her wondrous claims. She provided generous endnotes and her acknowledgements were filled with the names of experts in the field, so The Genius of Birds had the backing of science by scientists. It was presented in a style to appeal to all readers, even those without a background in bird knowledge. Although I prefer notes to have superscript numerals to indicate their ordered presence in the endnotes section, in this case it was smart to leave them off. The flow of the read would have been ruined had the eye been drawn to so many superscripts. I would have been obligated to refer to the back of the book each time. As it was, when I finished reading a chapter I thumbed to the end and read all of the notes so the antecedents were still fresh in my memory.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Saving Normal: An Insider's Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life

Thank goodness for Saving Normal: An Insider's Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life by Allen Frances, M.D. This book was written in response to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association. The fifth edition of the DSM, known officially as DSM-5, has been plagued with controversy ever since it came out in 2013 for its alleged hypermedicalizing of the human condition. What used to be considered quite normal behaviour and merely part of the range of emotions we experience in our lives might now be considered a mental disorder, and faux conditions are now labelled official "diseases". Just taking a longer time to mourn for a deceased loved one might get you tainted with a diagnosis of melancholia. And don't get me started on the explosion of bogus diagnoses of ADD and ADHD, as well as childhood autism. With the exception of severe autism, all of these three "A" diagnoses do not exist.

Those are my views. I am no psychiatrist, yet I am not alone. I side with the author, Allen Frances, in the belief that the current state of American psychiatry has seen an explosion in wholly useless diagnoses resulting in the hypermedicalizing of millions. Allen Frances is no antidrug purist or enemy of psychiatry. He is the most qualified person who can make any of these claims, for he was the chairman of the DSM-IV Task Force and part of the leadership group for DSM-III and DSM-IIIR. He is professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University School of Medicine. The prior edition of the DSM has his name on it, so you can bet he knows whereof he speaks. So what happened in between the publication of the DSM-IV in 1994 and the DSM-5 in 2013? There is one answer, and it's a biggie:

"DSM-IV was a bit player in the continuing march of diagnostic inflation. The major engine was drug company marketing. Three years after DSM-IV was published, Pharma lobbyists finagled an unprecedented reversal in federal regulations to allow advertising directly to consumers."
Watch the American evening news at 6:30. Or watch "60 Minutes" on Sunday. The only commercials you will see will be for pharmaceuticals. "Ask your doctor" the ads say, but you only do this after you have heeded the message in the commercials and have already diagnosed yourself:

"The ads were usually misleading but devastatingly effective. Patients self-misdiagnosed and asked their doctor for the magic pill that would correct their chemical imbalance. The doctors listened. Patients who requested a drug they had seen advertised were seventeen times more likely to walk out of the office with a prescription. The massive advertising had put the companies in charge of diagnosis."

Pharmaceutical companies have the keys to the kingdom:

"The business model of the pharmaceutical industry depends on extending the realm of illness--using creative marketing to expand the pool of customers by convincing the probably well that they are at least mildly sick. Disease mongering is the fine art of selling psychiatric ills as the most efficient way of peddling very profitable psychiatric pills. Manipulating the market is particularly easy in the United States because we are the only country in the entire world that allows drug companies the freedom to advertise directly to consumers."

The drug companies love that they can advertise on TV. In the past nineteen years they have tried to sell disease by convincing viewers that something is wrong with them. Your child can't concentrate? It's ADD. Toddler is fidgety? He's bipolar. Can't remember where you left the car keys? You've got mild neurocognitive disorder. Why are people so gullible to accept these bogus diagnoses? Frances writes:

"Society has a seemingly insatiable capacity (even hunger) to accept and endorse newly minted mental disorders that help to define and explain away its emerging concerns."

Yes--"explain away". That's the key verb if I ever heard one. Our society does not take responsibility. We love to blame others for our mistakes. Did your toddler fall into the gorilla pen at the zoo? Blame the zoo. Did you fall into a fountain while keeping your eyes glued to your phone as you texted while walking? Blame the mall. Do you have difficulty concentrating? You have a mental disorder called Adult ADD. And you need medication for it. How did Frances, the Chair of the Task Force for the DSM-IV, feel about the new edition?

