Monthly Archives: September 2011

This is Your Brain on Music – Review – ****

I am finishing up my last year of undergrad. I will graduate with a combined honours degree in Journalism and Psychology, with minors in Biology (genetics, neuroscience, and ecology) and Classical Civilization (specifically, Archaeology). Music is my most treasured art form, and even though I haven’t practiced in years, and therefore sort of suck now, I still can say that I play piano, saxophone, trumpet, and guitar.

All this to say, that Daniel J. Levitin, a musician, neuroscientist, and journalist, has somehow written my book, the bastard! This is Your Brain on Music is, like At Home, another fascinating and fairly far-ranging topic informational, general interest novel, only this one, rather than social history, focuses on the following in relation to music: genetics, neuroscience, anthropology, memory, and cognitive psychology – so…kind of everything I’m actually studying – as well as the study of babies, motor movement, audio and visual systems, and more.

Among the interesting concepts Levitan brought up was the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything. I had a professor at Carleton who said something similar, telling us all that it would take 10 years. So, let’s see…that would be presumably 1000hrs/year, or about 3 hrs/day. I think I could manage that.

Another concept I liked at just wanted to single out: music uses all areas/regions of the brain. It is the only subject we know that does so.

He talked about the Mozart effect, and explained how the complexity bell curve may explain why critics LOVE stuff that isn’t necessarily popular – their schemas are more developed from years of critical listening (or observing, or reading, or whatever the case may be), giving them a physically different mental framework for what constitutes “complex” – not necessarily “complicated”, more higher division from what is considered “normal” in a schema. INTERESTING STUFF.

So with all this, you might think it would be my favourite book ever written, like a bible and life instruction manual in one. And it is very good – like reading a very intimate, fascinating, short, approachable introductory textbook – but it IS just an overview, and it’s full of flaws which you will find fully expounded upon in any amazon book review.

Maybe it would help if Levitan dropped the informality somewhat, so that all his name-dropping would read more like good research citing, and less like…name-dropping (for example, in a phenomenal biography of Capote I read, the author Gerald Clarke knew his subject well, and Capote’s close friends, and other interesting people, but it’s never framed in an “I MET SO-AND-SO and also am totally just as cool as them!” manner; in fact, he doesn’t mention his relationship to Capote until the end of the book, where he clarifies that he was the unidentified “close friend” mentioned often throughout the book; this would be a great 5-star book right there, but I read it a couple of years ago, and I’m not re-reading that 600+ page brick with only 3 months to go until the end of CBRIII).

Also, he commits the same frustrating mistake I chastised Mary Roach for so many months ago (see paragraph 5); characters are reintroduced over and over again. I remember who Bob was from 2 pages ago, thank you, you don’t have to keep reminding me. This wasn’t even as defensible as in Packing for Mars, because at least Roach reintroduced characters from different chapters, so you could, like a textbook, treat each chapter as a separate entity. But Levitan does this paragraphs apart (and what’s more, this book, unlike Packing for Mars, actually DOES have an index).

Cannonball Read III: 17/52

Absurdistan – Review – ***1/2

Once again, I have lost the notes I made while reading this book, which is a pain in the ass, because I’m pretty sure there were quotes on there (and quotes means I get to make the review look longer while writing less)!

I remember being incredibly off-put by this book, and I don’t mean angry or pissed off. I just felt like I had missed something. Maybe a better phrase would be “wrong-footed.” It was like I knew he was satirizing something, but…I wasn’t sure exactly what. I wasn’t sure exactly who should be offended. I wasn’t sure what his thesis was. I have suspicions, but…*shrug.*

I don’t consider myself a particularly dense or stupid person. Maybe I should. Maybe others who read and “got” this book should feel righteously superior to me. Maybe my confusion stems from the fact that the book is written about the social and political, um, politics or a world I am not familiar with. Maybe all those review excerpts on the back cover were right, and this really is a work of phenomenal genius on par with Catch-22. Maybe. Or maybe Shteyngart is a little less clever than he thinks he is (oh, har har, there’s a conniving little bitch of a character named Jerry Shteynfarb, I see what you did there!), a little too caught up in the grotesque imagery he creates with his obscenely fat main character, a little on the nose in his depiction of a war built around a stockpile of oil that doesn’t actually exist, and I actually got it just fine.

I’m not being sarcastic here, I honestly don’t know, but I think for that reason this book would be great for some sort of discussion group. The prose, while often irritating to me (see above), was also undoubtedly the work of someone, like Michael Chabon, in total control of the English language. I’m sure it could really resonate with people who have different interests, familiarities, and world views than mine. And I hope there’s no shame in admitting that you really just didn’t understand a well-reviewed best-seller. So three-and-a-half stars for the values of thought-provoking-ness and good writing, but not really enjoyment.

Cannonball Read III: 16/52

Eat, Pray, Love – Review – ***1/2

Another Thailand book! My puzzle mate recommended this one to me as a quick holiday read for someone who loves travel. It was a good choice – light and easy, but interesting, and I didn’t have to feel overly jealous of her adventures, as I was off having one of my own.

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, could be classified as a journal (but the writer knows the future), or a memoir (but she speaks in the present tense), about one woman’s journey across Italy, India, and Indonesia as she tries to find herself (or her “I”, if you will) after a painful divorce.

A warning: if you read/open this book, you enter in to a sort of contract with the author – she will not shove her enlightenment in your face, but if you choose to read the book, she will share it with you. By this, I mean that she’s not aggressive in her writing, but it is written from the perspective of one who feels she has had a spiritual experience. If you have no patience for that sort of thing, there is simply no point in you reading this book.

