Brains from the Deep

Everyone seems to have a favorite nominee for ‘smartest animal.’ Many prefer the much-lauded chimpanzee or dolphin, but crows, elephants, parrots, pigs, dogs, cats, rats and many other species all have their supporters. Recently, there have been studies that champion a somewhat less relatable animal: the octopus. Unlike some of the other nominees, the octopus is truly an alien-looking creature that lives for only a few years. How then can it be intelligent? Luckily for those wanting to understand, a few great new books have come out that answer that question and raise even more interesting ones about the nature of intelligence, consciousness and the limits of human understanding.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

soulofoctopusSy Montgomery really loves octopuses. Specifically she develops an admiration and affection for Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma, the four individual cephalopods she interacts with at the New England Aquarium. She also expands her quest beyond the aquarium and goes out into the wild to encounter more octopuses in their natural habitat. She becomes convinced of their intelligence: An intelligence that goes beyond the scientifically measurable, such as puzzle solving and the like, to also include feelings of playfulness, friendship, happiness and tenderness on their part. While Montgomery’s utter devotion can produce a risk of ascribing human traits to her subjects a little too easily, it is hard to deny that there seems to be some sort of consciousness in the octopus mind after reading this book.

Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

othermindsWhile no less a devotee of the octopus, Godfrey-Smith takes the long view when examining the intelligence of this fascinating creature. As a philosopher of science, he is well placed to delve into the evolutionary history of cephalopods and the octopus in particular. While mammals and birds are closely related on the tree of life, the cephalopods deviated very early on in our evolutionary history, so much so that they are almost a separate evolutionary ‘experiment’ in intelligence. The author isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions: What kind of intelligence do octopuses possess? Is it alien from our own? Can we understand it? While doing this, Godfrey-Smith is no armchair philosopher, however. The book is also full of real world examples of his dives and encounters with these intelligent creatures that drive home his arguments.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? By F.B.M. de Waal

smartenoughDe Waal’s goal, in this well written and engaging book, is nothing short of toppling humankind from its lofty, and self-appointed perch at the top of the intelligence and cognition scale. In fact, he argues we shouldn’t think of intelligence as a scale at all, but rather as a bush with cognition taking different forms in each branch, none necessarily higher than the other but always unique. It is an intriguing argument, which he backs up with many observations of the animal world that he has gleaned in his role as an animal behaviorist at Emory University. He is quick to point out the cases of wishful thinking and pure chance (Paul the octopus did not actually know anything about soccer despite his correct predictions during the 2010 World Cup alas) but he does provide convincing examples of animal intelligence using scientific and rational methods.

So is the mysterious and alien looking octopus conscious and intelligent? Based on these excellent books and in the words of the Magic 8-Ball: As I see it, yes.

Spot-Lit for January 2017

Spot-Lit

These titles – many from debut authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

All On-Order Fiction

Urban Lit and Iceberg Slim

Enjoy this new post from Sarah:

Urban lit are the type of books that normally take place in a big city, and can take on dark undertones, demonstrating the gritty side of urban living. These books can be graphic, explicit, and don’t always have happy endings.

Iceberg Slimstreetpoison (i.e. Robert Beck) is considered to be one of the great urban lit authors. Both Ice-T and Ice Cube pay homage to him in their names. His novel Pimp sold over 2 million copies, which is remarkable considering it never made it into mainstream bookstores and was primarily purchased in grocery stores and barber shops.

Robert Beck was born in Chicago and was exposed early on to life on the streets. He was mesmerized by women, pimps, and the possibility of easy and fast money. He briefly attended college, but was lured back to the streets and was determined to become the best pimp ever.

When he got incarcerated, he became a self-taught man, reading copious amounts of books in prison libraries. He also studied pimping from his fellow inmates, gleaning knowledge from an oral tradition known as the pimp book. To succeed at pimping, one must utilize a mixture of psychological manipulations, violence, and maintain control at all times. Gifford does an excellent job of bringing the reader into the mindset of the pimp, and how one can become “street poisoned.”

Beck spent years alternating between the high life of pimping – leisure suits, fancy clubs, lots of cash, and then spending years behind bars in some of American’s hardest prisons. When he retired from pimping, he settled down, had children, and that’s when he began to write. His writing is honest, brutal and crude, and opened people’s eyes to the dark underside of urban cities in the 40s and 50s.

Some authors popular in the urban lit genre include Nikki Turner, K’Wan, and Donald Goines.  We have a display up at the main library displaying some urban titles, come check them out!

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Music 2016 Wrap Up!

2016 was the first year in which I set out to listen to as many new albums as possible. And while I didn’t sample as many as I’d hoped, my listening pile was yuge. Rather than focus simply on the best albums of the year, I give you: Music 2016 Wrap Up!

