14 July 2013

"A Cook's Tour," "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," "Thinking, Fast and Slow," "Proof of Heaven," and "River God,"

A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander
River God, Wilbur Smith


A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain is a celebrity and a big success, with a series of books, cookbooks, TV shows, and even a novel.  Ever since his enjoyable and irreverent Kitchen Confidential, his star has risen concurrent with his reputation as the "bad boy" of the kitchen.  And the results have become just as cliched as that sounds.

Bourdain's work is often enjoyable because it's purposefully brash and slightly self-deprecating.  On No Reservations, his travel show, he complains about himself and marvels at the exotic sights around him in a smoker's mellow tones.  Bourdain makes the viewer, or the reader, feel like an insider to the experiences of a lovable rascal.  Usually, it succeeds and it's a lot of fun.  In A Cook's Tour, though, it feels forced and self-conscious.  It's impossible to avoid the feeling that Bourdain can see his own puppet-strings, as he sprays adorably outrageous sentiments about the nice things in the world, and sprays adorable outrage at the not-so-nice.
One look at the abject squalor of the capital city’s crumbling and unpaved streets and any thought that Cambodia might be fun flew out the window. If you’re a previously unemployable ex-convenience store clerk from Leeds or Tulsa, however, a guy with no conscience and no chance of ever knowing the love of an unintoxicated woman, then Cambodia can be a paradise. You can get a job as an English teacher for about seven dollars an hour (which makes you one of the richest people in the country). Weed, smack, whores, guns, and prescription drugs are cheap and easy to find. You can behave as badly as you wish. Shy boys on motorbikes will ferry you from bar to bar, waiting outside while you drink yourself into a stupor. You can eat dinner, then penetrate indentured underaged prostitutes, buy a kilo of not very good weed, drink yourself stuttering drunk, and be driven safely home to your spacious apartment – all for under thirty dollars. Cambodia is a dream come true for international losers – a beautiful but badly beaten woman, staked out on an anthill for every predator in the world to do with what he wishes.
Much of the book registers these same tones: a sneer that's slightly too self-conscious and bilious to be enjoyable.  The boyish delight of discovery, which can help mitigate this snarl, is in short supply.  That's a shame, because the glee in sensory pleasures and childhood remembrances is one of the best things the author offers in the book - there's just not enough of it, especially when compared with its predecessor.  Kitchen Confidential was huge and roaring and fun, a bonfire that makes A Cook's Tour seem a flicker of light in comparison

Sophomore works often suffer this fate.  They say the same problem occurs with some bands that strike it big - their first album is about their lives, but their second album can only be about their reactions to their newfound success.  That's just not that interesting.

The book also features some of the famous Bourdain contempt for vegetarians, which is offered with almost no reflection.  It's the written version of an unpleasant smirk.  I include it here out of personal distaste and derision.
Today, while lesser mortals cower around their veggie plates in hemp sandals, cringing at the thought of contamination by animal product, St. John’s [restaurant] devotees – and there are a lot of them – flock to his plain, undecorated dining room to revel in roasted marrow, rolled spleen, grilled ox heart, braised belly, and fried pig’s tails.
It was a very ballsy position to take back in the early nineties – and it’s an even ballsier proposition today, when the Evil Axis Powers of Health Nazis, Vegetarian Taliban, European Union bureaucrats, antismoking crystal worshipers, PETA fundamentalists, fast-food theme-restaurant moguls, and their sympathizers are consolidating their fearful hold on popular dining habits and practices.
There are better cook's memoirs, including Bourdain's first book and others like Blood, Bones, and Butter (by Gabrielle Hamilton).  Enjoy them instead.


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver

I've lost count of how many "one year experiment" books we've seen these days.  One year to cook like Julia Child, one year living the Bible, and now - from Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible, Lacuna, and Flight Behavior - one year of eating locally.

Let me emphasize from the outset that I sympathize with her position, because I think locavorism is environmentally responsible and re-connects you with the land in a necessary way.  But this book is just terrible, and I don't see how it could convince anyone of anything but the neurotic priggishness of the Kingsolver clan.

The plan:
The story is pegged, as we were, to a one-year cycle of how and when foods become available in a temperate climate. Because food cultures affect everyone living under the same roof, we undertook this project—both the eating and the writing—as a family. Steven’s sidebars are, in his words, “fifty-cent buckets of a dollar’s worth of goods” on various topics I’ve mentioned in the narrative. Camille’s essays offer a nineteen-year-old’s perspective on the local-food project, plus nutritional information, recipes, and meal plans for every season. Lily’s contributions were many, including more than fifty dozen eggs and a willingness to swear off Pop-Tarts for the duration, but she was too young to sign a book contract.
These are good intentions, but they pave the way to an unbearable text.

