Fifty Shades of Grey Matter: Julian Baggini at #AWF16

julian_bagginiI must live under a very dense, thick hedge. This event was sold out, and I had never heard of Julian Baggini. With a PhD in Philosophy, founder and editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, TED talker,  author of many books on philosophy for a non-academic audience, in other words the likes of you and I, Baggini is a one-man non-stop-entertainment system.

This was another highly entertaining session. For 45 minutes he talked non-stop, running rings around most of us as we tried to follow his wide ranging intellect while he pondered the nature of free will – the subject of his latest book Freedom Regained. He did mention at the beginning of the session that his job is to decomplex the complexity, but that he is also aware that people leave his sessions feeling more complicated than when they sat down. This was actually quite reassuring, because there is a lot more to free will than our thinking that we are the masters of our own destiny.

Do we have free will? Like most things to do with being human, it is not a black or white answer, hence Fifty Shades of Grey Matter. Experiments tracking brain patterns show that decisions are made by us before we consciously register that we have decided to do something. So this decision making process would seem to come from learned behavior, a fundamental set of values that are laid down in our formative years. In other words, we learn from the world around us, and those who live in it. But we do have free will in that we are able to make a conscious decision, because we have awareness of what happens if that choice is not taken.

Baggini talked a bit about absolute responsibility and where on the political spectrum differing degrees of this sit. Extreme conservatives, for example, would say that we are all totally responsible for our actions, and so should be prepared to take full consequences for any bad/stupid decisions we may make. The more left wing of us would bring up mitigating circumstances such as lack of education, poverty, abused childhood etc for contributing to the decisions that people make in their lives.

He showed us how political dissidents are considered the ultimate practitioners of free will, as advocates of freedom as we see it. But often these people say that they don’t in actual fact have a choice in the paths of activism they take. He gave the example of the hotel manager in Rwanda during the brutal massacres in the mid-1990s who sheltered and hid nearly 1300 refugees in the hotel. The hotel manager claims he didn’t have any choice, as he would have been haunted for the rest of his life if he had walked away without helping his fellow countrymen. Our fundamental values often don’t allow us to have free will. It follows from this that the more complex the issue, the less free will we have. For example, the choice between tea or coffee, what to have for dinner, organic vs inorganic are not particularly complex issues for us to deal with.

So free will would appear to be a matter of degree. We have a degree of self-responsibility and control over life, but this is shaped by our upbringing and fundamental values.
It was a most enlightening session, and I was determined to buy one of his books, many of which are available to buy at the festival. Despite the choice and my will being free to choose any of these appealing books, I am not sure how much free will was involved in my choice. Coming from a long line of excellent home cooks and providers of family meals, and having to make my first ever dessert for a diabetic, I chose The Virtues of the Table – How to Eat and Think – the decision making processes of why we eat what we do. A conscious or an unconscious choice?

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Edge of Reason, published by Yale University Press, ISBN 9780300208238
Freedom Regained, published by Granta Books, ISBN 9781847087188
The Virtues of The Table, published by Granta Books, ISBN 9781847087157

Book Review: Cold Water Cure, by Claire Orchard

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_cold_water_cureClaire Orchard’s fascination with Charles Darwin is the foundation of her debut poetry collection, Cold Water Cure. This interest in his theory of evolution is one that attempts to grasp the concept of birth, death, and how it results in the humanity that we know now.

The poem ‘In the library with Darwin’s red notebook’ is central to the collection. It attempts to understand Darwin’s mind through his notebook; it ponders the curve of his handwriting and the small notes he’s jotted down. It portrays Darwin’s ambitious ideas not just for what they are, but also how he himself could’ve seen them as he tried to make sense of the world.

From this, Orchard tugs the reader along in her exploration, portraying different forms of life. In the poem ‘Voyages’, she describes the many different ways that journeys can be made, and starts with herself climbing up Makara Hill. Then she portrays a swarm of mosquitos, a small butterfly, a fox. With each different creature, Orchard describes a different moment in her own life, focusing on the movement of each stage.

