Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington (2016)

Arianna Huffington is most famous for starting the Huffington Post, which she modestly named after herself. In April 2007, after a particular gruelling period of work and family commitments, she collapsed at work. After visiting a number of doctors, her diagnosis was clear: she was burned out, totally and absolutely exhausted. Following that event, she changed her approach to life. She realised the importance of sleep and, once she realised how important sleep is to health, happiness and productivity, she became a sleep advocate, not only ensuring that she herself received the right amount of sleep but encouraging others to do so also. The Sleep Revolution: Transforming your Life, One Night at a Time is the result of that advocacy.

The Sleep Revolution is logical structured. The first section outlines the alarming sleep problem of contemporary society - 40 per cent of Americans are sleep deprived, which is a problem because the effects of a lack of sleep are the same as being drunk. This has huge social consequences, from being groggy and cranky to having reduced productivity and creativity. Of even more concern is the 60 per cent of American drivers who drive when drowsy, with dangerous and possibly fatal consequences. Because we haven't had enough sleep, we're tired; because we're tired, we pump ourselves with stimulants like sugar and caffeine; because we're wired with stimulants, we knock ourselves out with drugs. None of this is helped by the tablet and smartphone filled environments in which we live or workplaces that expect workers to answer emails at all times. As Huffington persuasively (and with extensive endnotes) argues, we are experiencing a sleep crisis.

Huffington then discusses the industry that has arisen around sleep, in particular the incredibly concerning use of sleeping pills by the American public. She reports that Ambien (known as Stilnox in Australia) makes up two-thirds of all of the sleeping pills sold in America. That is really terrible! I have no problem with Ambien the drug - I myself use it on occasion - but it is a really strong drug that can have terrible side effects, particularly when combined with alcohol. It is also addictive and stops working after long-term use, so is absolutely not a good drug to be prescribing on such a large scale. It should be a drug of last recourse, not the first thing you try. It's actually not easy to get in Australia - many bulk billing clinics have signs out the front saying that it is clinic policy not to prescribe it, so I'm not sure why doctors in America have such a different attitude. If Huffington's data is correct, then America has a big problem with sleeping pills.

This leads me into the best aspect of this book. Huffington places a lot of contemporary America's sleep problems within an American context, citing the famous Americans such as Thomas Edison who railed against the need to sleep. She notes that America's bootstraps mentality combined with the country's puritanical leanings combine to depict sleep as something lazy which should be done as little as possible. Politicians and executives are praised for getting by on tiny amounts of sleep. This is despite mountains of evidence that shows that sleep is necessary for mental and physical health and actually contributes to happier, healthier and more productive workers. Huffington says that if she had slept properly instead of trying to burn the candle at both ends, then she would have been more successful faster - her desire to do too much actually slowed her down rather than helping her progress.

Here, I am going to make an admission: I too am a sleep advocate. After sleeping terribly for a long time, about two years ago my doctor sent me for a bunch of tests. I did a sleep study and a lung function test and was diagnosed with a delayed sleep cycle, which is the official term for being a night owl. I was told I had two choices: either change my lifestyle to match my sleep cycle or reset my sleep cycle through the use of melatonin, lifestyle changes and cognitive behavioural therapy. I chose the second one and, after a bit of work, I now sleep well with a sleep cycle that fits my lifestyle. Without exaggeration, every single part of my life is better with good sleep. It takes work to maintain - very late weekend nights out are very rare - but I am happier and healthier than I have ever been. I constantly advocate the need to prioritise sleep to my friends (who I'm pretty sure wish I had never seen the sleep doctors now, but that's another story). The Sleep Revolution would not have helped me at all. The chapter on sleep disorders notes two sleep disorders: sleep apnea and insomnia. All other disorders are hand waved away. This is fairly symptomatic of the book. Huffington is not particularly concerned with the broader social forces that contribute to the social ills of which sleep problems both contribute to and are a symptom of. Instead, she focuses on what individuals can do to make their sleep better. In one way, this is a good thing - you can't change your inability to pay your bills by worrying about it in bed before sleep, so try to put it out of your mind (not, hopefully, as nauseatingly as the CEO friend of Arianna's who goes to sleep by counting his blessings through visualising his grandchildren jumping a fence in a field. Vomit). She notes that it's hard to prioritise sleep if you're trying to patch together a living from three or four part time jobs, then continues with recommending mediation, nice PJs and a bath before bed.

The Sleep Revolution is not a bad book. Huffington persuasively argues that sleep is important and why we need to prioritise it. The advice Huffington provides is good, if not groundbreaking. The book is definitely aimed at white collar professionals, which is fine. Huffington knows how to get her point across clearly and effectively. There are better books out there, in particular Night School by Richard Wiseman, but this is a good sleep primer. Three stars.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Other Side of Silence (Philip Kerr, 2016) and Even Dogs in the Wild (Ian Rankin, 2016)

Hello, dear blog. I am back! I have been gone for four months, working on my Master's thesis. As anyone who has done a thesis knows, the final three months of work are all encompassing. It was all-thesis-all-the-time (unfortunately, I have the extra kilos to prove it!). The thought of writing any more words than I actually had to - and for fun no less! - was just ridiculous, and so I did not. I also didn't read very much either during the thesis submission time or the period immediately following it, so I didn't really have much to write about either. But now I am back, I've read a ton of books and I have opinions to share. Let the blogging begin (again).

So far for me, 2016 has been the year of hanging out with old favourites. I just this weekend inhaled Philip Kerr's The Other Side of Silence. In his 11th outing, the intrepid Bernie Gunther (one of my favourite literary detectives and on my list of fictional men I would be allowed to cheat with if they were not fictional but real) is working as a concierge on the Riviera in the 1950s. Of course, there are beautiful dames and evil Nazis and Russians and betrayal and memories from Bernie's dark past. It was great! Kerr is so skilled at building a past that feels real (provided one suspends one's disbelief at the amount of life and loving that Bernie lived in his half-century on the planet) that these books are always a historical delight. I also love that it shows the war from the side of the Germans (albeit a "good" German), in particular in relation to the British. There is a scene in Silence where Bernie is dealing with former British soldiers who would have been fighting at the same time Bernie was. There is this incredibly sense underlying all of their communication that 30 years ago, any of these men might have killed Bernie and Bernie might have killed them and it would have been considered the right thing to do. Obviously, so far along in the series this is a book only for the fans, but it gets the job done.

Similarly, Ian Rankin's Even Dogs in the Wild recounts the adventures of Rebus and Fox. John Rebus is in retirement but doesn't like it, while Fox has some heavy stuff going on in his personal life. I know I said that Silence is only for the fans, but Even Dogs in the Wild is *really* only for the fans. In his 20th outing, Rebus' actions and relationships make sense only if you know what has happened before. It is a fun book - Rankin is a great writer and since I visited the Oxford Bar myself in 2014, I really feel present in the Edinburgh he writes about - but I would only recommend Dogs if you were already a Rebus fan, in which case you wouldn't need my recommendation because you'd already be there.

I'm pleased to be back on the blog and looking forward to sharing my thoughts on books and writing again!