Let us start with Most Disappointing albums of the year. There were many to choose from, but here are two artists who I’ve really enjoyed in the past whose 2016 offerings were not up to par:

Violent Femmes  – We Can Do Anything
Ronnie Spector –   English Heart

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Many well-known artists released new albums, so I give you Legends of 2016:

Bob Dylan       Elton John       Eric Clapton
Jeff Beck          Paul Simon      Prince

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We got a Folk Icon and the Best Punk album of the year.

Joan Baez – 75th Birthday Celebration
Bleached – Welcome the Worms

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Strangest Idea for an album had co-winners.

Steven Tyler – We’re All Somebody from Somewhere, Tyler’s take on country
Train – Train Does Led Zeppelin II, and the title says it all

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Dream Pop became a popular genre.

Janel Leppin   Daddy             Frightened Rabbit
Mitski              Money             School of Seven Bells

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Some excellent traditional country albums were released.

Cactus Blossoms – You’re Dreaming
Cyndi Lauper –       Detour

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And from the Do You Remember? files, many artists from the past put out new albums in 2016.

Blink-182         De La Soul        Red Hot Chili Peppers
Foghat             Pet Shop Boys   Rick Springfield

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The Most Surprising album of the year was Origins, Vol. 1 by Ace Frehley. I expected to hate it but instead… loved it!

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And the highlight of 2016? Here are some of my Favorite Albums of 2016.

David Bowie – Blackstar
Monkees – Good Times!
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Frankie Cosmos – Next Thing

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Some of these albums have been written up in previous posts, others probably will come in the future. Today I simply offer you a sampler. So dig in, put your feet up on the cat and enjoy your Music 2016 Wrap Up!

Betty MacDonald and “The Egg” that hatched her career

eggandiEnjoy this post from Joan as she writes about all things Betty MacDonald:

When Pacific Northwest writer Betty MacDonald’s first book, The Egg and I, was published in 1945 it was not just a hit, it was a phenomenon selling over a million copies within the first year of publication. That book, a funny little memoir about early married life trying to make a living chicken ranching and having run-ins with Olympic Peninsula locals, went on to be translated into twenty languages, and spawned several movies: The Egg and I starring Fred MacMurry and Claudette Colbert , and later, The Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle.

lookingforbettyHow is it possible that such a book could take the book world by storm and land the author on the pages of Life magazine? And how could she still have a fan base so strong in Europe that there was a BBC radio documentary about her commemorating what would have been her 100th birthday in March of 2008 (she died at the age of 49 in 1958)? Seattle historian Paula Becker wondered about this as well, and tells us how she came to unravel Betty’s very complicated life in her book Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I.

Go ahead and add your name to the hold list for both Betty MacDonald’s memoirs and Paula Becker’s book about Betty. Then come to the Main Library to hear Paula talk about all things Betty MacDonald on Saturday, January 7 at 2PM.

Betty entertained her readers and gave them a good inside-out look at Seattle and the Pacific Northwest during the mid-part of the 20th century, political incorrectness and all. Much of how the rest of the country and the world imagined the Pacific Northwest was based at the time on Betty’s books. But Betty didn’t just entertain adult readers. While she was working on her three other memoirs, she also wrote the very popular Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series of books for children.

anybodyShe makes reference to drinking a lot of coffee, so maybe that explains where she got the energy to write so many books in such a short amount of time. While “Egg” was the blockbuster, her other memoirs are equally entertaining, whether about recovering from tuberculosis in a Seattle Sanatorium (The Plague and I), raising two teenage daughters on the edge of Vashon Island (Onions in the Stew), or how she and her family got through the depression (Anybody Can Do Anything), all written with her irreverence for life and her ability to poke fun at anything and everything.

Whether you’re looking for a good children’s book that has stood the test of time or a memoir where the northwest landscape figures as prominently as its colorful characters, Betty MacDonald’s books are still a good bet. Most of all, they’re just plain fun to read because she is first and foremost a really good writer. Read just one and you’ll see why Paula became a little obsessed with Betty’s story and why she needed to tell it.

Heartwood 7:1 – Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard

greene-on-capriThis blog post is prompted by the news that Shirley Hazzard died this past December at age 85.

It’s kind of funny to me that I read this book without ever having read Graham Greene (though he’s long been on my radar, and I’m a fan of the film The Third Man). Funnier still since I’d also not read anything by Shirley Hazzard (her Transit of Venus won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980, and The Great Fire won the National Book Award in 2003). But a few years ago, one of my book-talking buddies handed me this book and said I should read it. I must say I was quite taken by the cover, and seeing the book’s slim length, I decided to give it a try.

