Quarantine Reads

Emma Garst

Quarantine is a wonderful time to get caught up on your “to be read” stack. However, some of us have felt culturally adrift since the shutdown in New York, wanting to take the opportunity to engage with good stories but feeling dissatisfied with what’s on the shelf. Here, I go through some book recommendations for very specific quarantine moods, many with which I have had first hand experience. Each of these books is available as an e-book or audiobook from the New York Public Library through Overdrive—or you can buy them from The Bookstore at the End of the World, an organization that supports booksellers who have been furloughed or laid off since the shutdown (you can learn more about the parent site Bookshop.org here). So without further ado, do you:

Want a book where not a lot happens and everyone is pretty much okay?

(Copyright Open Road Media)

Barbara Pym, sometimes called the Jane Austen of the twentieth century, relies almost entirely on small town cattiness to propel her books forward. Many of her protagonists are aging women who are somewhat comfortable in the beginning and still mostly comfortable at the end. In Some Tame Gazelle, the lives of two spinster sisters are turned upside down when a new reverend comes to town. It is about as eventful as it sounds, but in a good way (I promise)!

Of course, you could always return to the master herself and give Austen’s Emma a read.

(Copyright Penguin Books)

Want a grabby mystery to transport you away?

Very early in quarantine I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish In the Woods by Tana French. The first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, this book centers around Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox as they investigate the gruesome murder of a twelve-year-old girl. The novel walks that fine line between mystery and thriller, with plenty of creepy vibes and intrigue. It felt good, at that point, to have my adrenaline pumping over an entirely fictional situation. Come for the escape, stay for the dead-on portrait of fragile masculinity. 

(Copyright St. Martin’s Griffin)

Want to escape into rich people problems?

In Snobs, written by The Right Honourable Lord Julian Fellowes of West Stafford (writer and creator of Downton Abbey, if that tells you anything), thoroughly middle-class Edith Lavery meets and is engaged to Charles, Earl Broughton. Is it love, or is it social climbing? Fellowes uses his insider knowledge to create a novel of old money, new money, and their grip on social power to this day.

(Copyright Penguin Books)

Want to stare, stone-faced, into the eye of the storm?

Of course, the first place to look is Jennifer Einstein’s “Quarantine Don’t Reads”—go forth and engage, masochist. My personal pick for an absolutely too close to home read would be The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. This sizable book goes through the 1918 flu in excruciating detail, from the basic biological factors that made it possible to how society’s reaction changed its progression. It makes me shiver just thinking about it.

(Copyright Vintage Publishing)

Need a fat book that will take you to the end of this madness (and possibly beyond)?

I will not pretend to have read The Power Broker by Robert Caro, but if there was ever a time to tackle this 1,300-page biography of the man who shaped modern New York, it would be now.

(Copyright Atria Books)

Have trouble concentrating these days?

Two words—go short. The essay collection I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott will give you a lot of bang for your buck, fitting very big questions about aging and identity into very snackable essays. Philpott deftly puts into words the elusive feeling of not quite fitting into your own life, which is more relatable now than ever.

(Copyright Simon Pulse)

Miss New York?

The longer I sit inside, the more I find myself returning to Newbury Medal winning From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. Yes, it is a children’s book.  But who, at this point, doesn’t want to run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? You say adolescent, I say wish fulfillment at its finest.

(Copyright Harper Perennial)

Miss nature?

E.B. White is one of those essayists who has always made the pretty routine into the quite beautiful. I think now more than ever people will appreciate his depiction of the small dramas of small-farm life. Highly observant and quite funny, his essays might make you look at your neighborhood wildlife with changed eyes. 

(Copyright Melville House Publishing)

Want to be productive… but REALLY want to figure out how your self worth got completely tied up in your productivity and the value added to our messed up late capitalist society?

One third art criticism, one third nature writing, one third manifesto, How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell is so much more than a self-help book. Although the tone is frequently academic, How to do Nothing made me think differently about how I value my own time, and how I am complicit in my own commodification. I think we all need a reminder sometimes that capitalism and big tech are not necessarily on our side.

Also, a quick sidebar? There is no moral imperative for you to read in quarantine. A compelling book and a good TV show are equals in my mind. I’ve even started reading cookbooks in bed. It’s very relaxing, and it totally counts!

Quarantine Don’t Reads

Jennifer Einstein

My brother, apparently, has become a baker. The girl who sat two rows behind me in second grade just planted her first veggie garden. The first alto in my high school Concert Choir now makes soap. And Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine. What, exactly, is wrong with just curling up with a good book? Nothing! But I polled my friends about this and, just for now, you might want to avoid any of these good books: If, perchance, you DO decide to read these (or others), consider buying them from an independent bookstore; they can use the business. See https://cornerbookstorenyc.com/ or https://bookshop.org/shop/nycbooksellers (ebooks).

• Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
• World War Z, by Max Brooks
• The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier
• Walk to End of World, by Suzy McKee Charnas
• Pandemic, by Robin Cook
• Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton
• The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of all Time, by John Kelly
• The Stand, by Stephen King
• Severance, by Ling Ma
• The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
• The Last Man, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
• Station Eleven, by Emily St. J. Mandel
• The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

You don’t have to avoid all post-apocalyptic novels. I found Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon to be rather hopeful.

Review: Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves

Frans de Waal

W.W. Norton and Company, March 12, 2019

326 pages

Hardback, $15.00


Yuriria Vazquez

Photo credit: Amazon.com

Can you imagine your human life without emotions? In other words, can you imagine yourself not feeling any joy, sadness, fear, anger, empathy, pleasure, or excitement? Most likely, our social world would vanish, and we might not survive since fear would no longer be elicited. Frans de Waal’s most recent book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves, invites us to ponder the essential role of emotions in the lives of humans and other animals. The book challenges the notion that only humans are capable of having emotions and that it is not possible to study emotions in animals. The book is captivating, mind-changing, and a must-read for anyone interested in behavior, neuroscience, and social interactions.

De Waal is a well-known ethologist and zoologist. He is currently the C.H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the Psychology Department of Emory University and a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences. De Waal begins by narrating an astonishing event involving a myriad of emotions expressed between a chimpanzee and a human. The event relates to a particular hug between a severely ill chimpanzee and a researcher. The chimp knew Jan van Hooff, the researcher, for forty years. Mama, the chimp, was motionless lying on her deathbed. When Jan entered the room, and Mama noticed Jan’s presence, she embraced him and grinned. During the embrace, Mama’s fingers patted Jan’s head and neck. A pat is a movement chimps use to quiet whimpering infants. Mama was clearly happy about van Hooff’s presence, and her patting indicated to Jan that she had no problem with him being in her territory. This event is astonishing. Normally, no one would dare to invade the territory of a chimpanzee because their outrageous strength can be deadly; the fact that Jan was able to do this denoted a deep social bond between Mama and Jan. It serves as evidence that chimps are capable of having and expressing emotions like happiness and gratitude. With this story, de Waal begins an exciting journey full of knowledge and reflections about what is known about human and animal emotions and whether it is plausible to study emotions in animals.

