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.

Girls Like Us – Sheila Weller

Girls Like UsA re-read of a biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. This is a heavily researched book, sometimes with too many asides in parenthesis plus footnotes. But the saving grace is this completeness, commentary on the specific social context; the contrasting lives of these three very different artists are presented brilliantly along with the social history of the times. The best and most detailed part of the book is their ascent to fame in the 1960s. Their personal stories with complicated relationships are presented with insightful commentary. A great read for anyone nostalgic for the ’60s or for anyone who is curious about these revolutionary times (a comments from someone who CAN remember the ‘60s).

Had It Coming – Robyn Doolittle

This book is a logical sequel to Ms. Doolittle’s book Unfounded about the complexities and difficulties concerning the prosecution of sexual assault cases. The subtitle of this new book is “What’s fair in the age of #MeToo?”. Is #MeToo a moment or a substantial movement? The narrative contains a thoughtful discussion of difficult topics: rape culture that enables sexual violence, rape myths and stereotypes, the paramount issue of consent, due process, power and privilege and even redemption. This is a thought-provoking book – highly recommended.

Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin (1860-70)

– Edited by F. Burkhardt, S. Evans and A.M. Pearn.

Darwin was chronically ill and thus confined to his home in Kent. Consequently, letter writing in the decade following the publication of The Origin of Species was his almost exclusive means of communication: the exchange of opinions and information with suggestions for experimentation. Darwin’s breadth of knowledge is most impressive and the literary style of letter writing is delightful. These collected letters provide incredible insight into one of the great scientists of all time. Thanks Erin, for this recommendation.

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

The Library Book - Susan OrleanMs. Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has written some great fiction (The Orchid Thief). This is a non-fiction book about the Los Angeles Pubic library, written by someone who loves libraries. A particular focus is a devastating fire in the Central Library location in 1986 that destroyed and damaged a large number of books. But the book follows a non-linear path covering the library origins in 1872 to the post-fire restoration and recovery to an intelligent and passionate description of the modern role for libraries in a world that demands access to information and knowledge. The vivid descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of many Head Librarians are delightful, with all the gender politics over the ages. Here is a quote from Althea Warren, the Head Librarian in 1935: “librarians should read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training but because they’d rather read than do anything else in the world” (page 198). Highly recommended for all enthusiastic readers!

Feel free – Zadie Smith

Feel free - Zadie SmithMs. Smith writes superb novels (most recently, Swing Time) but this book is a collection of essays, reviews of books and music, and other writings. She writes with a refreshingly candid and breezy style about art, music, books and social justice issues. She is self-deprecating, describing her and her friends: “we stood around pointlessly, like the Luddite fiscally ignorant liberals we are, complaining about the inevitable”. There are enchanting digressions in the essays like a description of an epiphany regarding Joni Mitchell music while in Tintern Abbey which eventually segues into a discussion of Kierkegaard! Given the diversity of topics, some essays inevitably are less engaging but collectively this is a must-read book for ZS fans.

I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You – David Chariandy

I've Been Meaning To Tell You - David ChariandyA short essay on race relations, presented as an intimate letter to Chariandy’s 13-year old daughter. Chariandy’s family is mixed race; an especially poignant chapter entitled The Incident describes when his young son is confronted with the n-word on a school playground. This is very fine intelligent, thoughtful and introspective writing about a topic that remains critically important.

Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist - Roxanne GayThis is a challenging set of essays published in 2014. Gay displays righteous anger toward issues like rape culture and sexual violence. Her writing is always provocative but also self-deprecating. Above all it is her honesty that is compelling. Comments on Sweet Valley High, The Hunger Games and her obsession with Law & Order (SVU) are delightful. She is very aware that her life (and opinions) is messy, full of contradictions and biases. It will be interesting to read follow-up essays in this era of #MeToo. Gay is an American cultural treasure.

My Life With Bob – Pamela Paul.

My Life With Bob - Pamela PaulSometimes a book can provide a perfect reading experience, usually due to both content and timing, and this book is a wonderful example such a sublime event. Ms. Paul is Editor of the New York Times Book Review. This fantastic book is an autobiographical recounting of her love of reading. The “Bob” in the title is an acronym for “Book of Books”, a journal that lists every book (title and author) the she has read since 1988. A wonderful aspect of this book are the references to her philosophy of reading, and her motivations for choosing to read particular books at specific periods in her life: childhood, young adult, while travelling in France and SE Asia, and finally re-reading books to her children. This is just an exceptional book about the joy of reading.