Category Archives: Book Reviews

Cloud Atlas

imagesI confess I feel a bit speechless as I contemplate communicating my thoughts and feelings about what is perhaps the most monumentally deep and imaginative book I have read in my entire life; and I have read a lot. Try combining the conviction (though not the ideas) of “Atlas Shrugged” with the imagination of “Harry Potter” with the transcendent themes, subtlety, and crafted prose of “East of Eden.”

A friend mentioned to me that they knew someone who had referred to this book as “anti-Communist”. I was amused by that description because that very day I was trying to figure out what the political point of view of the author was, I couldn’t do it, and I liked that. The theme of “Cloud Atlas” is certainly “anti-Big Brother,” but it is also “anti-Monopoly” and “anti-Consumerism” and very, very green (in the ecological sense). It searches for all that is universal in human nature. It questions our value systems and what lies at the heart of the truly civilized as opposed to savage man. Will the strong always consume the weak, or is there hope for compassion? It traces individual souls as they blow across time, and in the end, it gives hope and an answer to what one single human can do when confronted with the monumental arc of history. The meaning of the title is evoked in several spots but none so clearly as at the end of the sixth story (my excerpts will spoil nothing):

“I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”

The novel is composed of six separate stories, all at a different time in history and with very different backdrops and characters. Yet each one is tangentially connected to the others as if to show the myriad ways that one life affects another. The author tells the first half of the first story, starting in 1850, and then proceeds to tell the first half of the next four stories, followed by the sixth story, 500 years in the future, which he tells in full. Each one has a different format: a journal, a series of letters, a non-fiction book, a memoir, an interview, and finally, an oral “yarn” a tribesman tells to the “young-uns”. The second half of each story is then finished so that you end up where you started. The main character (the letter writer) of the second story (Belgium, 1931) tells about a musical piece he is writing entitled “Cloud Atlas Sextet:”

“Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished…”

For those readers who enjoy metaphor and symbolism, they will find that it abounds here. To illustrate the question of what it means to be civilized (man’s rise from the savage), the theme of ascent and descent occupies a place in each story: a man climbs a volcano and falls down into it; the musician jumps from a hotel window to escape and climbs a belltower in a town square; a car is forced off a cliff; a man is thrown off a building; two characters climb Mauna Kea to explore the buildings (the astronomical observatories) of the “Smart ‘uns” before the “Fall,” and while one recognizes it as amazing technology from the past, the other believes they are the Temples of the satanic “Old Georgie,” responsible for all the evil in the world. The author’s point, I think, is to show that the ascent of man is not just a straight line upward. Our technological prowess is no guarantor of the benevolent progress of our humanity. If we aren’t careful it may just provide us with more efficient ways of destroying our fellow man and the entire earth we reside on. Each generation has to relearn and guard our moral progress.

From a purely literary standpoint, the author accomplishes tricks that are beyond belief. What makes this a challenging read is not just it’s structure or depth. The journal, written in 1850 from a sailing ship, uses language that seems to come right out of that period with astute attention paid to nautical terminology. The interview with a fabricant (a genomed worker from a womb tank) in Korea 100 years from now uses words and concepts that would seem to come right from the mind of the most imaginative futurist. And the oral tale told in pidgin English, which seems could only be crafted from the mind of an expert language historian, while difficult to read at first, becomes so enthralling you may find yourself imitating it in real life.

As if you can’t tell, I heartily recommend this book! Reading what I have written above, it may seem I have overdone my praise; but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! I have not seen the recently made movie, but I’m skeptical that the complexity in the book could be translated with all it’s depth without sounding trite and New-Agey (After I do see it I’ll write a comment below). This is a story worthy of slow and thoughtful attention. P.S. One hint: pay attention to which characters have the “comet shaped tattoo.”

Note to blog readers: You may have noticed that I have loved all the books I’ve reviewed here. That’s true! It doesn’t mean I’m an easy critic, however. It just means that only a good book makes me enthusiastic enough to share the book and write a review. If you read “Cloud Atlas” after reading this review, please comment below. Or even if you already have!