Over the course of the book, de Waal covers a lot of thematic ground, ranging from the expression of emotions through facial expressions and body language to different types of emotions, emotional intelligence, social signals, and consciousness in primates, birds, elephants, rodents, and fishes. The author’s narrative style is fluid, fresh, and clear. The chapters pose challenging questions to the reader by narrating experiments and their results and de Waal proposes possible answers to these questions.

De Waal challenges even the most skeptical reader and his arguments favor the existence of emotions in animals, their neural basis, and their evolution. The author defines emotion as an internal state affecting different physiological responses, such as changes in heart rate, skin color, facial movements, voice, and tears. He supports the idea that the body influences emotions through hormones, hunger, sexual arousal, insomnia, and exhaustion.

These two arguments shape a definition of emotion based on a physical substrate. De Waal identifies an explicit difference between emotions and feelings: “Emotions are bodily and mental states that drive behavior. Only when the person experiencing these changes becomes aware of them do they become feelings, which are conscious experiences. We show our emotions, but we talk about our feelings.”

By using Darwin’s definition of evolution, “descent with modification,” the author makes a case that since evolution rarely creates anything completely new, no human emotions are entirely new. This is a crucial argument to support emotions in other species, and poses an open question regarding the evolution of emotions and if they are shaped by species who depend on them for their social and survival needs.

All these arguments invite skeptical readers, like me, to think that emotions are measurable phenomena, and hence it is possible to study them in several animal species.

One of my favorite parts in this book was the section related to the expression of emotions. Here, the author does an amazing job of presenting evidence about how facial expressions in primates and body movements, such as tail movements in dogs or cats, provide a window into assessing internal emotional states. For example, we all know when a dog likes us and is excited about interacting with us. We just need to see how it moves its tail from side to side. We use similar reasoning to infer when a cat is angry. We just look at its fur and the shape of its body.

The book describes how Paul Ekman, an American psychologist and a pioneer in the study of the relationship between emotions and facial expressions, developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). FACS classifies facial expressions in humans based on facial muscle contractions. The book emphasizes that most of the time, emotions have ways to be expressed. To understand them, then, it is crucial to focus on the signals, the form they take, and their effect on others. De Waal himself conducted research to classify facial expressions in chimpanzees. Interestingly, he reports mixed facial expressions depending on the situation.

Other passages of the book relate to empathy. Here, de Waal describes several examples across different species, including rats, bonobos, and prairie voles. From all of the examples, one can conclude that indeed empathy is not exclusively human. In the case of prairie voles, which are tiny rodents, males and females form monogamous pair-bonds and raise their pups together. James Burkett, a scientist at Emory University, showed that if one mate is upset by anything, its partner is equally affected. This is true regardless of whether the partner is present during the stressful event.

Another mesmerizing experiment, involving bonobos, was developed by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. The experiment consisted of providing a bonobo with a whole pile of fruits, which he could eat by himself or share with another bonobo sitting behind a mesh door. The first thing many bonobos did was to open the door, and let the other bonobo enter. This action cost them half of their fruits. However, if there was nobody behind the door, they would eat all of the fruits immediately. This behavior provides strong evidence for empathy and pro-social behaviors. This kind of behavior is also seen in rats and elephants when they help their peers get out of dangerous situations. As de Waal puts it: “Social connectivity at its best [is] the glue of all animal and human societies, which guarantees supportive and comforting company.”

As in real life, not everything is peaches and cream. Conflict resolutions, power signals, and social organization are also part of real life and of de Waal’s book. The author focuses on social hierarchies in non-human primates and the differences between bonobo and chimpanzee societies. Crucially, bonobos are a female-ruled society, while chimpanzees are male-ruled. Both societies are hierarchical, but have very different strategies to deal with social organization. While male chimps easily form coalitions, bonobo males are not very cooperative. Bonobo females form a kind of sisterhood, and they work together in response to male harassment. This is a sharp contrast to chimpanzee females, who endure abuse and infanticide. The book reveals that brain areas like the amygdala and anterior insula, which are involved in emotional processing and social behavior, are enlarged in the bonobo compared to the chimpanzee. Studies have also shown that bonobo brains contain more developed pathways to control aggressive impulses. All this evidence supports de Waal’s point that emotions influence the way we relate to others, and thus our social lives.

One thing missing from the book is a graphical schema comparing the brains of different animals (primates, rats, birds), with the brain areas involved in emotional states. This would help readers to easily understand portions of the book involving brain structures like the amygdala, insula, hypothalamus, dopaminergic system, and so on. At some point, the author proposes to construct a taxonomy of emotions, in order to get a fingerprint of each emotion. The proposed taxonomy would be based on the areas and brain circuits involved in each emotional state. However, the author just flirts with the idea and does not develop it. This is a pity, since in recent decades, huge progress has been made in understanding circuits related to emotions like fear, aggression, mating, and romantic and maternal love, among others. A similar omission occurs when the author talks about patients with emotional impairments. Overall, the information is extremely limited in the book in terms of neurophysiological data supporting behavior.

Despite these shortcomings, I enjoyed and learned much by reading Mama’s Last Hug. The book is a masterpiece from an ethological point of view. It convinces the reader that animals have emotions and of the importance of studying them in ethologically relevant settings. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in behavior, evolution, and neuroscience. It provides a huge amount of information but also leaves you thinking about the open questions in the research of emotions.

Review: Einstein’s Shadow: A Black Hole, a Band of Astronomers, and the Quest to See the Unseeable

Seth Fletcher

Ecco/HarperCollins, October 9, 2018

288 pages

Hardback, $27.00


Emma Garst


What if the speed of light was 25 miles per hour? What if we lived in “Flatland”, a world of two dimensions? What if you fell into a black hole? There is a whole genre of books dedicated to probing these mind-bending ideas about the nature of space and time—books written to bring complex mathematical concepts to eye level in terms of “what ifs.” However, what is harder to find, is the “how do” book. How do we know planets curve space-time? How do we measure the size of the black hole at the center of our galaxy? In fact, how do we even know there is a black hole at the center of our galaxy? Untangling the intricacies of designing experiments, taking measurements, and seeing a signal in the noise is more complicated and messy than a theoretical model. In Einstein’s Shadow, Seth Fletcher manages to weave these threads into a compelling narrative.

Einstein’s Shadow follows Shep Doeleman in his intrepid journey to build an earth-sized telescope to image the black hole at the center of the galaxy. The reader quickly finds out that this does not, in fact, involve building a Death Star-like outer-space contraption. Instead, this massive telescope requires the synchronization of radiotelescopes all over the world to get a view of that black hole from many points at once, creating a virtual telescope with a dish diameter equal to the distance between the observatories.

The undertaking of such a project is not as simple as asking for money and collecting data. Telescopes around the globe must be upgraded with state-of-the-art equipment and never before tested methods of data collection must be written. Time on the telescopes must be coordinated and the weather must cooperate in three to four different locations thousands of miles apart. Massive international consortiums of scientists must be organized and managed—by scientists with no formalized training in organizational management. Fletcher is attuned to the small absurdities that arise in this situation. “The minutes from their discussions convey the good-natured cluelessness of kids trying to start a rock band,” he writes of an early organizational meeting. “‘Perhaps we should keep a list of action items and take turns with writing minutes,’ concludes the first installment.”

