Review: ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a song by Leonard Nimoy called “Highly Illogical,” in which Nimoy – as his “Star Trek” character, the astute Mr. Spock – is perplexed by all the inconsistencies he finds observing the human race. The humor is on the “why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway” level, but it’s still amusing.

Let me tell you, Mr. Spock, you don’t know the half of it.

Yuval Noah Harari attempts to trace several hundred thousand years of humankind’s evolution in “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” and if I have to draw one conclusion from his voluminous research, it’s that we’re one fucked-up creation and it’s our own damn fault.

Harari is at his best when he’s being provocative. He calls the Agricultural Revolution of 10,000 years ago – which changed our species from small bands of hunter-gatherers to larger groups of farmers – “history’s biggest fraud,” because it led to “population explosions and pampered elites” that had poorer nutrition than the hunter-gatherers.

Of course, you could also argue that it led to villages and cities, and trade and commerce, and even the idea of “the future,” as our species suddenly had to plan months or years ahead, instead of making the nut for the day. And to his credit, Harari mentions all of these things – though it’s hard to escape that initial headline.

(Some organisms that did make out well with the Agricultural Revolution? Cereal grasses, which used us to spread all over the world while making us dependent on them. So when you say someone is dumber than grass, maybe you’re underestimating grass — or greatly overestimating the person you’re talking about.)

He also points out that many aspects of life are myths commonly agreed upon. After all, there really are no such things as corporations, or religions, or money, or even countries – they’re just human inventions on whose existence we concur. In regards to countries, in fact, Harari notes that many modern nations don’t even have a shared tribal base, just some bonds of culture and taught history. So much of what we identify with is really nurture, not nature.

And – in an almost passing thought on the nature of good and evil – he talks about the dilemmas raised by monotheism and dualism. In the former, the assumption is that God is omnipotent but has given his human creation free will, so we’re allowed to choose evil. The latter assumes that there are independent good and evil forces in the world making their claims on us humans.

Harari notes that there is a solution that satisfies the dilemma: there is one omnipotent God, and He is evil. But, as he adds, that’s not something we humans really want to consider. (Though science fiction writers certainly have – often with us as God.)

Harari is less interesting when he’s combining history, sociology, anthropology, psychology and various other disciplines into his stew. Some of the vignettes are interesting in a “Connections”/James Burke-type way; for example, I didn’t know that Captain Cook’s voyage was funded by a variety of scientists and that he used the opportunity to test citrus fruits as a prevention for scurvy, as well as using his tour of the Pacific to colonize Australia and Tasmania, thus practically wiping out the indigenous people who’d been there for centuries. (For Harari, there’s always a dichotomy, which is as it should be.) But there are also long stretches where he’s explaining the basics of history and culture, and he’s not nearly as interesting or amusing as Bill Bryson giving short takes on science in “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

Still, one can’t help but be impressed by the fortitude of us carbon-based life forms, bumbling forward in spite of ourselves, these days holding on to Bronze Age concepts while manipulating iPhones. At one point Harari notes that someone born around the year 500 would find virtually nothing different 500 years later in A.D. 1000, but someone born in 1500 would be gobsmacked by the world of 2000, given the impact of printed matter, the Industrial Revolution, and scientific advancement. I was reminded of a famous line from “Mad Men”: After a secretary, Mrs. Blankenship, dies at her desk, an executive observes, “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.” That episode was set in 1965 – the year I was born.

(And let me tell you, I’ve seen some things. Now get off my lawn.)

Overall, even with its flaws, “Sapiens” is engaging and thought-provoking. Harari is, by training, an historian, so it’s an observation about history that has stuck with me afterwards. Though psychologically we like to see history in trends and patterns, he notes that nothing is foreordained, nothing is guaranteed. Ask a European in 1940 what the world would look like in five years; for that matter, ask a Mongol in 1240.

History can turn on a dime — and lead to unexpected places. Trade can spread ideas and disease; colonization can bring back riches and destroy civilizations. All history can tell us is where we’ve been. The rest is interpretation and speculation, even if it’s highly informed.

Those hunter-gatherers of 9500 B.C. had no idea what awaited them. More than 11,000 years later, we still don’t, even if we think we do. If I were Mr. Spock, I might want to head back to Vulcan.

