Proust Was a Neuroscientist

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lproust-was-a-neuroscientistehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist aims to make the argument that artists may understand the human condition even better than scientists.  In particular, neuroscience—probably an easy place to make the case, seeing as how relatively young neuroscience is compared to other disciplines and how little we still know about the brain.  It’s not a bad idea, and I generally agree that art can be another way of knowing and explaining the world in a different way from science that the Western World should have a great deal more respect for-that’s why I picked up the book.  But in this case, the execution was severely lacking.

The book starts with Lehrer—a Rhodes scholar who studied both neuroscience and humanities as an undergrad—taking a break to read some Proust, as so many of us do.  While reading A la recherche du temps perdu he was struck by Proust’s discussion of eating a madeleine being transported to a scene from his childhood.  Now, far be it from me to question the origin story for this book, but if there’s one thing any cultured intellectual type person knows about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past it’s that it’s really, really long.  And if there’s a second it’s that the taste of a madeleine and tea returns him to the happiness he felt as a child.  However it happened, that passage made him think of how neuroscience has since proved how closely scent is tied to memory, but that Proust was onto it far earlier.

I found the discussion tying Proust’s discussion of how his memory worked to scientific research into memory intersting, but the book never made a strong argument for why we should care outside of an intellectual curiosity.  And the book struggled to defend its thesis-that art often predates science.  Most of the relationships seemed quite tenuous, some of them just seemed wrong.  According to Lehrer, because she said that to be alive is to grow, George Elliot’s books suggested that our personalities are in flux and we are constantly growing and changing.  I’m not entirely sure that she’s the only author who has suggested such a thing, but I am entirely sure that she wasn’t actually arguing that our neurons can repair themselves (a relatively recent discovery) or that our brain is constantly making new neural pathways.  I doubt that what she was saying was even particularly controversial at the time, and certainly not arguing against science.  It just seems a bit of a stretch to say she’s predating official neuroscience.

Elsewhere we have strong connections, but Lehrer never takes the step to show why art may better explain the world than science.  Gertrude Stein’s poetry is highlighted to show that she understood that there were innate building blocks to language long before Chomsky proved that there was a universal grammar.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar).  The problem here is that, as Lehrer himself points out, Stein studied psychology and studied writing and language in particular, so it seems odd to make the point that it’s where art and science are clashing.  (There’s also the small problem that the theory of universal grammar has found itself under criticism recently and may not be true.  But I suppose if you had to wait for the science to be settled you could never write about neuroscience.)  What seems undoubtedly true, though, is that Stein found writing and poetry to be a better medium for her to explore the realities of language that psychology.  Why would this be?  Was it purely the hostility of the male students and teachers?  Had science not caught up with what she had to say?  Did she find art to be a better and more useful medium?

Stein seems as if she should be a great jumping off point for a discussion of how art can be used to explore a concept that science may not have explained.  And in other cases perhaps art explores new areas of conscience, describes the human experience in a different way than science does.  Art and science can be complementary paths to helping us understand the world, and art can express truths that we all know but that science has not been able to prove, or has not yet found a way to explore.  This seems the reason that science should actual share more with the humanities.  Instead, Lehrer seems on the verge of actually constructing an argument for more respect for art, but stops short and gets too distracted coming up with crazy coincidences and chasing false comparisons.  Ultimately, we’re left with a few mildly interesting connections and nothing else.  There’s just no there there.

Lost in a Good Book

lost-in-a-good-bookLost in a Good Book, Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book is one of those books that would be bad if it weren’t so good.  It runs the risk of being too clever by half, but it’s just clever enough, and the risk of being too convoluted, and too gimicky, but in the end it’s none of those.  Just an incredibly fun read and especially wonderful for literary nerds who can get all of the references.

