1. The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons – Sam Kean
(science) – I can scarcely begin to tell you how much admiration I have for Sam Kean. Reading about science is likely to be one of the least favorite pastimes of a great many people; indeed, there was even a time early in my own life when I found the idea incredibly dreadful. I only wish that I’d had the works of Sam Kean to change that perspective, as I might have started my foray into the world of science much sooner. Kean is a master story-teller, able to incorporate drama, comedy, and tidbits ranging from the curious to the bizarre into subjects that, when taught in an undergraduate class, often seem impossibly dry. Imagine my delight when I found that he’d written a book about my own field of study: neuroscience. From ancient neurosurgeries and to current theories about cognition, Kean deftly handles each topic. His own curiosity is easily communicated and quite contagious: not only is The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons entertaining, it is highly informative. I read this over the summer before I matriculated into graduate school, and it served as a great refresher for my fall neuropsychology class. I even impressed my professor with a few stories borrowed from Kean’s book.
2. Twelve Moons – Mary Oliver
(poetry) – A very close family friend who also writes poetry recommended Mary Oliver to me a few years back. I began by reading books he would lend me (Blue Iris, White Pine, Upstream). I wanted my own copies, of course, so I finally buckled down and forked over the money to buy a new copy of Twelve Moons, and was not disappointed. Considering that the vast majority of Oliver’s poetry is about nature, it is both astonishing and right that her assessment of the natural world never becomes tiresome. There is always something new to marvel at, always something new to see, always a new perspective to be gained. She manages to capture the serenity we associate with nature, and interweave it with wisdom that is sometimes more observant than didactic. The world is everything that that is the case; Oliver merely asks that we look, and consider.
3. A Sand County Almanac – Aldo Leopold
(non-fiction/philosophy) It is unfortunate that, in most undergraduate philosophy courses, the focus is almost always anthropocentric. The philosophers discussed are Aristotle, Seneca, Constantine, Plato, etc., and their primary concerns are with mankind. It encourages an already deeply egocentric youth to become even more so; and while introspection is all fine and good, sometimes it is better to learn to look elsewhere, outside. A Sand County Almanac is an utterly enthralling and refreshing departure from oneself. Leopold is a phenomenal writer to the point that I think this book has ruined me for many other biologues*; A Sand County Almanac is undeniably poetry. The book can be boiled down to merely “observations about the interactions between humans and nature” but that would do it grave injustice. It’s a very humbling literary work: not only does the reader gain a deeper understanding of the natural world, but also feels keenly the impacts of his/her own interference. I think society in general might benefit from the inclusion of such works into the dreaded undergraduate philosophy courses.
4. Privileged Hands: A Remarkable Scientific Life – Geerat Vermeij
(non-fiction/biography) – While I have no idea how to pronounce the author’s name (you will forgive me; he’s Dutch), I did find myself drawn in by this charming read. Part autobiography, part biologue*, Privileged Hands is the story of a malacologist who also happens to be blind. Vermeij takes the reader on a strangely scenic journey through his life; through his early descent into blindness he describes the process of changing the way in which he experienced the world, and how his fascination with the natural world— shells in particular— led to the honing of impressive tactile skills that allowed him to pursue graduate work in evolutionary malacology. Vermeij takes us through his years in university, to post-doctoral positions, and finally through to his professorship. Though the fact of Vermeij’s blindness is never forgotten throughout the book, it is not necessarily the central focus; this is more of an exploration into a scientific life and the evolution of scientific thought. A thoughtful and provoking read for anyone interested in biology, marine or otherwise.
5. Morning Poems – Robert Bly
(poetry) I generally recommend Robert Bly to people who claim not to like poetry. This is because my perception is that most people who don’t like poetry disapprove of its often ridiculously abstract nature, its flowery prose, and the modern tendency towards exhibitionistic confessionalism. For this, Bly is a good remedy; in Morning Poems especially, he has a very plain way of writing, but not to the point of being prosaic. Rather, you feel as if he is speaking to you; so, instead of trying to muddle you with mysterious verbiage, he tells you exactly what he means. Whereas an author like, say, Sylvia Plath, feels like watching someone attempt a very melancholy strip-tease (which is kind of horrific when you think about it), Bly feels more like visiting an old, eccentric uncle and taking a morning walk around his property. That is not to say that mystery or allure is totally absent from his works—far from it. And it’s really hard to say more than that without overdoing it. Try “Bad People” on for size.