I also loved Orchard’s experimentation with found poetry, both related to Darwin and unrelated. One of my favourites was ‘You played 2 hours to die like this?’, a collection of quotes from various video games. Some quotes I recognised while others were beyond me, resulting in a strange mix of the comedy and seriousness that is found in different plot points of video games, and different points of life. There were quotes that were simply absurd like ‘Wakka wakka wakka’, others more poignant like ‘Everything is teetering on the edge of everything’ and some simply blatant like ‘You have died of dysentery’. I found myself smiling at all the different levels of language that had been assembled together to create a poem.

Cold Water Cure is also a collection of a variety of poetry formats. Twelve voices over five courses is a poem assembled around the edges of the page in such a way that the reader can continuously read the poem round and round, forever getting lost in its ponderings on evolution. Rotated ninety degrees, the poem ‘Fully informed’ also becomes a diagram of reported sexual assaults, the length of each line representing the number of values on a bar graph. These creative touches made the collection so much more special.

Orchard’s poetry captures a variety of different moments in both human and animal life, and I found myself feeling sad for some characters that were desperately trying to find understanding and comfort in their lives. To me, the collection portrays the limited nature of humanity; perhaps we will never quite be able to understand everything. Darwin, indeed, tried to comprehend where we come from, and this collection further tries to understand humanity through his mind.

The last poem of Cold Water Cure is one on birth and it is a fitting end to a collection about existence and evolution. Orchard’s poetry collection may have an ending, but the ideas and questions will continue—this time in the reader’s own mind and beyond.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Cold Water Cure
by Claire Orchard
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560578

Book Review: The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel

cv_the_high_mountains_of_portugalAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

This novel is part quest, part philosophy, all allegory; perhaps the broadest insight is into the myriad ways grief and love are manifested and managed.

We begin with Tomas, in Lisbon in the early 20th century. Tomas has lost both the woman he loved, and his young son, to fatal illnesses. He is grieving, and the way in which he shows his loss is by always walking backwards – since looking forward seems to be fruitless. He needs something to distract him, and finds a reference in an old diary (which he has stolen from his employer) to an “artefact” which was created by the diary’s owner, Father Ulisses, in the 17th century. After considerable sleuthing and soul-searching, he decides that it must be in a church in the high mountains of Portugal. So, fortunate in having a wealthy uncle with a fleet of automobiles, he is able to borrow a car and after about half an hour’s instruction sets out on his quest. Mercifully, he drives forwards! His wanderings are most amusing, particularly as many of the villages he passes through have never seen a motorcar and are either terrified or horrified, but rarely fascinated.

He fetches up in a village called Tuizelo, and while his quest is successful, he also comes to terms with his grief through self-realisation and faith.

The second part of the story, in Braganca, revolves around a pathologist and his wife, and amateur theologian. They share a love of Agatha Christie novels, and the wife manages to create a whole theory of the parables of Christ explained through the oeuvre of Agatha Christie. But that is not the only oddity of this part of the story. One of the pathologist’s clients turns up with her dead husband in a suitcase – I shan’t give more away, but it’s the most bizarre piece of writing I have read in a long long time. Of course there is a connection to the village of Tuizelo.

Part three sees an Canadian politician, with Portuguese ancestry, recently widowed, adopting an ape and heading for – you guessed it – the high mountains of Portugal. He ends up in Tuizelo, the same town in which Tomas fetched up.

I don’t wish to spoil the story any further. However I did find myself engaged, revolted, and bewildered much of the time. I THINK I would recommend it if you have read and enjoyed Yann Martel before. However on the strength of this book, I won’t be going to the same author again.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The High Mountains of Portugal
by Yann Martel
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781922182814

Book Review: Lullaby, by Bernard Beckett

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Lullaby is another in a brilliant set of philosophy-based books from author-teacher Bernard cv_lullabyBeckett. I saw Beckett talk about this book at the Auckland Writer’s Festival in May, frustratingly before the book was out: I instantly wanted to buy and read it! The talk he was involved in was a panel about memory, how it makes us who we are.

In Lullaby, the situation is this: Rene’s twin brother Theo is unconscious and brain-dead. His body is hanging on, but only due to life-support, and for only one reason: there is a new procedure that the doctors want to try. It is highly experimental, but if it works, Theo will be able to live. If it doesn’t, the doctors might still learn something about how it may work next time. The end aim of the experiment is to be able to preserve peoples own minds in electronic brains, so they can be mapped back onto their diseased brain if they have Alzheimer’s or another degenerative mental disease, to restore their memories of their loved ones.