The second book of the Thursday Next series, following The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book takes place in 1985 Britain in a world that is very similar to ours, but is different in a few very big ways.  For instance, genetic engineering can occur through at-home cloning kits-our hero has a pet dodo.  And because of that Neanderthals were cloned but are not allowed to breed and are fighting for their rights.  Most long distance travel occurs through pneumatic tubes.  Vampires and werewolves are real, but are mostly just a nuisance.  Time travel is real, and the Crimean War has been going on for over 100 years.  And the most important difference: literature is important.  Really, really important.  Like, people get trampled at book sales and there’s an entire police agency dedicated to book forgeries and keeping books the same important.  Oh, and also some people-although not all-can jump back and forth between the fictional world and the real world and interact with the characters.  That’s kind of important, too.

In The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next is on the hunt for her former literature professor turned master criminal, Acheron Hades, who has kidnapped Jane from Jane Eyre for blackmailing purposes.  Next tracks him down and saves the novel-making a slight adjustment to the ending-but also traps someone from Goliath Corporation (if you can’t tell from the name, they’re bad guys) in the text of The Raven.

Lost in a Good Book picks up after the events of The Eyre Affair have settled down somewhat.  Thursday is married to her childhood sweetheart and expecting, she’s a minor celebrity for saving Jane Eyre and back at work.  Unfortunately, others have demands on her time as well.  Her time-traveling father, a former Chronoguard officer who now officially doesn’t exist, is warning her that the world is about to be destroyed under pink goo, and JurisFiction, a secret department made up primarily of fictional characters hopping between worlds, is both arresting her for meddling in Jane Eyre (which results in a great trial á la Kafka) and making her an agent, and the Goliath Corporation wants help bringing their employee back from The Raven.

It can all get a bit confusing.  Fforde’s books definitely keep you on their toes.  But they move along briskly, and they’re clever enough, witty enough, and fun enough to keep the reader involved.  For a ridiculously pretentious read, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  And the messiness of the plot recalls other British authors as well.  It’s a bit of Douglas Adams via a tour through the classics section of the library.

Revenge of the Lawn

revenge-of-the-lawnRevenge of the Lawn, Richard Brautigan

I adore Richard Brautigan.  There’s something about his writing that I just want to sink into and reread again and again.  Somehow, his books can create a picture with just a few short words.  With stories that are surreal and playful and don’t always make sense in a logical way, they nonetheless feel real.  His descriptions are short and unique, I doubt anyone else would write the way he does.  Yet they are so evocative of time and place- late 60s/early 70s and the Pacific northwest-that I can smell pine trees and ocean spray and feel moss and loam under my feet when I read his books.

I suppose the proper description of Revenge of the Lawn is a collection of short stories, although that’s not quite right, primarily about his life in San Francisco.  It’s so odd that his work is divided up into his poetry and his novels and short story collections.  Because his prose is still poetry–his sentences are meaningless, all that is important is the rhythm and sound of the words and how they roll around on your tongue or in your mind.  And even if we are to classify the writing as prose, “stories” is a strong word.  Snippets is more like it. Most of the stories are no more than 2 pages.  Some are much shorter. Here is the entirety of one of them, “The Scarlatti Tilt”:

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.”  That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

This portrait is perfect in its way.  After all, what more needs to be said?  Other snippets involve a woman who buys liver and lives with bees, drinking coffee, Ernest Hemingway’s typist, and the problem’s that occur when you replace all of your pipes with poetry.  Unsurprisingly, it poses a lot of problems.

I encourage everyone to read at least one Brautigan book in their life.  It’s important because you’re not going to read anyone else like Brautigan, there’s just him.  Words work differently for him.  The order that the words go together and the picture they paint don’t seem that they would make sense, and they wouldn’t if you or I wrote them, but for Brautigan they do.  I don’t know why a story of people forever trying to bury their lion (who accepts in stoically) is a good story to read, but it is.  His descriptions are brilliant, such as describing a woman “adorned in yellow and jewelry and a language I don’t understand,” and he pulls you into the countercultural life of California at the time while blending the real and unreal.

Brautigan is delightful and original and he taps into something true somehow in everything he writes.  And unlike some surreal writers, there’s no struggle to understand.  The words are just there for you to pick up or not, as you will.  And if you do pick them up, I promise, they’re quite a treat.