Fletcher’s narrative ability shines as he describes the installation of an atomic clock in one of the many telescopes needed for this project. On its face, the process of moving a hulking piece of equipment from the first to the second floor of a telescope base seems so trivial as to not be worth a mention. However, Fletcher heightens the scene to an emotionally charged peak, laying out the nail biting process and the dire consequences of one misstep. From the slow-moving caravan up the side of the mountain to the lifting of the atomic clock by a slew of workers using rappelling harnesses and roping ladders together “as if to cross chasms in the Khumbu icefall” and swinging the atomic clock “Tarzan-style… cable to cable, across the open stairwell,” the reader is thrown in with the scientists, looking on with a bit of terror and a silent prayer. This is one of a thousand steps that must go right to create the earth-sized telescope, and in these moments the reader feels how precarious the scientific endeavor is.

The wonders of the day-to-day, mechanical work of getting a project of this scale off the ground were sometimes overshadowed by the people and politics involved. Fletcher’s focus on Shep casts the astronomer as the necessary hero of the story, the man shepherding a wily and complex idea towards execution—which wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t find the man so unlikeable. Throughout the book, Shep seems in turn difficult, smug, and paranoid. These character failings are not totally lost on Fletcher, who describes Shep as “tightly coiled and intense”; but the broader view casts Shep as a difficult genius, whose larger than life personality is a necessary quirk of his innate intellect. As a scientist I’ve met enough smart, capable, communicative, and cooperative people that I have little infatuation with this pernicious trope.

Part of the draw of this work is its importance; these scientists are trying to get a look at the structure of our galaxy, and in the process see the inner mechanics of our universe. If that’s not grand, I don’t know what is. By focusing on the nitty gritty work of engineering and organization for this ambitious astronomical project, Fletcher brings a massive undertaking down to earth, in more ways than one.

Book Review – Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything

Emma Garst

Eye of the Shoal: A Fishwatcher’s Guide to Life, the Ocean and Everything
Helen Scales
Bloomsbury Sigma, 2018
320 pages
Hardback, $27.00

Consider the Barreleye, a deep-sea fish named for its two long, cylindrical eyes pointed directly upwards towards the water’s surface. These googly eyes are covered by a clear, membranous dome, giving the fish the distinct look of some unhappy alien, stuck in a space suit, drifting along listlessly on its back. These aesthetic quirks are not what make the barreleye interesting; it is what is inside the eye. The Barreleye uses tiny microcrystals in its eye to reflect light back into the retina, acting as little mirrors collecting every trace of ambient light. It is the only known animal to use mirrors to see.

The Barreleye is just one of the many strange, finned beasts we meet in Helen Scales’ new book, Eye of the Shoal, which takes a wide ranging, deep diving look at the fascinating history and biology of fish. Eye of the Shoal focuses not on a particular underwater ecosystem or community, but a hodge-podge of fishy players exquisitely adapted to fill every watery nook and cranny across the globe. Scales makes a compelling case for looking closely at any fish that crosses your path; although many of the characters we meet live in the reef, she makes sure to give the residents of your local fish tank their due. In Eye of the Shoal, Scales brings us into the rich, diverse, glorious world of fish full tilt—and has a good time doing it.

Eye of the Shoal is the story of fish told through their evolution, their diversity, their colors, their communication, and their intelligence. Scales, a veteran science writer and lecturer at the University of Cambridge, has a knack for meshing storytelling with scientific insight. In one section, she brings us into the complicated inner life of a cleaner wrasse, a small, blue-streaked reef fish, which makes a living cleaning parasitic crustaceans off the bellies of fish and picking gunk out of the teeth of normally vicious predators. The wrasse’s customers line up around the metaphorical block to get a lippy scrubbing down by the cleaner wrasse, many returning multiple times a day. Although the wrasse mostly subsists off of his customers’ unwanted detritus, he would much rather take a big nutrient rich bite of fish flesh instead. If the wrasse becomes known as a flesh-eater, however, he will be distrusted and lose his customers. Scales walks us through the complicated social dynamic that controls the wrasse’s business—when can he take a chance for a fleshy bite? Which clients will continue to patronize his business given this breach in social contract? Navigating this complex social exchange “requires a surprising amount of brainpower”, Scales points out, and the reader is sure to come away with a deeper appreciation for this fish’s non-human intelligence. Helen Scales, breaking down species bias one fish at a time.

Within the larger structural framework, Scales leaves plenty of room for animal rarities and oddities. We meet the Pacific and Atlantic herring, which are “the only animals known that communicate with flatulence.” We meet the long-lived Greenland Sharks, who “may mate for the first time when they’re 150 years old.” We meet fish who scuttle between ponds (the Walking Catfish) and fish who live for months out of water (the Mangrove killifish). We meet the beaky parrot fish, which have “a second set of teeth at the back of the throat” used to grind up between four and six tons of limestone a year, building veritable islands out of their poo. Scales highlights these “fish stories” to make a bigger point about fish, their diversity, their lives—but she also brings a feeling of genuine glee to all her interactions with these weird and wonderful animals.

Although Scales does not explicitly set out to make a statement—about global warming, loss of habitat, overfishing, or any of the other slow motion ecological disasters affecting fish—any book on the topic of fish and their many environs would have a gaping hole without mentioning how humans have impacted their water-bound neighbors. The most touching of these examples is a personal anecdote from Scales, who studied a community of humphead wrasse in the South China Sea during her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. After spending years studying these fish and their complicated mating habits, she discovered that the entire community was fished out of existence shortly after she left her field station. “My efforts to study humpheads suddenly felt hollow,” she writes—and we, the readers, are left feeling hollow as well. If we come away from Eye of the Shoal caring more about fish and the ocean, it is not through overt messaging but through the genuine feeling Scales communicates.

Eye of the Shoal is largely a fun romp through fishy space and time, but it does suffer from overreach. Summarizing the whole of fish science and history in 320 pages is impossible, and the attempt leaves the book, at places, weak in its connective tissue. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of fish throughout human history, Scales scatters fish-related myth and legend throughout the book—a conceit that frequently seems forced. In order to orient the reader in fish ancestry, Scales spends the first chapter climbing through the evolutionary tree of life, branch by laborious branch. Unfortunately, it drags. I sincerely hope this slow opening does not turn the reader off of Eye of the Shoal, as it is out of character with Scales’ normal carnivalesque approach to her subject matter.

In the end, Scales does what she set out to do: “to convince you that fish matter, and that they’re worthy of our attention and esteem.”


Culture Corner – The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind


Bernie Langs

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Julian Jaynes
Houghton Mifflin, 1990; originally published in 1976
491 pages
Paperback, $15.00



Two cylinder seals with modern impressions; top: Weather god on a lion dragon, Northern Mesopotamia, Mitannian period, mid-2nd millennium B.C.; bottom: Worshiper and a god with a rod and a ring, Mesopotamia, Kassite period, reign of Kurigalzu I, early 14th century, B.C. (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art; photo: BL)

Wall-sized Assyrian palace scupture (detail); 883-859 B.C. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; photo: BL)

Mable statue of a kouros (youth) with close-up of face; Greek, Attic, ca. 590-580 B.C. (The Metropolitan Musuem of Art; photos: BL)

Having read two-thirds of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, Ph.D., I am comfortable in discussing the ideas proposed in this groundbreaking, extraordinarily exciting treatise prior to finishing the book. Dr. Jaynes lays out his theories and conclusions from the very start, working backwards by examining detailed supporting evidence, which he offers as proof of his hypotheses. The Origin has evoked a wide spectrum of reactions since its publication in 1976, labeled by some critics as nothing more than an outlandish set of propositions, while others embraced it as a revolutionary and unique perspective on how the mind developed in the ancient world.