"DSM-5 has just been published--not a happy moment in the history of psychiatry or for me personally. It risks turning diagnostic inflation into hyperinflation--further cheapening the currency of psychiatric diagnosis and unleashing a wave of new false epidemics."

Frances maintains that there is no magic pill for our mild mental ills. What we might be experiencing as depression, anxiety or restlessness is just a normal part of the human condition. We will get over it on our own. He maintains that sure, we should monitor ourselves, but there is no need to rush to a doctor to get a prescription just because we're feeling under the weather. And there are millions of Americans who are now feeling under the weather all the time. Ironically their unnecessary prescriptions are making them less healthy. They have developed addictions to these drugs and deleterious side effects such as obesity, one of the most common consequences of psychiatric medication. And sadly, they are not getting the psychiatric help that they need. And that really is all they likely need: consultation with a psychiatrist and not a prescription. Frances cannot stress this enough in Saving Normal, that psychiatric care is all too often denied those who need it the most. An overwhelming number of patients on some kind of psychiatric medicine obtained their prescriptions from their primary care physician (PCP). These doctors, Frances maintains, are too rushed and above all too inexperienced to diagnose a psychiatric disorder. They are all too willing to write a prescription, often for a drug the patient himself asked for, and shoo the patient out of the office:

"The inevitable result has been diagnostic inflation and massively excessive medication use. It makes absolutely no sense to do most of our psychiatric diagnosis and treatment in primary care settings. Accurate diagnosis requires expertise and simply can't be done properly in the seven minutes most PCPs now get to spend with patients--especially when the patients have been primed by false advertising to demand the wrong thing. Overprescription of psychotropic medication by PCPs has become a serious threat to public health, but has pushed Pharma revenue through the roof. There is almost never a justification for the use of antipsychotic and antianxiety medication in primary care, but it is done all the time."

Drug companies are calling the shots; they've out-Trumped the media on an NRA scale. How can you convince people that they're not sick at all, when:

"With an assist from an overly ambitious psychiatry, all human difference is being transmuted into chemical imbalance that is meant to be treated with a handy pill."

Frances filled Saving Normal with chapters on psychiatric fads of the past, present and future. We can relive witch hunt hysteria, multiple personality disorder (diagnoses of which went through the roof after the movie "Sybil" came out in 1976) and the most recent tragic fad, that of ritual satanic abuse in American daycares. The chapters on the present fads was most interesting, especially the sections entitled "Attention Deficit Disorder Runs Wild" and "Autism Becomes Fashionable". Frances got it right with that one: parents cart out their fashionably autistic children on talk shows half expecting the studio audience to throw them coins in a bucket.

In spite of the psychiatric doomsday the DSM-V brings, Frances is cautiously optimistic that we will not end up drugging the entire population in Huxleyan soma. The solution to the current state of hyperdiagnosis is not to be in such a rush to find a solution:

"The lesson for me was that diagnosis needed to rest in order to let research catch up. It made no sense to keep rearranging the furniture of descriptive psychiatry, creating new diagnoses or altering the thresholds of existing ones, based only on the whims of the experts who happened to be in the room."

Indeed. Dump the drugs, put your cellphones down and go outside. Kids, adults, everyone: get some exercise. Frances--as well as science--make the case for improved attention spans and relief from depression simply by weaning yourselves from your phones and electronic devices. Unplug yourselves, or you will truly be foolish people.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov was written in 2013, two years after the Supreme Leader Marshal Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father, the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il. Lankov was a Soviet-era exchange student who studied in Pyongyang and his fluency in Korean endeared him to his teachers and gave him access to the North Korean public. This book was unlike other modern accounts of the DPRK which I have read, in that it painted thoroughly dismal portraits of the future of the North after the inevitable downfall of its totalitarian system of government. I have read--and reviewed--quite a lot about the DPRK already, yet no book went as far in its detailed scenarios about the state of the northern half of the Korean peninsula after the Kim regime collapses. Yet before we get to the future of the DPRK, we have to deal with its past and present, and Lankov kept his history confined to the first chapter. The author thankfully did not bore me to sleep with his Korean War history, as I am prone to doze off when I read war stories. Thus I confess a personal prejudice for war histories in general.

