I had no idea what a book called Proust was a Neuroscientist would be about, but it came highly recommended on the intertubes. It was absolutely worthI had no idea what a book called Proust was a Neuroscientist would be about, but it came highly recommended on the intertubes. It was absolutely worth the read - his premise is that you can often find artists (be they painters, composers, authors, poets, or even a chef) that discovered interesting aspects of brain and sensory function before the science had a chance to think of experimenting on the ideas. It didn't really get anti-sciency, which was something I was nervous about after reading the introduction. But it's more that the artists served a function, in addition to producing their art, to become a font of hypotheses about the way we experience the world. It makes absolute sense - if science stays in the laboratory all the time, it won't function right. The best kind of science starts with people saying "I wonder why" or "I wonder if" - ideally triggered by doing things in the world. These cooks, writers and visionaries knew a lot more about the actual qualia (triple bonus word score for using the word that inspired my blog in an actual post) of existence than many of the scientists running experiments did at the time. Auguste Escoffier realized that we like hot food not just because you're supposed to cook the meat or warm ourselves up - it tasted better. Science figured out that the nose is more important to taste than the tongue is in terms of receptors. Impressionist painters saw the world in blotches and mixes of colors, which is actually how our eyes see the world. Our brains are relied upon to make sense of a very rudimentary primary set of visual data. Proust himself wrote very uniquely about memory (as did Virginia Woolf) - presenting people that don't remember things accurately, which is often ignored in fiction.
It's a neat introduction to some psychological and neurological ideas that definitely does not get bogged down in details. If you like Oliver Sacks, you'll like this book....more
I marked this on my "thriller" shelf but it's really just an everyday horror story. Or a horror story about the everyday.
I raced through it because oI marked this on my "thriller" shelf but it's really just an everyday horror story. Or a horror story about the everyday.
I raced through it because of my love for Chuck's writing, the way he keeps you fascinated with amazing nonfiction detail acting as horrible little oases in a dark desert of terror, guilt, shame, and gore. The way that each page has a point and a larger purpose in a philosophical take on modern society and existence in general. The way that his imagery is truly, deeply, nauseatingly visceral - how he finds the best way, with as few words possible, to describe the mind-numbingly horrifying thing that just happens to be occurring right in front of you.
He's said that he doesn't like any of his characters. It's true, they are on the whole really bad people with very few redeeming qualities. That on the whole do really bad things. Not just bad, but stupid, narrow-minded, small, shameful, awful, pretending-to-be-normal-but-not, deceitful, and bizarre. But there's a bit of that badness in the rest of us, along with the sparkles of not-badness, that makes Chuck's take on it all cut to the quick of what makes our species what it is, and what it hopes to be.
But it is really, really, really bloody. As an FYI. ...more
Grabbed this from the library, took it on the plane to Tucson, and finished before we landed. I wasn't expecting to love it - didn't even know if I'dGrabbed this from the library, took it on the plane to Tucson, and finished before we landed. I wasn't expecting to love it - didn't even know if I'd finish, but it pulls you in. You're expecting something big to happen, or be explained, but it comes at you slower than that, and then all of a sudden they've survived something terrible, and it's time to move on. I thought the roving cannibalistic groups would play a bigger part, but the main thing was the relationship of the father and the son, and keeping on despite absolutely no hope of anything good.
It definitely shatters you emotionally, and I understand why some have called it one of the best environmental books ever (despite no explanation for the cause of the apocalypse). Really makes you think. ...more
Whew. What a book. Dexter Filkins is a NYT war correspondent: he was in Afghanistan from 1998-2000 (until the Taliban kicked him out), then covered GrWhew. What a book. Dexter Filkins is a NYT war correspondent: he was in Afghanistan from 1998-2000 (until the Taliban kicked him out), then covered Ground Zero right after the attacks on 9/11, then covered the invasion of Afghanistan, then DROVE OVER THE BORDER IN HIS CAR RIGHT BEHIND THE TANKS AS THEY WENT FROM KUWAIT TO BAGHDAD and covered the Iraq war from Baghdad from 2003-2008 which included embedding himself with a group of Marines during the assault on Falluja.
First off, he's a badass.
Second off, he's seen everything: from public Taliban executions, to burned out and long-looted luxury hotels in Kabul, to NYC firefighters pretending to try on Brooks Brothers sweaters in a blown out downtown Manhattan, to sneaking over the border during the invasion of Iraq, to going out and running 5 miles a day through downtown Baghdad, to nearly getting executed by various insurgent groups, to covering Ahmed Chalabi's campaigning (that included flying to Tehran to meet Ahmadinejad and then walking through an empty western contemporary art gallery that somehow remains in Tehran), to visiting with the families of fallen soldiers in Middle America, to seeing explosions, abductions, IEDs, senseless murder, warm hospitality, fierce loyalty, and the US military trying their darndest to figure out what the hell they're supposed to be doing.
Third off, he's able to tell this crazy story in an episodic manner that somehow makes sense. He throws in a bit of contextual narrative here and there so you know a bit of what things might mean.
At first I was frustrated that there wasn't more context. Here, Dexter's meeting with his source and finding this out about the death squads. Now here he's trying to cover X politician. Now here he's describing how this platoon commander can handle stress but this one really can't (and what it does to the men he's leading). Now here he's talking about the packs of feral dogs and how they're dealt with in Baghdad, or what makes a family in Anbar decide to finally flee Iraq, or how crazy it is to go through security to get into the Green Zone, or how the Shiites use electric drills and Sunnis just behead people, or how the CIA folks look just like regular people, only very still.
