Thursday Reviews: Headstone, Nerve

Headstone

Ken Bruen

The Celtic Tiger that is modern Ireland is broke, and Jack Taylor wanders through the wreckage of it all. He’s battered, angry, and nursing addictions to Xanax and Jameson. Yet he’s about to be happy as he’s found a woman, an American writer, who accepts Jack for what he is – broken, flawed, but better than he gives himself credit for.

Naturally, author Ken Bruen loves to torture the poor soul. I’m convinced he sleeps with a Jack Taylor voodoo doll under his pillow. And the first needle Bruen sticks in his wounded warrior, first seen in The Guards, is the near-fatal beating of his nemesis, Father Malachy. Thus comes the opening salvo from Headstone, a gang of doped-up, privileged psychopaths who misread Darwin and see it as justification for a killing spree. And they’d like Jack to participate in their master plan – as a victim. But they don’t kill him right off the bat. They’re out to kill clergy, gays, and “the vulnerable” (as in the mentally handicapped.) Their leader is a self-styled Charlie Manson type who calls himself “Bine.” Makes him sound like a pathetic loser who thinks he’s a Batman supervillain, only Bine is dangerous as hell. His minions damn near kill Jack’s Guard friend, Ridge, and manage to shake the unshakeable Zen calm of Stewart, the one man in all of Galway who could actually save Jack from himself.

Headstone even manages to wound Jack physically in a way so horrific it still makes me cringe to think about reading it. Meant to scare Jack and corner him for the “big event,” Bine miscalculates. Because backing Jack Taylor into a corner puts him in the path of the most dangerous force in all of Ireland – Jack’s blind, unrelenting rage.

I’m not sure how much longer Jack Taylor can go on. There’s considerably less of him left at the end of the book. A couple of subplots drag him across lines one would swear he’d never cross, and of course, Bruen is never one for the happy ending. However, his poetic style is very much intact here, and the story is as much about Ridge and Stewart as it is Taylor, showing an evolution to the series.

Nerve

Taylor Clark

Taylor Clark, an admitted neurotic journalist, has undertaken a study of fear. Why do we choke? Why do we worry? Why do we lose our cool? And one thing Clark learned in the process is that those who appear to be cool and calm under pressure, to somehow summon superhuman poise and concentration in the face of danger are just as scared as those who have curled up in the fetal position to whimper.

What Clark shows us, with the help of neuroscientists and combat instructors, is that the biggest mistake anyone can make under extreme duress is to fight fear. Because while you’re fighting your fear, the building is on fire and the bear has time to slice you into People McNuggets. What separates the heroes from the rest of us is embracing the fear. You’re in danger. You’re supposed to be afraid.

Clark also breaks down fear. The actual emotion, fear, is an automatic response to a sudden threat. There are two small sections of the brain called the amygdala that seize control to make us fight, fly, or freeze, depending on the circumstances. The amygdala are amazing in their ability to store instinctive and remembered fears. However, they’re very user unfriendly, not relinquishing fear memories easily. And some of the response defy logic. It’s why some people have bizarre phobias, like the color orange and so on.

Anxiety, which gives rise to obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, and anxiety disorders (hence the name), is really the brain’s reasoning center trying to process and plan for a danger. Used properly, our impulses for anxiety help the amygdala automate desired responses to threats. It’s why some police officers can shoot a suspect when threatened yet not remember it. On the downside, anxiety causes us to worry about things like asteroid impacts and acts of terrorism that likely will never happen to us.

The third and final component is stress, which is simply the brain overloaded by various stimuli. Like fear – which keeps us from getting killed – and anxiety – which makes us think ahead, stress is not always a bad thing. Some people thrive on it. Others just shut down.

Clark goes through the mechanics of fear step by step and shows how some overcome performance anxiety or perform admirably in the face of extreme danger. It helps to embrace the fear and recognize it for what it is, to face what causes anxiety (which is anxiety’s evolutionary purpose: Hey, stupid, you might want to do something about that saber tooth tiger that’s been eyeing you for the last hour), and manage the stress. When that happens, some people discover that they perform better. Clark’s point: Avoidance, bad; confrontation (of the cause of fear), good. (But do please still run when the bear decides you’d make a nice chew toy.) He also shows how a sense of humor can diffuse a situation, such as when astronaut Gordon Cooper had to guide his dead space capsule back to Earth with no instruments long before Apollo 13 took a lifeboat to the moon.

For anyone paralyzed by fear and anxiety, this book is a must.

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