Book reviews: The Geography of Genius, The Anatomy of a Calling and Rice, Noodle, Fish

Brilliant minds, Japanese food and spirituality by Eric Weiner, Matt Goulding and Lissa Rankin

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 February, 2016, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 February, 2016, 9:00pm

The Geography of Genius

by Eric Weiner

Simon & Schuster (e-book)

Eric Weiner’s favourite definition of “creative genius” comes from artificial-intelligence expert Margaret Boden, who understands it to be someone able to come up with ideas that are new, surprising and valuable. He then plots a creative-genius map of the world, coming up with six places, most of them cities (villages not being genius hotspots): Athens, Florence, Silicon Valley, Vienna, Calcutta and Hangzhou. For each, he attempts to answer whether it was just a happy set of circumstances that created such brilliant minds as Socrates, Aristotle, Rabindranath Tagore, Shen Kuo (whom Joseph Needham called “perhaps the most interesting character in all of Chinese scientific history”), and Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, Weiner offers few definite answers in his attempt to explain why certain places become genius magnets. This is due in part to his light-touch interviews and travelogue style of writing, which includes colour at the expense of analysis. Interesting factors to consider are the influence of chaos, authoritarianism, wealth, climate, and more. About China’s contribution, he writes, “The Song Dynasty was China’s Renaissance, Hangzhou its Florence.” Hong Kong readers will find especially interesting Weiner’s chat with Alibaba’s Jack Ma about, among other things, why there aren’t more like him in China.

Rice, Noodle, Fish

by Matt Goulding

An Anthony Bourdain Book, Harper Wave (e-book)

Matt Goulding’s ode to Japan’s food culture is an oddity. Crammed with gems (so foodies can find off-the-grid eateries), it also contains pointers of the sort found in hastily packaged travel stories telling of the inscrutable Japanese with their weird ways: About natto, the fermented soybeans often served for breakfast, the author writes: “spike it with hot mustard and soy-based tare, then just close your eyes and think of England”. For the most part, however, Goulding provides a delicious tour of everything from roadside food stands to Michelin-starred restaurants (Kyoto is the most Michelin star-dense city on Earth). Whether he is occupying one of only six exclusive seats, or is sitting in an izakaya with the hoi polloi, Goulding feeds the reader tasty morsels, for example, that “sushi isn’t about freshness; it’s about timing”: superstar chef Koji Sawada ages white fish for two days and scallops a week to develop its umami. You’ll find out when rice is at its most delicious after cooking and the joy of eating cod milt (look that up after you’ve given it a try). Best are his one-on-ones with the shokunin, specialists who spend a lifetime trying to achieve perfection.

The Anatomy of a Calling

by Lissa Rankin

Audible Studios (audiobook)

Followers of mythologist Joseph Campbell will appreciate the hero’s journey Lissa Rankin takes in The Anatomy of a Calling. An obstetrician and gynaecologist, she acts on an “inner nudge” telling her it is time to leave medicine (and, later, her husband), thus closing one door. But, as readers might expect, other doors open, leading her down non-traditional healing paths and to the Divine. If that “D” word stops you in your tracks you are probably not ready for this book, which casually speaks of journeys, the soul, the “Small Self”, spiritual surrender, enlightenment and the like. Rankin, who is likeable despite, or perhaps because of, her vulnerability is guided by her “Inner Pilot Light”, which directs her to Esalen and to alternative practices. She endures a “Perfect Storm” of emotions – the birth of her first child, and soon after that the death of her father and medical emergency involving her brother – that disrupts all sense of certainty. That helps her draw a line between life before and after. Erin Moon reads Rankin’s book at a pace that allows listeners to digest her words. The teacherly tones bring home that this is a self-help book.