Category Archives: Books

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

This morning I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2002 novel Middlesex, and I’d say it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years.  Just a pleasure to read a chapter at a time, no rush.  It’s pretty long at 530 pages hardcover, and is a great family epic as told by a hermaphrodite character born in 1960 who reaches a crisis point at age 14.  But much of the book is about the character’s grandparents and parents and their life in Detroit.  Highly recommended!

Here’s a bit from a Powell’s interview done in 2002 with Eugenides:

At the same time, it’s a family story and more of an epic. I needed the third-person. I tried to give a sense that Cal, in writing his story, is perhaps inventing his past as much as recalling it. He might make claims that he has a genetic memory or that he knows things, but there are a lot of tip-offs to the reader that he’s making it up. He needed to tell the whole story to explain his incredible life to himself. He knew a lot about his grandparents — and perhaps he feels he’s been endowed with abilities to go into people’s heads who are long dead — but, to a certain extent, he’s making it up. It took me a long time to let myself do that.

Lethem on P.K. Dick & more

Found this interview at H+ between Erik Davis and novelist Jonathan Lethem, mostly on P.K. Dick but I found this Q/A on ‘the singularity’ interesting:

ED: For proponents of the Singularity, we are on the verge of massive technological transformations that involve some version of artificial or machine intelligence. Dick had a very particular take on intelligent machines, like Joe Chip‘s conapt or suitcase psychiatrists. While these devices are clearly fantastic and absurd, they also express some real insight and concerns about the cultural consequences of machine intelligence. Does Dick‘s take seem relevant now, thirty years later? What would he say to our contemporary gadget fetishism and addiction to information machines?

JL: My best guess about such matters is that each technological transformation, up to and perhaps including the Singularity, is going to work itself out vis-à-vis “the human” according to the deep principles of all media. Defined in its largest sense, as including things like cinema, theory, drugs, computing, moving type, music, etcetera, media is utterly consciousness-transforming in ways we can no longer competently examine, given how deeply they‘ve pervaded and altered the collective and individual consciousness that would be the only possible method for making that judgment. And yet -— we still feel so utterly human to ourselves, and the proof is in the anthropomorphic homeliness that pervades the ostensibly exalted “media” in return. We humanize them, shame them, colonize and debunk them with our persistent modes of sex and neurosis and community and commerce. We turn them into advertisements for ourselves, rather than opportunities for shedding ourselves. At least so far.

The Mind and the Brain

I’ve been reading a number of things lately about the mind (our subjective experience) and the brain, and how they inter-relate.  Some scientists seem perfectly comfortable with simply stating that the mind can be equated to brain-states, and this may be true (I don’t think we really know, though the scientific position rejects the dualistic approach that posits the mind as something more or different from the brain).  But even so, certainly my experience of mind is not an experience of brain-states, it is about concepts like attention, memory, feeling, etc.  I am particularly interested in scientific study of how intentional mind-states have impact on the brain (and thus have known physical effects), even if we don’t really understand what ‘attention’ actually is.

Here’s some material from a book I’ve been reading called Train Your Mind Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley which reports on some recent neuroscience findings (it’s in fact a summary of findings that were presented to the Buddhist community  including the Dalai Lama in a series of workshops).  Many of the findings are with regard to neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change in response to various stimuli.  But this one stuck out in my mind (page 158):

Attention is also, as it happens, indispensable for neuroplasticity. Nowhere was that shown more dramatically than in one of Mike Merzenich’s experiments with monkeys. The scientists rigged up a device that tapped the animals’ fingers one hundred minutes a day every day for six weeks.  At the same time as this bizarre dance was playing on their fingers, the monkeys listened to sounds over headphones. Some of the monkeys were taught, pay attention to what you feel on your fingers, such as when the rhythm changes, we’ll reward you with a sip of juice; don’t pay attention to the sounds. Other monkeys were taught, pay attention to the sound, and if you indicate when it changes, you’ll get juice. At the end of six weeks, the scientists compared the monkeys’ brains. Let me underline that every monkey, whether trained to pay attention to what it was hearing or what it was feeling on its fingers, had the exact same physical experience – sounds coming in through headphones plus taps on its fingers. The only thing that made one monkey different from another was what it paid attention to.

