The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain
The Surprising Talents of the Middle-aged Mind
Viking: 218 pp., $26.95
Good news! Our middle-aged brains are surprisingly competent and surprisingly talented. We're smarter, calmer, happier and, as one scientist (herself in middle age) puts it: "We just know stuff." We may forget names, or even what we had for breakfast, but Barbara Strauch amasses study after study that shows the human brain is "at its peak in those years and stays there longer than any of us dared to hope." We start, on the whole, to get happier "in part because we start to use our brains differently. There may be evolutionary reasons for this as well. A happier, calmer middle-aged human is better able to help the younger humans in his care."
There is a decline in some chemicals like dopamine and, as some scientists have discovered, a "default mode" we enter—a "daydreaming state of quiet" but also "continuous inner chatter." In middle age we use "two sides of the brain instead of one"; if we strengthen the brain's frontal cortex (through exercise, brain training and good eating) we create a "cognitive reserve that is a buffer against aging, helps us get to the gist of things faster and act judiciously rather than rashly."
In the book's last part, Strauch recommends steps we can take to help our brains meet their full potential in middle age and onward. Exercise is key: Studies show it strengthens the dentate gyrus (a section of the hippocampus), helps increase new neuron production, strengthens and builds myelin (the fatty coating around neurons) and even increases brain volume. (Stress, of course, retards neuron production.) Strauch also suggests foods to eat that are rich in antioxidants and limit inflammation; and then there's also brain training. There are a lot of brain books out there now, and this is one of the best.
Take Good Care of the Garden and Dogs
Family, Friendships, and Faith in Small-Town Alaska
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: 287 pp., $22.95
Heather Lende is one of those increasingly rare species: a small-town newspaper reporter. She has lived for 25 years in Haines, Alaska, where she writes obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News and a regular column on daily life in a small town for the Anchorage Daily News. In April 2005 she was riding her bike when she fell and was run over by Kevin, the local grocery store manager, in his truck. This is the story of her recovery, with the help of friends, family and all kinds of people in her community, but it is also the story of how she found true grace and gratitude. A year after the bike accident, Lende's mother, one of those equally rare utterly stable role models, died of leukemia. "Take good care of the garden and dogs," she said before she died. Writing a small town's obituaries gave Lende a good platform from which to carry out her mother's advice. The book is full of vivid characters (a librarian who collects overdue books in person) and strange, sad deaths. Lende is not one for looking back. She has a simple, chatty style most readers will find oddly comforting. Life does, in fact, go on.
Counterpoint: 278 pp., $14.95
I'm not one for thrillers (they scare me and make me feel stupid, which can lead to behavior that resembles that of a large, cornered animal), but "Cold Earth" had too many good ingredients to pass up: six archeologists working in Greenland; a plague that destroys the world they left behind; and hauntings by the ancient people whose bones they are digging up. Caught between a dead past and a terrifying future, the six interact in increasingly complicated ways. What? You've seen this plot before? Who cares! Moss draws six unforgettable individuals, through their interactions with fellow archeologists and through letters home to their loved ones. Bugs in amber, carbon in ice—a reader watches their existence constrict to survival: "Like Shackleton, it's better to stay put and wait for the cavalry."
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 124 pp., $25
There's a whole lifetime in this collection, from beauty and simplicity all the way to shame. The voice of conscience and regret: "There was nothing I could have done—-/a flurry of blackbirds burst/from the weeds at the edge of a field/and one veered out into my wheel/and went under. I had a moment/to hope he'd emerge as sometimes/they will…." The people he could have helped, the children he heard crying, the girl on the train tracks, the cows about to be eaten, the wasps. There is the failure of flesh and the failure of poetry: "Better stay here, with eyes of glass,/like people in advertisements,/and without bodies or blood,/like people in poems."
"All the beautiful poems/about plum trees in flower" he writes, "and not one of them mentions/that the damned things/if you don't pay attention/will pull themselves apart." Then there are poems to the "slayer and the slain," to war, to junk, lucre and decay: "teetering stacks of dung:/poetry, love, poetry, slime." Before you know it, the book is over: "I was a panther: I swaggered,/my shoulders rolled: coarse I was, cruel."
Did you take it in, you wonder, or move on too quickly? Did you get every last drop of wisdom from it?
Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.