Monday, June 18, 2018

Oliver Sacks: The River of Consciousness

     Oliver Sacks. The River of  Consciousness (2017) Posthumous collection of essays assembled from notes and edited from drafts. As the title suggests, Sacks is thinking about consciousness, the hard problem of philosophy and neurology. In one essay he wonders if consciousness is a discontinuous sequence of moments.
    Vision seems to be discontinuous he says, citing experiments measuring the response times to changes in the visual field. I think it's obvious that vision is discontinuous: the light-sensitiva molecules in the retinal cells decay when struck by light, and must be rebuilt in order to decay again. This process takes about 1/10th of a second. Then the nerve signals generated must be processed so that the human can see. This can take longer than a 1/10th of a second, since objects must be recognised, etc. The fastest conscious reaction times to an expected visual stimulus is about 1/6th of a second in children and teenagers, and double or triple that in adults. Responses to unexpected visual stimuli take much longer. Thus the visual contents of consciousness are constructed from perceptions that take a sizeable time to assemble. the same applies to the other senses. The unbroken stream of consciousness is an illusion. It can be a dangerous one, since what feels like an instantaneous reaction takes at least half a second. At highway speeds a car travels about 130 metres in 1/2 a second.
     Sacks also has interesting observations of the subjective passage of time. His patients vary enormously in the rate at which they process sensory information, and that processing relates to the feeling of time passing. He tells of taking photographs several  minutes apart of one of his post-encephalitic patients, then binding the prints into a flip-book, and seeing the patient slowly lift his arm. Conversely, some of his patients entered a high-speed phase, and reported that they found the world around them moving unbearably slowly.
     The book feels unfinished. Most of the essays consist of extended notes. Sacks didn’t have time to rewrite for continuity, style and clarity, and this sometimes shows in a banal or cliche phrase. However, for any fan this is an essential book. For the general reader it serves as a very good introduction to some of the conundrums of consciousness and mind. ***½

Thursday, June 14, 2018

If you want ot be a writer: Stephen King's On Writing

     Stephen King. On Writing (2000). Subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft”. I’m not a fan of Stephen King, not because he’s a bad writer, but because horror fantasy doesn’t move me. I read some of his short stories way back when, and thought they were well done.
     King writes both about the nuts’n’bolts (grammar and style, narrative pace, character, etc) and his own experience as a writer. The book is worth reading for both. If you need some guidance to improve your writing and work habits, read this book. If you need some inspiration and emotional support because you’re not sure you can hack the writing life, read this book. You will improve your mastery of the craft, and you may discover your writing groove. Or you may discover that you’re not a writer after all. Either way, the book is worth reading.
     More take-aways: Writing is a compulsion, it’s what you have to do to maintain your sense of self.
     Reading a lot is essential to your development as a writer.
     A story is out there, like a fossil to be discovered. Writing it is uncovering the fossil.
     Interesting for any Stepehen King fan, and for anyone who's curious about the writing life. ****

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

What did your lfe mean? The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Mitch Albom)

     Mitch Albom. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003) Albom made his name with Tuesdays With Morrie, which was made into a successful movie. I’ve seen the movie, it teeters just this side of sentimentality.
     This book (also made into a movie) teeters over, which is a pity, since it’s a lovely idea: Eddie, the hero, dies while saving a little girl when a gondola on an amusement park ride falls. The story tells of how in the afterlife he meets five people who affected his life in ways he didn’t fully understand or didn’t know. He needs to discover how his life made sense and had a purpose before he can live in his own corner of heaven.
     Eddie had a harsh upbringing, went to war, came home a changed man, and didn’t have the children he and his wife wanted. He ends up working in maintenance in the Ruby Pier Amusement Park, a job his father held, and which he thinks marks him as a failure. The five people he meets show him otherwise.
     Albom writes well, if occasionally too consciously ironic, and with sometimes too much authorial commentary. If the book causes the reader to reflect on how minor and major incidents shaped his own life, it will have succeeded. As a story about a likeable man who finally understands his own value, it’s well-done. Read it. ***

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Graham Greene's last book: The Last Word

     Graham Greene. The Last Word and Other Stories (1990) In the title story, an old man with a fractured memory and a broken body lives alone in a one-room flat. We gather that some major social and political change has occurred. Eventually, the old man is summoned to see the General, whose predecessor brought about the revolution. The General is curious to see this relic from the bygone age, the last Pope. He offers the old man food and wine before killing him. The old man thanks him for sending him home, and accepts the wine. His last words as he drinks from it are Corpus domini nostri.... The General does not understand the words, but as he squeezes the trigger, there flashes through his mind the anxious thought that perhaps what the old man believed might be true.
     Typically Greene in its mix of thriller, politics, and religion. The other stories offer much the same mix, demonstrating that Green understood the psychology of power and politics as few other writers have done. Worth reading, if somewhat depressing in its unrelieved pessimism about the secularisation of modern life. Greene died about a year after publication. ** to ****

Monday, May 28, 2018

Vintage SF: Blood & Burning by Budrys

     Algis J. Budrys. Blood & Burning (1978) Budrys’s imagination is as off the wall as Philip K. Dick’s, and as dark, too. Three samples:  In Be Merry, the Klarri have crash-landed their lifeboats on Earth. Humans and Klarri mutually infect each other. One small enclave in New Jersey has found a grim method of healing themselves using Klarr blood.
     In All for Love, an impossibly huge spaceship has landed on Earth, apparently in distress. It casually destroys human civilisation, treating humans as pests. The hero manages to make his way to one of the support legs and damage it. The story focuses on the human cost of attempting an impossible task.
     In A Scraping of the Bones, extreme overcrowding leads to murder for extra space in the hive-like apartment blocks.
     Well imagined, well-written, with a tad too much of the formulaic to be a match for P. K. Dick, but still recommended, if you can find copy. ***

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Recent movies I've watched

Mrs Henderson Presents, Pygmalion (1983), Black Panther, Indian Horse. Check the page Movie Reviews I.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Lapham's Quarterly V1, #1: States of War

     Lewis Lapham, ed. Lapham’s Quarterly: Vol. 1, #1: States of War (2008) Lewis lapham, erewhile editor of Harper’s, has been collecting sippets from here and there for years. Starting in 2008, he has issued themed collections of them, the first one about War, because that was the time of the 2nd Gulf War, perpetrated by G W Bush Jr. It’s an fascinating, depressing read.
     War is as old as civilisation. The anthropological consensus is that war and agriculture were invented at the same time, because agriculture created the surplus wealth that made cities possible. But the new technology entailed a new polity, that of the centralised state, which the had to defend itself against other centralised states. Hence war, which required ever larger zones of influence, and so led to empire. Barbarians outside the empire of course coveted its riches, which meant more war. Ecological catastrophes (droughts, multi-year crop failures, plagues) disrupted the more or less stable empires, which meant more war. The leftover pieces of the empires reassembled themselves into new empires. New ecological catastrophes bega ne the cycle all over again.
     And so it went and goes. We now have weapons that will cause the same kind of disruptions that ecological disasters cause, so it’s toss-up which will get us first.
     As I said, it’s a depressing read but worth it. The selections range from more or less scholarly disquisitions through advice on the art of war, to chronicles, reportage and personal witness. You can buy past issues from Lapham’s Quarterly, you may find a current issue at a better bookstore. ****