That day, about two-thirds of the way through summer vacation, when you eat the entire bin of caramel corn and allow your brain to embrace indolence? Well, that day is over. O.V.E.R. The beach towels have been put away, and the kids are back in school. It’s time for the rest of us to get smart again, too.
Let’s start right in with WORKING, the new memoir written and read by Robert A. Caro, who has won two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards for his masterful biographies of influential men. Read by the author with a relaxed, gravely charm, Caro’s memoir offers fascinating details about his research, interviewing, and writing processes. They will, in equal measure, divert you from your to-do list and inspire you to get cracking. Caro’s books include four volumes thus far of a planned five-volume series on the life and times of Lyndon B. Johnson (the most recent is THE PASSAGE OF POWER) and THE POWER BROKER, about Robert Moses, New York City’s formidable urban planner. Thank him — or not — the next time you’re stuck on the Cross-Bronx Expressway.
Johnson and Moses were larger-than-life figures who would have fit right into an ancient myth, each undoubtedly vying to unseat the boss-god. That brings me rather cleverly to GREEK MYTHOLOGY EXPLAINED by Marios Christou and David Ramenah, for which Derek Perkins won an Earphones Award, and NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman, for which Gaiman also won Earphones Award for narration. Each book retells a selection of the great myths, from Greece’s monster-battling Odysseus and Medusa’s serpent hair to the Scandinavian dwarves who forged Thor’s hammer. Each narrator has an amazing skill with characterization and an impressive ability to entertain while educating.
With no disrespect to gods, ancient or modern, the greatest story ever told is the one about LIFE ON EARTH, particularly the version related by Sir David Attenborough in his famous 1979 documentary. Updated with the most current scientific discoveries, the 40th anniversary edition is one to savor. Attenborough’s well-paced and enthusiastic performance will make everyone — previous fans and the newly converted — succumb to the history of nature in all its wonder and wonderfulness.
Nature includes us, of course, and our ancestors. Curious about who came before me, I submitted my DNA to a heredity website a few years ago. In addition to the expected Northern European and British Isles mish-mash, it turns out that I have a thread of Neanderthal and a dollop of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. That means that everybody has always run around having sex with everybody else, which in this time of name-calling, I find heartening. Now that Carl Zimmer has written SHE HAS HER MOTHER’S LAUGH, I plan to delve into my DNA results with even greater understanding. Read with straightforward interest by Joe Ochman, the book examines what it means to know your genetic makeup, as well as how genetic engineering and gene therapy affect our lives.
Some heredity websites also inform you of your tendency to develop heritable diseases. While I have a “slightly increased risk” of developing celiac disease, I do not have the rheumatoid arthritis that pains my first-cousin K. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel’s eloquent new AN ELEGANT DEFENSE: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System is helping me understand why. Narrated clearly and warmly by Fred Sanders, Richtel’s book uses four real-life case studies to examine how our immune system is integral to illness and health, and how it can be harnessed to work for us.
Now that you’re schooled on all kinds of important topics, let’s end with recess. Emily Nussbaum’s I LIKE TO WATCH offers us a seat on the couch for a wide-ranging conversation with the TV critic about everything from edgy nighttime dramas to daytime soaps. Television affects and is affected by American culture, and Nussbaum’s excellently read reflection on the interconnections is both deep and fun. Also, Nussbaum has caused me to reconsider “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Binge-watching weekend, here I come.