It's a frustrating narrative choice, until you realize that's what it was like to experience it. It was an insane inferno, and no one can really make sense of it. He just told his story, and he somehow got a decent slice of what it must have been like, and what it must be like, for people over there. Kudos. ...more
Interesting central view of national Democratic politics in the last 50 years. Also funny ruminations on speechwriting, political figures, foreign polInteresting central view of national Democratic politics in the last 50 years. Also funny ruminations on speechwriting, political figures, foreign policy, history, authorship, media, dinner parties, Lauren Bacall, and Henry Kissinger. The man was at the front of a lot of history and talked to a lot of important figures, and also went to a lot of parties. He also has an old world view of women. But he sounded like a fun guy to hang out with, drink bourbon, and chat politics. ...more
Sarah Vowell’s most recent book is The Wordy Shipmates, and I wanted to like it more than I did. It’s the story of the second wave of pilgrims/immigraSarah Vowell’s most recent book is The Wordy Shipmates, and I wanted to like it more than I did. It’s the story of the second wave of pilgrims/immigrants to Massachusetts in the 1600s. After the Mayflower landed, John Winthrop showed up with a dozen ships and became the first Governor of Massachusetts. I grew up playing the town of Winthrop in track and lacrosse, so I always find it fun to learn about the origins of Massachusetts names. Newton was a new town, Swampscott was… a swamp?
Anyhow, Vowell’s contention is that the pilgrims were nerdy religious types. When talking about how few books they were able to bring over, she says: “Winthrop and his shipmates and their children and their children’s children just wrote their own books and pretty much kept their noses in them up until the day God created the Red Sox.” Perfect.
She takes us through the voyage over from England, and this passage jumped out at me:
“To see a ship similar to the Arbella, you can go to Plymouth, Mass., and climb aboard the replica Mayflower II, which to me is a claustrophobic floating vomitorium I couldn’t stand to be on for more than nine minutes, much less nine weeks. (A replica Arbella was built for Massachusetts’ 300th anniversary in 1930; but, according to Francis Bremer, it ended up beached at Salem’s Pioneer Village and the city of Salem tore the thing down after it “became a haunt for youths indulging in various questionable activities.”
Sounds like the north-of-Boston suburbs I grew up getting to know. The book is interesting, and well-researched, but I found it dragged here and there. I liked Assassination Vacation better, which I absolutely did not expect. There’s a lot about the religious philosophy behind what drives these people, and though the colonists’ interactions with the Native Americans looms large in the narrative of the book, for some reason I thought those parts weren’t as interesting as they should have been. Though you can see the importance of these relationships and, knowing bits of the history that unfolds through the next few centuries, you have a sense of dread as alliances are made and broken. Your mind runs through possible alternative futures – how could America have developed in peace with the people who’d lived there for millennia? Would it have been possible? It must have been. What could they have done? Something. The book doesn’t talk about this at all (it’s not its bailiwick, so that’s fine), but I was hoping for a little more. My disappointment is only a 4 out of 5 kind – I did enjoy the book and learned a lot, and her voice is very enjoyable. Definitely recommended....more
Yet another spectacular book by Mr. Gladwell. I think my three authors I'd love to have dinner with would be him, Douglas Adams, and Robert Sapolsky.Yet another spectacular book by Mr. Gladwell. I think my three authors I'd love to have dinner with would be him, Douglas Adams, and Robert Sapolsky.
Anyhow, the book is great - a well-aimed arrow in the heart of the theory that we all succeed by talent and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, or fail by not doing so. It makes the case, very compellingly, that we're much more affected by cultural legacies, luck, dedication, and broader societal values and movements than individual talent. Not everyone can just create success.
It's also very fun and interesting to read - the third book of his I've taken less than two days to speed through....more
I was really excited to pick up the Yiddish Policemen's Union, because I've heard so many good things about Michael Chabon's talents as an author. TheI was really excited to pick up the Yiddish Policemen's Union, because I've heard so many good things about Michael Chabon's talents as an author. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay is on my list for this year - I might just try for another author repeat on the strength of this novel.
In 1940 there was an effort to offer the Jews worldwide a sanctuary in a part of Alaska, both to save their lives, but also to import manpower to help tap the natural resources of the Alaska Territory. The effort failed - and this book is based on the contrapositive of the effort succeeding. Set in modern times, in essentially our world, the Jews of Sitka, Alaska, face the prospect of reversion, which meant that the United States was taking the territory back. This leaves their status uncertain, and drives large parts of the narrative.
The main character is Detective Meyer Landsman (pronounced Lohndsmun), and his profession allows him to show us the highs and the lows of Yiddish Sitka life. The story unfolds like a spool of thread thrown down a few dingy flights of stairs. I won't say any more because it's a mystery and one just doesn't do that.
The spool of thread simile was purposeful (but inadequate): Chabon's imagery is spectacular and unrelenting. An approaching motorcycle is "a heavy wrench clanging against a cold cement floor. The flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp." One important character is "a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running, a dough model made by blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man ... A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe's frock coat and trousers. ... a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God."
Wow. I mean, that isn't a character introduction, it's an assault like a... just kidding. I could see how some people might grow tired of the constant comparing of things to other things, but usually the comparisons were so creative that I just marveled. I hope you will too. ...more