Review of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

You know without looking that a book subtitled A Brief History of Humankind is an ambitious undertaking. And when you see the book is only 416 pages long, you suspect the author must paint with a rather broad brush. But that approach can work if you step back far enough and enjoy the view from a great distance. So is such a book worth reading? In the case of Sapiens, I think the answer is an enthusiastic Yes!

The author has a PhD in history for the University of Oxford and now lectures on world history. His organizing principle for this book is that three revolutions greatly affected human history. They were: (1) the cognitive revolution—begun about 70,000 years ago; (2) the agricultural revolution—begun about 12,000 years ago; and (3) the scientific revolution, begun about 500 years ago.

The cognitive revolution probably began when humans began to walk upright instead of shambling along on four limbs like modern day apes. Standing upright allowed sapiens to scan their surroundings for game or enemies. More importantly, it freed their arms for throwing things or signaling and it allowed their hands to develop significant dexterity.

Mastering the use of fire had some unexpected consequences. It was not only a source of heat and light, it was a formidable weapon against larger animals. Harari argues that for most of their existence, men were in the middle of the food chain and only comparatively recently, with the development of weapons, have been able to hunt large game. The ecosystem has not had time to adjust to man’s current food chain primacy. Moreover:

“[h]aving so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”

Most cultural historians point to the invention of agriculture as the seminal step that freed man from some of the vicissitudes of primitive existence and fueled further development of the human brain. Harari disagrees. On the first point, he argues that the life of a farmer requires much more work than that of a hunter-gatherer. Moreover, most early farmers were almost trapped on their lands in order to protect their crops from marauding scavengers like crows and other humans. The Agricultural Revolution, Harari avers, “left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers.” Extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure, he notes: “Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites.” In other words, he claims, “plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa.”

As for his second point, what did primarily fuel brain development according to Harari? He contends the aspect of human development that allowed us to take primacy over all other species was the evolution of a sophisticated language, a unique feature of which is the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist. This in turn allowed us to create myths, which made collective cooperation possible.

Harari makes numerous fascinating observations about these organizing myths of Sapien society. One of his most interesting chapters is about religion. He points out that when animism (the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence) was replaced by polytheism (a belief that the world is controlled by a group of powerful gods), the greatest impact was on mankind’s conception of mankind. He observes:

“Animists thought that humans were just one of many creatures inhabiting the world. Polytheists, on the other hand, increasingly saw the world as a reflection of the relationship between gods and humans. Our prayers, our sacrifices, our sins and our good deeds determined the fate of the entire ecosystem. [emphasis added]”

Then polytheism was replaced by monotheism which Harari doesn’t see as a positive step. He explains that polytheism does recognize a supreme power governing the universe, standing behind all the different gods who take care of day-to-day matters. (In modern parlance, we might understand this as the gods who figure out which football team to favor in a match, which makes more sense than both sides counting on Jesus.)

Pantheon of Roman Gods

Since it is the multitude of lesser gods that are concerned with the mundane cares of humans, the supreme power is devoid of interests and biases. Thus, Harari argues, “polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance.” On the other hand:

“Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognises the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth.”

It is necessary, therefore, for monotheists to “strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.”

Unfortunately, monotheists have a bit of problem explaining away evil. Somewhat wryly, Harari contends:

“There is one logical way of solving the riddle [of evil]: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe – and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.”

Religious beliefs have limits in other ways too. The Scientific Revolution, which began about 500 years ago, caused tremendous changes in the way people live and think. Harari maintains that a key to the revolution was the discovery of our ignorance. When man realized that not all knowledge was contained in sacred texts, he began to look elsewhere for enlightenment. Then he discovered that he could learn about the world by systematically examining it. This in turn led man not only to challenge prior beliefs, but to develop new tools to exploit the new knowledge.

Galileo

One group of Sapiens, the Europeans, caught on to the implications of the scientific revolution faster than any other group on the planet. Modern science and the institution of capitalism allowed them to dominate the late modern world.

Harari concludes with some dour observations about the fate of our species. He says, “As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning.” He warns that we can’t be certain that modern science won’t create a replacement for Homo sapiens by fashioning beings who possess completely different cognitive and emotional worlds. He cautions:

“What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organizational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity.”

Lastly, Harari wants to make sure we know that we are a danger to ourselves and other species. Harari believes the situation of other animals is deteriorating more rapidly than ever before. He compares our powers to those of ancient gods but grouses that we are directionless. His final sentence is:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Evaluation: This entertaining book is chock full of incisive and trenchant observations and occasional humor, but its concluding mood is pessimistic. His next book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which I have not yet read, may attempt to show the way out of the fix in which he leaves us in Sapiens. I hope so.

