Another superb essay collection from novelist Hustvedt (The Summer without Men, 2011, etc.).
As in her previous collections, Yonder (1998) and A Plea for Eros (2006), the author trains a formidable intellect on difficult subjects (the structure of the brain, the nature of perception) with an engaging personal touch that invites a general readership. In “Excursions to the Islands of the Happy Few,” though she acknowledges the need for specialized vocabulary and research, she regrets the “culture of hyperfocus and expertise” in which “people inhabit disciplinary islands of the like-educated and the like-minded.” Hustvedt, by contrast, has a doctorate in English literature, has written extensively about art and has lectured at neuroscience conferences and at the Sigmund Freud Foundation. The categories invoked in her title—personal essays (Living), intellectual puzzles (Thinking), investigations of art (Looking)—indicate her broad scope; their underlying unity rests on Hustvedt’s consuming interest in connections: between emotion and intellect, memory and imagination, mother and child, artist and audience. Embodied, employed both as a verb and adjective, is a favored word, and it’s no accident that she mentions several times a 1996 neuroscience paper that identified certain “mirror neurons” that fire in the cerebral cortex of macaque monkeys performing a specific physical action and that also fire in monkeys observing the action. She is fascinated by the link between what we do and what we see and by the noncorporeal but nonimaginary spaces where human beings interact emotionally and intellectually. Frequent anecdotes about her extended family and her childhood illustrate her points and lower the intimidation factor; Hustvedt addresses a broad public without dumbing down her material. There are no weak essays here, but some of the best concern art, particularly those on Goya and Louise Bourgeois, whose work provides particularly fertile soil for Hustvedt’s exploration of the “electrical connection [that] takes place between the viewer and the image seen.”
At once stimulating and warmhearted, with sentences of drop-dead beauty and acuity on nearly every page.