Category: Book Reviews

  • Love Better, Present Better, and Perform Better Through Presence

    ***ANNOUNCEMENT: The next This Is How You Heal Yourself: Rewire Your Brain to Overcome Pain workshop is in San Francisco on Tuesday, 19 Jan 2016. I’ll be teaching you tools to get over heartbreak, phobias and trauma. Sign up here.***

    Here’s a story for you: just last month, my professional singer friend Valerie was terrified of her upcoming auditions because of crippling stage fright. Right about that time, I was fortunate to attend a talk by Amy Cuddy on her new book. Valerie couldn’t attend, so I gave her an advance copy of Presence (hardcover and ebook) that Amy had kindly given us. Valerie watched Amy’s TED talk, read half of the book, executed the “power pose” (i.e. expansive body postures like the “Wonder Woman” and the “Usain Bolt” held for 2min) and “self-affirmation of core values” techniques right before her auditions, and nailed ’em: three auditions, three gigs booked. And it all worked that fast.

    What would you say if I told you that there was an essential life skill that could make you a better speaker, help you nail job interviews, get you better dates, improve your performance, and make you a better partner and parent? What if I told you that no one has ever bothered to teach you this skill, mostly because we didn’t even know what it was? That secret skill is presence, “the state of feeling connected with our own thoughts, values, abilities, and emotions, so that we can better connect with the thoughts, values, abilities, and emotions of others.” And Amy Cuddy’s book can teach this state of “self-assured enthusiasm” to you and a whole lot more.

    People — this is life-changing stuff. We can all think of a time when (more…)

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  • How the Psychologist Found Love + Beta Testers Wanted for New Course + Birthday

    This last week was my birthday. I received a hundred or so messages from readers like you via my Facebook profile (to which I’d be delighted to add you should you wish to witness my miscellaneous ramblings), and another few hundred messages, texts and phone calls from friends and family. If you were one of them — thanks so much! By the end of the week, I was brimming with gratitude & joy from all of your kindness and support. This one below was one of the most heart-warming of all, and it wasn’t even sent for my birthday:

    “Hi Dr. Binazir! I don’t have a question, just a testimonial for your book (and I’ll add one on Amazon, too)! I read it about a year and a half ago after some unfortunate online dating experiences (I admit, you were right).

    weddingcake

    I’m a psychologist, but at times even the principles of therapy you provide for others just don’t sink in with regard to yourself. Your book really helped me with that, and I was able to let go of my desperate search for a partner. I think the things that helped the most were starting to attend a guided meditation practice, and using much of that time to focus on the principle of abundance. I really began to see my life as complete, and also kept my eyes and heart open.

    Almost the instant I reached and maintained a state of acceptance and peace, my friend happened to (more…)

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  • “Who would ever want me?”: On being lovable

    Hello, ladies and the occasional curious gentleman. Noah’s Flood has hit Northern California with full force, and I volunteered to be part of the crew that collects pairs of animals for the ark. The problem is that I really can’t tell the difference between, say, a boy armadillo and a girl armadillo. So if certain species end up going extinct in the near future, you didn’t hear about any of this. Deal? Deal.

    In other news, I’ve been doing some research on my ongoing project called Happiness Engineering. In the course of my readings, I’ve come across a bunch of interesting research emphasizing the importance of vulnerability, compassion, self-compassion and mindfulness. In my last article, I covered some of those topics. This being the hammer that the world has provided me for the foreseeable future, I’ll be looking at the letters you send me as the perfect nails for said hammer. Case in point, we have one from Cori, a 44-year old widow with 4 kids who just started dating again:

    After being married for years, my husband died of cancer, and I started dating again. I’m 44; the new guy is divorced. After dating for a while, the new guy says he wants to marry me. But after getting to know him for over year now, I’ve noticed that has a bad temper. He calls me names when he gets mad, like “jackass” – who even uses that anymore?! – and slams the phone down etc. Gets mad at me a lot. Told him it’s not fun anymore and I’m not okay with anger issues. He offered to change. I declined the offer. He argues that he is committed, dependable, and loving and I bring out the anger by doing stupid shit basically. I told him no go – husband of many years never called me a name, ever.

