Tag Archives: Doubleday Canada

On the Quest for a bit of Alone Time. | Review of Michael Harris’ “Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World” (2017) Doubleday Canada

soli

Since starting my little reading blog here, I have noted that many of my followers crave some quiet down time to read and even think a bit. Yet getting that down time to put their feet up is limited. Well dear followers, here is one more book I have read for you and note for your consideration while you go through your hurly-burly day. And that book is:  Michael Harris’ Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World.

Pages 17-18

Aristotle defined humans as social animals and he was only too right. Making sure other people have positive impressions of us is one of our central motivations. And when we use screen-based social media instead of face-to-face interactions to groom each other, we’re able to be more strategic about that self-presentation. For example, when confronted with a Facebook post about someone’s new job, my lovely but nervous friend Jocelyn may write and rewrite her comment for several minutes before finally landing on the tapioca-scale inoffensiveness of “So happy for you!!!” (If she’s feeling crazy, Jocelyn may add a martini glass emoji.) Unsurprisingly, a 2015 study found that, of the roughly 1.5 billion regular Facebook users, usage spikes among those with social anxiety – in particular, those who have a high need for social assurance. The technology becomes a salve, a way to calm our worries about fitting in or belonging. And with astonishing speed, the compulsion to groom online has been absorbed into our idea of the natural: Only 8 per cent of adults in the United States used social networking sites in 2005. Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans now sleep with their phones on their bedside tables, using them as surrogate teddy bears. To be human is to be social; to be human in the age of screens is to be massively social.

And yet . . . In the same way that many people are forced to engineer healthy diets for themselves in a world overflowing with the salts and sugars and fats we’re designed to hoard, it’s possible that we’re such compulsive social groomers that we must keep ourselves from gobbling the fast-food equivalent. Has social media made us socially obese – gorged on constant connection but never properly nourished?

Has the neocortex – the very thing that made us human, the thing that kickstarted our cities and our politics, our religions and our art – been hijacked one to many times?

I have been reluctant to use the term Zeitgeist for a while but Harris has indeed documented what many of us feel is the “spirit of the times” with this non-fiction book.  Our modern lifestyle demands we be tuned-in to a multitude of devices and online platforms, and if we miss one tweet or post, we will be the social pariah at the conversation around the water cooler or dinner party. So what would happen if we were to totally tune out not only our toys but all of our friends and just be alone with ourselves and our thoughts. Many of us have been tempted to do so but Harris gives the notion some serious and well-researched thought.

Pages 53-54

Physicists like Einstein and Newton are among our most fundamental thinkers, and they were particularly aware of what solitude brings to serious thought. Felicity Mellor, a researcher at Imperial College London, criticizes the new generation of advanced study institutes for emphasizing collaboration and social atmospheres at the expenses of such solitary contemplation. The institutions Mellor studies exhibit what she calls a “near exclusive focus” on communication between scholars and, in their own words, call for “international engagement” and “collaborative research projects.” The Francis Crick Institute, in London, which opened in 2016, is a paradigmatic example: it’s designed with open-plan labs and glass walls to ensure collaboration. The institute’s strategy documents cheers how “how scientists will be drawn together at interaction and collaboration facilities located at the centre of each floor.”

“The need for periods of withdrawal and solitude,” Mellor writes, “are no longer acknowledged as a means of facilitating intellectual advances.” Although every fundamental shift in physics has required a good dose of solitude, “reticence and silence seem to have no place in the modern research agenda.” Peter Higgs, the Nobel Prize-winning godfather of the Hadron Collider, backs Mellor up, saying his trailblazing work would be impossible today because the peace and solitude he enjoyed in the 1960s has vanished. We can only imagine how premature sharing could deflate a unified field theory or mangle an explanation for the origination of gamma rays bursts.

What is true for institutions is also true for individuals. We all have daily proof that moments of aloneness allow for the drifting, unfocused mind to be inspired. Like others, I`m hit by my better ideas firs thing in the morning, even lying in bed, before the world has poured any noise or hassle onto me. A novel thought might strike me in the shower, or while I’m drinking my coffee and fuzzily apprehending the patterns of birds outside. Almost all my writer friends swear by early-morning writing. And the psychiatrist Anthony Storr found the same, sayin that “by far the greater number of new ideas occur during a state of reverie, intermediate between waking and sleeping.” It’s as though the brain is allowed to have its genius moment before our lumbering, bureaucratic ide of thinking puts on a tie and gets in the way.