Rene and Theo are identical. For much of their lives they have been everything to one another, and for the most part, they have gotten along extremely well. Rene was the smart one, Theo the street one – Rene book-smart, Theo popular with boys and girls alike. They are so identical that they are able to swap identities without anybody being any the wiser and they have been known to do this a few times a year, sometimes for tests at school, other times just to see if anybody noticed.

The experiment that the doctors want to perform is essentially cloning. They have the technology, now, to clone the “connectome” of one brain, and place them into another. They wish to take Rene’s memories, his feelings, his everything – and place it into Theo’s head. Before this happens, however, Rene must be declared mentally competent enough to give permission for the procedure to occur.

Most of the book features a conversation between Rene and Maggie, who is the psychiatrist charged with determining Rene’s mental competence. Rene has to hide his real reason for being initially interested in having the procedure completed, while still convincing Maggie that he is able to make an informed and un-emotional decision. The book lies out some of the formative stories of Rene’s head, and this gives a sense of exactly what Rene risks sharing with his brother.

Having majored in philosophy at University, I was familiar with the cloning arguments – for and against – and this book is a beautiful example of a thought experiment, with characters you feel for, and stories that you enjoy every moment of. Read this book, because medical science may well have this type of system ready and working by the time we are old and at risk of losing our own minds.

Would you say yes or no to a new brain for yourself? How about if it was for the person you love more than anybody else in the world? Think about it.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Bernard Beckett
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781922182753

Book Review: The Bright Side of my Condition, by Charlotte Randall

Available today in bookstores

What would you do if you were marooned? Even if youcv_the_bright_side_of_my_condition had the skills and resources to feed, shelter and clothe yourself, how would you stay sane? What is the difference between surviving and living?

Charlotte Randall’s latest novel, The Bright Side of my Condition, is a New Zealand Robinson Crusoe tale that takes a sharply intelligent look at these and other questions that cut to the heart of the human condition. Four men – nicknamed Bloodworth, Toper, Slangam and Gargantua – are left on a tiny sub-antarctic island by the captain of a sealing ship, who promises to pick them up in a year. We know from the foreword that he doesn’t, and that this is a matter of historical record: four escaped convicts really were deposited on one of the Snares Islands (pictured below) in the early nineteenth century, and really did survive there for many years.

Randall chooses to tell the tale in Bloodworth’s voice, using phonetic spelling and unconventional grammar: yair, wud, follered, heared, more nicer, them other two. It takes a bit of getting used to but it does work, bringing us inside the head of this man from another time and culture. Disinclined to give himself purpose through hard work, like Slangam, Bloodworth’s way of coping with his situation is to physically and emotionally distance himself from his fellows in order to observe and to think.

The drama and drive of the novel stem from Bloodworth’s psychological development, as he tries on different philosophies for size: immanence, predestination versus free will, meditation, the elimination of the self, scientific observation, escape from reality through hallucination, questioning god and the nature of hell, withdrawal from society: “‘Happy living things!’ I disdain him. ‘If yer went out there and looked, yer wud see killing and dying everywhere.’ ‘The world is beautiful,’ say Toper in a strangle tone. ‘So it is,’ I agree at once. ‘But living ain’t.’”

Finally, Bloodworth reaches thesnares_island-from_sea acceptance summarised in the quote from Robinson Crusoe at the beginning of the book: “I learn’d to look more upon the bright side of my condition and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoy’d rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts that I cannot express them.”

This is a novel of ideas and character rather than action and plot. I found it gripping and read it all in one sitting, drawn in by Bloodworth’s realisation that our own minds can be our worst prisons, and his struggle to find a way of thinking (and thus being) that will make the best of his situation. The final part of the book was my favourite, when the story suddenly and beautifully takes flight into magic realism, giving the dramatic final events an almost holy glow.

Randall is an assured and seasoned novelist, and this is a subtle and complex drama, compulsively drawn along by the tantalising possibility of a sail on the horizon. Highly recommended.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage

The Bright Side of My Condition
by Charlotte Randall
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143570660

Book Review: The Curiosity, by Stephen Kiernan

I picked this book up for its cover quote fromcv_the_curiosity Justin Cronin (The Passage), and I’m pleased I did. It has been awhile since I read a book that engulfed me as much as The Curiosity did. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it, trying to guess at the main character’s next moves.