Kim Jong Un inherited a country that is worse off that at any time since the Korean War. The DPRK continues to struggle as a nation punished by sanctions and does not want to see another famine. What can it do to feed its population if its economy cannot provide? The answer, surprisingly, seems to be by not reforming its economy:

"Unfortunately for the common North Koreans, the Pyongyang leaders' unwillingness to emulate China has very rational explanations. North Korean leaders stubbornly resist reform not because they are ideological zealots who blindly believe in the prescriptions of the Juche Idea (they do not, and the idea itself is too nebulous to be a guide to a practical policy anyway) nor because they are ignorant of the outside world. They are neither irrational nor ideological--on the contrary, they are rational to the extreme, being, perhaps, the most perfect bunch of Machiavellians currently in operation. The North Korean leaders do not want reforms because they realize that in the specific conditions produced by the division of their country, such reforms are potentially destabilizing and, if judged from the ruling elite's point of view, constitute the surest way of political (and, perhaps, physical) suicide."

Lankov asserts that any reforms would trigger the end of the Kim regime. Once the population tastes reform, it will demand more. The North Korean elite fears an Arab Spring or a Ceaușescu-style purge if reforms are introduced, therefore no one is willing to implement any kind of change out of fear of losing one's elite privileges. Without a new economy, the North is left on its own, and can only get attention by stirring up trouble. And the DPRK has perfected the art of rocking the boat by blackmailing its enemies and even its few allies:

"Indeed, from the North Korean point of view, it did not merely confirm that blackmail works, but rather confirmed that blackmail works wonders. One could hardly find a better confirmation of the efficiency of Pyongyang's usual tactics--first make a crisis, then escalate tensions, and finally extract payments and concessions for the restoration of the status quo."

The North Korean tactic of issuing nuclear threats then reaping the rewards--all on its own terms--has led some diplomats to say enough is enough. They are calling North Korea's bluff, knowing full well that the North will never launch a nuclear missile against the South or any of the ROK's western allies. To do so would be an act of suicide. The strategy of leaving North Korea alone, letting it rant to an empty room, is new, yet has not proven to be entirely effective, as the North has perfected the art of getting whatever it wants regardless of international pressures. It is much like trying to say no to wailing baby:

"The North Korean regime is thus not going to respond to either pressure or rewards, and this is increasingly obvious to the interested parties. There is therefore a great--and growing--temptation to say that North Korea is better to be forgotten and safely left alone. This is the essence of the 'strategic patience' strategy, which has quietly become the mainstream thinking of the US foreign policy establishment after 2009. In essence it says that the United States is willing to talk to North Korea, and maybe even 'reward' it with some monetary and political concessions, as long as North Korea does what the United States wants it to do--that is, starts dismantling its nuclear program. If it doesn't do so, the United States should, as strategic patience promoters insist, ignore North Korea's antics, since North Korea isn't going to be all that harmful anyway. A somewhat similar attitude seems to be dominant among the South Korean Right. These people believe that aid and political concessions make sense only if North Korean leaders agree to policies that are seen as 'rational' by Seoul.
"This reasoning might be attractive, but it seems to be unrealistic. North Korea has not the slightest desire to be left alone. Indeed, they cannot afford to be left alone. In order to compensate for the innate inefficiency of their economy, they need outside help, delivered on their specific conditions. So far, the best way to squeeze this aid has been to appear dangerous, unpredictable, and irrational. Therefore, they will continue to appear thus, attempting to cause more trouble for those countries and international forces from whom they hope to squeeze some resources. The alternative is not really attractive--either to survive on meager and perhaps diminishing returns of their nonfunctioning economy or to become excessively dependent on just one sponsor (China)."