 

 

Selected Poetry and Prose

Selected Poetrypoetry and prose and Prose, William Blake

I haven’t written any reviews in a while because I’ve been putting of this one in particular.  I wrote it already, you see, long hand in a notebook intending to type it out into WordPress at a later time.  And then I lost the notebook! Argh!  At first I was just stubbornly insisting to myself that I would certainly find it, and so I put off the search, and then I was angry at losing it and just thought it was terribly unfair that I would have to write the review again.  But such is life, I suppose.  In the grand scheme of things, it is, I suppose, a minor injustice.

Well.  Onto the review.

When I was young-I’m not sure exactly how old, I think 4th or 5th grade-my mom gave me a book of William Blake poetry for Christmas.  The book was one of those Dover classics that I don’t see around much anymore, but made up a large portion of my childhood bookshelf.  They usually cost about $1 each.  And were as close to the original publication as possible.  The book of Blake poetry contained “The Tyger”, and the illustrations that had gone along with the original poems.  I’m not sure how much I understood, but I loved the way the poems sounded and felt and read the book several times.

Since then, I haven’t read much Blake poetry, but I’ve read about him several times.  I read a lot about Catholicism, modernism, and Christianity in general in Europe and the United States, and so Blake seems to be hovering around the edges of many other books I’ve read.  It seemed like a good idea to read some actual Blake poetry again, and so I picked this book up at-you guessed it-the library book sale, my own personal Disney Land.

This particular edition was not the best idea for me to grab.  It’s clearly meant for academic use.  This isn’t a problem in and of itself, except that this compendium is probably best if you’re familiar with Blake already and just want a good selection hand for reference.  Of if you need a wide variety for a literature class and you don’t much care if the students grow to love Blake.

The reason I say that is that this had many excerpts, not just full poems or prose. The way they were put together didn’t seem to flow to me from a literary point of view, and they were occasionally grouped by topic, not by time or which book they were placed in, despite the fact that Blake likely published poems together that were intended to be read together.  My biggest problem with the book, though, is that it had no pictures!

A lack of pictures may seem like an odd complaint for an adult book.  However, the illustrations are a key part of Blake’s poetry.  In the introduction to this compendium, it even discusses in great detail how Blake had thought that he had hit upon a new art-form of illustrated poetry.  He worked as an engraver for books, and dreamt of books where the illustrations and poems were both created together and intended to support one another.  After exploring in depth Blake’s dedication to this art, and in trying to persuade others of its import, it is extremely strange to read a collection of Blake’s work that includes poetry, prose, but no visual art.  And it seems a disservice to anyone really trying to understand and appreciate Blake’s work not to provide that key part of it.

So, in conclusion.  If you’re a Blake scholar and need a handy reference for when you’re writing papers and don’t know how to pull up things on the internet, this is probably a useful book.  If you’re looking for a good introduction, you probably want something else.

Library Book Sale!

library-book-sale

Last weekend was the fall Library Book Sale.  It’s tied with the Spring Library Book Sale and Christmas as the best event of the year.  Below is my haul.  I bought all of these for $20.50, and I can’t wait to dig in.  If I ever get my to-be-read book list down to less than three shelves again I can justify going to the book sale on half price day for twice the books.  This is my reading goal before the Spring sale.  🙂
The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jussi Adler-Olson.  I hadn’t heard of this book before, but from a brief perusal it seems it right up my alley.  Absurdist, humorous crime drama?  Yes, please.

Pigs in Heaven, Barbara Kingsolver.  Let’s be honest, with a few rare exceptions, Kingsolver writes a variation on the same book over and over.  Smart woman feels like an outsider, is doubted by others, eventually finds belonging in a rural area where she least expected it.  I don’t care, I love her writing and will read that book over and over.  This is a sequel to her novel The Bean Trees, which was beautiful, so I look forward to continuing it.  And it was $.50, so it’s not like I had a choice.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carre.  I’ve read other Le Carre books, but never this classic.  I feel like I’ve come across it when reading about tons of other books and in other reviews, though, where books are often compared to The Spy Who Came In… as a classic.  So it’s probably about time I read it, and as I’m generally a fan I think it was a good choice.

