Damion Searls: The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test, which has shaped our view of human personality and become a fixture in popular culture

In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind. For years he had grappled with the theories of Freud and Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic of a new generation of modern artists. He had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see.

Rorschach himself was a visual artist, and his test, a set of ten carefully designed inkblots, quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay-Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, workers applying for jobs, and people suffering from mental illness—or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.

Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries, and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues, to tell the unlikely story of the test’s creation, its controversial reinvention, and its remarkable endurance—and what it all reveals about the power of perception. Elegant and original, The Inkblots shines a light on the twentieth century’s most visionary synthesis of art and science.

So often when we think about study psychology, we talk about different methods–but we rarely think about the people who dedicated their lives to figuring out the science behind those methods. Aside from Freud and Jung, how many psychologists can you name? Not many! We see inkblots everywhere in our culture, and not even just as the tests themselves anymore. They are mimicked in art and on album covers, on tshirts and in the media. But I never knew who Hermann Rorschach was–when he lived, how he died, where the inkblots came from.

It’s all pretty fascinating, actually. Rorschach had a troubled childhood, but he was a good person, and genuinely wanted to help people. Medicine wasn’t enough, he wanted to see them for who they were. He worked his whole life with schizophrenics in asylums, trying to determine whether it was a life sentence or not, how he could get inside their heads and bring them back. He didn’t create the first Inkblot Test, but he perfected the cards used today.

The Inkblots is a very dense book. It is not only a biography of Rorschach himself, but also a biography of the Inkblot test. Hermann died young, and so the Searls shifts halfway through to the modern history of his test (WWII-current). The discussion of the Nuremberg trials and how the Rorschach test was used there stopped me in my tracks. Some of the results were so surprising…and poignant to today. I’ve certainly put more reading on my TBR surrounding that subject!

This isn’t a book to be missed for anyone interested in the history of psychology. As I mentioned before, it is dense–definitely not a fast read or something you’re going to fall in love with on vacation–but certainly fascinating. Also, Hermann Rorschach was HOT, and that’s all I have to say about that.

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Sally Bedell Smith: Prince Charles

From the New York Times bestselling author of Elizabeth the Queen comes the first major biography of Prince Charles in more than twenty years–perfect for fans of The Crown.

Sally Bedell Smith returns once again to the British royal family to give us a new look at Prince Charles, the oldest heir to the throne in more than three hundred years. This vivid, eye-opening biography–the product of four years of research and hundreds of interviews with palace officials, former girlfriends, spiritual gurus, and more, some speaking on the record for the first time–is the first authoritative treatment of Charles’s life that sheds light on the death of Diana, his marriage to Camilla, and his preparations to take the throne one day.

Prince Charles brings to life the real man, with all of his ambitions, insecurities, and convictions. It begins with his lonely childhood, in which he struggled to live up to his father’s expectations and sought companionship from the Queen Mother and his great-uncle Lord Mountbatten. It follows him through difficult years at school, his early love affairs, his intellectual quests, his entrepreneurial pursuits, and his intense search for spiritual meaning. It tells of the tragedy of his marriage to Diana; his eventual reunion with his true love, Camilla; and his relationships with William, Kate, Harry, and his grandchildren.

Ranging from his glamorous palaces to his country homes, from his globe-trotting travels to his local initiatives, Smith shows how Prince Charles possesses a fiercely independent spirit and yet has spent more than six decades waiting for his destined role, living a life dictated by protocols he often struggles to obey. With keen insight and the discovery of unexpected new details, Smith lays bare the contradictions of a man who is more complicated, tragic, and compelling than we knew, until now.

The monarchy might be an outdated institution in a lot of ways–to Americans it all seems romantic, but I know it has become controversial in modern times. Still, I can’t help but remain interested in the traditions of it all, the pomp and circumstance, and of course…the castles.

I really only knew Prince Charles from the background–stoic and frowning behind the Queen, Diana, William, and Harry. And Camillia has always seemed the Other Woman; Diana, the hero. But, in Charles’ life, it was just the opposite.