Lankov believes that the North cannot sustain itself and regime collapse is inevitable. When this will all happen is the question. The author supplied multiple scenarios of reunification, none of which involved a peaceful transition and blending of states. The irony is, as the Korean War falls further into history, more and more South Koreans do not want reunification. They see the costs they will have to bear to support their impoverished countrymen and say no thank-you. The mainland Chinese are worried that regime collapse will send a flood of starving unskilled North Koreans across its border, so they aim to keep the status quo. The international reaction is to leave the North Koreans to lie in their own threadbare bed, yet pretty soon the bedposts will rot and the mattress will fall down. What then? No one wants to deal with this inevitability.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance

Insanely rich bankers and investors, Popes (and not always good Popes), champions of humanism, Godfathers to the rich and powerful, supreme diplomats, facilitators for some of the brave early practitioners of experimental science, extravagant patrons of the arts, and experts at marrying into royal dynasties. The Medici clan were, if nothing else, an extremely busy household. From humble beginnings (the first recorded mention of the family occurred around the year 1230) in the hills and valleys near Florence to the very pinnacle of power in the Italian peninsula and beyond the Medici are, and have been for generations, a fascination to everyone interested in Renaissance history.

Not all but many members of the Medici family had unquenchable ambition. They were smart, that’s for sure. Their ancestors started off as money changers probably hauling around a little cart in the local piazza exchanging florins for lira or scudo (all kinds of different coins were in use at the time). This is nothing revolutionary. Lots of families were doing similar work. But like I said the Medici had ambition---and smarts. With mathematical principles as their tools (maybe “weapons” would be a better analogy) they figured out how to exchange their coins for higher profits. Then they turned their efforts towards making money lending at interest (they even managed to maneuver around the delicate religious prohibition against usury—the history of this concept is interesting in its own right and worth researching). From there they became shrewd investors with an eye for quality. They bribed the right people (you never want to bride the wrong people, it’s just not profitable) and eventually got themselves the coveted title of “Bankers to the Pope.” Money just seemed to come looking for them at that point.

The Medici were a lot of things but they were not nobles. The nobility have never liked upstarts (not much has changed in this regard). To break through that barrier (again ambition and smarts) they doled out florin like animal balloons at a carnival. Oh the parties! Nobody schmoozed like the Medic schmoozed. Fast forward three generations and you find Medici blood in French, Spanish, and Germanic royal families. Cosimo and Lorenzo were smiling in their graves.

As you and I know the good times don’t last, they never, ever do. How does one describe what was lost to the Medici over time? I want to say “vitality” but that doesn’t capture it. The “spirit of ambition” comes closer but is still lacking; there was plenty of luck and serendipity in what they managed to accomplish. It seemed Fortuna’s gifts were whittled away with each passing generation. The family just didn’t have it anymore. Read the chapters on Cosimo de’ Medici and then read the chapters describing the life and times of Gian Gastone de’ Medici and you will understand what I mean.

The rise and fall of this awesome family is captured brilliantly by Paul Strathern. His historical biography of the family has a great narrative arc. The final chapter left me with a sense of melancholy as though with thy passing away of Anna Maria Luisa the world had lost something special. And it did.

One last bit of business. You should know this book is more than a biography of the various Medici family members. You could read the book and walk away with a rich understanding (and appreciation) for the Italian Renaissance as an important historical era in the development of western civilization.  The big artists of the time, and individuals like Galileo Galilei and Savonarola, all make appearances in the story. All in all a great read.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Spain: The Centre Of The World 1519 - 1682

Robert Goodwin has written a history of imperial Spain that has an almost novelistic quality in its presentation. The book is divided into two parts. Part one, titled simply Gold, covers the era of expansion when Spaniards built one of the world’s largest overseas empires. Part two, titled Glitter, covers the era of decline when the Spanish empire, overstretched and bureaucratically encumbered, had to contend with a series of costly wars and an extraordinary currency inflation. It was in this glitter age, however, that the greatest of Spain’s artistic achievements were accomplishment.

