Proust Was a Neuroscientist
By Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin, $24
Neither as shallow nor as elegant as its poppy title (and the trite madeleine on its cover), this volume by a 25-year-old Rhodes scholar could more accurately be titled Modernists Anticipated Some Great Recent Discoveries About the Brain. Proust charted our unreliable memories; Gertrude Stein presaged Chomsky! Lehrer strikes out for more than just a grab bag of fun facts, and he often succeeds, notwithstanding the senior-thesis feel of the whole thing, which cries out for a perceptive TA’s marginal scribbles (Awkward. Word choice? Overstating the case?). A coda arguing that the gap between science and the arts must be bridged is hardly revolutionary (though he makes a valid argument that popularizers like E. O. Wilson aren’t doing the job). But mostly the book is entertaining and enlightening, and Lehrer gets extra points for a mouthwatering section on Escoffier’s experiments with sauces.
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By Roberto Saviano, (translated by Virginia Jewiss) Farrar, Straus & Giroux $25
This book’s subtitle is A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System—and sure enough, whenever there is a brutal Camorra killing, Saviano, a Naples native, seems to arrive on his Vespa just in time to see the body. Unlike so many in the crowd, however, he is willing to talk. Gomorrah may frustrate those seeking a streamlined narrative or a novelistic portrait of a particular godfather (or criminal matriarch: see Immacolata Capone, who “bet everything on cement”), but its rat-a-tat storytelling proves almost as compelling. Just when you think you can’t read about a more distressing turn of events, along comes something truly ghastly—or crushing, like a 14-year-old girl’s cell phone ringing melodically by her coffin. This is a system that combines the worst of the Old World (feuds, silence) with the more dubious advances of the new (globalization-enhanced trafficking), and Saviano’s anguish over the suffering of the people of Campania is bravely expressed.
By Oliver Sacks, Knopf, $26
For an author who liberally uses ten-cent words like eidetic and veridical, Oliver Sacks delivers an oddly lowbrow pleasure—like Dear Abby mashed up with your daily horoscope. What would happen if I were struck by lightning while using a phone booth? (I’d become a late-bloomer musical prodigy whose piano obsession would lead to divorce.) Sacks’s tenth book investigates how the brain’s structure wires humans to perceive and respond to music or, in some cases, to be cripplingly insensible to it. The unfailingly fascinating case studies run the gamut from an amnesiac conductor, who retains only his musical brilliance and his love for his wife, to the German Jewish lover of atonal music suddenly tormented by the “corny” Nazi marching songs of his childhood. Sacks’s smug personal asides, however, are far less engaging. He dislikes Mahler, rides his bike to Battery Park, has more clever friends than you can keep track of—innocent stuff, but still, TMI. You’ll forever be reminded of Bill Murray’s turtlenecked Sacks impersonation in The Royal Tenenbaums.
By Joe McGinniss, Simon & Schuster, $25
File this under Pulp Nonfiction. The tawdry tale of the Kissel family (one brother drugged and bludgeoned by his lonely, shopaholic wife; another stabbed by an unknown assailant in his own basement) was the subject of a cover story in this magazine by Steve Fishman, and here McGinniss, he of The Journalist and the Murderer infamy, piles on many, many more gruesome details. It’s not an artful rendering; the author has a weakness for awful clichés (“She was the velvet glove on Bill’s fist of steel”) and facile social commentary (investment bankers “have no problem worshipping Mammon to the exclusion of all else”). But man, does he deliver the goods. When McGinniss stops trying to write and lets the story rip, it’s hard not to marvel at the misbehavior of this unhappy, loathsome family and to delight, a wee bit, in their epic downfall. If it were a novel, you’d shake your head at the unbelievability of it all.
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Schulz and Peanuts
By David Michaelis, Harpercollins, $34.95
Schulz and Peanuts has the disease that plagues a lot of biographies these days. It’s way too long, and it endlessly roots around for meaning in the subject’s early years. But the book is saved by a simple device: Every few pages, as the young Charles Schulz experiences a rejection, a put-down, or a small everyday pleasure, there appears a “Peanuts” cartoon that later reconstructed the real-life event, often word for word. The echoes are almost eerie, and they reinforce Michaelis’s central point—that this deeply melancholy man, all but crushed by his bloodless and pinched Minnesota upbringing, barely able to love his children, had just enough emotional agility to produce a comic strip suffused with Beckettian angst. No wonder his family, having read the book, has let out a collective “Aaugh.”
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