Diana certainly wasn’t a villain–just a woman in desperate need of good mental health care–and I wonder if she would have lived today if things would be different. I hope so. She wouldn’t have been any  more compatible with Charles, but maybe the stigma would have been a little less, the awareness a little more–and they would have gotten her the help she needed.

Maybe.

Either way, this book certainly shows Charles in a light we don’t often see–in that there is actually a light shown on him. It just goes to show that even the shyest introverts usually have the brightest, most complex personalities. I always thought he was such a fuddy-duddy, but I’m quite interested to see what becomes of his reign…should the Queen ever die, god forbid. Part of me wonders if she might outlive her son, at this point.

Netgalley and Random House provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Margot Lee Shetterly: Hidden Figures (Young Readers’ Ed)

Now in a special new edition perfect for young readers, this is the amazing true story of four African-American female mathematicians at NASA who helped achieve some of the greatest moments in our space program. Soon to be a major motion picture.
Before John Glenn orbited the earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space. This book brings to life the stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African-American women who lived through the Civil Rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the movement for gender equality, and whose work forever changed the face of NASA and the country.

If you haven’t heard of Hidden Figures by now, you must be an naive astronaut yourself…ala Catcher Block (please tell me I’m not the only one who has watched that movie 700 times).

 

I still haven’t seen the Hidden Figures movie, but thank goodness it did not take a lifetime for the book to come available at the library. Although the edition I received was the Young Readers’ Edition…and I’m not sure how much of a difference (if there is one) between this and the regular version? I can tell you this only took me two hours to read, so do with it what you will. If there is an adult version out there, let me know what you thought of it!

I will never be over the amount of erasure that went into our school history books. Learning that might have been the biggest shock to my white privilege–I take education so seriously, and having huge chunks of information left out is unfathomable. I will slowly uncover some of what I have missed, but those who don’t care to extend their education will never know anything outside of those empty textbooks.

That is why it is so crucial for stories like Hidden Figures to be told. We learned about the space race, but all of the faces in that story were white. We never learned about the women at Langley, much less about the black computers crunching the numbers. Margot Lee Shetterly details each woman’s journey through Langley’s West Side Computing Office and into NASA.

Now, because I had the YRE, these stories were simplified. I am unsure what or if anything was left out or minimized. Nothing was extremely vivid–I have a feeling a lot of the edges were sanded down. On one hand, it was nice to have a lot of the science explained at a lower level, since I am the furthest thing from a mathematician. But I am quite interested in a more detailed depiction of these women’s lives. Also, we hardly got any information on Christine. The introduction sounds like there were four women involved, but the book is mostly about Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine. I would have liked a little bit more in her section.

I’m looking even more forward to seeing the movie now. And maybe I’ll see if the library has the full version. Maybe I just requested the wrong book–it has been known to happen! If you liked the movie, I highly recommend reading more about these women! And question your history books. What else are we missing from those pages?

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Jeff Wilser: Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life

Two centuries after his death, Alexander Hamilton is shining once more under the world s spotlight and we need him now more than ever.
Hamilton was a self-starter. Scrappy. Orphaned as a child, he came to America with nothing but a code of honor and a hunger to work. He then went on to help win the Revolutionary War and ratify the Constitution, create the country s financial system, charm New York s most eligible ladies, and land his face on our $10 bill.The ultimate underdog, he combined a fearless, independent spirit with a much-needed dose of American optimism.
Hamilton died before he could teach us the lessons he learned, but Alexander Hamilton s Guide to Life unlocks his core principles intended for anyone interested in success, romance, money, or dueling. They include:
Speak with Authority Even If You Have None (Career)
Seduce with Your Strengths (Romance)
Find Time for the Quills and the Bills (Money)
Put the Father in Founding Father (Friends & Family)
Being Right Trumps Being Popular (Leadership)
For history buffs and pop-culture addicts alike, this mix of biography, humor, and advice offers a fresh take on a nearly forgotten Founding Father, and will spark a revolution in your own life.”

Ah, Alexander Hamilton. He has gone from historical obscurity to being our most famous founding father–as he rightly should be. It’s amazing, once you take a close look at him, how much A. Ham really contributed to every single piece of our government…for better or worse.

