An Alchemy of Mind by Diane Ackerman: Book Review

An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain by Diane Ackerman was intended as the first of my summer non-fiction book candies. And it was. As in her previous narrative works, An Alchemy of Mind is rich with Ackerman’s distinctive prose, brimming with metaphor and beautiful language. Her unique blend of personal exposé, research, and topic exploration work synchronously to provide a reading experience that is, if nothing else, never short of exhilarating.

The book is divided into seven broad sections (Evolution, The Physical Brain, Memory, The Self and Other Fictions, Emotions, Language, and The World We Share). Each of these hosts a series of chapters in which Ackerman seeks to define, illustrate, or otherwise come to terms with the human brain. In some, she excels; in others, I feel there was room for improvement.

(Admittedly, I may have gotten off on the wrong foot with this book initially, for the title confuses me. An Alchemy of Mind suggests to me a discourse on consciousness, an ambitious – and brave, if we’re to be honest – topic for any science writer to embark upon. However, the subtitle The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain suggests something else entirely, for no one I know equates the two, mind and brain, and indeed, Ackerman is rapid to distinguish them in her narrative but dwells more on the brain’s functions than the concept of mind.)

Beginning with Evolution, Ackerman leaves the gate strong. Her awe of and reverence for nature in general and our evolutionary heritage specifically are portrayed in exquisite detail. Perhaps the greatest strength throughout An Alchemy of Mind is the continued reliance on evolutionary principles to round out whatever discussion is at hand, providing a very nice consistency to the 300+ pages. Throughout the remainder of the book, Ackerman is by turns gently illuminating (e.g., she provides a nice elementary view of how neurons work and how neural connections are formed in the brain) and highly speculative. She intersperses her own personal musings, which are lovely, with the results of several researchers’ work, and she also includes theoretical interpretations of both brain functions and mind. This last point is interesting to me as a reader and a scientist, for popular books on scientific topics often steer clear of theory, preferring to lead the reader to conclusions rather than letting him think for himself. Kudos to Ackerman for that.

There are a number of areas in the book with which I took exception, and one of these is, I must confess, my own personal bias. On occasion, An Alchemy of Mind takes on a decidedly Freudian tone, and while I do recognize the contemporary existence of psychoanalytic scholars, much of what Ackerman weaves into her narrative in these stretches is outmoded. With regard to her discussion of evolutionary psychology, I felt she did a fine job of encapsulating classic thinking in this area, but I was dismayed that her later discussion of women’s tendency toward better encoding of emotional memory than men was not then tied back to the evolutionary care-giving role.

In the same vein, many chapters discussed hemispheric differences in the brain that have been stuied and documented by various researchers, and yet there was no attempt to synthesize what were, to me, some rather obvious associations between these seemingly unrelated studies (despite Ackerman’s penchant for pointing out how humans need to relate seemingly unrelated things). I also found her late discussion of consciousness and self-awareness, specifically with regard to non-primate species, to be a bit far fetched. She seems to want to redefine consciousness, which is all well and good if you state explicitly you are doing so and thus removing yourself from the established paradigm. Quite simply, barring a theory of mind (to be able to think about thinking), one cannot be said to be a conscious being.

Finally, and this is really a minor annoyance as opposed to a literary criticism, Ackerman has a fondness for phrases such as philosophers, scientists, and psychologists, and the overwhelming majority of psychologists I know would take umbrage at that exclusion from their primary field.

With all of the above being said and even with a slightly lacking reference list in this book, I would, do in fact, recommend An Alchemy of Mind to anyone who wishes to understand the basic functioning of the human brain and who hasn’t taken an introductory psychology or human anatomy course. Even if you have had one of those courses, I would recommend this book for its brilliant writing alone so long as one understands that the science is not deep and there will be points with which you are likely to disagree. It can never be said that Ackerman fails to ignite a certain passion with her writing, and page after page of An Alchemy of Mind comes very close to being spot on. Where she misses, she misses widely, but she can be forgiven.