Dr. Jaynes’ presentation of such a large-scale and all-encompassing overview on the subject of the history of mankind’s inner thinking can’t possibly hit the bullseye. Yet in The Origin he proposes with confidence and endearing, affable humility that he has discovered how human neurological development worked in tandem with historical, religious, cultural, economic, and social events mostly over the last three thousand years he discusses how this ultimately leads to the unique, individual, and highly structured voice we maintain today: our inner consciousness.

Although this book is at times scattershot, it must be recognized at least as a great start to further engage in a more complete, nuanced, and timely follow-up. Dr. Jaynes’ theory centers around details of the biology of the brain and interpretation of the vast ancient historical record, and he readily notes that such an enormous theory of everything needs more work and study. Dr. Jaynes concedes that many of his ideas are speculative, but he does not waver from his belief in its basic foundation.  One may criticize, for example, his dependence on selective writings, artifacts, and remains from the ancient period for use in generalizing what motivated the behavior and interior observations of all people thousands of years ago.

When looking at the statues, buildings, imprints of seals, ivories, and so on from ancient Middle East, we can’t help but make assumptions about the past based on our contemporary atmosphere. Yet it is apparent, as Dr. Jaynes notes, that in the regions covered by the book the expressions and features of kings, gods, attendants, and others are coldhearted and emotionally distant.. Eventually, there’s a slow progression, culminating with the ancient Greeks at about 700 B.C, as the images morph into representations graced with loving beauty, heroic postures, grand gestures, and an appreciation, bordering on ecstatic at times, on notions of both body and soul.

Dr. Jaynes details the Greek reaction to the horrific misery of the “Dark Ages” which were initiated in about 1200 B.C. and lasted several centuries, set in motion the timeline that will eventually resolve into the way we speak to ourselves in our heads to day. The proposed “bicameral mind”, presented in The Origin can’t be observed or proved to actually exist, yet the theory is beautifully described with personal passion by Dr. Jaynes. He believes that the left and right portions of the brain were divided in the way they processed the external world surrounding ancient mankind, with one half fooled by the other to believe that hallucinated voices originated from sources that could be deemed as commands by the gods. These voices, heard only by some, arose as spoken language along with the development of the written word. Those with the strongest connection to what they believed was the forceful directing of society by these vocalizations took on the roles of king, priest, or intermediary with the gods.

Dr. Jaynes proposes this system developed regionally and with individual characteristics throughout the area under study. The so-called “breakdown” of the bicameral mind occurred slowly over centuries, after populations grew, war became unexpectedly common, and trade led to increased contact between varying tribes and societies. These changes introduced incompatible rival gods and customs in the region leading to confusion of the voices, akin to the described mayhem in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Dr. Jaynes also describes several natural crises that put the normalized system of the period into panic. By the start of the first millennium, Homer’s work had been passed down for generations and finally canonized in The Iliad, and Dr. Jaynes unveils the tense struggle within the general population, as the hallucinated commanding voices needed to be replaced for survival’s sake by an emerging personal, inner dialogue. Jaynes’ discussion and analysis of these changes motivating the non-evolutionary, yet biological shift, reads as the most historically and scientifically sound section of the book. Ancient mankind perceived the world through external instinctual sensation, which Dr. Jaynes’ believes was dominated and ordered by invisible vocalizations. After 1000 B.C., the world had to adapt to changes on many levels making internal decision-making processes take over based on reactions to visual stimuli. The world moves from the shackles of auditory constraints towards the eye’s window to the soul.

I have to admit that I do not completely believe Dr. Jaynes’ idea that the minds of those living in the ancient civilizations under study lived and died by the commands and rules laid out by hallucinated voices of the so-called gods and divinities. The tenuous biological support of the wider theory, which relies on studies that discussed observations of patients today with neurological conditions and symptoms mirroring what he believes were the hallucinated and god-like voices in the heads of the ancients (e.g., schizophrenia).

Perhaps the works of the Pre-Socratics and others who put aside the conception of the gods as creators of the physical world and the actions of men can be read as the evidence of the final labor push of the birth of the inner individual. Standing in front of the famous Kouros sculpture from ancient Greece the other day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I meditated on its mysterious face in light of the theories of Dr. Jaynes. The sculpted youth appears ready to wake up, was along with the whole world, to freedom granted by new consciousness. You can almost hear the voice of reason speak for the first time.

Culture Corner

Bernie Langs

“Truth” in Painting

Getting to a ‘core essence’ in a mystic or revelatory sense can be as elusive as tracing the path of an electron or photon, famously described as both particle and wave. The arts can be utilized as a conduit to higher states of consciousness. In music, the drone of an Indian sitar or a choral work by Mozart can carry the mind of the listener to abstract and blissful states. In the 19th century, Walter Pater redefined the approach to the study of art in history and art history itself in his book of essays, The Renaissance. When writing about the Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione, he noted “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” and later asserts that the mind’s impressions are “in continual flux.” Pater states that a passion for the arts has “the greatest potential for staving off the sense of transience, because in the arts the perceptions of highly sensitive minds are already ordered.”

Bernard Berenson [uncredited picture on the Web site Art Fuse]

Bernard Berenson presents his theory of how and why painting grabs hold of the viewer, in his book The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, a compiled series of essays written from 1894 to 1907, and reissued in 1952. Berenson’s famous ideas on the ‘tactile’ process of how paintings bring the viewer to a heightened state starts with his observation of what form does in paintings: “It lends a higher coefficient of reality to the object represented, with the consequent of accelerated psychical processes, and the exhilarating sense of increased capacity in the observer.” He observes this as a retinal sensation and that the tactile sense stems from childhood revelations and joy in the discovery of the physical aspect of the sense of touch.

Alison Brown describes in her essay Bernard Berenson and ‘Tactile Values’ in Florence the evolution of Berenson’s theory, noting that Berenson saw his ideas more akin to psychology rather than philosophy, and that he had been heavily influenced at Harvard by his professor, William James, and his writings on psychological aesthetics.

What I took from reading Berenson’s book over two decades ago, was the idea of the shortcut offered by paintings to heightened states of the sublime, which leaves the door open to many kinds of revelation, including, yet far beyond, the psychological. In the mid-1990s, I purchased a book of collected essays by Meyer Schapiro, who at the time was Professor Emeritus of Art History at Columbia University. I’d read Schapiro’s book of selected papers on late Antiquity, early Christian and Medieval art that had impressed me in its scientific, sleuthing, and exhaustive examination of art, much along the lines of the awe-inspiring and groundbreaking approach of Princeton’s Erwin Panofsky. The 1990s collection includes the essay, Mr. Berenson’s Values from 1961, boasting cutting gems of prose such as his analysis of Berenson’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity.

