The Transcendent Brain

The Transcendent Brain coverThe Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science
Alan Lightman
Pantheon (March 14, 2023), 209 pages
Kindle edition, $13.99, Amazon hardcover $23.40

This is the second book I have read by Alan Lightman, the first being Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. In both books he talks about his experience of spirituality, and in both books he insists that he is a materialist.

In The Transcendent Brain, Lightman writes in the introduction about watching the comings and goings of ospreys at his home in Maine. He describes how two young ospreys made their first flight after leaving their nest, and how they made eye contact with him. Lightman writes, “Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant.” Throughout the book he talks about spirituality, but he insists that “the universe is made of material stuff, and only material stuff.”

Lightman writes about a philosopher named Moses Mendelssohn who argued for the existence of the soul. He then discusses the Roman philosopher Lucretius, whose work I read in the original Latin when I was a classics major at Pitzer College in Claremont. In De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) Lucretius offers a sort of natural history, in which he states that the whole world is strictly physical in makeup and there are no gods to intervene with our fate. He wants to tell us that we need have no fear of their wrath. This was in contrast to Plato, who conceived of a soul separate from the body.

The author then discusses scientific research on the nature of consciousness and argues that all consciousness can be shown to come from strictly material sources. He writes about a debate in which he participated with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in which he described some of his transcendental experiences. Dawkins, Lightman reports, responded by saying that he would not let Lightman out transcend him. In the end it appeared to me that there was not really much disagreement between the two of them. It’s just that Lightman is tolerant of people who have religious beliefs and Dawkins is not.

Ultimately, methinks that Lightman doth protest too much. His insistence on the material seems forced and perhaps a tad desperate. I might wish that he accept his transcendent experiences at face value and leave them at that. For reading on the awe and wonder of nature, look elsewhere. Many of Loren Eiseley’s books are out in reprint editions, available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book. You will not be disappointed reading Eiseley.

On Writing and Failure

On Writing and Failure coverOn Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer
Stephen Marche
Biblioasis (February 14, 2023), 79 pages
Kindle edition $8.79, Amazon paperback $12.56

The small Canadian publisher Biblioasis has done a wonderful job of publishing slim volumes about books, literature, and writing in its Field Notes series. On Writing and Failure is the latest in the series and it fully meets expectations.

Author Stephen Marche tells new writers (he somewhat disrespectfully calls them “kids”) that they should not write with the expectation of fame or money. He says that they should write for the love of writing. He repeatedly tells them, “No whining.” And when he describes the struggles of earlier writers, he admonishes, “Why would it be any different for you?”

Marche strives to take the glamour out of writing. At best, he suggests writing “is like running a failing haberdashery.” For most, he insists, it’s more like selling T-shirts out of the trunk of your car. He writes about the multiple rejections that now-highly regarded works originally received before they eventually found a publisher: Twilight, A Wrinkle in Time, and Gone with the Wind, just as examples. Marche notes that Jack London kept his rejections on a spindle which got to be four feet high: six hundred rejections. Marcel Proust and Beatrix Potter, he reminds us, resorted to self-publishing (long before it was a thing!).

Marche discusses ancient and renaissance authors, as well as a couple from the Far East. He states The Prince would never have been written had Machiavelli not ended up on the losing side of the feudal battles in sixteenth century Italy. He points out that success ended the careers of Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, and JD Salinger. He tells the story of one Joseph Mitchell (I never heard of him) who published a story to great acclaim in The New Yorker in 1964 and then “came into the office regularly for the next thirty-two years and contributed not one word to the magazine.”

The author tells young writers:

quoteYou have to write. You have to submit. You have to persevere. You have to throw yourself against the door. That’s it.

And that, I believe, is the sum total of what I needed to get from this book.

And that is true even though I am not a young writer. I have been collecting Social Security for a few years now, though I don’t consider myself retired: I continue to write and want to keep doing so. Nor am I am a new writer. I was writing stories during my free time when I was in the fourth grade. Nonetheless, in On Writing and Failure Stephen Marche is telling me what I need to hear.

Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical

Oscar Hammerstein II coverOscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical
Laurie Winer
Yale University Press (January 31, 2023), 505 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $29.25

After reading two fairly heavy-duty books, Culture: The Story of Us and Ways of Being, I decided I needed something lighter. In some respects this book filled the bill, but in another regard Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical burdened me with more detail than I really wanted.

Author Laurie Winer states she wanted to write a book about the best American musicals, but in her research she realized that the book she needed to write was about Oscar Hammerstein II. (Hammerstein was II not because of this father. It was his grandfather who was Oscar Hammerstein I.)

Winer tells us that Oscar Sr. was an opera producer who overextended himself, and that his son Willie was a theater manager who was not very good at what he did. She states that to understand the grandson we need to understand the grandfather. She then delves into a long and detailed account of his career, which to me did little to enhance my understanding of the life of Hammerstein II.

