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09-22-12: Your Brain On (And In) Books

New Row Sigh Ants Need Not Ruin the Picnic

Over at the New Statesman(via Boing Boing), Steven Poole ('Unspeak'), warns that, "An intellectual pestilence is upon us." He's talking about a new crop of books that use neuroscience to discuss everything from political affiliations to women's physiology to creativity in what proves to be — surprisingly to him — an inaccurate manner. He calls it "neurobollocks," and you can spend a fair amount of your valuable reading time reading about books that, he tells you, are not worth your valuable reading time.

Recalling Sturgeon's Law, it's not surprising that the majority of this burgeoning new genre proves to be problematic. But I've read more than a few good books involving neuroscience that don't make Mr. Poole's list, and which, to my mind, are indeed worth your valuable reading time. Moreover, I've spoken to their authors and you can hear their voices as well, a good way to wrap your brain around whether or not you want to read this book about your brain. It may be a hall of mirrors, but they're good mirrors and will — not surprisingly — make you think. Generally these will be thoughts that will open up your thinking life, and for me that's the goal of reading good non-fiction. Or fiction, for that matter.

Since it's just out in paperback, you can start with Michael Gazzaniga's 'Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Mind.' Let's call it the first in the Subconscious Trifecta. As a grad student, Gazzaniga devised some classic logic-tests to explore the left-right brain divide. Their simple elegance changed the way we looked at the brain, and this book carries on with that simple elegance, while it eschews any over-simplifications as Gazzaniga tries to understand and describe consciousness.

Ultimately, he suggests that the problem will require us to develop a new language that will allow us to address our own minds. In the interim, his book is engaging and exciting. It gets into some serious science, but never loses sight of the reader. Gazzaniga and I talked about his book at KQED late in 2011, and you can hear that conversation here, and a Time to Read feature here.

With 'Subliminal,' the second in our Subconscious Trifecta, Leonard Mlodinow has literally fulfilled the promise of one of my favorite anthology TV shows, having written book that go, "from the inner mind to the Outer Limits." The latter books are his collaborations with Stephen Hawking, including 'The Grand Design.' 'Subliminal' looks at the huge part that our unconscious mind plays in getting us around, and the correspondingly small part that is the "I" each of us perceives as so pervasive.

Mlodinow's book is extremely entertaining and full of great experiments that stretch your tiny brain's ability to perceive the world. It's a book that will literally change the way you see things. I spoke with Mlodinow about his book before his appearance at Bookshop Cruz earlier this year. You can hear the executive summery via Time to Read.

I've been a fan of neuroscientist David Eagleman's writings since I first spoke to him about his first book 'Sum,' which is not really fiction or non-fiction; it is, as the subtitle says, '40 Visions of the Afterlife,' a perfect book to buy for yourself and everyone else you know. It's super easy-to-read, and really visionary. But as soon as he wrote that, the wait began for 'Incognito,' the third part of the Subconscious Trifecta. Eagleman is a brilliant writer, who, like Gazzaniga, is prying away at just what human consciousness is and means. Gazzaniga shows up in Eagleman's book, so you know you're onto something important. I spoke with Eagleman about 'Incognito' while he was at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Eagleman has also collaborated with Richard E. Cytowic, whose book 'The Man Who Tasted Shapes,' one of the first books I ever read about the life of the mind; it's his look at synesthesia and a classic in the field. I actually own a first edition, first printing hardcover of the book. I spoke to Cytowic about his collaboration with Eagleman, 'Wednesday is Indigo Blue,' subtitled 'Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia.' These are two of a perfect pair; it's a great collaboration about a condition of the mind that speaks directly to creativity and connectivity and, not surprisingly, the connection between the two.

Stephen S. Hall's 'Wisdom' is a fascinating look at the neurological background of what we call wisdom. Hall will hook you quickly with his setup; the idea is to see if there are parts of the brain that correspond to the eight pillars of wisdom: emotional regulation, compassion, moral judgment, humility, altruism, patience, sound judgment and "dealing with uncertainty." It's a tough row to hoe, as Hall has set himself a tall order. The thrill is that he lives up to the challenge, and writes a book that makes you think about what we call wisdom and why. I spoke with Hall about the book shortly after it came out.

Hall spends more than a bit of time talking about the relationship between mirror neurons and compassion, and while I was speaking with him, I could not help but think of Karen Armstrong's work literary and scholarly work on religion. And while it might seem I'm going a bit far afield, I hope readers will indulge me and take a look at her books 'Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,' and 'The Case for God.' While neither has much straightforward neuroscience, they both touch quite intelligently on religion, which has literally been studied to death in the world of neuroscience; at least if you buy into the hysteria. I spoke with Armstrong about 'The Case for God,' and how her own life impacted her work.

In a similar vein, you can't get more compelling than T. M. Luhrman's 'When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.' Luhrman set out to ask herself a very specific question and answer it with a thorough scientific investigation. It is an utterly compelling story of science, the mind and belief that shows just how far science can go to get at what we might think to be ineffable. Luhrman is a great writer, a smart scientist and a great speaker. She and I spoke first at KQED in smart one-on-one interview and then had a more raucous conversation with a boisterous audience at Capitola Book Café.

As your book prescription to prevent any case of neurobollocks, or even having to read about books that suffer from this unsightly condition, I'd recommend you read any or all of these and come back to me when you're done. By then, there will likely be more — all of them, each and every one, on the right side of Sturgeon's Law, and well worth your valuable reading time.