Meyer Schapiro [Book jacket photo for “Theory and Philosophy of Art” photo by Richard Sandler]

Schapiro notes that Berenson failed to grow as a theorist and critic and chose to be a connoisseur rather than an art historian or philosopher of art, which indeed Berenson did regret. Schapiro describes the theory of ‘tactile values’ in painting as a “strange appeal to physiology” and that Berenson used these ideas “with no deepening sense, as personal clichés imposed on any sort of problem.”

Around the time I read Schapiro’s book, I was trying to incorporate the study of art history in cultural context using the methodical approach of Professors Schapiro and Panofsky, and others combined with the bullet train to higher states I’d created in my mind around Berenson’s ideas.

About ten years ago, I chanced to read The Truth in Painting by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s writings are uncommonly difficult and convoluted, and he is both praised and derided as the main force behind the philosophical school of Deconstruction. When reading Derrida, I’m always struck by his underlying humor, and when I really believe I’m catching the gist of his purposively obtuse arguments, it’s a source of sublime understanding.

Jaques Derrida [Photo: PhilWeb Bibliographic Archive]

Derrida’s approach is akin to a circling war party, each on his own horse surrounding one solitary covered wagon, where all riders have their own notion of what may be hidden in that wagon, and whatever it is may have an ‘ultimate’ end to it. But as we circle, it becomes clear that there’s a good chance that there is absolutely nothing inside the wagon (or perhaps Schrödinger’s cat!) and also that we’re never truly going to get a clear look at it. But by moving closer and closer and sharing all angles of viewing, we’ll perhaps find the ghost or essence of the core.

One of the essays in Truth in Painting is Derrida’s work Restitutions of the truth in pointing [pointure]. Gianluca Spinato in his essay, Philosophy of Art: Martin Heidegger and Meyer Schapiro, argues that “Jacques Derrida’s well-known discussion of the conflict between the faculties in question locates Heidegger on the side of the ‘truth’ of art and finds Schapiro on the side of historical and dialectical, even materialist accuracy. The resulting ‘haul’, as Derrida names it at the end of his own evaluation of Schapiro’s original assessment, ‘is a meagre one for the picture police, for this discourse of order and propriety/property in painting’.”

Derrida examines, in his playfully maddening manner, approaches to understanding Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting Old Shoes with Laces, as well as other paintings by the artist of peasant boots. Two significant quotes begin the exposition, the first by Cezanne that “I owe you the truth in painting, and I will tell it you” and Van Gogh’s own words, “But truth is so dear to me, and so is the seeking to make true, that indeed, I believe I would still rather be a cobbler than a musician with colors.”

Chad Orzel’s YouTube for TED-ED

After a long discourse on shoes, peppered with doubts of whether they can even be called “a pair” and other unsubstantiated “givens” in discussing Van Gogh, Restitution continues on to jab at Professor Schapiro and his approach to studying art, including the questioning of one of his most famous essays in his book on late Antiquity and early Christian art. Restitution included an unexpected view of Schapiro that both Heidegger and Derrida bring down on him, seemingly implying that their philosophical query into the underlying truths in Van Gogh and in painting, are something akin to abstract notions defined by the ancient Greeks, and ignored and beyond the comprehension of an art historian. Schapiro’s criticism of Heidegger is made to look like an attempt at grabbing back the paintings to his field of study and away from the other school. Derrida writes of “A symbolic correspondence, an accord, a harmonic. In this communication between two illustrious professors who have both of them a communication to make on ‘a famous picture by Van Gogh’—one of the two is a specialist. Painting, and even Van Gogh, is, so to speak, his thing, he wants to keep it, he wants it returned…They owe the truth in painting, the truth of painting and even painting as truth, or even as the truth of truth.”

In complete contradiction to my circling wagon deconstructive metaphor, Derrida describes examining the problem from a stationary standpoint. It reminded me of a lecture I attended many years ago by then-Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello. He discussed that to get the full power of a painting, one has to look at it for a very long time. He punctuated this point with a funny anecdote of how, while visiting the Frick Collection, he stared so long at a painting that the security staff grew concerned and a guard approached him demanding to know what he was doing. It reminds me to keep looking, keep looking long and hard.


Culture Corner

Landscape Into Art: Thoughts on the book Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape (by Christopher S. Wood), and the film The Revenant (directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

Bernie Langs

Caution: spoilers ahead!

Albrecht Altdorfer’s most famous painting: The Battle of Alexander and Darius at Issus (Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany; photo: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

The inspired ideas and emotions one experiences when taking in the sights of nature, reading about the subject, or seeing a film with beautiful landscapes, can range wildly, from those of awe and wonder to absolute terror. I’ve come to believe that once humans banded together to hunt and farm, communicate effectively, and build communal living areas, the species irrevocably lost any direct association with natural surroundings. We were left with only the ability to examine the inner biological mechanics of being for understanding what is called “nature.” We were destined from an early time as persistently self-aware beings to be removed and isolated observers of the planet’s natural wonders, no matter how in awe we are by such magnificence.

Ideas about the relationship of Man and his natural surroundings are examined in fantastic detail in Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape by Christopher S. Wood, who is Professor and Chair of the Department of German at New York University. Professor Wood’s book is an incredible achievement in art historical theory and research. It investigates a single daunting question: What motivated the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Altdorfer (1480 – 1538) to paint the very first stand-alone landscape paintings in human history? How did a European world completely centered on religion, with its arts engulfed in religious or classically-themed pagan iconography, end up with an artist creating pictures either with no humans in them at all or as tiny figures in overwhelmingly dense forest settings?

Professor Wood thoroughly examines the mindset of the artists of the German Renaissance era in which Altdorfer worked, a much less studied locality than that of the Italian and Flemish schools. He also examines the implications on his thesis drawn from the scant information in the historical record about the artist’s personal life. The book has beautiful reproductions of the works by German masters of paintings, drawings and prints, many in color, lending themselves well to deep meditation on its themes.

Altdorfer was caught between the rising tide of Martin Luther’s iconoclastic teachings (Luther was alive and active during his time) and traditional Christianity as practiced out of Rome, but he never completely gave in to the former. Professor Wood notes that as the landscape setting encroached on the religious saints and the pagan heroes in paintings, certain aspects of the primeval forests took on their attributes in an odd substitution of sorts. Joachim Patinir, the visionary Netherlandish painter who set his small figures from Christian tales amid beautiful panoramic views of mountains, waterways, lush trees, and forests, is cited as a proponent of the widespread idea at the time that nature’s beauty is subservient to the religious experience and story. However, Altdorfer’s revolution swayed towards evincing the fear and harshness evoked by the dense forests of his native Germany as an independent entity, with no relationship to the stories of the Bible or Classical literature and myths in any way. In the long run, one also can see in these frightening German landscapes the source of a nationalistic pride in their terrors. This attitude eventually leads as an almost natural path to the unflinching murderous apects of National Socialism.

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Culture Corner

Book Review: Sudden Death: A Novel, by Álvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer

By Bernie Langs

The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio located at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome (photo: Wikipedia)

The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio located at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome (photo: Wikipedia)

I often view the study of European history as a lesson in arbitrarily defined epochs populated by individuals lost in a haze of their own coping mechanisms, against the ingrained, systematic, and what they felt at the time to be wholly justified violence surrounding them. Future generations may view our current times much in the same way.