Hamilton really did write like he was running out of time, and he had so much to tell us. Jeff Wilser broke down some of his more prolific statements into a sort of Founding Father self-help book. It’s full of witticisms and insightful commentary, modernized of course.

It’s supposed to be the type of book Hamilton would have written if he would have had time to write such a thing. Of course, if he had…it would have been four volumes and probably would have included some kind of impossibly boring personal finance plan along with the life advice. I’m glad Wilser left that chapter out. As it is, the Guide is a funny way to take in much of the history we already know from Chernow’s massive biography, while singing along to LMM’s cast album. There’s no mistaking who the author is targeting here. Luckily…who ISN’T a fan of the musical at this point?

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Julia Baird: Victoria: The Queen

From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a magnificent biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a stunning new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience.

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings vividly to life the fascinating story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning. This sweeping, page-turning biography gives us the real woman behind the myth: a bold, glamorous, unbreakable queen—a Victoria for our times, a Victoria who endured.

OOOOOH boy. This book, like Victoria’s reign, is long and never ending. Except when it does end, it happens suddenly, without warning, and you’re left with half a book left of notes and annexation.

It was interesting reading this so soon after watching The Crown. Obviously two different queens entirely, different time periods, different manners, different ideals. But the same challenges, prejudices, ageism, and misogyny. I could certainly see how the groundwork for Elizabeth’s reign was laid by Victoria’s. But that’s a different story altogether. Back to Victoria…

There’s so incredibly much to be learned here. I really knew nothing about Queen Victoria before starting this, except that there is a whole group of people and culture named after her. Who knew that her husband was the main influence of that movement–not actually Victoria herself? My reading journal is filled to the brim with the new random facts I gained by reading this.

But, that’s also my biggest criticism too. Sometimes this book doesn’t seem like much of a biography of Victoria at all. Often I wasn’t sure if she even respected the Queen, and I feel like that is kind of a necessary qualification for writing a biography about someone. It’s hard to figure the author’s motivations. Did she want to write about Victoria, but lose respect after getting into the research? Was she just super into the time period and decide the Queen would be the best base? I’m not sure. At times it almost felt more of Florence Nightingale’s commentary on Queen Victoria’s lack of feminism.

Speaking of which, let’s be clear. Queen Victoria was NOT a feminist. Which was wholly disappointing to discover–and why I wonder if the author misses the respect needed to write the biography she intended. Albert was that husband that very much dissed woman’s suffrage and even though his wife was THE QUEEN, still managed to convince her that he deserved more power over her. The work felt bitter because of it, especially when Nightingale stuck her nose in.

As an informative biography, I think it’s extremely well researched. I found the details fascinating, and as usual I loved reading about a monarch I didn’t previously know much (or anything) about. However, there definitely seems to be a bias here. I am unsure if it was intentional or if the history really was colored that way, but there’s just some weird tone that I haven’t felt in other similar biographies. Hm. I need to think on this one.

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NetGalley and Random House provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Killing Lincoln

In the spring of 1865, the bloody saga of America’s Civil War finally comes to an end after a series of increasingly harrowing battles. President Abraham Lincoln’s generous terms for Robert E. Lee’s surrender are devised to fulfill Lincoln’s dream of healing a divided nation, with the former Confederates allowed to reintegrate into American society. But one man and his band of murderous accomplices, perhaps reaching into the highest ranks of the U.S. government, are not appeased.

In the midst of the patriotic celebrations in Washington D.C., John Wilkes Booth—charismatic ladies’ man and impenitent racist—murders Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. A furious manhunt ensues and Booth immediately becomes the country’s most wanted fugitive. Lafayette C. Baker, a smart but shifty New York detective and former Union spy, unravels the string of clues leading to Booth, while federal forces track his accomplices. The thrilling chase ends in a fiery shootout and a series of court-ordered executions—including that of the first woman ever executed by the U.S. government, Mary Surratt. Featuring some of history’s most remarkable figures, vivid detail, and page-turning action, Killing Lincoln is history that reads like a thriller.

…Ok, Bill O’Reilly…

I’m not sure what thrillers you’ve been reading, but this sure doesn’t “read like a thriller.” It reads like a history book, just like any other history book. A very good history book…but a history book nonetheless.

