Want to feel superior (as a species) and happy about human progress? The Runaway Species: How human creativity remakes the world is for you. It’s an entertainingly written catalog of all kinds of creative human achievements, nicely including visual arts and science (literature and other arts, not so much), singing the glory of our wonderful species. What could be wrong with that?
Nothing, I suppose, except that I keep trying to figure out the point of all this (which, by the way, is not entirely true, since animals do create, although the authors strongly deny it). The last chapters weakly suggest that we should encourage more creativity in schools. Point well taken, but I’m not sure we need 250 pages to demonstrate that.
Written by an archeologist who is not content to unearth artifacts, but wants to understand and learn how to make a basket, say, or maintain a proper hedgerow, Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts could be a fascinating exploration of the lost or almost-lost arts of making things. And indeed, there are some glimmers of that here and there. But the author spends a great deal of time trying to convince us that we should go back to traditional basketry, for instance (even as he explains it takes hours to make one basket — and only after having cultivated the branches required to make the basked for a couple of years!) instead of consuming cheap plastic things. Even if you like the idea of traditional baskets, the argument just does not make sense.
Also, the explanations of how stone walls are built, leather is tanned, or roofs thatched the old way are rather cryptic and would greatly benefit from some visuals. All that makes for a rather tedious book. Too bad! If you’ve ever admired a well-made pitchfork or a water-tight basked, it would be wonderful to understand better how they are made.
The author of The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom spent a year in a Denver classroom that is the first stop for teenaged immigrants, in this case mostly refugees, until they can speak enough English to move to a more advanced class, and eventually to the mainstream. She describes the wonderful teacher and his lessons, and meets with some students and their parents outside school to learn more about their background and struggles.
The best parts of the book, you won’t be surprised to hear, are the descriptions of the classroom and the interactions between the students, shy and reticent at first, and then friendly and tightly bound to each other. Unfortunately the author seems to desperately want to inject her own beliefs and judgment into the mix, which makes for grating commentary (for instance on why one sister wears the hijab and the other does not) and sometimes outright embarrassing behavior (when she travels to a refugee camp in Africa and shows pictures of one students to his cousin, who is understandably miffed at the luck that did not visit him). So awkward, but interesting.
If, like most of us, all you know of Hokusai is the iconic wave that adorns the cover of this book, you will enjoy Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave. It turns out that Hokusai lived a long life, during which he traversed through many different styles of painting and illustrating, and that he correspondingly changed his name from time to time, becoming “the artist formerly known as Hokusai” at the end of his life, a title that I found particularly delightful.The gorgeous illustrations, always positioned right next to the text, are also a delight.
I read The Kingdom of Speech cover to cover, and I still don’t quite know what it’s about. That’s a problem. It’s beautifully written, which is good, but the topic is bizarre. I think the author wants to show that speech drives the progress of humanity, not evolution — but surely he can’t seriously argue that speech just “appeared”.
A real puzzle.
Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing come after God’s Hotel, but it encompasses the author’s life both before and after her stint at the San Francisco sub-acute hospital that was the focus of the first book. Her thesis is the same: that by providing medical care both aggressively and without coordinating between the different health care actors, we ultimately provide poor care, and at great cost. The best parts of the book, as was the case for the first one, are the ones when she describes patients and her experiences, especially during her training. Her harangues are less successful (although they are considerably tamer than my memories of the earlier book).
America the Anxious: Why Our Search for Happiness Is Driving Us Crazy and How to Find It for Real is written in an entertaining style by a newly-transplanted Brit who takes a wry look at the antics of northern Californians in quest of happiness. Of course, thinking that mainstream Americans spend their time on children’s playground painfully translating their toddlers’ tantrums into words– or that everyone checks Facebook as compulsively as she does — leads to rather ridiculous adventures, from EST-inpired seminars to a gratingly patronizing visit to Mormon Utah .
There are some funny, if overdone comparisons, as when she notes that lunchtime at Facebook, when harassed moms drag children to see dad for a little while, feels like prison visits. But it’s not entirely clear that she actually realizes that prison visits are a lot less fun. On the whole, the book is better seen as a satire than a rational inquiry.