A Trio of Happiness

Without setting out to do so, I have recently finished my third book in a row which dealt with the subject of happiness. Each one targeted the subject from a completely different angle, and any of them would be on my “highly recommend” list.

The first aimed at the subject by answering the question “What is the fundamental psychological foundation of happiness?”

FLOW by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Of all the books I have ever read on the subject of self help/psychology/and man’s spirit, nothing has impressed me more nor made such original insights into my own understanding of myself as this. It referenced, more than once, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which was a book that started me on a more spiritual way of living in my twenties. Since reading “Flow,” I had the experience of reading a wonderful new book, “Emotional Equations,” which references not only that book but “Flow” a number of times. Someone is guiding my reading list!

But “Flow” is not your usual self help book, and the author does not wish you to construe it as such. It is a book on human psychology, and specifically the psychology of happiness. I do not intend to broach all the subjects that Mihaly brings up in his book but I hope what I’ve written below may peak your interest.

First, What is Flow?

Flow is a state of mind, which he calls “optimal experience,” where a person is completely immersed in their current activity; their concentration is focused on something narrowly requiring their attention. They may lose track of time, lose a sense of self consciousness (even bodily needs),  and feel a strong sense of control over their situation. They are living completely in the present moment and feeling a strong sense of contentment and purpose.

A state of Flow requires at least the following:

1. There are clear goals and some level of rules which govern the activity. This keeps a person well directed and feeling little confusion as they proceed.

2. There must be a good balance between a person’s perceived skill level and the perceived challenges of the activity. If for example. If one is learning tennis and is playing with a pro, neither person is likely to feel flow; the beginner is overwhelmed and discouraged and the pro is bored. As one proceeds in the activity over time, and the skill level increases, the challenge must also increase.

3. There has to be feedback that is constant and clear. A person must be able to judge how they are doing. Without it, there is no way to adjust their behavior and increase their skill. To use the above example again, when learning tennis there is obvious feedback: did the ball go over the net and land in the proper place? How does the ball react to the different levels of force I put on the racket? How is my current level of physical fitness?

While different people may glean different bits of wisdom from this book, here is one that struck me when reading it and that has remained with me since:

The author makes a difference between what he calls “pleasurable” and “enjoyable” activities. While this choice of words seems a bit arbitrary to me (close in normal meaning), the conceptual difference he describes is profound.

“Pleasurable” activities are those that attempt to meet biological or “socially conditioned” needs. These are things like eating when one is hungry, sleeping when one is tired, drinking alcohol or relaxing in front of the TV set when one is stressed,  even drinking water when one is thirsty, and engaging in sex when one’s libido revs up.  In each of  these activities the body expresses a need which we then attempt to fulfill. There is nothing wrong with this and it keeps the body in a state of homeostasis (unchanging internal conditions) where it can continue to function normally. A homeostatic state, though, is one in which conditions remain the same. There is neither degeneration nor growth. A person who engages in only pleasurable activities (in extreme cases often called a hedonist) will eventually stagnate in their personal growth.

“Enjoyable” activities on the other hand, require some sort of challenge to the person’s skill set and generally follow the parameters set in the requirements for “flow” explained above.  There is a sense of accomplishment and the self grows in complexity. To quote the author in one of my favorite passages: “Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration  refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond the self.  A complex self is one that succeeds in combining these opposite tendencies…flow helps the process of differentiation…but without integration, a differentiated system would be a confusing mess”.

Emotional Equations by Chip Conley

This book was not strictly about “happiness;” it was a new way of analyzing the full spectrum of human emotions. It employed math equations, as the title suggests, to think about the relationship we have between emotions and aspects of human experience. It is subtitled “Simple Truths for Creating Happiness + Success,” so I guess happiness is indeed one of his aims.  It also referenced “Man’s Search for Meaning” and “Flow” liberally, which for me, is a good sign. Here are the equations he analyzes in his book and separates by chapter:

Despair = Suffering – Meaning

Disappointment = Expectation – Reality

Regret = Disappointment + Responsibility

Jealousy = Mistrust/Self-Esteem

Envy = (Pride + Vanity)/Kindness

Anxiety = Uncertainty x Powerlessness

Calling = Pleasure/Pain

Workaholism = What You Are Running From/What Are You Living For?