I understand that the "year-as-a-___" books lean heavily on their gimmick, and so a reader might be interested in exactly how close the author stuck to their guns.  Did Rachael Held Evans, we wonder, really spend an entire year living as a Biblically submissive wife - or did she slip up and disagree with her husband?  When A.J. Jacobs spent a year reading the encyclopedia, did he make it through the whole thing within the year or did he start skimming?

But these sorts of discussions are only interesting to the extent that a lapse is meaningful in a larger way, because it indicates the implausibility of that lifestyle.  For example, it might not actually be possible for a modern woman to shun society during her menses as required by the Old Testament - if Evans' accidentally touched a man's hand during that time and "contaminated" him, that lapse speaks to the feasibility of a completely Biblical life.  It makes sense to include it.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, on the other hand, reads all too often like the diary of a failing dieter.  It dolefully trundles through problems at length, but manages - despite being far too overwritten - to skirt around many deeper meanings.

Here is a sample of one of the many moments of quaint discovery in the book, overcoming an issue (in this case, "What to do with rhubarb?").
Rhubarb isn’t technically fruit, it’s an overgrown leaf petiole, but it’s a fine April stand-in. Later at home when we looked in Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Fruit for some good recipes, we found Alice agreed with us on this point. “Rhubarb,” she writes, “is the vegetable bridge between the tree fruits of winter and summer.” That poetic injunction sent us diving into the chest freezer, retrieving the last package of our frozen Yellow Transparent apple slices from last summer. For dinner guests we threw together an apple-rhubarb cobbler to ring out the old year and ring in the new. Rhubarb, the April fruit. I’m a monkey’s uncle.
It doesn't just read like it's from Sky Magazine or some other in-flight publication, it's also the sort of revelation-without-an-actual-revelation that's peppered in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle's pages.

There might have been a chance to wring out a salvageable work from this text, even if it lacked insight, if it was well-written.  A pleasant and funny account of a family's trials as they attempt to drastically change their life would be worth reading.  Alternately, the drama of an upscale family attempting an overambitious ethical dream could also be interesting.  Kingsolver does neither, instead writing a book so involved in itself that it forgets the reader.

Here's an example:
For three hundred miles we drove that day through desperately parched Sonoran badlands, chewing our salty cashews with a peculiar guilt. We had all shared this wish, in some way or another: that it wouldn’t rain on our day off. Thunderheads dissolved ahead of us, as if honoring our compatriot’s desire to wash her car as the final benediction pronounced on a dying land. In our desert, we would not see rain again.
Notice that, even in the span of a paragraph, the book gets far too wrapped up in its own momentary theme.  These ten-cent words, double-gilded and ornamented with crepe, are less like the elements of a sentence and more like the sort of tiny carved chair your grandmother wouldn't let you sit in.

And the smugness!  Despite Kingsolver's best efforts to hold it back, it's lapping at the top of the dam.
In the grocery store checkout corral, we’re more likely to learn which TV stars are secretly fornicating than to inquire as to the whereabouts of the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our carts.
The two co-writers don't much help.  Kingsolver's husband is a lesser villain; his columns are moderately interesting and filled with facts, though it was certainly a good choice to limit them to their brief blurbs.  The daughter's contributions are... well, exactly what you'd expect from a 19-year-old.
“Just try one, Camille, you might like it this year,” Mom would say, enthusiastically serving me a single green shoot. Yeah, right! I would think. Ever so gingerly, I would spear the menacing vegetable with my fork and bring the tip of it to my tongue. That’s as far as I would get before dramatically wincing and flicking the asparagus down in disgust.
Camille Kingsolver's writing isn't that poor, considering her age and role, but neither does it add much - especially since, as she later reveals, she spent much of the year eating in her college dining hall instead.

