Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm
by Monte Reel
Gorillas have so thoroughly permeated popular culture—from King Kong to Dian Fossey’s friends to Nintendo’s Donkey Kong—that it’s hard to imagine a time (not so long ago) when we had little idea that they existed. In the mid-19th century, gorillas were little more than shadowy, quasi-mythical beasts dwelling in some of the most impermeable stretches of the African jungle. Then along came the intrepid explorer Paul du Chaillu, a French trader’s son raised in Gabon. In 1856, Du Chaillu became the first non-African person to encounter a gorilla in its natural habitat when he ventured into the African wilderness, and he subsequently made it his life’s work to prove the gorilla’s existence—not as mythical beast, but as real, warmblooded animal. In this vivid narrative history, Monte Reel has turned a minor character into the centerpiece of a historic drama—circling around debates over colonialism, evolution and nature. The author approaches these topics slyly; this is not a book that makes broad or sweeping arguments. His main concern is the story, and you can almost sense his relish in describing the “wavy haze of vapors” wafting malaria through the swamps, and the tony, formal dining rooms back in London, where evolution controversies were playing out. The reader viscerally feels the pains that Du Chaillu must have felt when his stories and credentials were challenged once again—but the book is at its best when not entangled in internecine debates. Between Man and Beast is a lively story of discovery and the challenge that it poses when thrust upon an unready and uncertain world.
Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave
by Adam Alter
Halfway through Drunk Tank Pink, I began to wonder if the author was conducting an experiment. Were the words on the page arranged to deliver a subliminal message? Was the font manipulating my impression of the author’s intelligence? (Studies show that difficult-to-read fonts make us pay closer attention.) The answer is no—but Adam Alter’s book about the many ways our perceptions are affected is so compelling that it put me in a seriously suspicious frame of mind. If I had been influenced by the typeface, I probably wouldn’t have known—Alter’s point is that we are mostly unaware of the many factors shaping our actions and opinions. The title, for instance, refers to a catchphrase for the jailhouse rooms where rowdy boozers are often thrown; the theory is that pink has a calming effect no matter how belligerent the inmate. (Wearing red, on the other hand, can give you a slight advantage if you’re looking to attract a mate.) Alter covers the ways that names, labels, symbols, people, culture and many other factors affect our brains. In one remarkable study, two groups of subjects were shown two different images of a dollar bill—one slightly altered to make it untrue-to-life—and asked to estimate how many small-ticket items (thumbtacks, paper clips, pencils, etc.) the cash could purchase. Although those shown the “false” dollar bill were unaware of its alteration, they estimated 10 fewer items than those who saw the real one—12 versus 22. Alter’s book is essentially a compendium of such studies, with a refreshing lack of editorializing; he seems to realize that his material does not require much to make it fascinating—not even a fancy font.
Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses
by Bess Lovejoy
It’s not surprising that a book about dead bodies focuses on the instances when things go wrong. (A Slow, Predictable Decay would not make for a very exciting title.) But the unfortunate irony of Rest in Pieces, an episodic survey of history’s less peaceful afterlives—secret burials, botched autopsies and corrupt cryogenics—is that the extraordinary begins to seem rather common. Another grave-site pilfer becomes an unsolved mystery. Sigh. It happened in the 17th century (see English revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, whose skull became a coveted collectible) and it can happen in the 21st (see broadcasting legend Alistair Cooke, the posthumous victim of a tissue-harvesting ring). But the repetition can also strike a chord. What does it indicate about humanity that our post-mortem fears and fascinations repeat themselves? There are body snatchers and graveyard tourists for all ages, and intrigue regularly spans centuries. You can read this collection of stories about the bizarre, eclectic ways that we’ve dealt with death and feel that you’re learning something about life. Nonetheless, the book is probably best consumed in small doses. The gruesomeness—the accidental severing of Ted Williams’ frozen skull, Mussolini’s bludgeoned body—can become too much, even for those who like their history laced with gristle.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
by Sheryl Sandberg
When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said last year that she leaves work at 5:30 every evening to be with her kids, you could almost feel the nationwide ripple of curiosity among working moms: How does she do it? In her new book, Sandberg provides some answers. So great is the incantatory power of this brief volume that I found myself quoting her to assess everything from the division of domestic labor in my home (“Make your partner a real partner,” Sheryl advises) to career transitions (“It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder,” Sheryl counsels, so don’t worry about making lateral moves). Sandberg’s overarching premise is that the rapid ascent of women in the second half of the 20th century has grown sluggish. “It’s time for us to face the fact,” writes Sandberg, “that our revolution has stalled.” Her advice: Don’t give up before you’ve tried, and while you’re trying, give it your all. Nothing too shocking there, and indeed, the book—which grew out of a 2010 TED talk—can sometimes read like an inflated PowerPoint presentation. But the problems she identifies are real. “Of Yale alumni who had reached their forties by 2000,” Sandberg writes, “only 56 percent of the women remained in the workforce, compared with 90 percent of the men.” Sandberg writes with a friendly, forthright chattiness while still maintaining a brisk, efficient tone—a warm and winning combination that softens the stridency of her arguments without diminishing their heft. “This is not a feminist manifesto,” she writes. “Okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto, but one that I hope inspires men as much as it inspires women.” In one chapter, titled “Don’t Ask Anyone to Be Your Mentor,” Sandberg describes how countless hapless young women have asked her to mentor them as soon as they meet her. Sandberg’s objection to this awkward invitation is understandable: Mentorship can’t be forced. But I can’t blame those girls for trying. There are few women whose guidance I’d more eagerly seek.