The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: Book Review

The Penelopiad tells the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, with Atwood’s trademark brand of feminism and lovely craftsmanship on each page. The novel (technically a novella, but who’s going to quibble?) is part of the ambitious Canongate Myth Series published by Canongate Books in which a plethora of well known tales are retold by contemporary authors. As a portion of the myth of Odysseus as well as a work of Atwood’s, The Penelopiad does not disappoint.

Written primarily in the first person from Penelope’s perspective, this book is by turns a brutally honest portrait of a woman-child given into an arranged marriage and a play performed by her maids. The chapters are short, and every third or fourth is a lament or satirical commentary offered from the maids’ perspective as if the twelve were collectively one. (For non-fiction readers, think a break-narrative chapter.) The majority of the novel spins on Penelope’s wheel as she offers what is essentially a contemporary media interview to the reader, one of those come-live-a-week-with-me-and-your-film-crew-can-video-everything-but-the-showers-and-dressing sorts of affairs. She speaks with candor, Penelope does, and so, it is perhaps not surprising that The Penelopiad was released to initial mixed reviews.

The book opens in Hades, as Penelope describes her current existence, complete with thoughts on life as it is today and the ways in which the living seek to commune with the dead. Consistent with Atwood’s previous writing, humour blends neatly with the darker aspects of the setting, and we are drawn into the world Penelope wishes us to see. Throughout the narrative – and there is little dialogue – Penelope guides us through her life: her condescension towards and jealousy of her cousin Helen of Troy, her nervousness on the day of her wedding as Odysseus wins her for his bride (including lurid details of how he cheated), the early days of her marriage and becoming mistress of Ithaca, and the long years of his absence during and after Helen’s ‘capture’ by Paris.

That seems to be what I was known for: being smart. That, and my weaving, and my devotion to my husband, and my discretion.

Penelope delivers self-deprecation with the same aplomb as she delivers flagons of wine to the thirsty suitors, only a portion of the yarn Atwood weaves with similar dexterity to our heroine as she accomplishes her tapestry. With that same adroitness, Atwood unravels a good bit of the finer fabrication surrounding Penelope’s long suffering devotion in Odysseus’ absence, just as his wife nightly unwove her weaving with the help of her maids. Offering the reader a coarser, more plausible version of events is the meat of The The Penelopiad, even as the finished tale is less romantic in its polish.

Often bitter, sometimes self-pitying, Penelope is real. At the beginning of this review, I remarked on Atwood’s trademark feminism. Yes, that style appears in The Penelopiad, and it rankled some readers as evidenced by early reviews. However, we should consider the facts. At most, Penelope was fifteen when given into marriage to Odysseus, a man at least twice her age and not considered the best of matches for a princess. She was clever, and being so in almost any age other than the present (and we can argue that one, too) could mean terrible heartache for a woman. Atwood is careful to present Penelope’s early life with Odysseus as one that included more than pleasant sexual and romantic interactions as well as a certain likeness of mind between the two of them. She was not necessarily unhappy in her marriage other than allowing her cousin Helen to bespoil what happiness seeded itself naturally before it took full root and blossomed.

What do I mean when I say Penelope is real? I mean that Atwood presents a balanced picture of a woman who does not like all aspects of her life, rues a fair portion of them, is bartered like chattel, lives by her wits to protect her husband’s kingdom, and suffers great guilt at the turn of her son and the killing of her conspirators when all is said and done. She is not the overblown heroine of typical mythology, and that perhaps is what damns The Penelopiad in some eyes. Not mine.

I highly recommend The Penelopiad to Homer aficionados, Atwood readers, and Penelope enthusiasts alike. This novel is well written, fun, and a worthy tribute to an often secondary character in Greek mythology. I, for one, shall be reading more of Canongate’s myth series as soon as time allows.


"The Doctor" Wins SS Competition

Author Gary Davison generously hosted a flash-fiction contest last month, and editors at Paperbooks and Legend Press generously agreed to judge the entries. I'm both pleased and honoured to have my story "The Doctor" selected as the winner and further delighted to be receiving signed copies of Gary Davison and Jon Haylett’s novels (as well as an undisclosed third) as the prize. With so much non-fiction TBR, these will be welcome counterpoints!

"The Doctor" can be read on Gary's site here.


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