I am noticing a trend with many of the historical non-fiction books that I read these days. They all begin with a prologue or introductory chapter that details a particularly dramatic scene from history. In Spain: The Centre of the World 1519-1682 the prologue describes the first treasure ships arriving at Seville from the new world. The ships carry large golden disks once the property of the Aztec emperor but now held in the hands of sweat and grime covered conquistadors whose heads are filled with dreams of land and titles, normally the preserve of nobility but up for grabs at the right price. These harquebus carrying warriors wait anxiously to present their emperor Charles V with this incredible gift. It is one of those moments in history when it seems the universe holds its breath. Charles V, whose eyes must have matched the circumference of those disks once he saw them, would have understood immediately the significance of this prize. The disks meant empire. The colonies could now be properly settled and managed, the wars abroad were now winnable, the issues domestically could now be resolved and all of it paid for by American gold and silver.

The rise of Spain was rapid. It began with the joining in marriage of the crowns of Castile and Aragon. This union was consolidated by the very capable Charles V who did much to expand and consolidate the early empire. His son Philip II brought the empire to its height before witnessing the beginnings of its slow but inevitable decline. Spain had produced some fantastic art during its rise but in its decline art reached a level of beauty and influence that has remained an impressive legacy. Names such as Cervantes, Velazquez and El Greco belong among the most illustrious in human artistic endeavour.

What I like about the book is that the author takes imaginative liberties with his historical materials. He provides the reader with a possible (all be it hypothetical) dialogue between notable historical figures. For example, there is a brief discussion about art between the Emperor Charles V and the painter Titian (who though born in Italy spent much of his productive life as Spanish royal court painter), and a spiritual tete-a-tete between St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. There is also an extended discussion of Cervantes’ famous work, Don Quixote. History with some literary criticism thrown in—wonderful. 

Goodwin has done justice to the dramatic story of the rise and fall of the Spanish Empire. If you like reading about the histories of countries and/or kingdoms, and if you like your history to be entertaining, then this book will satisfy.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Do No Harm: Stores of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Sometimes . . . I will pause for a while, rest my hands on the arm-rests, and look at the brain I am operating on. Are the thoughts that I am thinking as I look at this lump of fatty protein covered in blood vessels really made out of the same stuff? And the answer always comes back—they are—and the thought itself is too crazy, too incomprehensible, and I get on with the operation. (p. 67–68)

With Oliver Sacks’s death in 2015, the world lost a brilliant neurologist and a highly skilled science writer. Sacks’s accessible case studies of people with neurological disorders in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and several other bestselling books introduced me and millions of others to the fascinating mysteries of the brain. I never tire of reading neuroscience case studies, so I was happy to discover Dr. Henry Marsh’s recent contribution to the genre: Do No Harm: Stores of Life, Death and Brain Surgery.

Drawing from his decades of experience as a brain surgeon in London and in Ukraine, Marsh introduces readers to particular brain tumours or conditions—a different one in each chapter—and then goes on to detail his surgical interventions as well as his interactions with the patients he helps and the patients he cannot.

Marsh excels at describing the surgical approaches and tools he uses for each procedure, making readers feel as if they are in the operating theatre with him. I now understand, for example, how the tiny aneurysm clip works—or sometimes doesn’t—by gazing down the binocular operating microscope with Marsh and watching as he painstakingly clamps the six millimetre titanium life saver across an aneurysm’s fragile neck while wrestling with a faulty applicator.

While most of the stories in Do Not Harm end well, Marsh is frank about the ones that don’t. He discusses his mistakes and failures of judgment with candour, and challenges his patients and his readers to confront the uncertainty and risks inherent in any brain surgery. Marsh is honest about how he still agonizes over his choice of words when communicating with patients. He tries always to deliver just the right mix of optimism and realism for each situation, and he sometimes fails to do this well. 