A new book Sudden Death: A Novel, by  the  Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue (now living in New York City) and translated by Natasha Wimmer, attempts to place the events of the Counter Reformation in a fictionalized setting, centering around a tennis match between the famous Italian artist Michelangelo   Merisi da Caravaggio (called “Caravaggio”; 1571-1610) and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. That both figures are so hungover that they can’t recall the events of the prior evening that has led to their vicious “dueling” on the court is a great running joke throughout the book. The historical Caravaggio is well-known as having been a violent brawler and yes, he played tennis. It is widely believed that it was an argument over a tennis match that led him to murdering Ranuccio Tomassoni. The subsequent threat of punishment by the authorities set off the chain of events leading to the artist’s own demise.

Sudden Death, graced with short chapters, has a wider sweep than the tennis match, bringing in far-flung plots that strangely eventually coalesce. Many of them center on the slightly earlier time of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés. He is fictionalized as completely oblivious to the carnage he has left in his wake and later as having no sense of just how barbaric his land-grab in the name of Spain has been. Also appearing in the novel are Galileo and a host of other well-known personalities from the time of Caravaggio. Most amusing is the tracing back of the ball utilized in the tennis match, made from the packed hair of the executed second wife of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. That human or horsehair or wool were used at the time to make tennis balls is noted by Enrigue in brief interludes, presenting source documents on the evolution of the game of tennis. This, along with countless other diversions, makes Sudden Death a truly interesting and enjoyable read.

Caravaggio is a fascinating figure in art history. Having read nonfiction accounts of his life and work and having seen much of his paintings in person, I found it interesting to see how a novel makes him come alive, if just in the imagination of a writer such as Enrigue. I could have lived without some of the more scatological details and the sections describing the artist’s sexual proclivities, but the battling Lombard in Sudden Death neatly coincides with what I’ve imagined Caravaggio to have been like as a real person.

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Learning Lessons from Multi-Volume Series

By Bernie Langs

There is no challenge in reading more rigorous than the study, over several years, of a series of books by a single author on one subject. From about 1983 through the late 1990s, I read four series, two of which I did not complete and two of which I finished, that changed my outlook on life.


The 12 volumes and index of Erwin R. Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (Bollinger Series)

My first foray began when I chanced on the first volume of a series by the German art historian and curator Max J. Friedländer (1867–1958) and decided on the spot that “I’m going to read all of this.” The 14-volume Van Eyck to Breughel: Early Netherlandish Painting is a wonderful overview of the Northern Renaissance. It’s written from the point of view of not only an art historian, but a connoisseur and a man with emotional and impeccable vision for classifying, cataloging, and appreciating the mostly Christian iconographic paintings of the mid-15th through mid-16th century. The first volume focuses on Jan Van Eyck and his mysterious brother Hubert, who died at an early age, and whose contributions to their oeuvre has been the subject of intense debate through history. The seriousness and depth of Van Eyck’s work, with its rich palette and texture brought on by his groundbreaking use of oil solutions in his paint, bring the reader into a new world of intensity and vitality, that Friedländer is able to maintain throughout the entire work. As the reader progresses, his or her own personal vision is enhanced and improved because of the time spent looking at the 2000 or so plates of reproductions of Masters, such as the harsh Rogier van der Weyden, the idealist Hugo van der Goes, the mischievous Bosch, the sublime Gerard David, and the romantic Adrianne Yesenbrandt, much of whose work I could see on view in the large Northern collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

The way I saw the world changed from the experience, and although I am not of Christian faith, I appreciated that these paintings were a way of an artist’s expression of his or her belief in “The Divine.” The views depicted in the background of many of the works of late Medieval and Renaissance Northern cities such as Bruges, often bathed in dark bluish color and light, became for me an ideal of a celestial home.

My next foray into a lengthy series was a difficult four-year journey through the ancient world with Professor Erwin R. Goodenough (1893–1965) of Yale University. His masterwork, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period is sophisticated and dense in presentation. Much of the early volumes are spent defining and refining the concept of what a symbol actually is and how deeply it was ingrained in the psyche of the ancient world in synchronized fashion, so that the Greeks and Romans and even the Egyptians and Assyrians shared ideas of mysticism which were co-opted into Jewish religious expression. Symbols such as divine fluids of wine, or expressions reflecting the stars and the zodiac, or of more natural subjects, show up in the most unexpected ways throughout the ancient world if you are educated to understand what you are seeing.

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Culture Corner

Book Review: A Manuscript of Ashes, by Antonio Muñoz Molina

By Bernie Langs

When the book A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Muñoz Molina arrived in the mail in a glorious hardcover edition, I knew that this unexpected present from my brother would become a special read. After all, my brother has the best literary taste of anyone I’ve ever met. After reading few pages, I paused realizing that the book was approachable but difficult in its sentence structures and in its form of shifting memories shared by narrators with unique perspectives of the events in the small Spanish town of Mágina over three decades.

CCAshes is mysterious on many levels and it plays with readers’ sensibilities that everything read may not be truth, as the shifting perspectives may be unreliable. But each contains a kernel of truth as well. In Muñoz Molina’s book, the story centers around a period of Civil War and later, Franco’s fascist control where several key players are dragged off and face death or prison time so brutal that they emerge scarred for life, never letting go of the fear imbedded in their bones.

In the late 1960s, the book’s protagonist, Minaya, escapes Madrid for Mágina in fear, and arrives at the home of his Uncle Manuel. He searches out the work and life of poet Jacinto Solana, who had lived there and violently died after prison. Solana had loved the same woman as Manuel, Mariana, who had upended Manuel’s family and friends with her beauty and dynamic manner. Mariana stands tall and powerful in this novel, though she is viewed obliquely and has little dialogue in the passages describing her time among this entourage. Tragically shot in the Mágina home (in the outdoor pigeon coop) on her wedding night with Manuel, it is discovered that it wasn’t a soldier’s bullet that felled her, but that she was murdered and possibly by someone within Manuel’s household.

The women in Ashes, be it Mariana, or the house servant Ines, who becomes romantically involved with Minaya, or Beatriz, who seeks out Solana after his release from prison in the 1940s and is in grave danger herself, or the harsh, reclusive mother of Manuel, Doña Elvira, ruling the household from her room in aged bitterness, are strong-willed, mysterious, and greatly shape the realities and lives of the men in the book.

As I read of the passionate love that Solana has for the elusive, alluring Mariana and felt his heartache as he awaited the wedding of Mariana to his school friend Manuel, I thought of something my own college friend told me: love was invented by poets and novelists, it wasn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon. While reading the love story in Ashes encapsulated in a murder mystery, surrounded by political intrigue and betrayal, I felt that Muñoz Molina could not have invented the intricacies of love for Mariana and the familial love (such as that between Solana and his tragic father), but that he’d drawn from experiences. We all feel and fall in love, and artists extrapolate on this and send it back out to us refined and beautiful. Then each of us have an even more intricate base for our next romantic experience. It is comparable to a Krebs Cycle going around and around, each piece a necessary cog of understanding to give us a pulse and a heartbeat, with an accompanied pang of discomfort.