Nice try though, really. I know how much you like to fan your ego. Keep fanning.

PS…not a fan of Bill O’Reilly…you can’t tell you can you? It’s why, even though I love history, his collection of “Killing…” books have been delegated to my “HUSBAND BOOKS” designation. I have been putting them off solely because of the author.

But honestly, I didn’t hate this. I actually quite liked it. The first section was a bit boring for me, because it was all about the end of the war and battles and Lee’s surrender. And I hate reading about war and battles and strategy. Come ON, Bill, this isn’t why I’m reading the book. This isn’t Killing Lee’s Dreams.

Once that was over, though, and we started to actually get into the meat of the story, it was much more interesting. I was surprised at how much I remembered from my 8th grade DC trip study group (Thanks Mrs. Captain!), so obviously O’Reilly did his homework. There was also some information in there that the best history teacher on the planet did not teach me…so maybe he does know what he’s doing. Maybe.

The narrative ends with the hanging of Booth’s co-conspirators. That section of history isn’t something I new much about previously, so it was the most intriguing. A few characters showed up I hadn’t heard of before, and now I’m interested enough to look up more about their mysterious stories.

All jokes aside, this actually was a well written history. There was no political slant–which is something I was worried about from such an outspoken TV personality. Apparently, behind the man we love to hate, there is simply an *cough* intelligent *cough* history buff who knows how to do great research.

One more note–Martin Dugard is O’Reilly’s coauthor on these books, but he’s very rarely mentioned besides a smaller byline on the cover. I am unsure how the writing process breaks down for the two of them, but I do know they were partners on this. Does one do research and the other write? Do they share equally? One write, one edit? I don’t know! I’d be interested, though, if anyone does know.

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Shakespeare: The World as Stage

I have to tell you something. I don’t like Shakespeare.

I KNOW RIGHT? What kind of book nerd am I? It’s basically against the law to not like him. But I just find him uncomfortable.

Still, he’s one of those famous people in our history that one should know things about. So when Bill Bryson’s bio popped up on sale…why not? I like Bill Bryson.

I’d recommend this to anyone needing a brush up on good ol’ Will. The book is 211 pages long. Nice and short. There’s not really a ton of information out there about the man, so most of it is more historical context than anything. There’s a bit about his wife and the plays, the theater, some about the politics of the day, and the plagues. It’s really nothing complicated. Just a short and sweet little history about the 16th century.

Bryson knows how to do his job. He never overdoes a book. His histories are interesting but factual, and he does what he can to eliminate conspiracy theories. I’ve read a few from him before, and I have several on my list to read in the future. He never disappoints.

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He Wanted the Moon

Texas-born and Harvard-educated, Dr. Perry Baird was a rising medical star in the late 1920s and 1930s. Early in his career, ahead of his time, he grew fascinated with identifying the biochemical root of manic depression, just as he began to suffer from it himself. By the time the results of his groundbreaking experiments were published, Dr. Baird had been institutionalized multiple times, his medical license revoked, and his wife and daughters estranged. He later received a lobotomy and died from a consequent seizure, his research incomplete, his achievements unrecognized.

Baird’s daughter, Mimi grew up mostly not knowing her father, as he was hospitalized when she was young. Fifty years later, a family member sent his manuscript and she knew his story must be told.

He Wanted the Moon is half Dr. Perry’s story, part Mimi’s. She bookends Perry’s manuscript with details of her life and the part he plays, but the most interesting part is definitely the manic genius that is Perry Baird. As he cycles into his own horrifying madness, he strives desperately to find a cure.

Up to this point, I’ve read mostly about the depressive side of bipolar disorder. I’ve never seen such an intense form of mania. This will be shocking to some of you–it shocked me! It’s part scary, part fascinating. He Wanted the Moon has been optioned for a movie with Brad Pitt, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this is portrayed. Hopefully, the director and actors really study and respect those with mental illness–it has the potential to be a really great movie if they do!

This is another great brain geek book, but it’s also just a really great story. Kind of an adult Flowers for Algernon in reverse. The more Dr. Baird’s brain deteriorates, so his writing goes too, and it becomes harder to believe what you read. The study is both fascinating and sad, and it’s impossible not to feel for everyone involved.