Usually, when a particular spot on the skin suddenly begins receiving unusual amounts of stimulation, its representation in the somatosensory cortex expands. That was what Mike Merzenich discovered in his monkeys. But when the monkeys paid attention to what they heard rather than to what they felt, there was no change in the somatosensory cortex – no expension of the region that handles input from the finger feeling the flutter.

It goes on to state that the stimuli that was attended to produced more brain resources going to that stimuli, and not to the one that was ignored.  So in some sense it appears that ‘attention’ can be a part of what shapes our brain, and that since we can direct our attention, there may be ways to consciously direct the development of brain resources.

Now in some ways this finding seems completely obvious.  Clearly when we’re in school, we tend to learn those things which we pay attention to… if you attend a foreign language class and don’t pay attention, you may pick up a few words, but will not learn much.  This just confirms that there’s an actual physical result from the conscious attention.  The interesting questions to me are what techniques can be used to direct attention in the most effective way to achieve one’s goals and desires.

Also it seems to me that as more brain resources are trained on particular tasks, the task moves from one that requires conscious attention to being more of a background, autonomous process, allowing the conscious attention to move to other areas.

Natural-Born Cyborgs – Andy Clark (2003)

The author of Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark, is more philosopher than science fiction writer, though as the cover indicates he does cover some pretty far out technology in this book.  He’s most interested in the notion of the ‘expanded mind’, by that meaning the way we incorporate not only biological but also technological tools to navigate in the world.  By this he means not just the cinematic cyborg concepts like implants into the brain, but also simpler tools like pen and paper, and anything else we use either consciously or unconsciously.  I found this book really interesting for a number of reasons, and I’ll try to cover a few high points.

1.  On language:
“The deepest contributions of speech and language to human thought, however, may be something so large and fundamental that it is sometimes hare to see it at all! For it is our linguistic capacities, I have long suspected, that allow us to think and reason about our own thinking and reasoning. And it is this capacity, in turn, that may have been the crucial foot-in-the-door for the culturally transmitted process of designer-environment construction: the process of deliberately building better worlds to think in.” (p. 78).  What he’s getting at here is language as a tool that gives us the ability to examine concepts and generate ideas that could not have been conceived of without language.

In a somewhat similar fashion he mentions how we use mathematical shortcuts and paper-based tools to, for example, multiply two large numbers, like 147 * 382.  Most of us cannot do that calculation in our heads, but with a piece of paper and a pencil and the mental math tools of breaking the problem down into simple integer multiplication (7 * 2, then 7* 8, etc.) we can solve the problem.  So is the calculation simply in our head, or is it in fact a collaboration of brain and pencil and paper (or these days brain and calculator).  The tools expand our mental universe, give us access to areas that we could not get to without them.

2. On extended mental worlds, Alzheimer’s example:
“These patients were a puzzle because althoushould not have been able to do sogh they still lived alone, successfully, in the city, they really should not have been able to do so. On standard psychological tests they performed rather dismally. They should have been unable to cope with the demands of daily life. What was going on? A sequence of visits to their home environments provided the answer. These home environments, it transpired, were wonderfully calibrated to support and scaffold these biological brains. The homes were stuffed full of cognitive props, tools and aids. Examples included message centers where they stored notes about what to do and when; photos of family and friends complete with indications of names and relationships; lables and pictures on doors; [etc.]” (p. 140).

Here again he is making the point that we put ‘intelligence’ out in our environment, and our brains and bodies work with these tools to make sense of the world.  Note that none of this involves ‘biological implants’ but in principle these too are tools that can feed us more useful information, just the way a cane can provide information to a blind person.

3. The extended mind:
“What we really need to reject, I suggest, is the seductive idea that these various neural and nonneural tools need a kind of privileged user. Instead, it is just tools all the way down. Some of those tools are indeed more closely implicated in our conscious awareness of the world than others. But those elements, taken on their own, would fall embarrassingly short of reconstituting any recognizable version of a human mind or an individual person. Some elements, likewise are more important to our sense of self and identity than others. Some elements play larger roles in control and decision making than others. But this divide, like the ones before it, tends to crosscut the inner and the outer, the biological and the nonbiological.” (p 137).