Flow = Skill/Challenge

Curiosity = Wonder + Awe

Authenticity = Self Awareness x Courage

Narcissism = (Self-Esteem)^2 x Entitlement

Integrity = Authenticity x Invisibility x Reliability

Happiness = Wanting What You Have/Having What You Want

Joy = Love – Fear

Thriving = Frequency of Positive/Frequency of Negative

Faith = Belief/Intellect

Wisdom = (Experience)^(1/2)

As a reader of this blog might suspect, my favorite chapter was on Curiosity, but I’m prejudiced. The entire book is very accessible, told in an anecdotal way, as if the author was speaking directly to you, and math phobic people need not fear. Actually, being the geek I am, I was a little dispappointed to see some of the equations did not hold up under algebraic scrutiny. In any event he will have you thinking about these relationships in your own life, and he encourages you to make up your own emotional equations and share them on his website: http://emotionalequations.com/ where you can even read a chapter.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin had it all…a great husband and two healthy vital girls, financial security, had worked for the Supreme Court, and more…yet she wondered why she didn’t feel more happy. Was this it? Was she doing something wrong? So she decided to take an entire year and find  out.

As the title implies, this is not just a book, it is a project. And like Emotional Equations, Gretchen Rubin applies a gimmick, except that the gimmick is not used  to just write a book, but how to live her life for an entire year. She researched and planned (something she obviously loves to do) for six months, and then began on January 1 to study, and practice, happiness from different aspects during each of the following twelve months. Here’s how her year was laid out:

  • January: Vitality–Boost Energy
  • February: Marriage–Remember Love
  • March: Work–Aim Higher
  • April: Parenthood–Lighten Up
  • May: Leisure–Be Serious About Play
  • June: Friendship–Make Time for Friends
  • July: Money–Buy Some Happiness
  • August: Eternity–Contemplate the Heavens
  • September: Books–Pursue a Passion
  • October: Mindfulness–Pay Attention
  • November: Attitude–Keep a Contented Heart
  • December: Happiness–Boot Camp Perfect

As she tackles each month, I was amazed at the gumption with which she threw herself into her task. Resolutions and lists were made galore, books were read and thousands of quotes were studied, all to be practically applied to her busy life. She seemed to only get deeper and more resolute as she went along and I especially like the last six months, with October being my favorite.

A reader will get the most from this book if they use it as a manual for their own “happiness project,” which she heartily encourages. She advocates setting aside time to plan your own project too, for no one’s should look exactly alike. To this end she has created a website: http://happiness-project.com/  I have begun to participate in this site myself. There is such a treasure trove of happiness information there that almost anyone could find perusing her site interesting and useful.

Gretchen Rubin is obviously someone who has found a passion and calling, and her increasing fame in both the book and blog world, shows what can happen if you follow yours.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

This story is a modern day take on Hamlet. The setting is northern Wisconsin during the sixties and seventies and revolves around a family that is raising a fictional breed of dog. Edgar, the son, is mute, and must sign or write in order to communicate. By having been given the task of naming the dogs from the dictionary, he has a tremendous vocabulary.

The prose in this book is phenomenal. Many times it borders on poetry and I kept rereading passages to get the full grasp of the meaning. The point of view often changes between characters and a few chapters are even told from the dog’s point of view. There is one chapter in particular where he discusses the dog’s perception of time, and really, only very poetic prose could capture this shift in consciousness. I felt like I was reading the first novel of  someone who will one day have the stature of Steinbeck. There is a touch of magical realism in parts…such as the appearance of the ghost of “Hamlet’s” (Edgar’s) father.

The overarching sense that one gets is that the author was extremely patient; that he had no rush to proceed to the next sentence until he was fully satisfied with the present one. Because the prose is so dense, deep and beautifully crafted, the gratification is in the journey, as in our own lives, not the ending. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will just say that I was unprepared for it. It might behoove the reader to peruse a short summary of Hamlet before taking on the book. Although the novel is titled “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” I felt in the end it was equally about the dogs, and in fact, it could even be called “The Story of a Barn”.  The people live in a moral world and live the consequences of  their decisions, and as in stories like “Crime and Punishment” or any Shakespearean tragedy, the author eloquently shows how evil choices can metastasize into something much worse. The dogs, meanwhile, exist on a higher plane and in the end are immune to the vagaries of this human morality play.  They don’t deserve to suffer from our actions.