This is a unique read. It is one I would recommend that a person buys a print-edition of it,  sits down and ponders over it. Harris certainly took time out to research and reflect on the subject on how our interconnectedness is influencing our minds. He not only talked with a myriad of experts on the subject, but brings a wealth of knowledge to the discussion. And then in the final chapter, he documents his attempt at what many of us desire –  some solitude and alone-time.

Pages 215-216 The Cabin in the Woods

By the time I finish this tuna sandwich, I’ll have been alone – completely alone – for longer than I’ve ever been before.

It’s a startling thought. But, sitting here on this rotting deck, and looking out over both the ocean and the last thirty-six years, I find it’s true. Weirdly true. I have never, in my life, been completely alone for longer than twenty-four hours. Always, there was some quiet interaction with the guy making my Americano, at least. Or, if I was stuck in my apartment with the flu, there’d be an email exchange while curled in the nest of my duvet. But there was always some connection, some comfort.

From infancy onward, I have been perpetually witnessed, judged, hugged, chatted-up . . . .

But that changes now.  I’ve taken the ferry from Vancouver to Pender Island, about two hours off the coast of British Columbia. From the docks, I hiked another two hours to my family’s cabin. An old A-frame, built by my grandparents in the days when a parcel of land on an island’s waterfront wasn’t so impossible a thing to purchase. There’s a rope swing from when I was five; it dangles noose-like from one of the trees. A set of rotten steps leads me, muddy and skidding, down to the pebble beach where my brothers and I used to build rafts out of driftwood. We tied logs together with ropes of bull kelp.

The cabin door shunts open and there’s the smell of cedar planks, wet dog, ashes. I tug provisions from my pack: one week’s worth of oatmeal, raisins, tuna fish, canned chili. A paper bag of apples, one for each day.

I’ve come here for a week with myself. I plan not just doubling or tripling my solitude record but stretching it to point where I’m talking to myself.

Michael Harris has both brilliantly documented and done what we all have desperately crave with his book Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World. This is truly a work that must reflected and pondered over. In short, a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s webpage for Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World

Link to Michael Harris` website

A Real Lesson about the Human Condition | Review of “The Last Neanderthal” by Claire Cameron (2017) Doubleday Canada

A big thank you to Luanne at A Bookworm’s World for bringing this book to my attention.

neanderthal

I think the term “human condition” has come up with many people in my circles who read fiction. It usually is in reference to a theme in a book that documents or highlights some element of our daily life that we may not have considered before. But to look at our species in relation to other species (both living or dead) is a unique concept in literature. Claire Cameron’s work has come up in conversations with other book fans, so I decided to check out her latest work The Last Neanderthal, and I was truly impressed and enlightened.

Page 3 Prologue

They didn’t think as much about what was different.

There was good reason for this as they lived in small family groups. Every day was spent among people who were similar to them. The bodies that sat around the fire shared the same kind of cowlick at the backs of their heads, or the same laugh, or teeth that were equally crooked. Every time a head turned to look, a body could find one part of itself in another.

It’s because of their similarities to us that I can speak for them when I say that much of what you’ve heard isn’t true.

I love the interplay between the two characters of this book. On one hand we have, we have “Girl” who in some forty thousand years in the past was the oldest daughter of the last family of Neanderthals. In the other hand, we have Rosamund Gale, who in the modern day, is a archaeologist racing to uncover Neanderthal artifacts while dealing with a multitude of professional and personal issues. Even though there are thousands of years apart from the two and a mass of evolutionary changers, we can see similarities between the two characters in how they deal with their day-to-day issues and crisis.

Page 39-40

Girl tucked her spear into the groove in her armpit. To hunt was to wait. The family had worked the hunting grounds for as far as their shadow stories went back, but the site wasn’t theirs alone. All beasts on the land either hunted here or crossed the river here. It was a good place to drink and play, but it was also a dangerous place. Where there was food and fresh water, there was danger.

