Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is basically a love letter to the octopus, written by a philosopher who also sent hours diving to a magic spot off the coast of Australia where multiple octopuses live, making meticulous observations, and taking magical pictures, some of them included in the book.
It seems that the author was not too sure of how to organize the book, as it starts much like a textbook, navigating the tree of life and relating some in-lab experiments with octopuses (wily guests: they seem to recognize individual experimenters and play mind games and splashing games with them!). Eventually it settles into an extended description of the goings-on at Octopolis (the dive site) and I bet that by the end, you will be as sorry as I was to realize that octopuses have short life spans. If they lived longer, they may take over the under-the-sea world!
With Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society, Cordelia Fine (of Delusion of Gender fame) is at it again, this time attacking the supposedly obvious finding that biological sex causes testosterone-laden men to take more risks, be more aggressive, and in general want to subjugate the world. She counter-attacks by showing how some classic experiments were designed with obvious biases, or used statistics in frowned-upon methods (the testosterone probably made the researchers do it, right?), and in any case are now supplanted by newer, better-designed studies of animals and humans that show both sexes making similar decisions, seemingly ignoring their T hormone levels.
It’s funny and personal anecdotes are skillfully woven in, which is not a given in nerdy books. The first page features a dinner-table discussion of what to do with the family dog’s soon-to-be-removed testicles. Lovely, in my book!
Animals Strike Curious Poses is a collection of essays about famous animals (or groups of animals), some more historical, and others with a more philosophical bent. Some of the essays are interesting, even delightful. I got a chuckle from the “Osama the Crocodile” essay, which exposes both the weight of first names and the absurdity of children readers. And who knew that an elephant inspired the merger of the P.T. Barnum and Bailey circuses? But other essays are tedious, obscure, or seemingly pointless.
Be patient if you decide to pick up The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids–and the Kids We Have. It starts slowly, describing standard pregnancy genetic testing techniques that seem mundane — but it ratchets up to much more technically complex and ethically challenging techniques, from preimplantation genetic diagnosis to systematically screening parents for potentially devastating genes. The author does not shy away from discussing how genetic testing is linked to abortions or how to imagine a world in which particular disabilities have become very rare. While definitely not a book to recommend to a pregnant woman, it’s a great way to think about the choices to make as a prospective parent and as a society.
The Hermit‘s hero is a loner, a Dane who fled some mysterious past to eke out a living as a taxi driver and piano tuner (really!) on one of the Canary Islands. He decides to investigate the suspicious death of a baby and unravels police corruption, too-cosy arrangements between money-hungry developers and the authorities, a family feud, and large-scale insurance cheating. Meanwhile corpses pile up.
The main character is satisfyingly unhinged and ruminating. The plot is certainly complex, so much so that it becomes almost absorb at the end. And I thought that the story just went on a little too long, that it lost some of its rhythm a hundred pages before the official end. But it’s certainly a different kind of mystery.
In The Dry, an Australian federal agent is called back to his rural hometown to investigate a murder-suicide apparently committed by his childhood best friend. It turns out that his father and he were very literally run out of town years ago following another death and he is not welcome back. We follow his difficult investigation amongst hostile residents and thick secrets, while the earlier death is also revisited by him and the long-term residents, which means everyone except a handful of newcomers. It’s wonderfully grim and the long-term drought that is ruining the farmers adds to the gloom.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing sets out to tell the story of two intertwined families through the eyes of the youngest daughter, leaving safely in Vancouver while the rest of the protagonists suffer various hardships in 20th century China, including the Cultural Revolution (particularly dangerous for devotees of classical music) and the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Booker Prize committee loved it; I found it tedious and overly heavy with history. Sure, there are lots of clever observations, including the ongoing theme of sending secret messages through hand-copied books, but I would have liked more personal stories and fewer political ones, since they are abundantly told elsewhere.