A science journalist searches deep for roots and finds them in the deepest helixes of her genetic code.
“The fact is that my forebears—in the direct maternal line—were among the anatomically modern, musical and artistic humans who first colonized Europe.” That claim is laden with import. Swedish science journalist and editor Bojs has been following advances in DNA research for decades, work that, she writes, has led to interviewing some 70 scientists and visiting 10 countries. As she recounts in this well-written work of popular science, those travels have involved not just Bojs as an entity, but also her genetic inheritance: amino acids that led to the now-submerged Dogger Bank, off the coast of England; the far-flung Arctic tribes marked by the haplogroup U4; and to scattered places in the Balkans and Greece, “along the routes taken by Europe’s first farmers on their way northwards toward Central Europe.” Such researches lead to big-picture questions that mirror work that has been done in the prehistory of North America: for instance, as Bojs writes, were immigrants responsible for the spread of farming into what is now Scandinavia, “or was the technology itself simply adapted by local hunting populations?” As she acknowledges, although genetic studies yield insight into such matters as the role of disease in early human populations, they are also fraught with possibilities for a racialized view of the human past, whence the whole business of Aryan purity and the interest of some totalitarian regimes in establishing the primacy of favored genotypes and phenotypes. Though she begins with that proud claim of descent from modern humans, Bojs closes with darker discoveries of mental illness in her lineage. Though she reckons herself fairly lucky in the genetic lottery, she argues that genes are not “selfish,” in Richard Dawkins’ sense, but two-faced: “what is good or bad depends on the combination and the context.”
A book to consult before swabbing, full of insight into the uses and abuses of genetics.
A collection of short essays by female authors on Paris, a city that “is so many things, all of them wonderful.”
All of the bestselling authors featured in this book have written works that feature Paris, and this lively assemblage, edited by Brown (The Light of Paris, 2016, etc.), puts on display the personal narrative of each woman’s experience of the City of Light. Whether recalling the books about Paris that propelled Cathy Kelly to travel there, the variety of experiences gathered by Paula McLain and Therese Anne Fowler during research trips for their books, Jennifer Coburn’s mother-daughter trip, which featured an unexpected outcome, or Ellen Sussman’s exploration of how her passion for the city masked the pain and emptiness of her crumbling marriage, the essays offer tantalizing portraits of both the city’s beauty and grit. Following each essay is a brief biography of the author, listing her works, her favorite and least-favorite Paris moments (M.J. Rose: “the last time I had to leave”), what shouldn’t be missed during a trip to Paris and what to skip (Sussman: the Champs-Élysées, which has become “a shopping mall for tourists”), and her favorite non-Paris travel destination. What makes this collection a treat are the varying viewpoints about this singular city. Each story offers a unique vantage point for better understanding the history and culture of the city. Award-winning romance writer Megan Crane, who has written more than 60 books, three of which feature Paris, describes how meandering around the city helped her to know herself better: “I could finally be me. That was what Paris did for me, one long ago weekend on my own. It scared me, then it challenged me. And then it set me free.”
A quick and fun read that should delight seasoned travelers as well as those planning their first adventure to this “enormous and complex place.”
Punning may not seem a viable path to winning any kind of championship, but Fast Company editor and reporter Berkowitz (co-author: You Blew It!: An Awkward Look at the Many Ways in Which You’ve Already Ruined Your Life, 2015) discovered a new world of competition when he first attended Punderdome, where punsters with monikers like Punky Brewster, Forest Wittyker, Words Nightmare, and Black Punther gather to outwit one another. That experience led him to the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, “the Olympics of pun competitions,” held in Austin, Texas, and many other such events throughout the country. English, Berkowitz learned, “is uncontestably the best language to pun in” because it has the largest vocabulary, with many words drawn from hundreds of other languages. Only English allows for a pun like, “Paris is a site for soirees.” The author defines four kinds of puns: homophonic, with words that sound the same but have different meanings; homographic, with words “spelled the same but sound[ing] different”; homonymic, with words spelled and sounding the same; and portmanteau, with words that combine two other words to mean something different. The book is filled with examples of puns, many of which do not seem funny on the page; some, as Berkowitz readily admits, are simply bad. A great pun, he writes, “is its own reword. A mediocre pun, though, is just awkword.” The author chronicles his interviews with a host of punsters, investigates the history of punning across cultures, and discusses his experience at the North East Texas Humor Research Conference, “among Earth’s least funny places.” Linguists and other experts hardly enlighten him about what makes a good punster, but he does learn from contestants that practice is important. He also reproduces a digital exchange on the topic of weather, which elicits such remarks as, “spoken like a raining pun champion” and “I’m losing my cloudt.”