Then: Snap. A sound. Where? Girl curled her top lip up to feel the breeze on the sensitive patch on her gums. She felt a small ripple, a heated current in the air. What? She twitched her head to the right to listen. The tremor from the snap was like a sharp prick to the back of her neck.

This was the land where she was born and she knew it like she knew her own body. It was the only place she had lived. Because she came from Big Mother, her mind held the memories of all the hunts the old woman had been on too, and her mother before as well. And Girl also had the stories that came to her in dreams from the other members of the family. Every bump, dip, and curve of the land lay in the grooves of her mind, but they weren’t only there. Her body held the memories too. There was a dent in her shin, like a dip in a path, from when she had fallen. there was the scar on her finger, a ridge that held the same curve as the cliff, from a sharp rock. When the hair on her arms stood up, it was like part of the grassy meadow where the bison grazed. Her body took shape from the land.

This book is a great exploration of needs, thoughts and desires. Cameron has a frank writing style here that is easy to read and follow. And the plot stays in one’s mind, giving a reader something to ponder and reflect on after the book is finished. Definitely a unique read and one that is worthy of one’s serious leisure time.

Page 130

How had I become so pregnant overnight? I stuffed my sausage legs into my work trousers and tugged on the elastic that I used to secure the rivet on the fly. I had rigged the band to bring the two sides as close together as possible. As I stood to pull the pants closed, the elastic band snapped against my fingers and flew off. I looked around for another band but couldn’t find one. The fly of my trousers gaped open.

I had made a decision long ago that I would never cry at work. While tears are a natural reaction to adversity, I believed crying played into negative assumptions about a woman’s ability to cope with difficult situations. Through all the trials and tribulations that came with an academic career, I had not shed a tear. Not when I was at a site in Turkey and a large pallet slipped from a truck and broke my foot. Not when one of the outside examiners on my dissertation tried to set me back two years by refusing to accept new dating methods. Not when I was publicly mocked at a big conference by a prominent academic. (“You sound like you would like to get up close and personal with one of your Neanderthals,” he had remarked during the Q&A session), and not when the room had erupted with nervous laughter and the comment achieved its intended effect of discrediting everything I had said. I took it all on the chin.

I did not cry at work until I was unable to find a second elastic band to fasten my trousers. That triggered the silent sobs. I managed to bite my lip and not wake Simon, and I hoped the tears would go unnoticed, but then I heard footsteps outside.

Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal is a book that truly gives insight to the human condition by looking at our past ancestors. An enlightening read and one that is worthy to be part of any bookshelf.

*****

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada website for The Last Neanderthal

Link to Claire Cameron’s website

The Muddle that is Our Lives | Review of “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers” by Tom Rachman (2014) Doubleday Canada

Rise

We all consider our lives at one time or another. We think about the highlights and the lows. Then we turn to the future and hope for profound and exciting elements to push us through the future years. But is that how life really is? Do we really expect great things to happen to us when events in reality around us guide our lives forward? That is the conundrum I was thinking about after reading Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.

Page 33-34 2011: The Beginning

The sunlight shifted and mottled the land. She paused under its rays, closed her eyes, absorbing the warmth. when the sun shone – and days passed without a glimpse of it – she hurried beneath. but it was rain that exhilarated her, watching through the bookshop window, the world hushing, sidewalks vacant. It wasn’t feeble drips that thrilled her but torrents – when raindrops exploded off leaves, choked drainpipes, drummed the attic roof at World’s End. Once, a thunderclap sounded in the afternoon and Fogg gasped, though he masked it noisily turning the page of a book on Mongol hordes.

“Storm are beautiful,” she’d said.

“Storms are wet.”

“Come on, you softie. When nature does something strong, dramatic like that, it’s exciting. Don’t you think?”

“Would you consider an earthquake excitng?”

“Well, if you could just watch it – imagine – if no one got hurt and nothing of value was destroyed, then yes, it’d be incredible. Like when you see pictures of molten lava.”

“Nothing nice about molten lava when it’s shooting at you.”

“It never has shot at me.”

“Not me, to be brutally honest.”