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Review: ‘Love Me Do!: The Beatles’ Progress’ by Michael Braun

Love Me Do! The Beatles' Progress

Love Me Do! The Beatles’ Progress by Michael Braun

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Until finishing it last week, I’d never read “Love Me Do!: The Beatles’ Progress” – Michael Braun’s 1964 chronicle of Beatlemania in Britain and the U.S.

But I felt like I have.

That’s because whole sections of the book have been used in other Beatles biographies – I’m pretty sure I read some of the anecdotes in Nicholas Schaffner’s 1977 “The Beatles Forever” – and my shelves are full of Beatles biographies. For that matter, some of the passages seem ripped from Alun Owen’s script for “A Hard Day’s Night.” In fact, there were times I thought it might be the other way around — that Owen had stolen sections from Braun’s book, given that Braun’s book begins in late 1963, not long after the October show that made “Beatlemania” into a literal household word.

“What will your film be about?” a reporter asks Paul McCartney after a show in Cambridge. “Sort of a fantasy type thing?”

“Well, yeah,” says Paul, who obviously has no idea. I wonder if Owen did at the time. He and Braun must have been at the same events.

Yet, despite this familiarity, Braun’s book has the benefit of still seeming fresh. The Kindle edition I read had been based on a 1995 reissue with an introduction by the Beatle Brain himself, Mark Lewisohn, who praised it as perhaps “the best book ever written about them.” (This is before his own “Tune In” was released, of course, not to mention Bob Spitz’s biography and not long after Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution in the Head.”)

Braun, an American then working for British media, is an engaging writer and had the boldness – at the time – of presenting the Beatles warts and all, making jokes at others’ expense and drinking actual alcohol, and presumably taking up the offers of some of their female fans. No less an expert than John Lennon said it was “a true book. He wrote how we were, which was bastards.” But Lennon, who was in the midst of his post-Beatles flagellation when he said that to Jann Wenner, overstates the case: What comes across in Braun’s book is a companion to “A Hard Day’s Night,” except without the occasional quietude of the movie’s escapist sequences.

Indeed, it’s amazing the group was as funny and resilient as they were, given the meat grinder of early Beatlemania. Imagine being trapped in your own fame, your own lives. Wherever you go, you’re surrounded by security. You have to be, otherwise you’d be ripped apart by fans. Your managers – Brian Epstein, who maintains a loving distance, and Brian Sommerville, who handles publicity and appears frequently on the verge of quitting (which he did not long after) – have to protect you at all costs from … everything. The media keeps asking you how long you’ll last, and you wonder the same thing, since mere months earlier you were nobody, just four Northern lads struggling to impress the moguls in London.

My favorite quote about Beatlemania is from the acerbic George Harrison, who once said, “They gave their money, and they gave their screams. But the Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems. hey used us as an excuse to go mad, the world did, and then blamed it on us.” But “Love Me Do!” has perhaps a more pertinent quote, from Paul after a concert in York: “Oh my God, my ulcer.”

I could only think: 21-year-old Paul McCartney had an ulcer?

So if the group in “Love Me Do!” are bastards, they’d earned the right. Here are the sniffy Americans grimacing at their hair. Here are the cops rolling their eyes. Here are the media asking for autographs, then waiting to tear down the pedestal they’d just built. (Epstein to a reporter after an American show: “Great, just great … the best reception ever.” Reporter: “Would you say it was the best reception ever?”) At one point, Harrison mutters on a plane, “Why don’t you leave us alone?”

And yet the group couldn’t help but be their cheeky selves. A BBC reporter asks John, “The French have not made up their minds about the Beatles. What do you think of them?” Lennon responds, “Oh, we like the Beatles. They’re gear.” Paul, whom Jane Asher characterizes as “insecure” (Paul?), lights up at the prospects of trying new things, like foreign films and intellectual repartee – things that likely wouldn’t have been available to a working-class teacher in Liverpool. And the JFK press conference still makes me laugh.

Braun, too, gets his licks in. He notes that the most dissonant sound to be heard in the Plaza Hotel ballroom is “the rare one of too much vermouth pouring into a martini,” and that “only Time [magazine] and the New Yorker used the word ‘coleopteran’ (the New Yorker being the only one to use it correctly).”