Last of all - and sorry for this repetition - of particular interest to me was the discussion of vegetarianism.  I think this is something any serious environmentalist should contemplate, and I was glad to see Kingsolver, the ardent locavore, tackling the issue.  Alas.
I find myself fundamentally allied with a vegetarian position in every way except one: however selectively, I eat meat. I’m unimpressed by arguments that condemn animal harvest while ignoring, wholesale, the animal killing that underwrites vegetal foods. Uncountable deaths by pesticide and habitat removal—the beetles and bunnies that die collaterally for our bread and veggie-burgers—are lives plumb wasted. Animal harvest is at least not gratuitous, as part of a plan involving labor and recompense. We raise these creatures for a reason. Such premeditation may be presumed unkind, but without it our gentle domestic beasts in their picturesque shapes, colors, and finely tuned purposes would never have had the distinction of existing. To envision a vegan version of civilization, start by erasing from all time the Three Little Pigs, the boy who cried wolf, Charlotte’s Web, the golden calf, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Next, erase civilization, brought to you by the people who learned to domesticate animals. Finally, rewrite our evolutionary history, since Homo sapiens became the species we are by means of regular binges of carnivory.
The nut of her argument seems to be that agriculture also involves animal death, so it's hypocritical to avoid meat.  That's a common argument, and even one I can respect, even though it turns the perfect into the enemy of the good (can we really make no progress, if perfect nonviolence is not attainable?)
But the rest of the nonsense is almost insulting in its sophistry!

Yes, there is an undeniable charm in "gentle domestic beasts," but the idea that we should continue to raise, slaughter, and eat them because of that charm is inane.  It's like suggesting that it would be a shame to have prevented WWI, because then we might never have turned out all those biplanes with their "picturesque shapes, colors, and finely tuned purposes."  There have often been marvelous consequences to villainous practices, but we must still stop the villainy!

Almost beneath mention is the succeeding argument that an end to eating meat would mean an end to the culture and history built on that practice.  The Arabian Nights and Uncle Tom's Cabin involve slavery as pivotal elements to their plots - did the ending of slavery mean that we were rejecting these works of art?  How can Kingsolver suggest, with a straight face, that widespread vegetarianism would imply a rejection of Charlotte's Web, that famously pro-slaughter text?

The reasoning in this paragraph, particularly aggravating as it might be, represents the muddled thinking and lack of insight in the whole.  Insult is added to injury by way of the writing, which is in love with itself.  Skip this book, and read Jonathan Safran Froer's Eating Animals instead.  It's a more serious and more tolerably-written experiment in changing one's food lifestyle.


Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman

When I become really enthusiastic about a book, I become annoying about it.  For a period of about a month, I will suddenly veer off in conversations, starting a rapid and cheerful new thought by saying, for example, "That reminds me of part of Thinking, Fast and Slow when Kahneman..."

Every so often, you simply find a book that explains some of the secret workings of the world.  And you want to share that with everyone, even if they don't want to hear about it anymore.

The center of Kahneman's book is his theory, developed in conjunction with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky, that human thought takes place in two different modes - the titular fast mode, which he calls System 1, and the slower System 2.  System 1 operates on broad rules of thumb or heuristics, jumping to conclusions according to principles that are likely to arrive at the right answer most of the time, while System 2 is the more laborious process of contemplative thought.  Kahneman goes through a long list of cognitive phenomena, discovered both by himself and by other researchers, and assembles them into order under this two-system schema.

As an example: one well-known phenomenon mentioned in the text is the "availability heuristic."  This is the principle we often unconsciously use to determine the frequency of an event.  It boils down to the easy availability of examples when we think about that event.  If many examples come to mind, then we assume that the event happens frequently.

Suppose, then, that someone asks you if Neighborhood X is a dangerous place at night.  If you can easily think of examples of muggings happening there, then you are likely to think that muggings are frequent, and thus that Neighborhood X is indeed dangerous at night.

It's a good rule and well-documented in the literature, and Kahneman explains that it makes sense for System 1 to use it to sort through most information.  It is, in fact, pretty likely that Neighborhood X is a bad place to be.

Unfortunately, it's imperfect.  This can be seen when you think about other examples, such trying to judge how dangerous a fall from a height might be.  The news often runs stories about people falling from significant heights - two, three, or more stories - and surviving without much harm, so you will be inclined to think that it might not be that dangerous to fall from the second story of a building.  But the fact is that it's simply much more newsworthy when people are not injured in a serious fall, and so that's what you hear about, and that's what comes easily to mind.  Your judgment will be skewed away from caution, in defiance of reality.  In Kahneman's formulation, the hasty System 1 has failed.

In hindsight, this might seem like common sense.  It makes sense that we don't bother to think too deeply over most aspects of our lives - proverbially we can't "worry about every little thing."  There simply isn't the time or energy, no matter how clever or thoughtful we might be.  In fact, even if we could, it would probably be too exhausting to give any useful results.  You wouldn't be able to get anything done if you spent all day second-guessing your intuition.

But the key to successfully using all the best aspects of your two-system human brain, Kahneman suggests, is to simply recognize some important danger signs.  When they occur, you should pause to examine your intuitive System 1 conclusion with System 2's thoughtfulness.