    Question: Am I nuts to break up with a man willing to take on a widow with four kids? I meet tons of men. I’m super sexual. Get hit on plenty but his point is they all just want sex, not love. I’d rather be alone! But do you think people change?! I really don’t. I feel pretty liberated by making my own choices and not allowing myself to settle…

    Anyway. As always just hoping for some honest thoughts from the smartest man I know (online anyway). Hope your love life is going better than mine. — Cori

    Dear Cori – I’d say you’re pretty smart, too, since saying stuff like “Just hoping for some honest thoughts from the smartest man I know” is exactly the way to motivate me :)

    Your letter brings up a bunch of interesting points. First off, because you’re so smart and fabulous, here’s what I would say: trust yourself. You don’t like the anger. Your late husband never called you a bad name the whole time you were together. Clearly this is something you don’t want to tolerate, and really nobody should. You already have clear boundaries, and he’s obviously violating them. He could be a trillionaire who’s a typhoon in the sack, but if he has a habit of pooping on the breakfast table, then you can’t be with him. Uncontrolled anger is like pooping on the breakfast table, except that it can happen unpredictably at any time, anywhere, not just at mealtime. His blaming it on you because you supposedly do “stupid shit” is BULLSHIT, emotionally manipulative and inexcusable. A grown man is responsible for his own behavior.

    Now this line from the letter was quite telling:

    “Question: Am I nuts to break up with a man willing to take on a widow with four kids?”

    Let me translate that into what it’s actually saying:

    “Since I’m just a widow burdened with 4 kids, I should hold on to any guy who would give me the time of day. I mean, when will I ever get another chance? Who would be crazy enough to want little ol’ me?”

    Well, Cori, I don’t know. Who would be crazy enough to want little ol’ you?

    And ladies — before you think that somehow this is a problem unique to Cori, please raise your hand if you’ve ever had a version of this go through YOUR mind, ahem:

    “Who would want to be with me with my oversize thighs / stringy hair / pot belly / C on my report card / chronic disease / neat-freak tendencies / crappy job / ugly neighborhood / weird family / shitty car / funny-looking feet / dwarf stature / beanpole height / asymmetrical boobs / annoyingly high voice / funny accent / other perfectly common no-big-deal issue which I will nevertheless unconsciously use as a barrier to intimacy?”   

    Now, I haven’t met you, so it doesn’t make sense for me to sit here and boost your ego by singing your praises. What I can do, however, is to tell you how you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are enough.

    See, I get hundreds of letters from you ladies every year. And you all think you have this one special problem that’s specific to you and you alone.

    Well, I’ve got news for ya. All of you have one problem and one problem alone, and it’s pretty much the same for all of you. And I’ve said before, it is this question:

    AM I LOVABLE?

    That’s pretty much it. Everything else boils down to that, as I mentioned in my last article. Am I worthy of love? Am I pulling my weight on this planet? Is there any good reason why people should like me, want to spend time with me and be nice to me?

    Luckily, the answers to those questions are entirely in your hands. Here are three things you can do such that you know that you’ve done your part in being, like, totally lovable:

    1) Am I being vulnerable?

    What’s the most lovable thing in the world? An infant, a kitten or a puppy would qualify. So cute! So adorable!

    And so completely useless. I mean, what can a baby do? Not much besides pee, poop, and make nipples sore. And yet, because it’s also perfectly defenseless, everyone adores it.

    Now, granted, there are also some deep evolutionary mechanisms at work assuring that we find wrinkly, pudgy, smoosh-faced, income- and sleep-annihilating babies adorable, otherwise the human race just wouldn’t propagate.

    Nevertheless, it’s still true that lovability is directly proportional to vulnerability. One thing we all know for sure: perfectionism, the polar opposite of vulnerability, is distinctly non-cuddly and just plain unattractive. So if you’re trying to attract men, what may work even better than trying to come off as a hypercompetent, fiercely independent overachiever is this: a little bit of emotional self-disclosure.

    Admit that sometimes things are tough. That you wish you had more support, more close company that you could share experiences with. That you miss your dad who passed away 6 years ago, and that you wish he could have met his grandkids. That all the responsibility of being a powerful woman weighs you down sometimes. That the scar from the surgery still hurts. That you gave up your childhood dream of being a classical cellist for a corporate job. Emotional self-disclosure of pain or imperfection like these make you more vulnerable, and therefore more approachable and lovable.

    Vulnerability brings out the protective and nurturing instincts of a man – his noblest aspects. Perfectionism, on the other hand, brings out his competitive instincts. Which one would you prefer? Would you rather fight or be cherished? Your choice.

    At the same time, “vulnerable” means “more subject to harm.” So make sure the person you’re making yourself vulnerable to is the right audience for it. Last thing you want is some brute who’ll attack you just when you’ve exposed your soft underbelly.

    Also, make sure that vulnerability is the spice, rather than the whole dish. If you’re perpetually talking about the pain in your life, that’s not vulnerability – that’s just whining. This is not about dumping your woes on people. This is about discreetly making yourself vulnerable, in measured doses, to someone you like.

    2) Am I being self-compassionate?

    Generally speaking, people can only love you to the extent that you love yourself. So – how much do you love yourself? If you’re constantly putting yourself down and telling yourself how much of an idiot you are, then you’re probably going to end up with someone who agrees with you or worse.

    Why? Because you’re going to reject out of hand any guy who likes you more than you like yourself. “What could he possibly see in me? He’s either crazy, deluded or faking it.” That would be funny if it weren’t true of so many people I know.

    The antidote to this is a healthy sense of self-compassion (which apparently is different from self-esteem, but that’s a story for a different day). According to Prof Kristin Neff of the University of Texas in Austin, who pioneered the field and wrote the book on self-compassion (full delightful title: Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind) there are 3 components to it:

    a) Self-kindness, meaning that we are gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical and judgmental. Basically, when you flub, be as nice to yourself as you would be to others. Simple.

    b) Recognizing our common humanity, meaning that we feel connected to others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering. This is what I was talking about earlier in the article when I said all of you have the same am-I-lovable problem. You’re not alone in being alone, as the immortal bard Sting put it in the song Message in a Bottle.

    c) Mindfulness, meaning that we remain aware of our pain but keep that observation in perspective, rather than ignoring the pain or exaggerating it.

    Practice self-compassion, and the beast of low self-worth is likely to go on a very long vacation.

    3) Am I being loving?

    If you’re being vulnerable and self-compassionate, that’s a great start. But being loving is also an active, outward-directed thing. So this is third part of doing your homework so you know that you are totally, completely, 100% worthy of love involves building up other people in addition to not tearing yourself down. Some ways of being loving:

    • Being a catalyst for others’ growth
    • Habitually making folks feel like a million bucks
    • Expressing your appreciation of people
    • Being focused more on giving than taking (while still looking out for yourself, ahem – no doormats or martyrs, please)
    • Valuing people as ends in themselves, not as means to some other end
    • Saying more positive things than negative things (3:1 ratio at least)

    The good news is this is all under your control. You can choose to be vulnerable. You can choose to be loving. And when you do, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are worthy of love.

    But wait! There’s more. There’s a side benefit to all of this. As a result of all of these practices, e.g. making others feel like a million bucks, YOU’RE going to feel like a million bucks, too! Scientists have shown that all of this stuff that you do – raising people up, sharing of yourself, being giving – has a direct, positive effect on you. It makes you feel good!

    So to go back to Cori’s original question: Who would want to date a 44-year old woman with 4 kids? Who’s gonna love you, girl?

    Well, if you’re doing the stuff that we just talked about, the answer is legions of guys – assuming they have some sense in them. At the same time, the work of vulnerability, self-compassion and being loving is its own reward. How’s that for a win-win?

    So go forth and live it up. Make someone’s day — especially your own. I’ve gotta put on my rain gear and catch some armadilloes for now, but I fully expect to hear back on how it went for you when I’m back.

    Best, Dr Ali

    PS: As you may know, the audiobook of The Tao of Dating for Women is now available on Audible and Amazon. Audible has a deal where you can get it for free. And if you’re one of the first people to put up a review of it on Audible.com, I will hook you up with a free download code to send to a friend. I have 15 gift codes left, so hurry! Once your review is published, send me an email with “AUDIBLE REVIEW” in the subject and the link to your review, and I shall hook you up with the goods.