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Alexander Hamilton

What’s your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton. There’s a million things I haven’t done. Just you wait, just you wait.

Why yes, I did just sing that from memory. I *might* be a little obsessed. OK…more than a little.

GUYS GO LISTEN TO HAMILTON IMMEDIATELY I COMMAND YOU.

SON. CALL ME SON ONE MORE TIME.

Dammit. Sorry, I did it again.

As if my Hamilton obsession couldn’t get any worse, I just finished the 730 page Ron Chernow biography that Lin Manuel Miranda based his musical after. And by that, I don’t just mean he took a few facts from it, oh no. GUYS, I COULD MATCH THE RHYTHM TO THE ENTIRE BIOGRAPHY. Have you ever read a 730 page biography in rap? It makes it SO much more interesting. I wish Lin Manuel Miranda could teach us all of the history. We would understand so much more.

Hello, Mr. Next President, do you want to save the schools? This is what you need to do. Hire LMM to produce our curriculum. Post to the internet. Done. Teenagers will now be engaged. They will even create fanart.

But I’m getting away from the actual biography again. For the most part, it’s exactly the same as the George Washington one that I read several months ago. It’s very long and very dry. There is SO much research here, and he does a brilliant job. It’s a 730 page history, though, and while Hamilton is very interesting, there’s only so much you can do to make it not boring. And that is to get LMM to make a musical about it. Seriously, Chernow needs to kiss LMM’s feet for the amount of extra book sales he is getting out of this. I couldn’t find it anywhere because it was sold out.

Sorry. Sorry. The book. Right. It’s a solid biography. If you like biographies, read it. If you are interested in the founding fathers, read it. If you’ve previously read Ron Chernow’s work and liked it, read it. If you are obsessed with the musical…it’s going to be a toss up. Because I’m a book nerd and will read EVERYTHING, I say read it–but I also think there are a lot of musical nuts who may start this monster and just really not care for it at all. It’s a beast. Just know what you are getting into when you pick it up, and if you’re used to fiction and never read NonF, this may not be the book for you.

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Fulfills Bibliophilicwitch’s #BigBookChallenge

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Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Whether you know him as Doogie Howser, Barney Stinson, or Dr. Horrible, everyone knows Neil Patrick Harris. He’s unavoidable. He’s LARGER THAN LIFE in every role he plays.

I really first got to know NPH on HIMYM, and the Barney Stinson character is just soooo, well……BARNEY STINSON….that it’s hard to separate him from NPH. But, the more I watched the show, the more I learned about the man behind the bro, and found out just how different the two actually were.

I’ll admit, I was pretty hesitant to read Choose Your Own Autobiography, for only one reason–the choose your own adventure part. See, I absolutely disagree with NPH on how great these types of books are. I can’t read them. I am a “Read every book front to back, every single page” kind of girl. Every insert, photo, blurb–it all gets read, in order. There is no page flipping, multi-storyline, go back and finish later. No way.

Sorry, Neil Patrick Harris. I broke the rules. I read your confusing-ass-book in order, every single page. Even the ones I wasn’t supposed to find.

Because of his choose-your-own theme, he scattered a few made up stories throughout the book–ones that, had I followed his actual maze, would have led me to a dead-end and turned me around. I really should just follow the rules. Instead, I just found them weird and uncomfortable. But, for the most part, it was pretty clear when they were not truthful–not always though.

The rest of the book, however, was written mostly in chronological order, so I was able to follow along as if it were a normal memoir. A normal memoir written in second person narrative…but a normal memoir none-the-less. This is a book written as only Neil Patrick Harris could write, really. I stopped frequently to look up a performance or scene he mentioned, such as his 2013 opening Tony number “Bigger.” WOW. Can you say Standing O?

And, while quite a lot of the book is the Bigger NPH that we all see publicly, there is quite a lot of the softer, more personal Neil that we don’t get to see as often. There’s notes from his friends, the story of how he met David and their family came to be. He talks about his parents and the long discovery of his sexuality. I wouldn’t say it’s a tell all–but it’s a very, um, interesting book detailing the life of one of the most lovable faces in celebrity today.

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