Note: The hardback book contains photos, maps, and a timeline. You have to love a timeline that begins 13.5 billion years ago.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by HarperCollins, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx” by Jonah Winter

Each double-page spread of this book has text both in English and in Spanish. The book tells the story of our first Latin-American Supreme Court justice from the time she was a little girl.

As we learn in an Author’s Note at the end of the book (also both in English and in Spanish), Sonia Maria Sotomayor was born on June 25, 1954 to Puerto Rican parents in the South Bronx section of New York City.

When young, she loved Nancy Drew mysteries, but because she got diabetes when she was eight, she figured she could not be a detective herself, but maybe she could be a judge, just like in her favorite television show, “Perry Mason.”

She studied hard, and got into Princeton. There she graduated with the highest honors of her class. Oddly, the author then skips the fact that Sonia went on to law school. (She received her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979, where she was an editor at the Yale Law Journal.) Instead, the story takes us immediately from Princeton to her career as a judge.

Justice Soia Sotomayor

The author reports that Sonia was a special judge because of her first-hand understanding of poverty and prejudice. Then, the next thing you know in the book, President Obama is inviting her to the White House and nominating her to the Supreme Court. She faced days of tough questions from senators, but she made it:

“Nothing could stop Sonia, the dynamo from the Bronx, from making history as the nation’s first Latin-American Supreme Court justice. . . . “

Cuban-born illustrator Edel Rodriguez uses mixed-media illustrations with ink and watercolors in a soft palette. Readers may be more familiar with Rodriguez than they think; he was the artist responsible for the iconic cover of Der Speigel magazine on February 4, 2017.

Evaluation: Most of the prose is fairly trite, and as noted above, leaves some odd gaps in Sotomayor’s story. While there is some additional information about Sotomayor’s career in an Author’s Note at the end of the book, it too is incomplete, and pretty much omits why her legal career garnered national attention. Still, it may inspire kids to try to find out more on their own.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2009

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Review of “The Paris Wedding” by Charlotte Nash

Rachel West lives on a farm in a small town in New South Wales, Australia where she spent the last ten years taking care of her mother, who has just died from primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS).

When Rachel was 17, she and her boyfriend Matthew promised to love each other forever, but then Matthew went off to college in Sydney and after six months, broke up with Rachel. Although they were only together for a bit over two years, Rachel has been carrying a torch ever since.

As the book opens, Rachel is still reeling from the loss of her mother when she receives, along with a few other people in town, an invitation to Matthew’s wedding to a woman named Bonnie Quinn. The invitation includes the offer of an all-expenses-paid trip to the venue in Paris; the father of Matthew’s fiancée is very wealthy. At first Rachel doesn’t want to go, but she thinks it might give her closure and allow her to move on from Matthew. She invites her best friend Samantha (“Sammy”) as her date, and they fly off to Paris. She leaves the wheat farm, now hers, in the capable hands of her sister Tess and her husband Joel.

They all stay for a week at the swanky Maison Lutetia, and we follow Rachel and Sammy around as they fall in love with the city. Rachel, to her surprise, also receives a couple of job offers while she is there. She is a seamstress, and everyone is wowed by the dresses she made herself for the wedding week. And one of those impressed is the photographer, Antonio, a dashing photojournalist who is doing this job as a favor to Bonnie.

Maison Lutetia in Paris

Although this book seemed like it would be a predictable romance, there are definitely surprises in store, with some unpredictable developments. It all could end disastrously, or not. An epilogue seven months later fills us in.

Evaluation: This book is not only a romance, but a love letter to Paris, and to pastry! Speaking of pastry, there are some delightful side characters, one of whom runs an Elvis-themed French bakery back in Australia called “Blue Suede Choux.” The book is perfect for a light – but not too light – summer read.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

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Review of “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution” by Todd S. Purdum

I loved this book. I was already predisposed to like the story, because I am a great fan of musicals and in particular, those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. This is the incredibly talented team that came up with Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music, inter alia.

But biographies and histories can be dry no matter how appealing the subject might be. This book, however, written in a spritely manner, is consistently entertaining. It took me a while to read it only because I kept having to break off for trips to YouTube to listen to the music. The whole neighborhood must have heard me sobbing while I watched videos of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “If I Loved You,” and “Something Wonderful.” Richard Rodgers once said art could be defined “as the expression of an emotion by means of a technique.” This description encapsulates for me exactly why their songs are so appealing.

Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones in Carousel

The book is full of background on where the duo got their ideas, how they came up with the music and the lyrics, their working relationship, how they staged the productions and found the stars for their shows, and the ways in which the other collaborators – from arrangers, conductors, choreographers, and scenic designers – contributed so much to the productions – often without appropriate or adequate credit.