This Is a Book, Demetri Martin.  I expect this was a fun choice, and it’s probably good for me to pick up something light hearted every now and again.  Martin is one of my favorite comics (comics named Martin seem to be very talented) and not least because all of his comedy is just a bit unusual.  I am not expecting to be surprised by this book, but I think it’ll generally be a fun read for someone who likes Martin anyway.

Guadalajara, Quim Monzo.  Most of this year’s book purchases were books that I’ve heard of or by authors I’m familiar with.  There weren’t nearly as many leap-of-faith purchases as I sometimes have.  This was one of the few.  It’s a short story collection by a Catalan author, Quim Monzo, who I hadn’t heard of before.  The short stories are reimaginings of other classics, such as The Iliad and Metamorphosis, and I was intrigued.  Plus, I just read two other excellent short story collections, so I suppose I’m hoping this is as good as those.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon.  One description I read of this book called it “exciting and accessible”, the latter not usually the word I land on when describing Pynchon.  But why not?  After all, Crying of Lot 49 is fun if you don’t always demand your books make sense.

My Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs.  I was actually in the religion section looking for Year of Biblical Womanhood, which I’ve been wanting to read forever.  But I remembered that this was a book that had struck my fancy years ago as well.  As a regular church goer, and also fascinated by religion in general, I had wanted to check this book out.  I’m a little nervous it’s going to be too superficial for my tastes, but I’m cautiously optimistic about it.

Genome, Matt Ridley.  My budget for the book sale is a fairly strick $20 (except for that the Kingsolver book was $.50 so I grabbed it) and so I put back a Mary Roach book to grab this one.  I hope I made the right choice.  But, genomics is incredibly interesting, and I feel like I need a better base of knowledge to figure out what’s real and what isn’t when I read the latest breaking news about CRISPR or other genetic breakthroughs.  Here’s hoping this book was what I’m looking for.

Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks.  What is there to say?  This is an Oliver Sacks book, and I haven’t read it yet.  What choice did I have?  I love Oliver Sacks–and if you haven’t read him yet, you absolutely should.  Even if the book doesn’t initially look like it’s up your alley, I guarantee you’ll love it.  He’s an amazing writer, and all of his stories are fascinating.  I feel pretty good about this one.

Planets, Dava Sobel.  Sobel is another really wonderful science writer.  I’ve read Galileo’s Daughter, which was a very insightful and informative background into the truth of Galileo’s dispute with the Church, and Longitude, which was a fantastic book about the search for a way to measure longitude and how it ties into understandings of time.  I hadn’t heard of this one, but when I saw her name on the shelf I snatched it up.

The Creation, E.O. Wilson.  One of my favorite environmental books is The Future of Life on Earth by Wilson, a truly gifted writer and brilliant biologist.  The Creation, addressed to Christians and other people of faith, as an appeal to religion to save creation, is a book I’d heard of but had forgotten about it.  It’s a slim volume, but I look forward to beautiful language and hopefully some new insights.

And that’s it for this haul.  Now I need to dig in to these books.  Happy Reading!

Americanah

AmericanahAmericanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This critically acclaimed novel, the third by Nigerian born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, covers the life of two Nigerians and their very different immigration stories.  The main protagonist, Ifemelu, is accepted to an American university and after school stays in the country for work.  Her boyfriend from secondary school, Obinze, who had also wanted to seek a new life outside of Nigeria, is denied a visa and illegally enters the United Kingdom.  He is eventually deported and becomes a successful and wealthy real estate developer in Nigeria, while Ifemelu finds success as a writer and speaker on racial issues before returning to Nigeria as well.  Throughout this story the book examines what black even means, what it means for a person to be black, the differences between being an African American and an African in America, and the story of immigrants seeking more choices and a chance for more out of life.