“Coleopteran,” incidentally, means “beetle-like.” I had to look it up. Now, there’s a similar word, “Beatlesque,” and nobody has to look it up.

Paul may have been insecure, but he knew there was something happening, even if others outside their bubble didn’t know what it is.

At one point, Braun asks John and Paul if they’re going to change into song-and-dance men. John offers a flat, “We don’t want to learn to dance or take elocution lessons,” but Paul is a bit more expansive.

“People keep asking us whether we’re going to broaden our scope,” he says. “I don’t know whether we will or not. One of the things about us is that we intrigue people. We seem a little bit different.”

To say the least. And for tidbits like that, even with the story told a hundred times or more, “Love Me Do!” remains an excellent investment.

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Review: ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ by John le Carré

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I ponder the shades of gray in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” John le Carré’s 1963 breakthrough novel, I’m reminded of three words from a different character in a different work: “Can’t be helped.”

That’s what one of the observers says about Malcolm McDowell’s thug Alex DeLarge in the film “A Clockwork Orange” as DeLarge undergoes the Ludovico technique – essentially, conditioning him to feel sick every time he’s exposed to violence. Unfortunately, while watching one violent scene, DeLarge also becomes conditioned against one of his heroes, Ludwig von Beethoven, whose music is playing on the soundtrack. Oh, well. A shame. Can’t be helped.

In “Cold,” le Carré’s protagonist, Alec Leamas, is a British spy who’s sent home from Cold War Berlin after one of his double agents is killed. It’s the early ‘60s, the dawn of the Berlin Wall-tense days in the Cold War. Leamas is ready to retire, but his boss – the ominously named Control – asks him for one more mission: Leamas is to appear to defect to the East Germans in order to put the kibosh on Mundt, a cold-blooded East German agent who helped ruin Leamas’ networks.

Leamas acts his part brilliantly. He becomes an alcoholic, takes a crummy job in a library, and finally slugs a shopkeeper, which attracts the interest of the East Germans. He seems a prime candidate for turning. But he also screws up in one key way: He gets involved with Liz, a Communist sympathizer he works with at the library. She has no idea who he is beyond being mysterious, but her genuine feelings for him get her entwined in the overall plot.

Eventually, Leamas is taken to East Germany and used as a key witness in a trial involving Mundt – whom a fellow East German, Fiedler, suspects of working for the British – and Fiedler, whom Mundt characterizes as insufficiently devoted to the Communist cause. (Fiedler is also Jewish, which doesn’t help him.) Despite some bumps, Leamas believes he’s going to get his man.

And then Liz shows up, credulous and curious. I’ll refrain from giving away the ending, but let’s say that – having introduced so many characters with varying degrees of trustworthiness – le Carré isn’t one for going soft.

Indeed, that appears to be his whole point. Leave the black-and-white world for Ian Fleming and Tom Clancy. In le Carré’s trenchcoat realm, ethics are malleable and the good guys aren’t always obvious. In fact, it may be that there are no good guys at all – just grasping people whose loyalties vary according to their points of view. If there are innocent victims? Can’t be helped.

Though he hits the point too hard, one of the most fascinating passages in the book involves conversations between Leamas and his East German counterparts. The former, if rather cynical, obviously is convinced that the West is in the right. The East Germans are just as confident that their system will succeed. Given my lifetime spent as an American who hates the excesses of our capitalism and jingoism – but hates the Stasi surveillance society and numbing apartment blocks of the old Communist bloc even more – I’m more sympathetic to Leamas. (“The Lives of Others,” the brilliant 2006 film about a Stasi agent who retains a shred of humanity, shows how bad things could be in East German society.) But le Carré’s East Germans make me understand how a wounded people can suddenly become foot soldiers for the Communist/totalitarian cause, however stifling it appears from the outside.

If there’s a flaw in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” it’s the lack of subtlety in the supporting characters. Liz is a little too naïve. Mundt is a little too unsympathetic. Leamas’ colleagues have little more depth than M, James Bond’s boss. “Cold” is the only le Carré book I’ve read; I understand that in succeeding books, which start to revolve around supervisor George Smiley, he starts filling in more personalities.

But there’s no question that “Cold” packs a punch. I’d read the book more than 30 years ago, and didn’t remember much – but when I got to the final scene, it came back in all its agonizing suspense. Can’t be helped? Give me more le Carré, please.

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