Charles Darwin: Voyaging – Janet Browne

This impeccably researched biography of a scientific genius covers Darwin’s early life: his childhood, haphazard University education and then his 5-year voyage on the Beagle. Following his return to Britain, he then spent more than 20 years researching and publishing numerous scientific studies while marshalling his evidence for natural selection that would result in his publication of the Origin of Species. Darwin’s scientific life is impressive because of his breadth of interests and knowledge, from biology to geology, and his transition from observation as a naturalist to an experimentalist. Overall, an insightful description of a genius. Be warned, there is incredible detail, more than 500 pages plus footnotes and references. Browne’s second volume in the Darwin biography, The Power of Place, is equally detailed but less interesting without the Beagle adventures. Thanks, Mike, for this recommendation.

Machines Like Us – Ian McEwan

McEwan has created an alternative 1982 London in which Britain loses the Falklands War and PM Thatcher is defeated by Tony Benn. Most significantly, Sir Alan Turing achieves an artificial intelligence breakthrough resulting in the creation of humanoid robots; prototypes are named Adam and Eve. Charlie purchases an Adam and together with his girlfriend Miranda, Adam’s personality (mind) is personalized. What follows is a fascinating 3-way relationship story. With machine learning, what makes us human? This provocative and enthralling story is one of McEwan’s best.

Educated – Tara Westover

This is a remarkable memoir where reality is stranger than fiction. The author was raised in the mountains of Utah. Her parents were survivalists and totally suspicious of government so she had no birth certificate and does not go to school. To say that she was home-schooled is rather generous; her learning is self-directed and spotty. Tara is the youngest of 5 children. Her life is complicated by a controlling father and a brother who bullies her both psychologically and physically. The second half of the book details her escape to university, first to Brigham Young University and then to Cambridge England. This is a compelling story of remarkable resilience but at great cost. The contradictions of memory are also a feature of a memoir that is so deeply emotional. Final comment: Westover’s parents make the parents in Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle seem wonderful by comparison! Thanks Erin and Amy, for this recommendation.

Five Wives – Joan Thomas

Ms. Thomas is an undiscovered treasure, a Canadian writer living in Winnipeg. In fact, her writing reminds me of Carol Shields (high praise). This book takes place in 1956. Five evangelist men heed a call from God to become missionaries in Ecuador, to convert a reclusive war-like tribe, the Waroani. There is an absolute belief in the righteousness of their divine calling and that God will protect them. In reality, all five men are killed quickly after contact with the Waorani. Much of the perspective in this story of martyrdom is from the viewpoint of the accompanying wives, their willingness to travel to Ecuador with a complex mix of enthusiasm and fear and then how they cope in the aftermath with understandable disillusionment but with an acceptance of fate. There is also a fascinating character, Rachel who is the unmarried sister of one of the missionary men. Thomas’ writing is insightful and her prose is beautiful.