From behind her closed eyelids, she perceived a darkening. The sunlight had migrated along the moorland. A speck of rain hit her cheek. The drizzle fell noiselessly, the wind shouldering thin raindrops into diagonals that darted one way then another, like shoals of fish in a nervous mass. She watched wet dots multiply on her blouse, the cotton clung to her small breasts and belly. Back in her twenties, she had considered her body parts irrelevant to the whole of herself, as if she lived in a container unrelated to the contained. When she caught sight of herself today, thinner than once, she thought less of shape than of time, which had arrived, its incursions marked by the coarsening of her. She gazed at her rubber boots on wet stalks of grass, vision blurred by beads of rain that hung from her eyebrows,shivering at each step.

Rachman shows the muddle that has been the protagonist Tooly Zylberberg’s life. He starts the story off in Wales in 2011, then jumps back to Manhattan in 1999, then je jumps over to a long-distance flight from Australia to Bangkok in 1988 and so on. Through that journey we see Tooly in different stages of her life. Each snippet gives us glimpse of people who were important to her: Paul, Humphrey, Duncan, Venn, Fogg and so forth. But there something unsettling in Tooly’s life that a reader can’t quite put their finger on therefore must read forward to find out what exactly the problem is. And in doing so, the reader will perhaps consider their own lives a bit deeper.

Page 75-76 – 1999

As Tooly grew older, she witnessed other shortcuts: how one might vacation for nothing by befriending a shy local of the opposite sex, earning free room and board, even a tour guide for a few days. Another game involved posting reward signs for a lost key inside a tourist-jammed train station. She put on a hiker’s backpack (stuffed with Humphrey’s laundry) and sought out the smokers – always easiest to  start a conversation with. Any mean-faced jerk was her preference, the more unpleasant the better. She borrowed his lighter, sparked a cigarette, and complained that she had to fly home early because her grandma had fallen ill in Florida. While stepping away to the vending machines, she entrusted her backpack to the guy, then returned with a look of astonishment and something in her palm: Hey, is this that key on the reward posters? At a phone booth, they called the posted number. Frantic with excitement, the key’s owner promised to drive over immediately with the generous cash reward: he’d arrive in an hour. Alas, Tooly couldn’t wait – she had her flight to catch. However, the man on the phone (Venn) demanded that she wait. Appearing befuddled, she trust the phone at her new acquaintance. Venn told him that this girl had just agreed on five hundred dollars for the key – giver her the money now and I’ll refund you as soon as I arrive. Hell, I’ll quadruple it, if you stay put: two thousand in cash, plus, the five hundred you gave the girl. Her unpleasant new companion sprinted to the closest ATM (Tooly helpfully pointing it out), and withdrew as close to five hundred dollars as possible. She gave him the key and hastened to the cab stand – no time for the airport train now! When after an hour or two, the guy was still waiting, he irritably tried the number on the reward posters. It rang and rang.

This isn’t an easy book to read. The plot jumps and skips at times. But once the reader completes the task of getting to the end of the book, the whole story makes sense. It is enlightening to make one’s way through the narrative that is Tooly’s life and Rachman’s descriptions at times are vivid and emotional.

Page 313 – 1988

Tooly knelt on a chair at the sink and turned on the taps., organizing dirty plates and cutlery. Steam rose and sweat trickled down her brow as she gazed into the swirling dishwater. Briefly, the name of this city was lost to her. What was outside this house? She dropped a knife into the water, its surface sliced with a plop, tossing up a grape of liquid that peaked, flopped back within itself, the suds sliding closed. How strange, she thought, that there were people doing other things right at this moment in different places. Everyone she’d ever known was alive somewhere, thinking different things.

“Can I have coffee again today?” she asked Humphrey when he entered. In her early days here, Coca-Cola had been her morning refreshment, but she had copied him lately, drinking instant coffee with cream and lots of sugar, establishing a way of taking it that was uniquely hers. Nothing felt quite so grown-up as having way particular to oneself.

Tom Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.may be a disjointed read at times but it is a worthwhile one. It’s ambiguities and questions helps a reader ponder there one life in ways unimaginable. Truly a  great book.

Link to Tom Rachman’s website

Link to Doubleday Canada’s page for The Rise & Fall of Great Powers