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Thursday, February 20,2014

Book reviews: Notes from Neil

Science Thursday!

by Neil Rajala

Thursday, Feb. 20 — This has been an outstanding year already for those of us who like a little science with our reading. In addition to some fine non-fiction books, The Martian (last week) and Andrew's Brain (below) bring a satisfying helping of real science to works of outstanding fiction. Here's what we're reading:



THE SIXTH EXTINCTION

Elizabeth Kolbert

Good science writing is both entertaining and informative. Great science writing is also important, and that's where Ms. Kolbert's new book comes in.

The Sixth Extinction is three things: an overview of how we slowly came to understand that there had been creatures alive on Earth that were no longer here. It was an idea as controversial and heretical at the time as Darwin's. She also describes the five great extinctions that have occured since the dawn of complex life, and what our current understanding tells us about why they happened. And then the author takes to the road, travelling to the Andes, the Great Barrier Reef, Panama, and wildlife preserves and zoos around the world. The evidence she presents makes a very compelling case for a chilling conclusion - that we're currently in the midst of the Earth's sixth great extinction and that our own restless, dominant species is the primary reason. The science behind her writing is clear and convincing. I might only suggest that you not read the description of how an endangered rhinocerous is given an ultrasound while you're eating. kobo eBook



WHAT SHOULD WE BE WORRIED ABOUT?

John Brockman

I've really come to look forward to these annual collections from contributors to Edge.org, the multi-disciplinary science website. Every year editor John Brockman throws out a question to scientists of any discipline to address. The responses are short essays you can snack on like brain-stretching popcorn.

This year the responses are ones that may keep you up at night, so be warned. All of the contributors address the question of what the real threats to our planet and way of life are, as opposed to the false fears that distract us too easily. The topics range all over the scientific map; the likelihood of war, advances in medicine and health care, population growth and distribution, the advance of the virtual, global economics...you get the idea. kobo eBook



ANDREW'S BRAIN
E. L. Doctorow

This masterful novel is essentially one long conversation. Andrew, who we come to realize is an accomplished cognitive scientist, is being questioned or interrogated by a doctor, probably in the psychiatric field. Andrew is recounting his life, certain very traumatic episodes of his life in particular, in an evasive and combative dialogue with his interlocutor. Through most of the book, the reader doesn't know the circumstances of, or the reason for this conversation. Mr. Doctorow shows us why he's one of America's greatest novelists as he slowly pulls the curtain aside in the last chapters. A story that had been an engaging intellectual exercise becomes one of stunning surprise, black humor and heartbreaking emotion - an absurdist tragedy in the classic sense. Beautifully done, sir. kobo eBook



Join me in the 28th Street Schuler Studio next Tuesday!


The day (or evening, rather) is nearly here! I'll be in the Schuler Studio on 28th Street in Grand Rapids to talk about books, along with a couple of our very best booksellers. 7:00pm is the time and Tuesday, February 25th is the date. We'll have coffee and snacks waiting, along with some books and publisher goodies to give away. We'll tell you about our favorite reads (current and upcoming), you tell us about yours, and feel free to ask anything you like. "Do you really read all of those books you write about?" for example.

I read an interesting debate in last week's NYT Book Review between authors Francine Prose and ZoŽ Heller. They were discussing whether or not book reviewers should publish negative reviews. It was an early decision for me to not do so; if I don't like a book I simply don't write about it, preferring to use this limited space to discuss only those I feel are worth your time and hard-earned money. How do you feel about it folks? Should disappointing books be panned or ignored?

Until next week,


Neil

NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.

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