The captivating story of a 19th-century solar eclipse.
In this compelling social and scientific history, former NPR science correspondent Baron (The Beast in the Garden, 2003) begins with his own unexpectedly transformative experience witnessing a total solar eclipse for the first time. “For three glorious minutes,” he writes, “I felt transported to another planet, indeed to a higher plane of reality, as my consciousness departed the earth and I gaped at an alien sky.” Such a response is not atypical: “For millennia, total solar eclipses have awed, frightened, and inspired.” Their occurrence, however, is rare, “passing any given point on earth about once every four hundred years.” By 1878, astronomers accurately predicted that a total solar eclipse would be observable in the western United States, and they charted its likely path. Expeditions set out to witness the event in Wyoming and Colorado, including one led by Maria Mitchell, a female professor of astronomy from the women’s college Vassar. Mitchell, writes Baron, “saw it as her role not only to teach female students but…to create the kind of supportive environment for intelligent women so lacking in the outside world.” Another notable figure who traveled west to see the eclipse was Thomas Edison, who had invented an instrument that would hopefully measure differences in solar heat during and after the eclipse. Although the device was not as accurate as he had hoped, it anticipated the development of infrared telescopes. As Baron capably and enthusiastically shows, the solar eclipse of 1878 proved to be an important moment in the emergence of American science; another outcome was the creation of the first national weather service. Would-be eclipse watchers used the telegraph to track weather systems in order to determine the best time and place for their sightings. Two years later, President Ulysses Grant signed legislation creating the weather service, “to be operated by the Army Signal Corps.”
A timely, energetic combination of social and scientific history in anticipation of the total solar eclipse predicted for Aug. 21, 2017.
On the 50th anniversary of Israeli occupation of Palestine, top writers bear witness to oppression and despair.
When Waldman (A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, 2017, etc.) visited Israel for the Jerusalem International Writers Festival in 2014, she met members of the nonprofit groups Breaking the Silence and Youth Against Settlements, who helped her to understand “the massive, often brutal, always dehumanizing military bureaucracy” that defines the occupation. Hoping to focus attention on the desperate situation, she and her husband, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Chabon (Moonglow, 2016, etc.), invited an international roster of writers to tour towns and villages in the Israeli-occupied territories and meet with community organizers, workers, artists, activists, farmers, and families, as well as Israeli settlers and disillusioned soldiers. Their responses to those visits are moving, heartbreaking, and infuriating, testifying to the chilling cruelty of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. Even Palestinians given Israeli citizenship are vulnerable to “demographic transfer”—or “forced displacement” in order “to achieve the ‘purity’ of ‘the Jewish state,’ ” writes Palestinian-born, British-educated Fida Jiryis. “One can only wonder at the sadistic ingenuity with which Israel has woven an airtight system around us to suffocate every aspect of our lives.” Walls are a recurrent image: they keep Palestinians in their crumbling towns and separate farmers from their land, workers from their jobs, and family members from one another. Gaza, writes Dave Eggers, “is a prison” with a 40-mile, 25-foot wall on its northern border with Israel and the heavily patrolled Mediterranean on the west. Checkpoints require elaborate documentation, which takes countless hours to assemble. As Chabon notes, “control of time is one of the biggest weapons of the occupation.” Young soldiers wield deadly power capriciously; houses are evacuated and razed in the middle of the night; a refugee camp has “no infrastructure of any kind.” Among the most well-known contributors are Geraldine Brooks, Mario Vargas Llosa, Colum McCann, and Jacqueline Woodson; royalties will go to NGOs.