09-18-12: Magnus Mills Unleashes 'The Restraint of Beasts'

Survival of the Simplest

Simplicity survives. It had been more than thirteen years since I first read 'The Restraint of Beasts,' but when I picked it up this morning, the pages moved so fast I could barely believe it. And Magnus Mills dystopian, disturbing vision of a world going quickly to hell still feels as fresh and as relevant as the first time I read it. Here's a book you can buy for a song and probably read once a year, to find new laughs and chills.

Mills, a bus driver in London, very nearly won the 1999 Booker Prize for 'The Restraint of Beasts', a nasty little joke about three itinerant fence builders who have a dark secret and an almost earth-shattering ineptitude. It's one of those wonderful novels that lives in the netherworld between respectable fiction and those lurid books with lots of foil and blood-dripping knives on their covers. If brevity is the essence of wit, 'The Restraint of Beasts' is a Mozart awash in a sea of Salieri's. At 213 pages, it barely gets past the midpoint of the average horror novel, yet within, while almost nothing seemingly happens, everything happens, and it's a bad-ass world it happens in.

Mills is dry and to the point. An Englishman is given charge of two morose Scottish headbangers, and sent to build high-tensile fences. Tam and Ritchie, the two Scottish louts, are sullen, lazy men who specialize in smoking cigarettes and finding a pub to sit in. Their first assignment under the unnamed narrator is to repair Mr. McCrindle's fence, which has gone slack. While doing so, there's a horrible accident. They clean up and move on to the next site, which is in England. Our boys are not keen on the English. Trouble ensues.

Mills' matter-of-fact rendering of these absurd situations is excellent, filled with dry-as-dirt wit. He creates a world that is so confined to the character's perceptions as to seem slightly unreal. Then, he escalates the situations and the world, successfully creating a world that is truly unreal and even more threatening than a life of pounding fenceposts into the ground. In England, the crew encounters competition: The Hall Brothers. But the Hall brothers aren't just fence builders. They're butchers. They make sausages. They need the boys to build some pens.

Mills is very skillful at sliding from a world of tedium into a world of terror. By restricting his point-of-view to that of his brainless headbangers, he uses a very literary device to create a very horrific world that is simultaneously laced with humor. The horrors he hints at are vast and beyond the comprehension of the characters who perceive them. He successfully creates a sort of blue-collar Lovecraftian feel. 'The Restraint of Beasts' is an excellent first novel, and a real change of pace that will delight a large segment of horror readers looking for a laugh.

09-17-12: Tad Williams Walks 'The Dirty Streets of Heaven'

Bartering in the Beyond

For writers, the appeal of genre fiction, even fantasy fiction, is often not the freedom that such fiction allows, but rather the limitations and rules. In a fantasy, you're going to have heroes and monsters and elements of the fantastic. In a mystery, you're going to have a detective and a crime. Tad Williams, well-known for his expansive, world-building fantasies, takes a day off from BIG and, playing the limitations of fantasy against the limitations of mystery, turns in 'The Dirty Streets of Heaven,' a page-turning, world-building theological mystery where heroes are literally angels and human souls are the currency at risk.

Williams wastes no time; bad-boy angel Doloriel, AKA Bobby Dollar is in hot water from the moment we meet him. Williams whips us into a world of soul-advocates, demonic prosecutors, humans living and dead — all the mysteries beyond our mortal lives solved in a quick few pages. Of course, the setup leads to the real mystery, which involves our own pesky souls, horrific demon deaths, monsters and mortal and immortal peril. It turns out that the hot water Bobby thought he was in as the book began is nothing like the hellish immersions to follow.

In order to make all this work, Williams has to nail down Bobby's first-person prose voice, and he does this with an easygoing authority. Bobby Dollar is flip and likable but for an angel, well, to a degree he's no angel. Williams works this inner conflict but does not overdo it. And while Bobby is frequently very funny, Williams keeps his sense of humor consistent with the story and characters. The result is that Bobby Dollar is great fun to read, no matter what is happening.

Williams makes sure that something is always happening, even when his characters are hanging out at a bar. The plot here is relentless and intense, and happens in two compelling spheres. On the earthly and heavenly planes, Bobby is in peril, as are humanity, Heaven and even Hell. Williams knows his fantasy tropes so well that he can effortlessly deploy them to complicate the mystery. The action scenes are evocative and well-blocked. Williams gives us a good sense of place when he unleashes infernal and eternal powers. But he also plots with his world-building, keeping the exact nature of reality a mystery just as much as the soul-stealing plotline. The two-pronged plotting ensures that there are always lots of reasons to turn the pages.

Given the first-person narration, Williams also has a deft touch for creating characters. Since we are privy only to what Bobby sees, Williams has to do so externally, and his work here is subtle and complex. That he manages to fit all this in with the rapidly moving clockwork of plot and world-building may not be a surprise, but it certainly livens up the reading. Getting to know Bobby and the beings with whom he shares the world is just as enjoyable as finding out who is going to make it out — well, if not alive, then at least wearing the same body.

Behind all the obvious fun that Williams is having, there's quite a bit of serious thought. But the theology here is enhanced by the lighthearted approach, and the complications of plot and character serve the dense dialectic that informs the book. Williams has set himself up with a nice piece of creation that allows him to meditate on the nature of good and evil by deploying monsters, imagining crimes on the next plane of existence and tinkering with the stuff of creation. It's a smart trick that, like every other technique that Williams uses to craft the novel, is not apparent at first glance.

Readers looking for consistently intelligent, consistently thrilling fiction that literally takes apart this world an the next need look no father than 'The Dirty Streets of Heaven.' Tad Williams makes it all look easy, even when what he is describing is hardship beyond imagination. 'The Dirty Streets of Heaven' manages the very unique feat of making eternity look as tawdry as reality even as it shreds the world around us in manner most awesome.

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

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