Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Imagine--Jonah Lehrer

In his third book length publication Jonah Lehrer takes on the world of creativity, innovation, and to some extent imagination--though that is hardly touched upon at all.  Leaving the secure ground of neuroscience (particularly in the second half og the book) Lehrer strays into the fields of social psychology and sociology with somewhat mixed results.

Perhaps that is only for me.  I tend to become quite skeptical when research involves more than empirically verifiable fact and strays off into the territory of group interaction.  You can say that something worked, but it seems difficult to pinpoint why that something worked in the particular instance.  Taking the well-known example of Pixar, Lehrer  (summarizing the work of others, implies that success was largely the result of architecture forcing hallway meetings and interchange.  This, in turn, blossomed into some of the wonderful films we see from the studio.  If such chance meetings and random conversations were really the breeding ground of creativity, one would have expected the 1950s cocktail party to have given rise to something better than Joe McCarthy.

Despite some places where I felt (but do not know) that the explanation was lacking credibility, I found myself sympathetic to the suggestions.  That, of course made me even more skeptical about their validity.  Just because a book confirms what I think to be right because of anecdotal experience does not imply that either the experience nor the book have a finger on the pulse of reality as-it-is.

Despite these reservations, the book is, as usual, readable, fun, and even compelling.  If I disagree at times with the examples of "genius" he chooses to site  (Why Auden rather than Larkin or T.S. Eliot?  Why Bob Dylan rather than John Lennon?--But then, one must draw from examples that demonstrate the principle), I nevertheless enjoyed the exposition of what these individuals did that allowed creativity to flourish.

My rating--an entirely subjective ***1/2  mostly because of disagreements and skepticism.

The Lieutenant--Kate Grenville

I'm not certain that enough good can be said of Kate Grenville.  In this second book of a trilogy devoted to the early history of Australia, she gives us the story of  Daniel Rooke--fashioned loosely after the real-life character of William Dawes.  William Dawes was an early student of the Aboriginal peoples and their language as well as an astronomer and all round polymath.  He was expelled from Australia and went on to join forces with William Wilberforce and, eventually, to open a school for freed-slaves in Antigua.

What Ms. Grenville gives us here is a remarkable story of first contact--of trying to forge the bonds of understanding that would bridge a vast gulf between the experiences of two different cultures.  She performs a remarkable feat in being able to show us the darkness of "civilization" as viewed by the aboriginal people.  She also speaks of the tenderness of heart and kindness that can bridge any gap.  She does all of this in language at once supple and lyrical but never purple, never overdone, always right-on cue.

If you have an interest in history, an interest in Australia, or an interest in just a cracking good story with powerfully drawn characters and (sometimes) a real bite--this is the book for you.

Highest recommendation--*****

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Secret River--Kate Grenville

One Saturday I happened into the library and stumbled upon a relatively new book by Kate Grenville with the title of Sarah Thornhill. I might not have given it a second glance--but truth is, I did, and doing so discovered that it was the prize-winning third volume of a trilogy.  Never one to start at the end I went looking for the other two volumes and stumbled upon The Secret River. As is the way with a great many things from the library, it took me a while to get around to it, and then some time to get into it.  And once again, I'm very glad I did.

The Secret River tells the story of William and Sarah Thornhill from the time that William was born to an impoverished family in the London Slums through the time of his transportation to Australia and on to his eventual success there.  In the course of the story, he marries Sarah who goes with him to Australia and in the strange way that things transpired in that early colony becomes his overseer and master.  They land in what was to become Sydney and begin their Australian careers--at first thinking only of eventually returning to London, and then gradually acclimating and falling in love with the country.

Thanks to an odd typographical choice, the use of italics for dialogue, one of the main features of this novel comes through with amazing clarity--silence.  Seeming pages and pages go by without one word spoken from one character to another.  One would think this would be disruptive or problematic, but it underlines one essential feature of the book--the sense of loneliness, exile, and then eventually awe at this new environment.  We see a man and woman of few words become people of fewer words in a country that speaks all for itself.

from The Secret River
Kate Grenville
Through the glass, the trees were flaked and cracked. The rocks were what seemed alive, something old and solemn out of the sea, their grey skins speckled with white lichen, creased and furrowed and ridged. Through the eye of the glass, he became acquainted with each one. He could see how those tumbled at the base of the cliff must have once been part of its lip, where the forest ended as abruptly as the edge of a table. One by one each had snapped and racketed down.
He had never seen part of the cliff fall away, although he sometime held his breath, staring through the glass, to be watching at the moment it happened.

Through prose like this, and strong, flawed, likable people, we get a glimpse into the early history of the European colonization of a land already populated with a people of its own.  It is this clash of peoples that makes for the climax and denouement of a supremely good and enriching read.  I have no doubt that having read The Secret River,  I shall also find myself reading The Lieutenant (book two) and Sarah Thornhill. All three books have garnered literary awards and, assuming they are as good as this first, they are undoubtedly merited.  These books are worthy of your time and attention, and will repay such many, many times over.

Highest recommendation *****