It is divided into 3 groups of 36 stories (adding up to 108 stories, plus the intro, which equals the 109 beads found on a japa malas*) which makes it incredibly easy to read. I find that the more chapters there are in a book, the quicker I can read it, and I think that’s only in part because of the amount of page space taken up every time there’s a new chapter. Short chapters keep the reader from getting too lost, thus keeping there attention over long periods, and provide easy time outs while reading, allowing for quickly snatching a bit of story during a bathroom break, or in a long line. So, in other words, perfect for one who is, say, 14 books behind where she should be if she intends to complete the CBR on time.

Gilbert’s luck in scoring a book advance allowing her to take a totally self-involved year off of her life is not taken for granted, which makes the book much more bearable than it could have been. Her writing is engaging and straightforward, and she is honest about her flaws. Personally, I particularly enjoyed the first part best, which was more of a travelogue than the other two. Her spiritual insights were interesting for me to read from a sociological perspective, but as an agnostic/skeptic, I didn’t feel particularly moved by her religious experience at an Ashram in India, and was downright uncomfortable by her fawning descriptions of her guru.

The last part of the book, where Gilbert tries to find “balance” between pleasure and devotion while holidaying in Bali, was the least structured of the three,

The woman has a lot of insight, but I’m not sure I’m particularly interested in reading more about her life. Her next memoir, Commitment, covers her journey to marriage with the man she met at the end of Eat, Pray, Love, but I can’t really imagine what more there is to be gained by reading it that wasn’t already covered by her wrestle with marriage and romance in this one.

In short, it’s not the first (or second, or third) book I would pick up, but I’m not at all sorry I read it. If anything here strikes your interest, it’s worth a read.

*And for anyone who’s read the book and wondering: yes, there are 109 beads in the japa malas (basically, Indian rosary beads) that make up the “pray” on the cover. So…just me then.

Cannonball Read III: 15/52

The Jeeves Omnibus – Review – ****

More Jeeves!

I read this one in Thailand, which was a nice way to unwind after a long day of shrimp research, touring excursions, social outings, and homework. Frankly, after having read so many Wodehouse books for this little assignment, I have indeed encountered that which I feared so many months ago: I have run out of new ways to say I enjoy P.G.’s enormously entertaining, but fairly formulaic works. As I said last time, this problem is especially evident in his short stories, so this brick of a collection of them is pretty much more of the same (not the least because 10 of the short stories from that last book, Carry On, Jeeves, were included here*).

So the only new thing I have to talk about here is Wodehouse’s introduction, which reveals a humble, kind, gently funny man with a fond attachment to the characters he created, and a pretty good idea of the extents of his talent, and his place in literary history. I hope very much that this was what he was like in real life. I have a biography of him in my To Read pile, which I hope will reveal a bit more about him (but that will be part of my next book-related project). Can you imagine Wodehouse as a young man? Can you imagine a young man even coming up with these stories? They seem like the sort of alternate-universe history that an older author might tell with the prelude “in my day, this was what it was like…” Grandpa’s stories of another, smaller, simpler, better world. I guess this just goes back to what I said in my last review (again):

[E]ven when not actually laughing out loud, Wodehouse still makes me smile – his stories and tone have such a warm feeling, like coming home, and nothing ever goes too badly wrong.

I’ve given this one 4 stars because, as it includes almost all of the Jeeves/Wooster stories, it is packed with the best and the worst, and since the worst Wodehouse is, to me, worth a great deal more than the worst of ,many other authors, the very good (4-5 stars) outweighs the very mediocre (2.5-3 stars), and averages out to a nice round 4.

At this point, I am literally just writing to fill space (as if you couldn’t tell), so I’m off to write an essay about shrimp aquaculture.

*But yes, I’m still counting this as a new and separate book, because the thing was over 700 pages, and those 10 took up between 200-300. I think having read 400+ new pages book can count as its own separate book, thank you very much.

Cannonball Read III: 14/52

Books Read During 2011/2012 School Year

  1. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (****)
  2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (****)
  3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (****)
  4. Harry Potter and the Supplementary Readings (The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Quidditch Through the Ages) (***1/2)
  5. The Iliad
  6. Cake Wrecks Books (Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Horribly Wrong and Wreck the Halls: Cake Wrecks Gets “Festive”) (***1/2)
  7. The Odyssey
  8. The Aeneid
  9. Gabby (****)
  10. Unbearable Lightness (****)
  11. The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides) – Aeschylus, trans Richmond Lattimore (-)
  12. Fight Club (****)
  13. Room (****)
  14. The Theban Plays (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone) – Sophocles, trans David Grene (-)
  15. The Hunger Games (****)
  16. Catching Fire (***3/4)
  17. 5 Roman Comedies (****)
  18. Mocking Jay
  19. Out of My League
  20. Mythology for Dummies
  21. Don’t Know Much About Mythology
  22. Euripides I
  23. Euripides IV
  24. Frogs and Other Plays
  25. The Better Angels of Our Nature
  26. The King’s Speech
  27. Virus Hunter
  28. Emma
  29. Les Miserables
  30. On The Road
  31. The Scarlet Pimpernel
  32. Shadows of the Empire
  33. Breakfast At Tiffany’s
  34. The Hot Zone
  35. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  36. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

* = irredeemably awful
** = middling
*** = decent; has value (of some sort)
**** = very good
***** = amazingly fantastic
****** = almost never used; the perfect book