• The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee **** (of 4)

    Mukherjee begins with the ancient Greeks.  They wondered from whom and how did children inherit characteristics that made them look like their parents.  Mukherjee continues to follow the thread of investigation through the centuries to Mendel and his peas, to Watson and Crick and their double helix, on into cloning and genetic engineering.  He dives headfirst into eugenics and its tragic outcome under the Nazs as they attempted to control the combination of chromosomes by eliminating undesirable characteristics and the hosts that carried them.  After describing all the science of genes and chromosomes he asks us to consider the ethics of where we stand today:  on the precipice of once again being able to engineer the outcome of human procreation and development.

  • On Immunity by Eula Biss **** (of 4)

    immunityEvery once in a long while you read a book by an author you recognize is much, much smarter than the rest of us.  Christopher Hitchens is one of those.  Eula Biss is another.  I picked up On Immunity thinking I was going to learn about New Age parents thinking they are protecting their children by forgoing inoculations.   And yes the book does dig into the science of how vaccinations succeed and how pseudoscience survives on the internet forever.  The study purporting to demonstrate that some vaccinations could lead to autism, for example, has been so thoroughly discredited as to exist only in a world inhabited by believers in alien abductions.  It would be a mistake, however to think On Immunity is only an account of germs and antibodies.  Rather, it is a work of philosophy covering the nature of who we have become as overprotective parents, men and women so concerned about perceived threats to our children, and our desires to keep them immortal like Achilles, that we are in practice creating national and international health hazards that will be borne by the poor and underserved in the healthcare system.  Our desire to remain undead forever is an invitation for Biss to discuss the inherent fear of parenting and the curse of Dracula who never died, and like a bacterial infection survived on the blood of others.

  • Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens **** (of 4)

    A memoir of Hitchen’s 60 years on earth most of it he spent as an irrascible, cantankerous, and largely contrarian thinker, writer, and agitator.  As a careful student of history he focuses his energies on upheavals in 1968, 1989, and 2001 reaching the following internally illogical yet self-aware conclusion.  Hitchens defines his life as unalterably intolerant of intolerance and utterly convinced in his belief that those religious, fanatical, tyrannical, and dictatorial leaders who believe theirs is the only path to salvation are absolutely and without question wrong.  I could plainly see the contradiction and still found myself mesmerized by an intellect of such power that I struggled to find counter arguments.  The man has not only apparently read every writer in the English language, but seemlessly manages to place the ideas of the following in precisely the right context:  Richard Dawkins, Shakespeare, Orwell, Socrates, Rushdie, Auden, Sontag, Bellow, and dozens more.

  • Winter by Rick Bass *** (of 4)

    At the age of 29, Bass forsakes his worldly belongings, save for his broken down truck, and leaves Houston for the very limit of the United States, a remote, sparsely inhabited valley in Montana on the edge of the Canadian border.  His goal is to explore Yaak, learn about himself, become a writer, and above all else, survive winter.  At times he is overcome by self-importance and the self-consciousness of recapitulating Thoreau’s Walden, and at others, he is so observant and elegiac that he can make individual snowflakes or the crack of split wood so important we cannot believe we have never before taken notice.  The book’s shining message is the imperative to slow down, escape the drive of modern American life, even if all we do is read his book.  January 2007.

  • Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein *** (of 4)

    Just like the authors say, “understanding philosophy through jokes.” The book is twenty percent philosophy – ethics, existentialism, epistemology, relativity, meta-philosophy – and the rest is vaudeville. Nearly every page calls for a rimshot. I’m not sure how much philosophy I learned, chapter summaries would have helped a lot, but I loved the jokes. I read the whole book in a sitting and the truth is when I was talking to a friend recently I realized I understood the philosophy of the Stoics well enough to explain it. A Stoic, a Priest, A Rabbi, a Lesbian, a grasshopper, and a lawyer are on a boat…ba Da bum! January 2008.

  • Lying Awake by Mark Salzman ** (of 4)

    A short novel, or long exercise, about a Carmelite nun in an LA cloister. Nun meets God, nun loses God, nun finds medicine, nun finds God, nun loses God and I won’t tell you how it ends. An investigation into the nature of faith and how doubts infect everyone, even women who have forsworn all earthly pleasures to be in monogamous relationships with Jesus/God. Maybe this book about doubting the nature of God’s intent could only have been written by a Jew. June 2007.

  • I am the Messenger by Markus Zuzak * (of 4)

    Feh. Zuzak’s means well. An Australian teenage no-goodnik performs saintly deeds for friends, acquaintances, and strangers transforming himself from a messenger of love to the message of love. But the book is stale and ponderous. It’s written for young adults, but It doesn’t have the carrying power of a Harry Potter or The Book Thief (also by Zuzak), one of my favorite books of all time. February 2008.