To draw on another example, we might turn to the phenomenon of anchoring, which psychologists have been scrutinizing for years.  Anchoring occurs when you ask someone to put a number on something - the price of a car or the monetary value of the loss of a limb.  If you suggest your own amount beforehand, they are likely to incline towards it, no matter their own judgment.  Thus many lawsuits ask for huge sums, knowing that while the verdict may not match their request, the simple act of requesting will skew the result significantly up.

Kahneman discusses one practical result:
Finally, try your hand at working out the effect of anchoring on a problem of public policy: the size of damages in personal injury cases. These awards are sometimes very large. Businesses that are frequent targets of such lawsuits, such as hospitals and chemical companies, have lobbied to set a cap on the awards. Before you read this chapter you might have thought that capping awards is certainly good for potential defendants, but now you should not be so sure. Consider the effect of capping awards at $1 million. This rule would eliminate all larger awards, but the anchor would also pull up the size of many awards that would otherwise be much smaller. It would almost certainly benefit serious offenders and large firms much more than small ones.
In his clear, personable prose, Kahneman examines phenomenon after phenomenon and explores their practical effects in our daily life.  Pleasantly, he avoids many of the flighty generalizations and irresponsible suggestions of pop-psychology books.  He seldom indulges himself in the shock value of the unproven, sticking to relating well-supported problems of psychology rather than the all-to-common "some research has suggested" nonsense of many popular texts (I'm looking at you, Malcolm Gladwell).

This is an indispensable book.  Read it.


Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander

It almost seems like kicking Alexander while he's down to do this review, but I am playing catch-up, and it's not my fault that last week a lengthy article was published in Esquire exposing him as a fraud.

So, the short of it: Alexander claims he was a competent neurosurgeon who ran into trouble after personal trauma (Esquire suggests he is more likely just a sloppy operator), but whose life changed after he was struck with a terrible infection, losing brain function as he lay in a coma for a week (Esquire interviewed his doctor, who says that Alexander was intermittently conscious and delirious, and never so ill).  During this illness, he experienced a vision of heaven - white tunnel and all - and now is moved to evangelize about the truth of the afterlife.

In Alexander's lengthier telling, which also showcases his decent writing style:
I’m a neurosurgeon. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1976 with a major in chemistry and earned my M.D. at Duke University Medical School in 1980. During my eleven years of medical school and residency training at Duke as well as Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard, I focused on neuroendocrinology, the study of the interactions between the nervous system and the endocrine system—the series of glands that release the hormones that direct most of your body’s activities. Mine was in some ways a perfect storm of near-death experiences. As a practicing neurosurgeon with decades of research and hands-on work in the operating room behind me, I was in a better-than-average position to judge not only the reality but also the implications of what happened to me. Those implications are tremendous beyond description. My experience showed me that the death of the body and the brain are not the end of consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave. More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going. The place I went was real. Real in a way that makes the life we’re living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison. This doesn’t mean I don’t value the life I’m living now, however. In fact, I value it more than I ever did before. I do so because I now see it in its true context. This life isn’t meaningless. But we can’t see that fact from here—at least most of the time. What happened to me while I was in that coma is hands-down the most important story I will ever tell. But it’s a tricky story to tell because it is so foreign to ordinary understanding. I can’t simply shout it from the rooftops. At the same time, my conclusions are based on a medical analysis of my experience, and on my familiarity with the most advanced concepts in brain science and consciousness studies. Once I realized the truth behind my journey, I knew I had to tell it. Doing so properly has become the chief task of my life.
In many ways, this book was a let-down.  I'd loved works like Heaven Is for Real because they were so hilariously transparent, but Alexander is careful and methodical in his story and the revelations.  In fact, the book is quite convincing, filled with medical detail:
Once in Major Bay 1, I continued to decline. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) glucose level of a normal healthy person is around 80 milligrams per deciliter. An extremely sick person in imminent danger of dying from bacterial meningitis can have a level as low as 20 mg/dl. I had a CSF glucose level of 1. My Glasgow Coma Scale was eight out of fifteen, indicative of a severe brain illness, and declined further over the next few days. My APACHE II score (Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation) in the ER was 18 out of a possible 71, indicating that the chances of my dying during that hospitalization were about 30 percent.
Further, Alexander takes care to establish himself as a credible skeptic.  This is common, but in his case, it's actually done well.  He really sells himself as a scientist who was only reluctantly converted.
Just as Holley had run out the door to follow the ambulance, her cell phone had buzzed. It was her longtime friend Sylvia White. Sylvia always had an uncanny way of reaching out precisely when important things were happening. Holley was convinced she was psychic. (I had opted for the safer and more sensible explanation that she was just a very good guesser.)
So while I had hoped for a fun romp through some nonsense, I was actually presented with the puzzling case of a credible, intelligent, accomplished man who was credibly asserting his personal experience.  While it wasn't really "proof of heaven" - and he admits as much, since it's just anecdote - it wasn't the muck that I was, shamefully, expecting.