Despite this book’s amazing reception and numerous awards, I was underwhelmed.  I didn’t love this novel as a novel.  That’s not to say it’s all bad.  First, let me say what does work.  Adachie is a trenchant observer of cultures, and in my opinion the best parts of the book were the excerpts from the fictional blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.”  The blog points out the strangeness of coming from a culture where everyone is different shades of black, and therefore “blackness” doesn’t exist, to the United States.  It talks about the politics of hair.  It examines the way African cultures look at immigrants to the United States.  I could have happily read just that part of the book.

I also found the book interesting in the way I always find it interesting to read about different cultures and prose from different perspectives.  Fiction can highlight lived experiences in a culture in a way that a thousand news reports and scholarly papers never can.  At the time I read this book I was part of a campaign working on expanding electricity access in African nations. I’d read so very, very many reports on energy access.  But it’s importance was brought home to me when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria and one of the measures of someone’s success and wealth is the size of their generator.  The early part of the novel also takes part during the tail end of Nigeria’s time as a dictatorship.  I’ve previously mentioned my interest in reading about how normal life goes on under extreme and adverse circumstances, so this part of the book was right up my alley.

Now for what didn’t work.  The story was fine, but I never quite connected with any of the characters, and many of the side characters felt flat.  In particular Ifemelu’s boyfriend at the beginning of the book, Blaine, seemed two dimensional.  There was never anything in the book to show why the two of them were together, or to even make it seem that Ifemelu liked him at all.  Even Obinze, the main love interest in the book, didn’t seem to have any real reason to be a love interest.  It’s odd to say that characters in a book lacked chemistry, but they lacked chemistry.  I believed that they were together, but there was nothing in the story to demonstrate that they really loved each other or why.  We’re also told that Blaine’s sister is an imposing figure who is hostile to Ifemelu and vice versa, but again, if we weren’t told this was the case I don’t think I would surmise it from the text.

All in all, there’s a lot to this book, and a lot I should have loved.  But instead it started to be a drag to read towards the end since no one had pulled me in.  I’d be interested in reading a short story by Adachie, since those often don’t depend as much on characters, or nonfiction, but I was underwhelmed by the novel parts of this novel.

Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One, Ernest Cline

This book is a love letter to all the nerdiest parts of the 80s, and I loved it so much.  It’s set in 2044, a time when inequality has exploded, corporations control the country, resources have been severely depleted, and “real life” for most people has become a hellacious drudgery.  For our hero, a teenager named Wade Watts, the only real escape from this is the virtual reality world the Oasis which has grown to basically be the entire internet and has been kept free to access.

One of the co-founders of the Oasis, James Halliday, has left behind a quest: whoever can solve his challenges in the world of Oasis will inherit his fortune and controlling stake in the virtual universe.  The challenge requires an in depth knowledge of Halliday’s childhood in the 80s, including knowing all of movies like War Games and being able to beat all the old Atari video games.  Watts is one of many trying to solve this challenge, up against other individuals and Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the largest corporation-who wants to end free access to Oasis.  Apparently, the fight over net neutrality is still going on.

Okay, so you all know what’s going to happen just from that description.  It’s a bit of an 80s plot, too.  Not too much that’s unexpected.  But you know what?  I don’t care.  The book is a ton of fun.  Especially if you’re nerdy.  It’s well crafted, and the story hooks you in and moves quickly.  There weren’t any twists or turns that seemed majorly out of place, whereas a lot of books or movies like this have a few moments where they sacrifice plot or character or making sense for the sake of the story.  There was one point that seemed a bit silly and unnecessary to me, but it didn’t have much of a bearing on the plot and was really very minor.

This is the perfect fun book to read.  The only issue is that it’s hard to put down so pick it up when you’ve got a few hours free.  It pulls you in quickly and you’ll want to race to the end.  And while I’m usually fairly obnoxious about movies never being as good as books, I’m excited that this one will be a movie in a few years.  Steven Spielberg will be heading it up.  Who better to film a love letter to 80s pop culture?