Backgrounder on Turkey

Turkey: What Everyone Needs to KnowTurkey: What Everyone Needs to Know by Andrew Finkel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This concise, quick read will be a good starting point for anyone who needs to know about this surprising country. Finkel covers a breadth of topics and suggests linkages among them — language, regional disparities, ethnic history and conflicts, political history, current party and government structure, economic potential and weaknesses, religious tolerance and conflicts, and Turkey's complex and fluid geopolitical strategy. Not a word about the country's vibrant arts scene — theater, literature, film, painting, etc. — but on other aspects, clear and opinionated (he's a fierce defender of free speech, which is sometimes in danger).

Andrew Finkel is an American journalist with long experience in Turkey. He is also the husband of historian Caroline Finkel, author of the monumental history of the Ottoman empire, Osman's Dream, which I reviewed here earlier; she describes him (in her acknowledgements) as an "academic manqué" (he mentions having worked on a Ph.D. dissertation), and indeed he approaches journalism with a scholar's seriousness and the expectation that his readers will be able and happy to follow a sometimes subtle and sophisticated argument. He was fired from Turkey's big daily Today's Zaman in 2011, he believes for defending a critic of the paper's founder and backer, the controversial Islamic preacher and charter-school empresario (in the U.S.) Fethullah Gülen (look him up — Americans should know about him). Finkel now has a regular column in the International Herald Tribune, still reporting from Turkey.

View all my reviews

Neurons in harmony

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human ObsessionThis Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hard to believe, but this book is as good as its blurbs. Levitin is both a musician and a neuroscientist, who got into the science to understand better the music he was playing or engineering for rock bands. He knows far more music than I do, drawing on all genres to illustrate what it does, how it does it and why it matters. "Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem." (pp. 85-86) And, he argues (against Pinker and other skeptics), it is not a superfluous byproduct of evolution, but has been essential to our survival and most probably, as Darwin himself believed, is even older than language.

Just how do we remember songs, even when the pitch, rhythm and timbre are all altered? And just what are pitch, rhythm and timbre, and how do they affect our brains? And why do you like heavy metal (or whatever you like), while I … well, many other things? These are just some of the mysteries that scientists are beginning to solve.

And what must occur in the brain for a musician to achieve full physical skill (of voice, strings, horn, whatever) and sensibility? It takes at least 10,000 hours of practice, says Levitin, for the brain to achieve complete mastery of anything (auto mechanics, fiction writing, musical composition or performance, or anything else). "Although people differ in how long it takes them to consolidate information neurally, it remains true that increased practice leads to a greater number of neural traces, which can combine to create a stronger memory representation." (p. 197) Talent — a genetic predisposition, that difference in learning time he mentions — is a big help, but it's not enough without practice.

Levitin's style is lively, his examples well chosen (even though I didn't recognize all the music he expected me to know), and his openness to examining contrary hypotheses makes him a credible guide. I especially appreciated his comments on performance and how a musician learns new pieces, by "chunking" — that is, learning whole groups or sequences of chords, melodies, etc. rather than all the individual notes a beginning piano player struggles to memorize. And best of all, the sheer emotion of listening and playing. That's what I want to hold on to as I get back to practicing. And I now have a clearer idea of the "schema" to listen for in classic jazz (I sort of knew, but never had it explained before) and how to appreciate the clever transformation Mahler achieves in his Fifth, or what and how Joni Mitchell accomplishes with her alternative guitar tunings.

So why four and not five stars? My very personal reaction: the first couple of chapters were too cute and anecdotal, an unnecessary (for me) warm-up for the truly informative, analytical stuff to come. But if you've never thought much about notes or scales or timbre, maybe you'll need that.

View all my reviews


Back from the U.S. of A.

Susana and I got back home to Carboneras (Almería, Spain) yesterday after nearly a month in the USA (and a few days in Madrid), our first trip back there in nearly four years: Cambridge and Boston MA, for my college reunion; Galisteo and Santa Fe NM to see old friends; Arizona to hang out with my two sons (one in Prescott, the other in Flagstaff), and finally New York, for many personal and business reasons, including a meeting with the editor for our current book-in-progress, a history of architecture and urbanism in Latin America.

So this is just to explain why you hadn't seen anything from me over the past month — we were too busy traveling and had too infrequent and interrupted access to the Internet for me to sit down and write anything interesting. Now we're back in our seaside home and ready to get back to work on projects including:
  • first, that book I just mentioned (volume I, the pre-Columbian history, is written; the volume on 20th and 21st centuries is well advanced; we're saving for last what we expect to be the least challenging portion, on the long colonial period and the first post-independence century).
  • My new novel, still in early stage.
  • More commentary on current events. Next up, an article on Turkey and its protests.
This will keep us busy while everybody else is at the beach. Maybe we'll get to go down to the beach, too, from time to time. It's right outside my window, mighty tempting.