So the themes twist about those of communication, journeys, patience, discipline and human evil. Being so carefully written and researched I learned a lot about many peripheral subjects too, such as dog training. Did you know that dog learn hand signal commands much more easily than vocal commands?

I wrote this little review because I felt it was one of the more important books I’ve read in a long time. A few questions were left unanswered for me and I would appreciate having someone to discuss them with. In fact, for this very reason, this would be an excellent choice for a book club. Although a serious one…one has to savor this book…it’s not possible to blow right through it.

Just Six Numbers, by Martin Rees

N = 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

This number is how many times stronger the electrical force (the attractive force between the negative electron and the positive proton) is compared to the gravitational force.  If this number had a few less zeroes the universe would be smaller and stars would burn hotter and be shorter lived…not allowing enough time for higher lifeforms to evolve. Plus, if gravity were stronger, life would not be able to evolve much larger bodyforms than insects. Gravity is amazingly feeble compared to the electrical force, but it is additive, so that on large scales it becomes the organizing force in the universe, while the electrical force is the organizing force on small scales.

E = .007

This is the percentage of mass that converts to energy when hydrogen combines to form helium (the energy source for stars). This number is derived from the strength of the strong force binding the protons together in the atomic nucleus.

If E were less than .006 hydrogen would not bind into helium…let alone helium combining to form the higher elements…and the universe would contain only hydrogen. If E were greater than .008 because no hydrogen would have survived the big bang and there would be no fuel for stars. This number is tuned just right for star formation and star lifespans long enough for life to evolve.

Omega = nearly one

This is the ratio of the actual density of matter in the Universe to the critical density. The critical density is the density whereby the universe would neither quickly collapse on itself (density too much, gravity too strong) nor expand too quickly. At the present time this ratio seems to be nearly one…which is super remarkable since any deviations from one would have amplified themselves over the last 13 billion years. It must have been almost exactly one at the big bang. And here’s the thing. At each point there is theoretically (for the possible exception see the next number) a balance between the kinetic energy of expansion and gravity. If the actual density had been too little the Universe would have expanded so fast that neither stars nor galaxies could have formed. If it had been too large the Universe would have quickly imploded.

Lambda = well, very small!

This is the antigravity force…still controversial…which controls the expansion of the Universe (also known as Einstein’s blunder). This, if it even exists, is extemely small and operates at extremely large scales. Physicists have invoked this because there does not seem to be enough matter and energy to keep the Universe from collapsing on itself…though if it werent very small the Universe would have expanded too rapidly and galaxies and stars would never have formed. This is the number I understood the least…probably because scientists also understand it least.

Q = .00001

This is the ratio of the energy necessary to break up the largest structures in the Universe (clusters and superclusters of galaxies) to their total rest mass energy, mc^2. But what it is a representation of is how grainy the Universe is. Imagine an Earth where the height of the ripples on the surface were .00001 the total radius (about 60 meters). This non-uniformity would have been imprinted very early in the big bang. And it really is quite small, meaning the Universe is rather homogeneous…ripples of only 60 meters on the earth surface would still make the Earth seem fairly smooth from far away. However, this amount of graininess is crucial. If it were even smaller the Universe would be inert and structureless. If it were any bigger (more grainy) the Universe would be dominated by black holes.

D = 3

This is the number of extended spatial dimensions in the Universe. Although it seems impossible to imagine any other type of Universe, mathematicians have no trouble dealing with Universes of different dimensions. In fact, according to string theory there may be six additional non-extended dimensions (dimensions that circle back on themselves)  through which these strings vibrate. But three extended dimensions seems to be crucial for the existence of life. If there were only two, networks like digestive or circulatory tracts would bisect the critter. At four dimensions, the inverse square law governing the strength of forces like gravity would become the inverse cube law. This would make things like planetary orbits extremely unstable.