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Culture Corner

Book Review: My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

By Bernie Langs

For several months I had heard chatter about an extraordinary set of books written by an eccentric Norwegian chronicling his life in the minutest detail. There was even one nighttime commute home on New Jersey Transit where I sat and watched a man reading the book in the seat across from mine and I pondered questioning him if it was worth the effort and time to take it on.

My Struggle Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard ended up being a fantastic book and the much-discussed overly detailed remembrances came across to me as the natural power of observation of an extraordinary, unique and creative mind at work. The dynamics of any family are complex, emotional for its members, and more often than not, extremely difficult, and the manner in which Knausgaard presents his family’s relationships teaches harsh and true lessons while keeping the reader absolutely glued to the page. By focusing on nuances and detailed moments occurring decades in the past, one begins to sense the writer’s blurring of fact and fiction, in this case, the loss of distinction between memoir and embellished storytelling. Knausgaard still remained true to the message he wishes to impart.

The landscape of obscure locations in Norway forms much of the backdrop to Knausgaard’s recollections. Fjords, the sea, and even watering holes are present as are the constant reminders of the cold and the snow of the Nordic region. Yet all of that is natural to its natives, while remaining fairly exotic to the readers of the book, who can marvel at names of people and places they can’t even begin to try to pronounce.

Although this first book of many in the series of My Struggle focuses on periods of the author’s time as a boy and teenager, he does jump to other times of his life and we see how the characteristics he displayed early on take on permanence as an adult, and not always in a flattering way. Certain insensitivities as a youth grow into a manner of emotional coldness and removal as an adult that Knausgaard is all too aware of and in some way, ashamed to have allowed to have blossomed.

The underlying key to much of this is clearly revealed to stem from the personality of his father and their odd and complicated relationship. The book moves along and builds to become a flood of emotions based around this man, whom we first meet in the early pages as stern and confident, physically alive but in many ways “not there” emotionally. We then learn of the author’s father’s devolution into a broken individual who becomes an obese, out-of-work alcoholic who has lost contact with his sons and who dies a miserable death.

Here is Knausgaard early in the book discussing his father and “how great the difference was between our days. While my days were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms.”

When reading My Struggle, I began to think to myself, “This is why I read.” Trying to explain why one chooses to read a difficult book for pleasure can be likened to trying to explain why one walks. You just do it. But it’s more akin to why one takes on a difficult walk or a hike through tough terrain for no real reason except to “get there” and “there” not being a physical destination, but an exhilarated or even spiritual state of mind. While reading books by writers like Knausgaard, Kraznahorkai or Vladimir Nabokov is a struggle, it is somewhat comforting in that they ponder the big questions that dog us all with impassioned urgency and dazzling creativity. The urgency is often driven by the belief that life is fleeting so we better get to pondering and figuring it out as soon as we can. The creativite portion remains, oddly and ironically, the fun and the adventure of it.◉

The Pursuit of Vocation

By Peng Kate Gao

Work is love made visible.

−Kahlil Gibran

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his brilliantly written book The Happiness Hypothesis, summarized three ways that people generally view their work: a job, a career, or a calling. A job is what people do to earn money and to support their families. A career is what people do to achieve higher goals, such as advancement and prestige. A calling, on the other hand, is for those who find their work so intrinsically engaging and fulfilling that they do it for the sheer love of it. These people usually would continue to work even without pay, if they suddenly became very wealthy. They would have found their life’s vocation.

How do we find ours? In many ways, this is an age-old question. Two and a half millennia ago, Confucius advised, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Nowadays in industrialized western society, where individual autonomy and achievement are farmers among the highest priorities, this question seems even more urgent. As Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs, remembered as much for his passion as his success, once said, “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” This type of sentiment has always created mixed feelings in me. I am deeply moved and inspired, but at the same time confused and even frightened, as one question burned in my mind: what is my burning idea and would it be strong enough to motivate me to the end? For a long time, I thought my passion was out there, like some great truth, waiting to be found.

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Leaving the Lab, but Still Thinking Science

By Mayla Hsu

1024px-Barbara_Ehrenreich_2_by_David_ShankboneBarbara Ehrenreich graduated from The Rockefeller University (RU), Class of 1968, but never worked as a scientist. Instead, she became a journalist, best known for Nickel and Dimed, in which she documented the hardship of life working at a series of low-wage jobs. She has written nineteen books and numerous articles, on diverse subjects such as women’s health, war, economics, and the joy of dancing. Her most recent book is Living with a Wild God, a memoir describing her childhood into early adulthood, and an exploration of how a lifelong atheist reconciles episodes of mystical dissociation with an absolute conviction in reason and science.

How is it that someone who received a PhD in immunology from a leading university ended up as a leftist freelance writer? Natural Selections recently interviewed Ehrenreich to find out. It’s a story of a promising young scientist who took some unexpected turns by being completely true to herself.

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Culture Corner

An Interview with Richard Torregrossa, Author of Terminal Life: A Suited Hero Novel and Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style

By Bernie Langs

 RT CG author picSeveral years ago, I was checking the blurbs of recommended articles and reviews indexed by the Arts & Letters Daily web site as I do every day. The site recommended a review of a book about the fashion sense and style of the late, great actor, Cary Grant. Since I admire Grant and his body of work (especially the films done with director Alfred Hitchcock), I clicked and discovered that the book in question was written by a friend I’d worked with at a publishing house. Richard Torregrossa and I became fast friends in the mid-1980s, as we did the dull work of pre-computer copy-editing and marketing, and in his case, copy-writing, editing, and interactions with authors. In addition, we attended book release parties from other publishers where we sipped wine in the evening and hovered in reception room corners while we watched literary types and quietly wise-cracked observations to each other.

We both lived in Brooklyn and finally Torregrossa, born and bred there, had enough and headed west to seek new opportunities, his fortune, and adventure in California. We contacted each other now and then and I was pleased when he found success utilizing his cartoon drawing skills with several captioned-illustrated books such as Fun Facts about Dogs, The Little Book of Wisdom, Fun Facts about Cats, and the more poetic and meditative The Man Who Couldn’t See Himself.

One phone call we had in the 1990s, was memorable as I listened to a story of how he’d scored a difficult book contract. Torregrossa told me that since he couldn’t afford a literary agent to work the difficult terrain of the competitive publishing business on his behalf, he invented an agent, and sent out inquiries under their name. His fictitious agent made inroads into the business and, one afternoon, Torregrossa received a call from a publisher interested in signing him, but on different terms. Torregrossa said his agent was in the room and advised him to stand his ground. The publisher asked to speak with Torregrossa’s agent. Torregrossa, without hesitation, asked him to hold, took a beat, impersonated his fake agent with an accent and a higher pitch, and worked out the deal.

After I read the online review about Torregrossa’s book, (which includes an introduction written by fashion designer icon, Giorgio Armani), I tracked down his email and we resumed our long-distance friendship. I read many of his erudite and well-written freelance, fashion newspaper columns in major international and U.S. publications and was glad when he became a style consultant with a history of fashion curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. When Torregrossa delved into fiction with Terminal Life, I read an advance copy. It was just released to excellent reviews. The graphically violent, action novel unfolds at a quick pace, but with twists on the genre. There is a unique hero, Luke Stark, a former Navy SEAL who returns home to learn that his wife was murdered and his son disappeared. And so begins his tale of revenge written through deftly presented prose. The book’s themes examine everything from the value of life to the complications of filial obligations. There’s also a sprinkling of fun and humor. When I finished Terminal Life, I told Torregrossa that the way he artfully managed the book’s deeper ideas was selective and subtle, which packs a more powerful punch and leaves a larger impression.