The author also explains the basic format of the American popular song, and how Rodgers and Hammerstein altered it depending on the culture or period they were depicting. For example, for “The King and I,” Rodgers needed to change the notes and the tempos to create a more exotic sounds. Even the instruments used to play the music needed to change. The author also adds earlier versions of lyrics when they are available, to show how they evolved and improved with each rewrite.

“Shall We Dance” from The King and I with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner

Most of the story takes off when Larry Hart, Rodgers long-time lyricist, was hardly functioning anymore because of an advanced state of alcoholism. Rodgers was asked to develop “Green Grow the Lilacs” into a musical, and he needed a partner. Hammerstein had previously worked on the masterpiece Show Boat with Jerome Kern, which opened in 1927 to rave reviews, but then Hammerstein hit a long dry patch and even Hammerstein thought his career in musical theater was over.

Richard Rodgers (left) and Oscar Hammerstein II (right)

It was 1942. Rodgers and Hammerstein met over lunch; agreed to become partners; “Green Grow the Lilacs” became “Oklahoma!”; and Broadway theater would never be the same. “Oklahoma!” won a special honorary Pulitzer Prize and would run for over five years, breaking all previous records. The author observes that the show was more than a Broadway hit – it was “a cultural phenomenon, and much of that had to do with World War II.” As a member of the New York State Federation of Women’s Clubs told one of the stars, it carried a necessary message, “when people are going out to fight for this country, and may die for it, to be reminded of the kind of courage, the unselfconscious courage, that settled this country.” Indeed, Purdum records, men in uniform flocked to the show.

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma!

The team went on to win a total of 34 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammys, and two Emmys, a record unmatched by any other writing team. Stephen Sondheim, who was Oscar’s surrogate son and later protégé, thought Hammerstein’s lyrics were simplistic. But there is no doubt about their staying power, or that of Rodgers’ music. Purdum notes:

“On a single spring evening in 2014, in the United States alone, there were 11 productions of Carousel, 17 of The King and I, 26 of South Pacific, 64 of Oklahoma!, and 106 of The Sound of Music.

South Pacific

Oscar Hammerstein died in 1960 and while Rodgers kept busy, he never again experienced the degree of success he had with Hammerstein. In addition, the nature of what the public wanted had changed. Rodgers died in 1979.

A critic in 1993 wrote deprecatingly that the world of Rodgers and Hammerstein was too much of a wholesome and saccharine place in which good triumphed over evil. Parodying their music he explained:

“If you kept on whistling a happy tune, you would never walk alone. And on some enchanted evening, you might even find your true love. Those who climbed every mountain, beginning with foothills that were alive with the sound of music, would surely find their dreams.”

The Sound of Music

He concluded that in the light of today’s sexual and racial politics, this perspective seemed no longer relevant. And yet. There is a reason the plays and the music endure. As Julie Andrews said in an interview:

“Rodger’s music was always melodically glorious, simple yet soaring. . . . Hammerstein’s lyrics were equally rich [and] brilliantly constructed…. Their shows managed to be both timely and timeless – the epitome of classic.”

The book includes photos.

Evaluation: You may ask, how can I objectively evaluate this book when clearly I loved it even before I cracked open the cover? Yes, true indeed. But I would also observe that I have a number of other books on musical theater, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and Hollywood musicals, and none of them are as well-written as this one. This one does what Rodgers and Hammerstein did at their best: it comes up with a unified story and peppers it with details that are interesting, inspiring, instructive, sentimental, gossipy, and even salacious. It throws in unforgettable lyrics, and thanks to the internet, stirring background music is only as far away as your computer or smart phone.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2018

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Review of “America for Beginners: A Novel” by Lea Franqui

This is a story of a journey of self-discovery for three people thrown together on a trip across the country. In a way they are all newcomers to America. Pival Sengupta, newly widowed at age 60, is from Kolkata, India. Her young American guide, Satya Roy, was originally from Bangladesh but he is pretending to be from India. Rebecca Eliot, hired as a companion for Pival, is from America but has barely traveled at anywhere. All three of them are looking for a positive change in their lives, which so far, have been filled with missteps and disappointments.

This sounds predictable, right? One presumes they open up to each other on the road and help each other solve their problems. But surprisingly, this isn’t what happens at all. Their inner journeys remain opaque to one another, even as each of them inadvertently and occasionally teaches a lesson or two to the others. Likewise, the resolution of the story is much different than the boilerplate road story.

Evaluation: I enjoyed having my expectations upended. I also appreciated the way cultural expectations and prejudices played so large a part in the story and yet to a large extent no one ever confronted anyone else about it. It was an unexpected and entertaining book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

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