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  • The body language of love and attraction

    Last week I read a book I’d been meaning to read for a long time — Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship by David Givens, Ph.D. It turned out to be even better than expected. In fact, I made 163 highlights and took 19 pages of notes!

    Now we’ve all heard the term body language and are aware of how it works to some extent. But the word language is not even a metaphor here. Body language is literally a language, and if you’re not familiar with the vocabulary and syntax, you might miss something life-alteringly important.

    Luckily, language operates at an unconscious level, so you’ve probably been doing a good job of understanding body language all along. At the same time, a little bit of extra training can put you way ahead of the competition – and enrich the experience of peoplewatching next time you’re in a public place.

    Here are some fascinating snippets from the book:

    — You have a whole center in the temporal lobes of your brain dedicated to responding to (more…)

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  • Dr Ali’s Book Club: “A Path With Heart” by Jack Kornfield

    Soon after moving to San Francisco, I became aware of Spirit Rock, the teaching and insight meditation center just a few miles up the road founded by Jack Kornfield some 30 years ago. Friends spoke highly of it, and your first session was free! With nothing to lose, I made the pleasant pilgrimage to Marin County and sat in on one of Jack’s classes.

    Jack turned out to be one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. After years of meditation and study in Asia, not only does he know his stuff very well, but he’s also quite funny. Like a great college professor’s lectures, his discourses range widely and incorporate numerous allusions, stories, quotes, and quips. He had us laughing at a regular clip of once every 5 minutes or so. Don’t you wish more teachers did that?

    I later found out that Jack is also a practicing PhD in psychology. It seemed as if his (more…)

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  • Book Club: “The Great Work of Your Life” + The Art of Love Tue April 1

    I’ve been meaning to write to you for a while now – lots to talk about. However, I’ve been laid up at home mostly immobile due to some mysterious neck and back issues. It’s getting better, and an article about how to deal with pain – both somatic and psychic – will almost certainly come out of it. Just not today – the muscle relaxant seems to relax all muscles, including the finger muscles and the brain muscle.

    In the meantime, I want to tell you about an upcoming seminar series and a couple of books I’ve been enjoying lately. Both books get sky-high 4.8/5.0 Amazon ratings, and for good reason.

    THE ART OF LOVE: STARTS TUE APRIL 1

    My friend and colleague Arielle Ford is putting on her Art of Love seminar series starting on Tuesday April 1. She’s got a fantastic roster of speakers lined up, including Katherine Woodward Thomas (author of Calling in the One), Dr John Gray, Deepak Chopra, the ever-wise Alison Armstrong and a whole bunch of stellar folks you should take the time to discover.

    Whether you’re in a relationship or not, these great teachers will be sharing ideas and tools for how to navigate love and have more of it in your life.

    Registration is free, and apparently you get three video interviews just for signing up. I encourage you to watch the one with Rev Dr Michael Bernard Beckwith. He’s one of my long-time mentors, and instrumental in my efforts to write The Tao of Dating at a time of great doubt and uncertainty in my life.

    Here’s the signup link: The Art of Love with Arielle Ford

    http://goo.gl/aFWrI

    It’s totally free (unless you decide to buy stuff from them), yet somehow I receive a fee if you sign up through my link. Magic. All proceeds go to my physical therapy and muscle relaxant fund.

    BOOK CLUB: THE GREAT WORK OF YOUR LIFE BY STEPHEN COPE

    Every once in a while a book comes along with such depth, power and grace that it hits me straight between the eyes. The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey of Your True Calling is such a book. I finished it in two sittings, then re-read it to highlight and implement the important parts.

    Cope, whom I had never heard of before this book, has sterling credentials: psychotherapist of many decades, yoga scholar, and director of the Kripalu Center for Extraordinary Living. The book is about dharma – your true calling in life. He uses the story of the Bhagavad Gita to introduce the concept, then interweaves the lives of remarkable people to illustrate his points.