“Tools-R-Us. But we are prone, it seems, to a particularly dangerous kind of cognitive illusion. Because our best efforts at watching our own minds in action reveal only the conscious flow of ideas and decisions, we mistakenly identify ourselves with the stream of conscious awareness.” (p. 137).

There is plenty more to chew on in this book.  This argument about the extended mind is similar to the points made by Alva Noe in his book Out of Our Heads.

Point Omega – Don DeLillo (2010)

In recent years DeLillo’s output has been frequent but very condensed, and his new novel, Point Omega, is the most spare and dense so far.  While only 117 pages, I found it hard to read more than about 20 pages at a sitting.

I don’t consider myself much of a literary critic, but here are a few thoughts on the book.  It is bookended by scenes set at MOMA in NYC in 2006, where a screening of the real-world video piece 24 Hour Psycho was shown.  DeLillo attended, and apparently the novel began from the seeds of writing about it (he said to Thomas DePietro, “It was only after I finished work on the prologue that I began to think seriously about what would follow.”).  The piece takes Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho and lengthens it to run for an entire day – which boils down to slowing it by a factor of twelve, so that each frame lingers for about half a second.

I have seen the piece at a museum as well, and it does have a strange impact.  By slowing down the film, it seems to slow down one’s experience of time. Simply waiting for a character to complete a simple movement might take a minute or more.  In the book, a strange character lingers in the room with the film, coming back day after day, wanting to watch the entire thing in one 24 hour stretch.  He observes other people coming in and out of the room, he moves from one side of the projection screen to the other, sees how the polarity (right hand to left hand) flips.

In Psycho, we have three (or is it four) main characters. Everyone remembers Norman Bates, but as DeLillo notes no one really remembers the name of the character played by Janet Leigh, it is simply Janet Leigh.  Then there is Detective Arbogast, and there is ‘mother’.

It feels to me almost as if DeLillo has mapped these film characters into the main desert section of the novel, but not in a literal way.  Elster is perhaps the detective, an old scholar who appears to be near an end, exhausted. His daughter Jessie is almost not there at all, she’s like ‘mother’ or perhaps like Janet Leigh after the shower scene (which occurs fairly early in the film), a spectral presence. Jim Finley, the filmmaker, doesn’t really seem like Norman, but he is a bit inexplicable, in his willingness to simply hang out at the desert home with Elster without really pushing very hard to make the film happen. Then there is also the mysterious Dennis, perhaps the man watching Psycho at the museum, perhaps seeing Jessie in NYC, perhaps following her out to the desert.

The whole thing seems like a kind of meditation on time and space, how we play with it in our media (and we can even speed it up or slow it down), and how there is a sense that some places embody deep time.  The desert seems to be particularly resonant for DeLillo, it’s a place where time seems to run at a different pace than we’re used to in the cities, it’s a place where one can think differently, ponder the unknowns.  To note that “the three characters here do not live in a recognizable America or recognizable reality” (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times review) strikes me as  beside the point.  DeLillo is not depicting ‘reality’ rather he seems to be depicting thinking and time itself, through his spare yet dense prose.

Just Kids – Patti Smith (2010)

A few nights ago I made it to Patti’s appearance at the Bagdad Theater here in Portland, for the release of her memoir ‘Just Kids’, and this morning I finished the book.  It’s a good one.  Centered on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met in 1967, it tells of their bohemian artsy ways in New York City in the late sixties and early seventies.  Perhaps it’s to be expected, but in those times neither of them had yet really hit on what would turn out to be their strongest talents.  Patti was doing poetry and drawing, while working at a bookstore, and Robert was doing jewelry and sculptures made from bric-a-brac found and treasured (he resisted photography for a long time, only in part because it was expensive).  The book really does put you there with them, in an NYC that doesn’t exist anymore.

Here’s the word from Tom Carson’s NYTBR review:

“Just Kids” is the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s that any alumnus has committed to print. The tone is at once flinty and hilarious, which figures: she’s always been both tough and funny, two real saving graces in an artist this prone to excess. What’s sure to make her account a cornucopia for cultural historians, however, is that the atmosphere, personalities and mores of the time are so astutely observed.