Deeply unsettling, important stories call for urgent responses to the Middle East conflict.
A music biography with the depth to do its subject justice.
Otis Redding (1941-1967) ranks high in the pantheon of 1960s musical luminaries, so it’s fitting that this biography ranks equally high among such work focusing on popular musical artists. With full cooperation from Redding’s widow and family, along with many involved in his management, his music, and his recording and touring career, Gould (Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, 2007), a former professional musician, illuminates the life and work of an artist who flourished during an era when the mainstream press gave scant attention to soul singers and the emerging rock press was just beginning to come to terms with Redding’s music. In fact, following the plane crash that took the life of the 26-year-old in December 1967, “Otis’s death inspired an outpouring of publicity that far exceeded the sum of what was written about him during his life.” Gould also provides deep context regarding the racial relations and politics that informed Redding’s progression from high school dropout and Little Richard imitator to the artist whose achievement gave Stax Records its distinctive identity and whose galvanizing performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival suggested even greater things to come. Rock impresario Bill Graham, who presented Redding for the rock crowd at his Fillmore West, said “in terms of all the people I’ve seen on stage since then…[Otis] hasn’t been equaled. There’s nothing close.” Yet just months after his coronation at Monterey, Redding was dead, a victim of wintry Midwest conditions and an inexperienced pilot. He left behind a posthumous masterpiece, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” that sounded like nothing he had previously recorded and seemed to indicate not only artistic growth, but a change in direction.
Better late than never, the soul master receives his considerable due in this superbly researched and written biography.
A captivating narrative about arson, persistent law enforcers, an unlikely romantic relationship, and a courtroom drama.
The setting is Accomack County, a lightly populated area of the Eastern Shore “separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay and a few hundred years of cultural isolation.” Washington Post reporter Hesse (Girl in the Blue Coat, 2016) knew almost nothing about the economically depressed, desolate county when she first visited there in 2013 after hearing about a series of regularly occurring arsons of abandoned buildings. Eventually, the number of similar-seeming arsons would top out at 67. Though there were no reported deaths or serious injuries, the burning buildings were exhausting the lightly staffed volunteer fire departments in the county and consuming the resources of local and state law enforcement agencies. For nearly half a year, police mounted sophisticated stakeouts hoping to catch the arsonist in the act, but they consistently failed to identify a suspect. Even a profiler, who, it turned out, accurately predicted the neighborhood where the arsonist resided, did not see his lead pan out. Then, finally, a stakeout at an unoccupied home paid off. Hesse reveals the culprit early in the book—two of them, actually, Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick (“Bonnie and Clyde of the Eastern Shore”), who lived together romantically along with Bundick’s sons. Local police knew the culprits personally; Smith had even served as a volunteer firefighter, as did his brother. As Hesse constructs her narrative, the surprises arrive in the manner of the arrest, the motives for the fires, and the outcomes of the multiple trials. Throughout, the author offers a nuanced portrait of a way of life unknown to most who have never resided on or visited the Eastern Shore.
A collection of mini-essays from one of England’s finest writers.
The winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Jacobson (Shylock Is My Name, 2016, etc.) returns with his second collection of weekly opinion pieces from the now-defunct Independent. He writes that his goal with these brief essays, most less than three pages long, was to “entertain in a spirit of high seriousness,” to “glide seamlessly between Rabelais and George Eliot.” For 18 years, he hoped they “might surprise and energise, and would give pleasure.” They have indeed. An ever gorgeous and witty writer with his own fierce opinions, Jacobson runs the gamut from Matisse, Leonard Cohen’s fedora, and Andy Murray to children’s literature, table tennis, and the “wise decision” of shooting Osama bin Laden. For American readers, a number of these columns are rather British-centric, yet even those can be enjoyed in a pleasant ignorant haze. The title piece is a tender, bittersweet reflection on what the author surmises is the final walk of a “black Labrador as old as Methuselah” who lifts his “handsome head to smell the air one last time.” Then it’s off to a discussion of darts, “the last refuge of the serious.” Delving into erotica, he notes that “Henry James wrote hotter novels than Jackie Collins.” Another graceful piece laments the death of a superb, “irreplaceable” Italian tailor. There’s an amusing discourse on the "wonderful" Wisden, the 1,500-page “cricketers’ almanack,” and another on the time when Jacobson discovered “despondent hedonism” while listening to Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?” Regarding food, Indian cuisine is the most “intrinsically ceremonial.” It isn’t all sweetness and light, thanks to harsh words about Margaret Thatcher, governmental surveillance, and the invasion of Iraq, but the author seems more at home opining on such topics as why Macbeth is “the most interesting murderer in literature.”
A delightful and argute collection from a talented stylist.
A joint biography of two men who “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism” in the mid-20th century.
As dual biographies pour off the presses, authors stretch to find a suitable pair. That includes Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Ricks (The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, 2012, etc.), who takes an odd tack with subjects who were neither friends, colleagues, rivals, nor enemies. Nonetheless, given the author’s abundant skills, readers will thoroughly enjoy the result. Since Churchill and Orwell never met, Ricks writes separate biographies and then works hard to deliver a common theme. He succeeds because these two men made cases for individual freedom better than anyone in their century. During 1940, at a time when everyone agreed that Britain’s destruction was imminent, Churchill treated Neville Chamberlain and the appeasers (who were largely responsible) with respect, ordered no mass murders or arrests, and never assumed that, in this crisis and, of course, temporarily, Britain needed a touch of Nazi ruthlessness. Orwell has always been the conservatives’ favorite Marxist, although he was a faithful socialist all his life. An obscure journalist until his breakthrough with Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), he hated totalitarianism in all forms but reserved special ire for the cant and fabrication that all governments employ and that his colleagues on the left accepted when it suited their beliefs. Everyone approves of Orwell’s classic statement that a lie in the service of a good cause is no less despicable than in the service of a bad cause. Yet it’s never caught on; our leaders routinely announce bad news as good news, and plenty of activists consider lying a useful tactic.
A superb account of two men who set standards for defending liberal democracy that remain disturbingly out of reach.
A retired Navy admiral tells the history of the seas and gives an updated look at their strategic importance.
Stavridis (Dean, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy/Tufts Univ.; The Accidental Admiral, 2014, etc.) knows his maritime history, but equally important is his firsthand knowledge of the seas as a naval officer who has steered ships and served as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. The book is organized into separate chapters on each of the world’s major bodies of water: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Arctic oceans, plus the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, and the Caribbean. Two final chapters consider criminal activity on the seas and outline a modern naval strategy for America. The author’s historical summaries are written in broad strokes, with only brief consideration of individual battles. He vividly relates what it felt like as a young naval officer taking a boat through the Panama Canal or the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, and he adds personal authority to his more general points about the different bodies of water. His discussion of the South China Sea and the Arctic Ocean, the two areas he considers most likely to be the sites of future confrontations between major powers, serves as a reminder that America is far from the only nation with a legitimate interest in these areas. His assessments of the South China Sea seem especially apt. Stavridis is optimistic that global rivals can find ways to cooperate with each other and prevent serious conflict, though his citation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a likely engine for cooperation may need revision in light of the current presidential administration. The chapter on piracy, overfishing, and destruction of the environment is sobering, and the final chapter, which outlines the importance of naval power in the coming decades, is a good starting point for consideration of the strategic options open to the U.S.
A highly readable, instructive look at the role of the oceans in our civilization, past and present.