6. The Dying Animal – Philip Roth
(fiction) – I am moderately hesitant to include this in the 6 main recommendations because it is almost an acquired taste. I say “almost” because Roth is hailed as one of the eminent American writers of the modern era and the writing itself is very lucid; but, the subject matter and the voice of the narrator may require a certain amount of tolerance. The Dying Animal depicts that taboo of taboos, cliché of clichés: a student-teacher relationship. Interestingly, we don’t see much of that dynamic here; the book is less of a story and more like one big rant about life and relationships. I might almost categorize it as philosophy. And you might think that could be tiresome, especially given how callous and self-indulgent the narrator, Professor David Kepesh, is. However, I found that I rather enjoyed getting into his headspace. I recommend the book more for the character’s insights into human nature than as a pleasant, feel-good read. It’s a bit like Nabokov in that respect, especially Despair or Lolita: you are simultaneously annoyed with the narrator for being such a prat, but are drawn in by his frenzy. Unlike most of Nabokov’s characters, you cannot help but feel a modicum of respect for David Kepesh, his unapologetic pursuit of his appetites, and the critical lens through which he views his own life and behavior. Certainly not a book that everyone can enjoy, but worth pondering.
Other reads from 2016:
White Swan, Black Swan – Adrienne Sharp (fiction) – A look at the lives of professional ballerinas, told in eight different stories. A pretty entertaining collection of fiction, made all the more tangible by the details imparted by the author, herself a dancer.
Collected Poems – A.E. Housman (poetry) – I am, admittedly, still reading this. However, I can’t help but recommend Housman. Simple but enchanting, the works of Housman remain among some of the best rhyming poetry I’ve ever read.
Crush – Richard Siken (poetry) – I bought this book because it has been much-hailed and its author much-quoted on many forms of social media (*cough*Tumblr*cough*). Personally, I find Siken’s sense of hysterics is a little grating, but the fact that he manages to pull off an entire book of poetry based on panic alone is impressive.
The Synaptic Self – Joseph LeDoux (science) Sometimes a little dense, but a great overview of neuroscience. Perhaps, if you find yourself seriously interested in the field after reading Sam Kean’s book, you may pick up this one. However, John Ratey’s A User’s Guide to the Brain is actually a better follow-up book (and not included as a separate item in this list because I read it two years ago).
The Kiss – Kathryn Harrison (memoir) – Moving, disturbing, self-indulgent . . . Harrison’s memoir is billed as a study of her complicated and incestuous relationship with her father, but the real relationship of interest seems to be that with her cold, distant mother. I still don’t know how to feel about it, but it made me think. Unfortunately, if you read The Kiss, you may not need to read any of Harrison’s other works, as they are all iterations of the same subject.
Cross Codes – Daniel Stark & Helene Hovanec (puzzles) – Recommended for those of you who (like myself) are not savvy enough for Sudoku but need something to do during that boring and useless weekly meeting at your place of employment.
A Bright Red Scream – Marilee Strong – (nonfiction) – A curious look into the lives of those who self-harm. interesting for the sole fact that I have yet to find another book that handles self-harm from such a ponderous perspective without being a self-help book. The emotional content of the book is (at the risk of sounding insensitive) perhaps overdone, and I think Strong missed some opportunities here, but it’s still worth a read.
Annie’s Box – Randal Keynes – (nonfiction/biography) – This book is the basis of the movie Creation, an artistic and emotional biopic of Charles Darwin and the coming-to-be of his Origin of the Species as influenced by the death of his eldest daughter, Annie. Annie’s Box is what I might expect from a traditional biography: dense with detail about the mundanity of life in that era, the relationships and communications of the Darwins, etc. Usually that kind of thing puts me to sleep but I found this particular biography interesting, perhaps simply because it is Darwin. Annie’s death isn’t really discussed until about halfway through, and it’s a bit slow-going, but I had an decent time of it.
Not quite a laundry list of everything I read in 2016, but hey. I did wonder while writing this why anyone would give a crap; but, I guess the fact of the matter is that I give a crap. Et voilà.
*Biologue: in French, this is an archaic term for a biologist, but my local haunted bookshop uses the term to mean “a dialogue about biology”. I don’t know if the term’s in use anywhere else, but I rather like it.