    If I had only read the stories of Harriet Tubman and Susan B Anthony, the book would have been worth it. But there’s also Thoreau, Gandhi, Jane Goodall and Walt Whitman. And a bunch more everyday heroes that you’ll want to know about. It’s an uplifting and wise book, appropriate for any age, since it’s never too late to find your true calling. Make sure you get the hard copy – you’ll want to come back to this again and again.

    The other book I want to tell you about is Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal, by Dr Rachel Naomi Remen. Not only has Dr Remen been an oncologist and counselor for over 45 years, but she has also been a Crohn’s disease patient. As such, she brings great compassion to her observations of the suffering and triumph of her patients, colleagues and self. The book is a collection of brief stories (1-3 pages each), so you can start it anywhere you want, put it down, then pick it up later. It’s been very useful for me these past two weeks, and it’s sure to be a shot in the arm for you, too.

    That’s all for now. More books and observations to come. In the meantime, I’m grateful for your attention and support.

    All the best

    Dr Ali

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  • On New Year’s Resolutions and Dr Ali’s Book Club

    A few days ago was the first day of the Gregorian calendar, January 1.

    In the countries that use that calendar, the night before January 1 is a festive time. People dress up, ingest large amounts of food and alcohol with friends, and angle to lip-lock with someone at the clang of midnight. They make a big deal of it.

    In the meantime, most of the world (more…)

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  • Book Review: “Compelling People”, or how to be a more effective human

    best book for increasing your personal power
    A compelling read

    Every once in a while, a book comes along that has the power to really change the way I see the world and move in it. In 2012, it was The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. The year before, it was Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut is such a book.

    The central premise of the book is that in any encounter, people base how they feel about you based on how you project strength and warmth. Once you become aware of what your unconscious strength and warmth signals are, you can learn to modulate them to connect better with people, influence them, and just be a more effective all-around human being. From the worlds of psychology, neuroscience, acting, political science, they’ve compiled some of the best practices for presenting your best self to the world.

    Some things I like about this book:

    1) Neffinger and Kohut are seasoned professionals who have coached dozens of nationally-known (more…)

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  • “The Book of Awakening” by Mark Nepo

    Recently, I was walking by Thunderbolt Books, one of my favorite bookstores, and made the mistake of walking in. Why a mistake? Because I usually buy a new book when I’m there, and lord knows that I don’t need any more new books before I finish the 140 that are already in the queue, yeesh.

    However, this one I could justify (totally!) because it’s a daybook — one short chapter per day. Piece o’ cake! Also, three different sources had recommended it to me, so I had to find out what the fuss was all about. I flipped through it and recognized instantly: it’s a keeper.

    The entry I read today was particularly powerful, so I’d like to share with you some of the jewel-like lucidity of The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have by Mark Nepo:

    January 20: Being Easily Pleased

    One key to knowing joy is being easily pleased.

    So many of us have been trained to think that being particular about what we want is indicative of good taste, and that not being satisfied unless our preferences are met is a sign of worldliness and sophistication. I remember being at a party where a woman wouldn’t accept her drink unless is was made with a certain brand of vermouth. She was, in fact, indignant about it. Or going to dinner with a colleague who had to have his steak prepared in a complex and special way, as if this particular need to be different was his special public signature. Or watching very intelligent men and women inscibe their circle of loneliness with criteria for compansionship that no one could meet. I used to maintain such a standard of excellence around the sort of art I found acceptable.

    Often, this kind of discernment is seen as having high standards, when in actuality it is only a means of isolating ourselves from being touched by life, while rationalizing that we are more special than those who can’t meet our very demanding standards.

    The devastating truth is that excellence can’t hold you in the night, and, as I learned when ill, being demanding or sophisticated won’t help you survive…

    I’m going to buy me a stack of these and give them away to friends. So either become my friend, or go get thee thine own copy. I’ve been reading some great books recently, so more of these to come.

    Best

    Dr Ali B

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  • ‘God’s Hotel’ by Victoria Sweet: A profoundly human book

    A book that can delight you through its entertainments or instruct you with useful knowledge is a good book; one that does both is a great book. Rarely, a book comes along that not only instructs and delights but also deepens your humanity, carving out extra space inside us to carry even more compassion. God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet is such a book. [A hat-tip to Jesse Kornbluth of Head Butler for introducing me to it.]

