Ask anyone the question “What is your favorite book?” and you have the beginning of an interesting conversation. But twist that question just a bit, and you get a glimpse into that person’s psyche. Editor Bethanne Patrick does just that in the essay collection The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People. She surveyed a broad range of interesting people, imploring them to share the titles that affected their existence in an important way.
From the poignant to the profound, these two to three page contemplations are fascinating; and just reading them makes you feel an immediate connection to that person. Singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, names Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder as her life-changing book. Ma and Pa Ingalls demonstrated the day-to-day routines of a loving, dependable family, making Little House a comfortable reprieve for the modern-day Cash, raised in a spotlight of fame, instability and chaos.
R.L. Stine, known for the popular Goosebumps series of scary novels for kids, reminds us that the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was the stuff of childhood nightmares and not the charming Disneyfied version. Many of the other essayists also chose a book from their childhood, including such classics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Margaret Atwood), The Little Prince (Jacob Hemphill) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Vu Tran).
Others name coming-of-age adult fiction they read as teens, from Gone with the Wind (Jodi Picoult), to The Bell Jar (Meg Wolitzer). Science fiction writer John Scalzi was a precocious reader who discovered The People’s Almanac when he was just 6. The book ignited his love for trivia and curating facts of all kinds, whether or not he understood them.
The Washington Post BookWorld editor Ron Charles’ choice, Straight Man by Richard Russo, was a literal life changer. Then a prep school English teacher, Charles picked up the novel from a table of newly published fiction at a local bookstore and decided to write a review, his first ever. He submitted it to The Christian Science Monitor, with more critiques to follow. He ultimately gave up teaching to become their full time reviewer, ultimately landing at The Washington Post. Charles says that newspaper readers “overwhelmingly prefer to read positive reviews...Of course, they want to know which books they should read instead of books they should not read — because they’re not going to read most books anyhow.” Consider this an overwhelmingly positive review of The Books That Changed My Life. What book changed yours?
Entomologist Justin O. Schmidt shares his lifelong passion for pain-inducing insects in The Sting of the Wild, recently published by Johns Hopkins Press. According to Schmidt, despite a universal, innate fear of stinging insects, only about 50 people a year die from the combined sting of all stinging insects, including wasps, honey bees and fire ants. The first half of this surprisingly entertaining book provides scientific theory and background, while the second gives in-depth looks at particular groups of insects. Schmidt encourages readers to skip around as they read; each chapter can be read as a stand-alone essay.
As a piece of anatomy, the stinger itself evolved from the ovipositor, or egg-laying tube, of the sawfly. Its ingenious three-part design — two sliding channels inside a third immobile tube — allow a tiny insect to impart a wallop of pain to its much larger victim. The addition of venomous fluid provides an additional layer of defense for most species, although sometimes that venom is used for capturing prey. If you understand that the stinger was once an egg-laying tube, you’ll know why only female insects sting. But Schmidt is quick to point out that while male bees and wasps lack stingers, they feature hardened genitalia which they use to “pseudo-sting” would-be threats.
Schmidt has a particular passion for harvester ants, and lucky for him his wife is also a zoologist who helps to collect them by the bucket load so they can study their venom. You really don’t want to be stung by a harvester ant. There are five things that make harvester stings unique: 1) delayed reaction to the sting, 2) sweating around the sting site, 3) hairs in the sting area stand up, 4) the lymph nodes nearest your sting become hard and tender and 5) the pain is excruciating, coming in waves that can last from four to 12 hours.
One of the most enjoyable features of the book is the inclusion of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, developed by the author himself. Schmidt allowed himself to be stung by 78 species of hymenoptera so that he could record the nature of the pain and rate it on a scale of zero to four. Don’t let anyone tell you that entomologists don’t have a sense of humor. The sting of the club-horned wasp, for example, is described as a .5 — “Disappointing. A paperclip falls on your bare foot.” While the warrior wasp rates a 4 for a sting that is “Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano.” Readers who share my fascination with the natural world, and particularly those who revel in unusual animal facts, will love The Sting of the Wild.
David Kushner’s early childhood was near idyllic. Born in 1968 to observant Jewish parents with liberal ideals, Kushner and his two older brothers Jon and Andy had license to roam free in their Tampa suburb. Days were filled with bike rides, games and exploration of the natural world that surrounded both their home and school. But one October afternoon, Jon took a solo ride to the 7-Eleven to buy Snappy Gator Gum for David and himself. He never returned. Alligator Candy: A Memoir is the story of the tragedy that affected not only the Kushner family, but the entire community.
David, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, a journalism professor at Princeton and an author of several nonfiction titles, tells this deeply personal story with candor and generosity. What does he remember about the last time he saw his brother alive, and can he trust that memory? Would Jon be alive today if almost-5-year-old David hadn’t asked for that gum? The rest of his life from that point forward, was marked by having a brother who had been abducted and murdered. Childhood was no longer safe; his bogeyman was real. Actually, he had two bogeymen — the men who had confessed to treating his brother in a way that was far worse than anything he’d heard from his old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
How does a family move on? Kushner credits his parents for allowing him and his older brother the freedom to move beyond the fear, to continue to have as normal a childhood as possible. He acknowledges his Jewish faith, but most importantly the community that came forward to support his family from the moment Jon went missing. As he got older, he knew his memories of his brother’s murder were incomplete, and much of what he thought he knew was based on a combination of overheard conversations, conjecture and rumors. And although he craved answers to what was a mystery to him, he didn’t want to subject his parents to painful recollections.
At 13, he went to the library to request microfilm of The Tampa Tribune from October 1973. What he read satisfied his need for more information, but also led to further questions. One fact remained: He was becoming a man, a bar mitzvah, while Jon would forever remain a boy. Kushner talks about other famous cases involving missing and brutalized children, explaining how laws have come into being as a result. An existing legal loophole allowed for a parole hearing for one of Jon’s killers, compelling David and Andy to testify. The thought of this man possibly getting out into the world was stupefying. The family found justice and some solace in knowing the mastermind of the crime had been executed under the death penalty.
Alligator Candy is a memoir that marks a lifetime of remembering, searching and gathering. The processing will always continue. Kushner's evocative prose took me back to my own early '70s childhood, with just the right period details and nostalgia. Despite its difficult topic, Alligator Candy is compulsively readable and highly recommended.
Hair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.
Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?
The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.
Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin audaciously challenges readers from the very beginning. Protagonist Milo Andret is a mathematical genius, a young man with an uncanny sense of direction and intrinsic awareness of geographical place. He visualizes complex problems and, to him, obvious solutions. His adult life becomes absorbed by the complex world of academic mathematical theory, in particular, topology.
What is topology, you might ask? And why would you spend your time on a novel that spans decades and devotes over 500 pages to a literary novel that seemingly centers on math? Credit the supple talent of novelist Canin for crafting a rich, relatable saga with universal themes of self-discovery, fulfillment, love, loss and the importance of family.
Although his path seemed obvious, Milo was never a good student, as he was prone to boredom. Five years after completing his undergraduate degree (he spent the interim working as an auto mechanic), he applies to graduate school at UC Berkeley. A latecomer to the field, it’s not long before Milo discovers the theorem that will define his career, the elusive young woman who will slip through his grasp and haunt him for the rest of his life, and the poet/mathematician who not only becomes his nemesis but represents the path not taken.
But like the real life mathematician John Nash, portrayed in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, Milo’s brilliance comes at a price. His brain never quiets, and he lacks the coping mechanisms to relax and simply be happy — he’s constantly striving. He loves the company of women, but lacks interpersonal skills that allow for connection beyond the bedroom. Self-medication helps; Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles literally pile up. Milo reaches the zenith of his professional life early and manages to make a number of enemies along the way. He marries to escape, and his career falters as his frustration mounts.
Canin makes a smart choice by giving the narration to Milo’s son. Hans is brilliant in his own way but damaged by a childhood dominated by a mercurial, distant father and a loving, devoted yet unfulfilled mother. His sister, also a prodigy, is scarred by their father’s failure to recognize her. Hans makes a fortune by using his own mathematical skills in the financial markets. Wildly successful, he also self-medicates from his time as a young teen — first with the recreational drug MDA, later with cocaine. Hans and his wife keep their own children far from their grandfather.
Canin is a master storyteller, creating interesting, flawed characters that struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin; characters that long to connect in meaningful ways and leave their mark on the world. A Doubter’s Almanac draws you deeply into the lives of the Andrets in ways that stay with you long after you’ve finished this smart, intensely moving novel. This is literary fiction at its best, challenging and rewarding. A Doubter’s Almanac is the best novel I’ve read this year, deserving of the many accolades that are sure to come its way.