Constant Battles – Steven A. LeBlanc (2003)

Following up on a strong recommendation in Stewart Brand’s recent book, I picked up and read Steven LeBlanc’s Constant Battles from 2003.  LeBlanc is an archaeologist, and his book is about his thesis that in fact there really never was a time of humans living in some sort of ecological balance with nature.  Instead he posits that whenever people started to overrun their resources, there was a strong tendency to warfare, and he claims archaeological evidence of this in finds around the world.

LeBlanc describes different types of warfare that seem to be found in different types of societies – from hunter/gatherer tribes to more complex agricultural groups and states.  While agriculture often had the effect of increasing the resource base, that tends to lead to population rise, and back again to resource constraints.  He does not believe that humans are in some way genetically programmed for warfare, that it’s more of a last resort in desperate circumstances (i.e. when resources are plentiful there seems to be less tension and less reason to fight).

In our modern world, while wars are unfortunately common, the actual numbers of people killed in them is quite a bit less than what he has found from the remains of tribal societies, where as many as 25% of males could die as a result of ongoing warfare.

The book itself is pretty short and not completely compelling reading, but the ideas here are quite interesting.

Mediated in 2009 – Books

Here are my top choices among the books I read this year (links are to earlier blog posts):

Fiction:

Non-Fiction:

Happy reading and living in the New Year!

Your Face Tomorrow – Poison, Shadow and Farewell – Javier Marías

Late this year the final volume of Your Face Tomorrow by Spanish author Javier Marías was translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published in English.   Above is the UK edition dust jacket which I really like (in the U.S. the books have been published by New Directions, but I have to say I don’t much like their cover artwork, as seen below).  I put in an order with Amazon UK, got the book about a month ago, and just finished the book yesterday.

These books are unlike most novels published today, far more meandering and discursive, yet with a keen underlying focus on some of the big topics: secrets, lies, betrayals, violent acts – the ability to both deliver then and live with them, interpreting others both from verbal communication and physical acts.  Marías definitely takes his time, drawing the acts of a single evening out for a hundred pages or more, with long conversations and equally long interior monologues.

Today a review by Larry Rohter ran in the Times, here are a few bits from it:

“Poison, Shadow and Farewell” opens and ends with a dedication to Mr. Marías’s father, the philosopher Julián Marías, who died in 2005, and to Peter Russell, an Oxford professor and former intelligence operative who was Britain’s leading academic authority on Iberian history and culture until his death in 2006. In a fundamental sense all of “Your Face Tomorrow” is an extended homage not just to the two men, both of whom appear in slightly altered guise in the novel, but also to their entire generation. During the course of the work Mr. Marías turns repeatedly to the times of World War II and the Spanish Civil War, which he seems to view as more serious than ours, for examples of the moral dilemmas that are perhaps his central concerns, drawing on the experiences of his father and Russell.

“Your Face Tomorrow” requires patience, effort and intellectual discipline of the reader. “Poison, Shadow and Farewell” delivers a payoff at the end, but the real challenge, and pleasure, is in getting there.

As the review states, these books are both a challenge and a pleasure to read.  Lately it seems like between Marías and Roberto Bolaño, some of the best fiction in recent years was written in Spanish.

I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon) – Richard Polsky (2009)

“I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon)” is a follow up to Richard Polsky’s 2003 book “I Bought Andy Warhol” and it continues his stories of the pop art market through the 2006-2008 period of sky-high prices.  It’s a quick, fun read, starting with the sale of his Warhol “Fright Wig” piece, and following several other ongoing stories, such as another collector’s quest to buy one of those same pieces soon afterwards, as prices continued to soar.  Polsky turns himself into an ‘art financial advisor’ and he discusses some of the unlikely twists and turns of art collecting, such as the story of Leon Kraushar, who began filling his suburban Long Island home in the mid-sixties with now astronomical pop art work from the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist. While a few folks get lucky, just as with stocks, by buying low and selling high, it’s generally very hard to truly treat art as an investment.

An excerpt from the book can be found here at artnet.