    There were many reasons I enjoyed this book, which is really many books at once:

    1) The author, Dr Victoria Sweet, who has a PhD in medieval history as well as an MD, shares the ancient Latin and Greek etymologies of many terms used in patient care today. Hospitality, community, charity – what do they really mean? Through her stories about her time taking care of patients, Dr Sweet shows how those formed the three foundational principles of Laguna Honda Hospital.

    Hospital comes from hospitality, the root of which is hospes, which means both ‘guest’ or ‘host’. This is how Sweet explains this:

    The essence of hospitality — hospes — is that guest and host are identical, if not in this moment, then at some moment. Whatever our current role, it was temporary. With time and the seasons, a host goes traveling and becomes a guest; a guest returns home and becomes a host. That is what the word hospitality encodes. And in a hospital, the meaning of that interchangeability is even more profound, because in the hospital, every host will for sure become a guest; every doctor, a patient.

    Community has two derivations: one from Latin munio meaning wall, so it means “to build a wall around”. It also comes from munis, gift, so it also means “those who share a gift in common”:

    That was true of the hospital’s community, too, though it was not as obvious as the wall. At the Teals’ wedding, when I saw almost all of Laguna Honda pouring into that church, sitting rapt during their vows, and, yes, even crying, I understood that it wasn’t only me who was interested in the Teals, who made time, who was touched by them. Almost everyone was there; the wedding was a gift we shared in common, and that sharing made us a community.

    As for charity:

    Charity came into the West when Saint Jerome translated the Greek word agape by the Latin caritas, which became the English charity. Today agape is usually translated as love, but agape was more nuanced; in ancient Greek it meant “to treat with affectionate regard.” Caritas, charity, is closer because the root of caritas is cara — “dear” — as in expensive and cherished. So caritas has the sense of “dearness” — of a love that is precious and sweet.

    2) Dr Sweet interweaves the account of her doctoral research on Hildegard von Bingen and premodern medicine in the story. This is delighteful stuff, because it’s not taught in medical schools at all, even though it was the basis of Western medicine for two thousand years.

    Von Bingen was the original 11th century superwoman: head cleric, builder, farmer, physician, author and composer at a time when women weren’t allowed much power at all. Hildegard believed in viriditas — the greenness of living things and their ability to grow. Get the blocks out of the way, and a patient’s own viriditas would take over and he’d heal. Dr Sweet applies some of the premodern principles from von Bingen’s healing framework to her patients, most memorably one with the worst bedsore she had ever seen that went all the way to the patient’s spine. The results are well-nigh miraculous.

    3) Dr Sweet describes in great detail and without spite the encroachment of modern medicine with its “efficiencies” into the cozy, personable and strangely effective ways of Laguna Honda, even though there is much to provoke the reader’s dismay. The personal, health and financial consequences of cost-cutting, both on patients and staff, turn out to be much higher than the dollars that those measures purport to save. It’s a cautionary tale about what medicine can be vs. what it has become, and should be required reading for every medical student.

    4) And most of all, the stories of the patients. Laguna Honda being a hospital for the care of the indigent – the last almshouse in the US – its patients are people that the good life left behind. The poor, the mentally ill, the unlucky, those with nowhere else to go: these are the patients that Laguna Honda treats equally and without prejudice. Sometimes the patient goes to the brink of death, the ‘anima’ already halfway in ascent, and turns back. Other times, the patients make miraculous recoveries only to succumb to alcohol or neglect once discharged. These case histories are at once invigorating, enlightening, infuriating and heartbreaking. They are the human heart of the book.

    This may also be a book the likes of which will never get written again. Why? Because nobody has the luxury of observing a patient over weeks, months and years as that patient’s debilitating bedsore, cirrhosis or dementia heals millimeter by millimeter. There are few structures in the US that support that kind of patient care. This is a book about slow medicine, which is rapidly going out of fashion these days.

    One of the side effects of reading any book is to become partially imbued with the spirit of its author. Reading God’s Hotel, you get a sense that Dr Victoria Sweet is a deeply thoughtful and compassionate person, and one of the very best kind of caregivers one could hope to have. As a result, this book will not only delight and instruct you, but is also likely to leave you a better human being.

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    Categories: Book Reviews