It becomes clear throughout Do No Harm that Marsh has little patience for bureaucracy and inefficiency in the public health care system—England’s National Health Service, in his case. He is bitingly critical of his hospital’s bed management policies and surgery scheduling practices, and offers a particularly potent example of how digital health records can get in the way of timely patient care. While Marsh’s criticisms are coloured by bitterness and even a touch of arrogance at times, there is much value in seeing how public health care and hospital administration can look from a surgeon’s perspective. 

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Marsh’s premise that “neuroscience tells us it is highly improbable that we have souls” (p. 378), you will appreciate the expanded sense of wonder and mystery that Do No Harm will stimulate. As Marsh summarizes mid-way through his book:

Our sense of self, our feelings and our thoughts, our love for others, our hopes and ambitions, our hates and fears all die when our brains die. Many people deeply resent this view of things, which not only deprives us of life after death but also seems to downgrade thought to mere electrochemistry and reduces us to mere automata, to machines. Such people are profoundly mistaken, since what it really does is upgrade matter into something infinitely mysterious that we do not understand. There are one hundred billion nerve cells in our brains. Does each one have a fragment of consciousness within it? How many nerve cells do we require to be conscious or to feel pain? Or does consciousness and thought reside in the electrochemical impulses that join these billions of cells together? Is a snail aware? Does it feel pain when you crush it underfoot? Nobody knows. (p. 378)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender

I'm a big fan of The Pretenders, but more than that, I'm a Chrissie Hynde fan. To me, she has always been the epitome of the female rock frontman. She's the whole package - guitar player, singer, songwriter, commanding stage presence, pure rock image, and smoldering, tough-girl beauty. I was naturally interested reading her memoirs, even more so when I learned she wrote the book herself, without a professional writer.

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender is aptly titled. Hynde's story is one of rash decisions, massive drinking and drug use, and a sizeable amount of danger. It's also a story of following your heart more than your head (often disregarding your head altogether), about loving music and the rock ethic so intensely, that only that life will do.

Hynde was ready and willing to live a nomadic, stripped-down life, without regard to commercial success, and often without material comfort at all, because comfort and success and everything that goes with it didn't matter. Only music and the rock life - and the true connections that she felt through those - mattered.

So while this review in The New York Times reads Reckless as a cautionary tale, I do not. To me it is simply an honest account without judgment. There's no doubt that Hynde's choices sometimes led to pain and suffering, but there's also no doubt they led her to her most authentic and fulfilled life. She's clearly not advocating a life of drug use and reckless decisions. She's just telling us that's what she did, for better or worse.

The book's subtitle - My Life as a Pretender - is apt, too, as Hynde often saw herself as an impostor, and maybe still does to some extent. Throughout the book, she is self-deprecating about her own talents. It isn't false modesty. It's her an honest self-appraisal from someone who has lived "on nerves and feelings" (as someone Hynde and I mutually adore once wrote) and can't quite understand how her crazy life led her, at least sometimes, to success.

In Reckless, Hynde spends a long time recounting her young years, growing up in Akron, Ohio - her constant sense of alienation, her electric discovery of her musical soul, the scary and dangerous and occasionally fun situations she found herself in. Her pilgrimage to Europe - first London, then Paris, then, after a disastrous attempt to live in the US again, settling in to live in London permanently - is also documented in quite a bit of detail.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, The Pretenders still have not formed. The formation of the band, their early writing and recording, and the deaths of two members of the original lineup, all happen very quickly at the end of the book. I was left with a lot of questions.

The writing itself is very uneven, veering from moving and lyrical, and often humourous, to clunky and ridiculous. The book is sometimes extremely raw and revealing, and sometimes hazy and guarded. Some particularly rough times that Hynde survived - the subject of many book reviews - are recounted only cryptically.

Overall, though, it's a fascinating read. If you've ever fantasized about the rock-and-roll life - ever wondered how a misfit girl from the American midwest ends up leading a bunch of British men in an iconic rock band - and especially if, like me, you love Chrissie Hynde - this book is very entertaining. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]