In the opening scene, Hazzard has run into Greene at a café on Capri where he is dining at a separate table with friends and reciting part of a Browning poem to them. Before leaving, Hazzard supplies him with the line he’s struggling to recall. This literary showiness rankled me enough that I put the book aside. But some weeks later, I picked it up again and found myself very much enjoying Hazzard’s stately prose, the descriptions of Greene’s home and the island of Capri (accent on the a, she tells us), and the friendship that develops between Greene, Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller.

Hazzard devotes much of the book to Greene, mostly during their shared time there in the 1960s and ’70s, but she also includes some interesting details about the history of the island. Her account of Tiberio, the island-top ruins, features some fine descriptive language, and we learn that a number of Russian writers visited the island in their day, such as Gorky, Turgenev, and Ivan Bunin.

For the most part, Hazzard writes admiringly of Greene, but not without particular criticisms, such as in the passage here:

Repeatedly singled out as a writer of his “era,” Graham, even so, long eluded literary chronology. His best work, with its disarming blend of wit, event, and lone fatality, has not staled; and he himself, always ready, with eager skepticism, for life’s next episode, did not seem to “date.”  However, in one respect – his attitudes to women – he remained rooted, as man and writer, in his early decades.

From the 1920s into the 1940s, Greene and several of his talented male contemporaries were working, in English fiction, related veins of anxiety and intelligence, anger and danger, sex and sensibility, and contrasting an ironic private humanity with the petty vanities and great harm of established power.  Their narrative frequently centered on the difficulty of being a moody, clever, thin-skinned – and occasionally alcoholic – literate man who commands the devotion of a comely, plucky, self-denying younger woman.

The book doesn’t have chapters as such, but in one section, on the importance of reading to Greene, she tells how Greene insisted his biographer, Norman Sherry, travel to every place Greene had been, as background to writing his biography. Remarkably, Sherry did this – but Hazzard notes:

Had Graham enjoined his biographer to read, rather, the countless thousands of books, celebrated or obscure, that fuelled his life, thought, and work, consoled and informed his passions, and caused him, as he said, “to want to write,” that request would have been absurd, unfeasible, and entirely apposite.

Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a lifeline to the rational as well as the fantastic. The tormented love affairs of adult years – and, supremely, the long passion for Lady Walston – brought him to the verge of insanity and suicide. It was in reading and writing that he enjoyed, from early childhood, a beneficent excitement and ground for development of his imagination and his gift… Our own best times with Graham usually arose from spontaneous shared pleasures of works and words – those of poets and novelists above all – that were central to his being and ours.

In its closing pages, Hazzard returns to the literary exchange that opens the book: in 1992 she received a letter from Michael Richey, one of those present when Hazzard supplied Greene with the words of the Browning poem at the restaurant all those decades before, and this letter, coming the year after Greene’s death, is what triggered her decision to write this book.

After finishing Greene on Capri, I looked for Capri on a map and discovered it is off the west coast of Italy, near the mainland city of Sorrento. And it strikes me that this would be the perfect book to take along to a “silent reading night” at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. Or maybe one of Greene’s novels.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Who needs a good apocalyptic, end-of-the-world story during the holidays? You’re welcome. It’s better than fruitcake.

unamedmidwifeMeg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife gives us a somewhat dismal glimpse of the far future and then throws us into the near future, after all the bad stuff has gone down. Apparently some sort of plague has massively thinned out humanity, taking virtually all the females and most of the males. Another problem seems to be that remaining pregnant women are dying when they give birth, and the babies are dying too. So that’s the state of the world: a minuscule number of females remaining and no children being born. And people are reduced to living like cavemen/scavengers in what remains of civilization.

Our narrator was a midwife pre-disaster, which turns out to be a useful skill even with so few women remaining. We never learn her name, hence the title. Like anyone, she is looking for community even in what seems to be the fall of humanity. This takes her on the road where she meets other survivors, some of them dangerous and some of them also seeking a safe place.

But can anywhere be safe when someone may take everything from you if they find you? However, this book doesn’t turn into a “wander thru the inhospitable landscape and try to avoid crazy people” tale or a story about zombies. Characters in this book are varied and realistic. There is none of that ‘nobody is that stupid’ or ‘they would never do that in real life’ kind of thing here. At one point, Unnamed seems to have found a satisfactory home for herself, but is compelled to begin her journey again. Her trek forces us to examine society in general and gender expectations and roles.

I can’t tell you too much about this book because you need to be surprised as well. I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, and Meg Elison seems to be carrying her mantle. If anything, this book is more contemporary in its treatment of women. And there’s a sequel being released in February! Yay!