The author describes how Hammerstein met with financial success early on writing shows that weren’t exactly musicals. She goes into great detail recounting his collaboration with Jerome Kern in the creation of Show Boat, which can reasonably be called the first American musical. Winer explores how the show was innovative in that it had a multi-racial cast in an era before integration was the norm.

Obviously Winer devotes considerable space to the collaboration between Hammerstein and Richard Rogers. And although this is supposed to be a biography of Hammerstein, she writes in detail about the collaboration between Rogers and Lorenz (Larry) Hart, and how Hart had trouble staying available for the work to be done, and and staying sober to get his songs written.

Winer writes about Hammerstein’s basic optimism and how that is reflected in so many of his lyrics. She also details how unpleasant a person Richard Rogers was to work with, and how difficult it became for others to work with him when Hammerstein became ill and was no longer there as a buffer. Rogers was, in fact, terribly tight with money and refused to share royalties even when a collaborator was fully entitled to such sharing. Winer suggests he twisted Hammerstein’s arm to go along with this approach.

The author delves into the sources of the various musicals. She writes extensively about the sources for South Pacific and The King and I. The source for South Pacific was the James A. Michener short story collection, Tales of the South Pacific. Hammerstein struggled with converting the disparate stories into a coherent narrative. He received assistance from Josh Logan, who originally brought the idea to the attention of Rogers and Hammerstein. Logan was never compensated for that work. The basis for The King and I came from a novel based on the autobiographical writing of Anna Leonowens, who was an English tutor to the children of the King of Siam in the late nineteenth century. Though some of the material was interesting, there was more detail than I needed.

I cannot fail to mention Hammerstein protégé Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim first became acquainted with Hammerstein as a youngster and admired him from the beginning. As Sondheim began writing his own pieces Hammerstein encouraged the work. How the lyricist with such a positive outlook became a mentor to a protégé with (often) such a dark vision is a question without a good answer.

If you enjoy the American musical, Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical is probably worth your time. Just be prepared for more background and history than you might be interested in.

separating the artist from the art (or not)

This is not a new topic. It has been around for a long time and I don’t believe there is any kind of consensus on it. The question is: do we “cancel” artists (authors, musicians, movie makers) based on their personal behavior?

bookstoreThis subject arose again in my mind while watching Maureen Corrigan’s excellent Great Courses lecture series Banned Books, Burned Books, Forbidden Literary Works. I’ll have plenty to write about this course when I have finished it, but it was her lecture entitled “Canceled Authors” that prompted me to write about the artist/art struggle. It was on my mind anyway, as I am anticipating the release of Claire Dederer’s new book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, which is due out on April 25. Based on a piece in The Paris Review, the book is supposed to tackle this topic head on.

As for Corrigan, she begins by quoting the line from William Butler Yeats: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” She discusses writer Blake Bailey, whose publisher pulled his comprehensive biography of Philip Roth from sale when allegations of his personal behavior came to light. She then discusses other authors who received similar treatment.

It is an issue I have been grappling with for a while. What about Woody Allen? Do I no longer watch his movies because of his allegedly predatory sexual behavior?

Then there’s Marion Zimmer Bradley. Her novel The Mists of Avalon is highly regarded as a superb feminist retelling of the King Arthur myth. Arthurian scholar Dorsey Armstrong assigns the book in some of her college classes and she reports that most of her students find it engrossing. Yet we learned after Bradley’s death that she engaged in child molestation. Does that mean that we don’t read her books? One evening a Kindle bargain books email to which I subscribe arrived and listed Avalon for something like $2.99. On impulse I snapped it up, but feeling regret, I returned the book the next day. And this even though Bradley’s literary executors have said that they are routing all of her royalties to a fund that works to prevent child abuse. Does this make sense?

Corrigan states that the American Library Association takes the position that we should focus on the work, not the creator of the work. She agrees. Corrigan then asks her viewers to make up their own minds, but, she warns, whichever position you take be prepared to have a lot of people disagree with you.

As Robert MacNeil used to say when wrapping up an interview, “We’ll have to leave it there.”

Ways of Being

Ways of Being coverWays of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence
James Bridle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 21, 2022), 386 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $18.99

I first heard about Ways of Being when Krista Tippett wrote about it in her weekly On Being email, gushing about the book for multiple consecutive weeks. I admire Tippett’s work, so I downloaded the Kindle sample and read it. Author James Bridle is obsessed with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and in the introduction provided in the Kindle sample, that’s what he discusses. I am fully aware of the ubiquity of AI these days and I don’t mean to be an ostrich with its head buried in the sand, but between the mainstream news media and social media I sometimes feel saturated with the topic. I put the sample aside and didn’t buy the book.

