Thursday, 24 July 2014

James Cook’s New World: A Novel by Graeme Lay (Fourth Estate 2014)

This is the second novel in a trilogy that Lay has based on James Cook’s explorations around the Pacific.  The first novel, The Secret Life of James Cook relates Cook’s life as he leaves his family home to take up a shop keeper’s apprenticeship in a coastal town where he falls in love with the sea rather than the life of a shopkeeper.  We are shown Cook’s initiation into his career in the Navy where he is eventually charged with sailing the Endeavour to witness the 1769 transit of Venus, and then to find the Great Southern Continent.  The journey took three years, years in which he is separated from his wife and four children.  The novel shows Cook’s ambition, determination, and his annoyance at the class boundaries that exist in British society. He is also shown to have enlightened ideas about interactions between the British and the indigenous people of the Pacific.

Lay takes factual information about Cook and fictionalises it.  In doing so he attempts to get inside Cook’s head to show his emotional depth, rather than simply reiterate his journal entries of the journey which stick to the facts of the sea and weather.  Lay does this by having Cook write a journal for his wife Elizabeth which he presents to her on his return home.  While this is a good device I think there should have been more of it because the second half of the novel is concerned mainly with the journey, and while there are some of his thoughts about the ‘savages’ and his anger and/or fondness for the crew, I wonder whether we could have got closer to Cook’s thoughts.  I found myself reading passages that stopped abruptly where I thought more detail could have been related.

In the second book James Cook’s New World the same diary device is used by Lay and it works well.  I was captivated by the first part of the novel when he is home with Elizabeth and their children.  I liked reading Lay’s re-imagining of the Cook family dynamics, and the politics of the navy, in particular Cook and the Royal Navy trying to temper Joseph Banks’s ego.  Once Cook is aboard the Resolution for his second circumnavigation to find the Great Unknown Southern Continent, the journey narrative is similar to the first book with the similar risks, frustrations and interactions with indigenous peoples.  While on the first journey the botanist Banks was a bit of a slut and rather demanding in other areas of life too, the botanist on the Resolution was the complete opposite, but still rather annoying, showing that it is a hard road finding the perfect botanist.

The book is interesting in its relation of what life on board would have been like, and the hierarchy of ship life.  It is also humorous; Cook goes on a bit of a naming frenzy when he comes back to New Zealand which is rather amusing, and of course, rather colonialist of him.  There is added drama when Resolution’s support ship Adventure goes missing in the Pacific.  It is hard to imagine, in the current era of constant connection, that people are out of communication for years at a time.  The texting equivalent is cannon fire which only works when you’re in range.  If unfortunate events happen, there is just no way of telling anyone off the ship. The lack of connection, the isolation, is terrifying.

What I want to know more about is Elizabeth and how she coped with her husband being away for years at a time; what was it like to be a wife essentially in name only for three years?  I did enjoy Lay’s re-imagining of Cook’s journey but at the end of this novel, I want to read Elizabeth’s diary because it is her story that remains untold.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Wandering Mind: What the brain does when you’re not looking by Michael Corballis (AUP 2014)

My mind is wandering away from the critical component of my PhD.  I’ve been telling people I’m in a reading and writing funk.  I just can’t be arsed reading or writing at the moment.  I’ve recently finished the first draft of my novel and I feel depleted and I instinctively feel the need to wander away from writing and literature to replenish my mind.  I went to the City Gallery on Saturday and saw Seung Yul Oh’s exhibition which was fun, and also Grant Stevens’s floating words which didn’t really help my reading and writing funk.  I couldn’t even be bothering reading the explanations beside the exhibits – I just wanted to wander around and look and absorb rather than read.  But, I did manage to read Corballis’s book because I thought it might help get rid of the funk.

The premise of Corballis’s book is that mind-wandering, or what we experience as a momentary lack of attention or day-dreaming, “has many constructive and adaptive features – indeed, we probably couldn’t do without it.  It includes mental time travel […] [and] allows us to inhabit the minds of others, increasing empathy and social understanding” and it also allows us to “invent, to tell stories” (viii).

We have seahorses behind our ears.  Well, not really, but we have hippocampus that looks like a seahorse which is a structure “on the inner surface of the temporal lobes of the brain – roughly behind your ears” (54).  The hippocampus (it means seahorse in Greek) is critical to mental time travel; how we mentally travel back and forth in time.  The hippocampus is the area that lights up when your mind wanders.  The mind wandering network also includes the prefrontal lobes, temporal lobes and parietal lobes (that’s a lotta lobes) but the hippocampus is, as Corballis’s says, the Grand Central Station of the network.

A lot of our mind wandering is told in stories.  We might tell our friends about things that happened in the past, or what we want to happen in the future, or we may simply make stories up.  Although mind wandering may make us seem like air-heads who don’t ‘live in the present’, Corballis argues that the ability to mind wander allows us to escape the mundane to play, invent and create.  This statement makes me think about Anne Kennedy’s talk at the Wellington Writers Week where she said that everyone is innately creative but the rigours of life and work drum it out of us.  By focusing on the present we stifle our ability to mind wander and therefore our ability to play and be creative.

Corballis discusses the literature that suggests that the right side of the brain is in charge of creativity.  He dispels the notion that either the left or right side of the brain is in charge of creativity, or one side valued more than the other.  Dividing the brain into left and right is similar to the dualisms of man/woman, black/white that “were driven to some extent by the divisions that fractured social and political life in the 1960s” (151).  Instead, Corballis sites Rex Jung’s study that suggests that creativity is found in the “widespread networks in the brain” rather than tucked up on the right hand side (152).  Instead, it is our ability to mind wander, and the randomness of those wanderings, that is the seat of creativity.

Corballis’s writing style is relaxed, witty, and conversational.  Technical details are related without jargon, and examples from literature and popular culture are used to illustrate his points.  His writing style is so relaxed and informative I want to sit in on his lectures because I imagine they are fun, and he is generous with his knowledge.  He discusses memory, time, dreams and whether animals think to the same extent as humans do.  I was particularly interested in the discussion about creativity, and feel I have a valid licence for mind wandering.

As an aside, I was reading Oliver Burkeman’s column in The Guardian who talks about Steven Pinker whose book The Sense of Style is coming out in the UK later this year.  Pinker is a psychologist who thinks that writing is a psychological phenomenon, “a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind.”  I think this relates to mind-wandering because if we choose to share our mind-wanderings with another person we can cause ideas to happen in someone else.  Anyway, if you like Corballis’s work then Pinker’s upcoming book may interest you.