The Curiosity is told from several points of view. Dr Kate Philo is the lead scientist on an Arctic expedition. This expedition is bankrolled by the arrogant genius scientist Erastus Carthage, and the aim is to find ‘Hard Ice’, a type of ice that has previously yielded animal specimens that have proven to be able to be reanimated. Also on the ship is hack science and nature journalist Daniel Dixon.

Dr Philo and her team find a man frozen in the ice. They successfully extricate him, and the Lazarus Project is born. While the morality is questioned from day one, Carthage overrides everybody to ensure that reanimation takes place, and we are introduced gradually to Judge Jeremiah Rice, who died while on an Arctic exploration over 100 years before.

This book is a love story, but without the purple prose. It is a story of wonder, a story of intrigue, and a story of morality. Can they really bring somebody back from the dead for no reason other than to see if it can be done – and what responsibility do they then have to keep him alive? What is the best way to utilise the science, and at what point can they say ‘Subject One’ will stay alive, and thus open the floodgates for the cryogenics industry to walk through?

Author Stephen Kiernan deals well with keeping his story anchored without going overboard in any direction.  Love, science and story are all well-balanced, for the most part. There were a few points that I thought should have been explored more thoroughly, particularly finding the judge’s living descendants – he became an instant celebrity, and the press hounded him without uncovering anything new. While we are acquainted with a possible family member, this is never explored.

I think this book is going to strike a chord with a lot of readers. It is an ably-written story with enough conspiracy theory in it to make the reader want to stay ahead of the play, while having a gently-handled love story underpinning it, and a fascinating unreliable narrator in the person of the vilified genius Carthage. I think it has several of the elements that drew people to The Da Vinci Code, but the writing is stronger.

I look forward to reading more fiction from Stephen Kiernan.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster (Booksellers NZ)

The Curiosity
by Stephen Kiernan
Published by John Murray (Hachette)
ISBN 9781848548763

Book review: Manuscript found in Accra by Paulo Coelho

cv_manuscript_found_in_accraThis book is in bookstores now

I am not familiar with Paul Ceolho as an author nor have I read any of his books, but I remember when The Alchemist was released and vaguely remember reading reviews of it at the time.

Once I got into this book I found myself comparing it to The Prophet by Kahil Gibran and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. I dug around and found my copies of these books to do a proper comparison. While the thoughts are similar, that’s where the similarity ends.Manuscript found in Accra is in the guise of a novel, whereas the other two are just a series of either quotes from other people or ones philosophy on life.

I am not a great fan of this type of genre, but found it easy reading – I whipped through it in a couple of hours. Being in my 60’s this book might have been helpful perhaps in my teens to my forties, but now having the wisdom of age and grey hair to prove it, I didn’t find it particularly enlightening.

On opening this book, the first chapter is titled “Preface and Greeting”. This chapter tells of a manuscript being discovered in December 1945 by two brothers who were looking for a place to rest, and how they found an urn full of papyrus’s in a cave in the region of Hamra Dom, in Upper Egypt. This chapter then goes on to tell the story of how this manuscript wasn’t turned over to the appropriate authorities but sold at an antiquities market. The story then goes on to tell of how the manuscript changes hands and ends up in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, where they are supposedly to this day. The Greek translations in the manuscripts are transcribed and so the discovery of The Copt and his teachings become known to the world.

On 14 July 1099 Jerusalem is awaiting the invasion of the crusaders who have surrounded the city’s gates. An unknown Greek man, who became known as The Copt, stood before the citizens of the city of Jerusalem inviting them to share their fears and worries. In return he offered hope and tried to allay their fears with truth.

We read of his insights on subjects as diverse as finding love, our fears in life, looking inwards instead of outwards and what direction our life is taking, to name just a few.

This is a very personal book and while I was not enamoured with it there are probably Paulo Coelho fans that would crawl over broken glass to read his latest offerings. To those fans – enjoy.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Manuscript found in Accra
by Paulo Coelho
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780732297725