Torregrossa kindly agreed to be interviewed on the eve of his new book’s release for Natural Selections.

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Culture Corner – The “Exotic Foreign” of Wes Anderson and Haruki Murakami

By Bernie Langs

There is much made in some classical and modern philosophies of the concept and ambiguity of what is termed “the other.” In addition, one can find obscure musings on the idea of “the stranger” from the pens of philosophers as far afield in time and thinking as Plato and Camus. I’ve been avoiding, of late, the more difficult works of such trained thinkers and their non-fictions, opting to glean life lessons from those more akin within the arts to current travails. What I continue to discover is that I draw great pleasure from the belief that ideas originating from lands abroad that I will most likely never visit, appeal to my sense of intellectual adventure, offering to me, and perhaps to others, the mystery of the “exotic foreign.”

I offer, by way of example, two works of art extremely different in nature appealing to this sense. Wes Anderson co-wrote and directed the film The Darjeeling Limited in 2007 and Haruki Murakami wrote the book “Sputnik Sweetheart” in 2001. In Anderson’s movie, we follow the travels of three brothers on a train through India, a trip they take in an attempt to bond and heal a year after their father’s untimely death. The brothers are played to absolute perfection by the actors Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman (Schwartzman has frequently appeared in Anderson’s films and he is also a co-writer of this movie). The viewer identifies with these foreigners since we can relate to the notion of Western individuals seeking spiritual solace in the East as visitors. We discover India as they do, as enlightened tourists hoping to catch a glimpse and some meaning from something new and completely alien to our routines.

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Culture Corner: book review “Seiobo There Below” by László Krasznahorkai

By Bernie Langs

I would bet that it is safe to say that anyone reading these pages is more than busy in this life and that many of you who continue to read for pleasure are overwhelmed by the truth that there are “so many books and so little time.” You may also feel, as I do, that at this point, if I’m going to commit to a book that is both challenging and difficult, it sure as hell better be worth the effort. Keeping this in mind, I have found such incredible joy in chancing upon the works of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai (b. 1954). I have had the pleasure of reading three of his works of fiction. Last year in Natural Selections I reviewed his book The Melancholy of Resistance and interviewed its translator. Subsequently, I completed his War & War, a book so powerful that I would read it in dumbfounded awe, and recently I have just finished his Seiobo Down Below.

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An interview with White Out: The secret life of Heroin author, Michael W. Clune, Ph.D

By Bernie Langs


I did not know what to expect when I procured a copy of Michael W. Clune’s memoir, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, after reading a blog review about the book in the New Yorker. I very quickly became engrossed in White Out, consumed by its tale of the author’s life of addiction. The book presents with a cast of colorful characters appearing throughout and the exciting tale of Dr. Clune’s highs and lows: his deceits, his run-ins with the law, and finally, his recovery. I found great humor throughout the memoir, and became attached to the author’s ability to weave complex sentences that delight the reader in a strange and unique fashion. I found Dr. Clune online in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University, where he is an Associate Professor specializing in American literature, literature and science, and poetry. I also came across several academic papers by Dr. Clune. Here are his enthusiastic responses to my questions.

BL:  Having read some of the essays you’ve produced as an academic, after reading White Out, I was struck by how different the “voice” is between the memoir and the professional writing.  In fact, there are no traces, in my opinion, that the author of the White Out could write in such a detailed, let us say, complex academic way. Did you make a conscious effort to distinguish the tone of White Out from what you produce in the humanities?

MC: My academic writing is quite different in tone and syntax from my creative writing. I would say that in the former, I strive for clarity. I want to communicate my ideas and my findings as clearly as possible. Clarity is not always the same as accessibility. Clarity sometimes involves carefully distinguishing my views from various arguments made by others. I always try to avoid jargon, but sometimes the work requires the judicious use of terms of art. I begin to write my academic books and essays after a long process of research and thought. The writing involves communicating what I’ve discovered as cleanly and economically as possible. In my creative work, the situation is different. Here, the writing itself is the discovery process. Since my preferred mode of writing is memoir, I don’t need to work out the plot in advance. I simply sit down to write, and try to understand my memory and experience through the process of creating images and phrases that seem to fit. The language has to be very flexible; I have to work with a greater range of tone and meaning. In particular, humor is a crucial resource for my creative work. I’m constantly asking myself—how do I make this funny? What angle reveals the humor in this situation? Humor for me is a path to objectivity. When I can laugh at a memory or an experience, I become distanced from it. Laughter enables me to see myself from the outside, and grants me a different level of understanding. In my creative work, humor functions for me as a kind of strange analogue to the scientific method.

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Scientists Invade the Comics

By Jason Rothhauser


This holiday season, two comic books that share one thing hard to find in today’s popular fiction: scientists are the stars of the show. One comic proposes an outrageous alternate history in which a cabal of real-world scientists use their public research as a cover for far more bizarre experiments, and the other imagines a world in which scientists are our rock stars.

The Manhattan Projects, written by Jonathan Hickman with art by Nick Pitarra, asks a simple question. What if the government program to build the first atomic weapon was actually the cover story for a far more audacious project? And what if that project went terribly wrong? In this world, the likes of Joseph Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, and Enrico Fermi are on a quest not simply to build a weapon, but to push the very boundaries of science.

In Hickman’s world, scientists have already mastered interdimensional travel, advanced cybernetics, and artificial intelligence by the start of the Cold War. The names that round out the cast of characters are all familiar (among those already mentioned, expect to meet Werner von Braun, Albert Einstein, and Yuri Gagarin), but in this carnival-mirror alternate universe, none of them are what they seem. Oppenheimer is a brilliant man with a disturbing secret and an evil twin. Fermi may not be human, von Braun wields a massive robotic arm, and Feynman smiles serenely through the madness he (along with the reader) is quickly introduced to.

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CULTURE DESK — Book reviews: Inferno, by Dan Brown & The Inferno of Dante (translated by Robert Pinsky)

by Bernie Langs

When I heard that best-selling author Dan Brown had written a book centering around a mystery involving Dante’s Inferno, I came up with a scheme to read the original Inferno section of Dante Alighieri’s famous poem, Commedia (which later became known as “The Divine Comedy”), and compare the two works for Natural Selections. This is perhaps the only reason, I knew, that I’d ever read a book by Brown or the hellish work by Dante. I’ve read other poetry by Dante, as well as his work La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), but avoided the Inferno for completely superstitious reasons. As for Brown, when his tens-of-millions bestselling book, The Da Vinci Code, hit stores with its tale of Professor Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, I wasn’t just angry that he’d changed the playing field of the publishing business forever–making the publishing houses crave only huge blockbusters akin to film industry’s obsession with the big opening weekend. No, Brown became the only writer I’ve ever felt bitter towards, because I’d been writing books about messages in paintings and global intrigue for years; the difference being that my books had print-runs of about ten copies. Thus, I’d never stand a chance to be published and someone had beaten me to the punch. Continue reading