But then the marvelous Maria Popova wrote positively about the book in her Marginalian blog. I decided to revisit it and bought the book. Much to my annoyance the first chapter was all about AI as well. Bridle writes about his experiment in creating his own self-driving car with off-the-shelf parts. He was living in Greece at the time and tried it on the narrow road going up Mt. Parnassus. I was annoyed but I persisted. The book got better after that.

Bridle writes about how we might think about self-awareness in the animal kingdom. He discusses animals in captivity and their attempts to escape their cages or enclosures. He writes about experiments to determine whether animals had self-awareness by putting mirrors in their environments. Interestingly, different primates exhibited different behaviors. Dolphins, when presented with mirrors, engaged in frenzied sex.

The author devotes part of a chapter to a discussion of the octopus. Those animals are highly intelligent even though their makeup is radically different from mammals. The bulk of their intelligence is not in the central brain but rather in their multiple arms. Bridle describes the ingenious attempts one octopus made to escape its captivity. I wish he had devoted more space to the octopus.

Plants are part of the equation as well. Bridle describes how a tree can experience a threat and when that threat returns the tree will communicate the danger to its neighbors. Then there is the slime mold. Not properly classifiable as an animal or as a plant, the individual cell is extraordinarily simple, yet when working together the collective cells engage in intelligent behavior. This is not new knowledge: I read about the slime mold in Lewis Thomas’s enchanting Lives of a Cell back in the seventies.

Bridle also discusses other early human species. He describes how Neanderthals and Denisovans were just as capable and skilled as early humans. In fact, Bridle writes, “Neanderthals and Denisovans were pioneers in what were once considered extreme environments: their adaptations, their genetic legacy, helped our ancestors to outlive them.”

The author devotes considerable space to the computer, beginning with the mechanical precursors to the modern computer. This, of course, takes him back to AI. Bridle writes that the idea that we can program AI systems to be completely friendly and non-threatening is “both wildly optimistic and worryingly naive.” (Full disclosure: in the mid-1990s when I was a technical writer I worked for a company that developed “expert systems” for the banking and insurance industries, a term then preferred over AI.)

Bridle concludes the book by writing about solidarity, not only with other humans, but with “the more-than-human world.”

I’m glad I returned to Ways of Being and stuck with it. There is much to ponder here.

Have You Eaten Yet?

Have You Eaten Yet coverHave You Eaten Yet: Stories from Chinese Restaurants Around the World
Cheuk Kwan
read by Brian Nishii
Blackstone Publishing (January 13, 2023), 9 hours and 18 minutes
(print edition published by Pegasus Books)
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

Author Cheuk Kwan is of Chinese descent, was born in Hong Kong, has lived in Japan and Singapore, and eventually immigrated to Canada where he made his permanent home. Kwan, therefore, naturally takes a global perspective.

Although Have You Eaten Yet was just released this year, the book documents Kwan’s travels as he filmed a documentary in the early 2000s about Chinese people and the restaurants they ran around the world. The first chapter, however, describes a more recent trip he took to attend the funeral of a restaurant owner in rural Saskatchewan whom he had known for many years. Kwan shares his memories of the man, known as Noisy Jim and his life in the community. The locals loved Jim and would hang out in his restaurant. Jim, though Chinese, was not interested in serving authentic Chinese food; his menu contained the dishes that the locals enjoyed. Jim was clearly an integral part of his community.

In the remainder of the book Kwan takes us on a tour to cities and towns around the world where Chinese people opened and ran restaurants. He visited proprietors and their families in Israel, Africa, Turkey, South America, and even Norway. Some of these people left China legally, others illegally. Some left before the Maoist revolution of 1949, others after. Many had ties to Taiwan. Some of the younger people were born in the country to which their parents migrated.

There is a wide range of philosophy about the dishes these people served. Some strove for authenticity, while others adapted their dishes to the tastes of the locals. In Peru, the infusion of Chinese cooking was so great and so widely adopted that the distinction between Peruvian and Chinese cuisine has become blurred. Likewise, the individual stories vary greatly. Many of the people Kwan interviewed loved their adopted country while others would have preferred to return to China or Hong Kong. There are plenty of tales of arranged marriages and of men who left their families in China, finding a new wife and starting a new family in their adopted country.

Kwan admires chef Ken Hom, who introduced the British to Chinese cooking with the TV series Chinese Cookery in the 1980s. His epilogue recounts a Zoom conversation with Hom in 2021, in which they share thoughts about Chinese cooking and global cuisine.

When Blackstone publishes an audiobook you can expect a quality production, and Have You Eaten Yet is no exception. Voice actor Brian Nishii does a superb job of reading the book and he effectively conveys the emotions of the people that Kwan interviews.

My only advice: Don’t read (or listen to) this book when you are hungry.