While the book is of a higher caliber than many of the other similar works I have read, its philosophy does have a lot in common with the works of Sylvia Browne.  Browne is a popular fraud of a psychic who has written voluminously on the exact way the afterlife works (right down to the geography and bureaucracy), and she has laid out a description that rang very similar to Alexander's.  Both of them invent and capitalize these otherworldly bureaus where you are processed and pass on.  Browne talks about the Gate and the Hall; Alexander talks about the Gateway and the Core.  And both use broad and inchoate language to articulate the vast knowledge that they experience once dead.
Why am I so sure of all this? For two reasons. The first is that I was shown it (by the beings who taught me when I was in the Gateway and the Core), and the second is because I actually experienced it. While beyond my body, I received knowledge about the nature and structure of the universe that was vastly beyond my comprehension. But I received it anyhow, in large part because, with my worldly preoccupations out of the way, I had room to do so. Now that I’m back on earth and remember my bodily identity, the seed of that trans-earthly knowledge has once again been covered over. And yet it’s still there. I can feel it, at every moment. It will take years, in this earthly environment, to come to fruition. That is, it will take me years to understand, using my mortal, material brain, what I understood so instantly and easily in the brain-free realms of the world beyond. Yet I’m confident that with hard work on my part, much of that knowledge will continue to unfold.
But it must be said that this is the best-written of any believer's book on the afterlife that I have encountered.  Take the description of a sort of purgatory, for example:
Grotesque animal faces bubbled out of the muck, groaned or screeched, and then were gone again. I heard an occasional dull roar. Sometimes these roars changed to dim, rhythmic chants, chants that were both terrifying and weirdly familiar—as if at some point I’d known and uttered them all myself.
Now, despite this unusually high quality, it has to be remembered that it all appears to be predicated on some pretty vital falsehoods.  Alexander was not an innocent man in some personal trouble, he was probably a slipshod surgeon.  And he was never clinically dead, he was delirious for a week.  These are important facts, and it's sad and crude that he simply falsified them in order to craft a more dramatic and persuasive story.  Be aware of them: if you read this book, check out the pertinent journalism.

But ultimately, it's probably not worth your time to explore a well-written bamboozle.  It's not bad enough to be entertaining, and it's not honest enough to be important.  Skip Proof of Heaven.


River God, Wilbur Smith

This book has a strange popularity on the internet - I have seen it recommended in all sorts of places (Reddit, Goodreads, Somethingawful, etc).  I'm not sure why, though, because it's a good bit of historical fiction, but not extraordinary.  Set in ancient Egypt, it follows the exploits of the eunuch slave Taita, who is the guiding hand behind one of the wives of a pharaoh during a turbulent time of invasion.  The writing is decent and the plot is suitably interesting, but the enthusiasm for this book is disproportionately enthusiastic.  It's odd - maybe the thing just snowballed.

In River God, our narrator, Taita, is a supernal genius.  He is brilliant at every conceivable discipline, essentially inventing mathematics, engineering, military tactics, political maneuvering, financing, and all the sciences.  He puts this comically broad skillset into practice in support of the young girl he's raised from childhood, Lostris, and her lover, Tanus.  Taita's clever positioning soon elevates the pair to the side of the Pharaoh, and thereon into guiding all of Egypt.

The writing is well-paced, moving swiftly along and engaging the reader's interest.  It's not graceful or subtle, though, and can become a little pulpy:
Behind me I heard the gravelly rasp as Memnon drew the blue sword from its scabbard on the side panel, and from the corner of my eye I caught the steely flash of the blade as he went on guard.
Worse, the characters are singularly one-dimensional and boring, hooking our sympathies through reliable but crude methods.

On the plus side, it is interesting to have a narrator and protagonist who is personally removed from the action - as a eunuch slave, he is always an adviser and bystander to events, seldom able to revel in triumphs or claim personal success, even though when he is the author of the victory.

Overall, River God is a decent book, but not great.  It's an easy read and might be good for passing a few hours, but don't look for any depth.

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