Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Carol Kaesuk Yoon

Carol Kaesuk Yoon received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Cornell University and has been writing about biology for the New York Times since 1992. Recent stories covered the sensory capabilities of plants and the field of “evodevo,” or evolution and development. Her articles have also appeared in Science, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Yoon has taught writing as a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University’s John S. Knight Writing Program, working with professors to help teach critical thinking in biology classes. She has also served as a science education consultant to Microsoft.

Her new book is Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science.

A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I recently finished a book called Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It's the third of his books I've read now, all about the use of meditation and the art of being, as opposed to doing, toward improving a person's physical health. What I really like about his books, especially Full Catastrophe Living is that he takes on the subject of meditation which is often dealt with in a religious, woo-woo, spiritual and mystic manner (which doesn't fit with my personal world view) and he deals with them very straightforwardly, empirically and in a way that I find very intellectually comfortable. Turns out Dr. Kabat-Zinn isn't a medical doctor but a Ph.D. who was trained as a laboratory scientist and I think that's what why his general outlook on the subject consistently works for me, makes sense and never grates. That and he's a really wonderful writer. And because he deals in actual observations, studies and practices and he leaves mysticism and religion at the door, I find the book and its message - that there is a lot of physical healing that can come from working with the mind through meditation - especially hopeful. It's all so logical, it's a wonder to me that so much of this information remains unincorporated in the work of mainstream health practitioners.

The book I am still reading and have been for a long time and will be for a long time is The Tale of Genji, which I had always heard described as the world's first novel. It was written around the year 1000, a tale of Japanese royal and nonroyal love affairs, kind of an ancient Japanese Peyton Place or maybe more like Upstairs, Downstairs. My husband and I are actually reading it together. He reads, I listen. We've attempted this before several times but have always put the book down pretty quickly because it was so unbelievably uninteresting. But for some reason, some months ago, we were stuck without anything else to read and there was nothing for it but to read that, so we did and now, 700 pages in (and plenty still to go), we're hooked. What's been, oddly, most interesting to me is the author's references to other novels and very self-conscious description of her own book in relation to them - particularly since I had always heard it was the first novel ever written. But she says things about how you might expect things to turn out in such and such a way, as they do in novels, and so on. Or makes semi-disparaging comments about other novels, in general. Beyond that what's really interesting is just what she chooses to describe. The sex scenes are, from the modern reader's perspective (or at least ours) hilarious. There's usually the glimpsing of a part of a woman's sleeve by a man, who becomes then wildly amorous as socially important women are typically hidden entirely from view behind screens. And then the man slipping behind the screen during a lapse in watchfulness of the woman's servants, and then there's usually little more than his trying to slip out early in the morning to escape other people's notice, and soon after he sends a "next morning" note. Beyond the historical quirkiness of it, there have been stretches here and there that are just extremely engaging, plot-wise, and in terms of character, and despite all the tear-soaked sleeves (everyone is constantly bursting into tears) and the incessant poetry-reciting that everyone seems to do, I find I really do want to know what happens.
Read an excerpt from Naming Nature, and learn more about the author and her work at Carol Kaesuk Yoon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue