Summer Reads: Zombie Science, the American Revolution and Travels Across Italy

Looking for a good book? We’ve got some suggestions

Books July 2013
Courtesy of Current

Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself

by Adam Rutherford

The first half of this new book reads like a fast-paced high-school biology primer: cell structure, DNA, the primordial soup from which life arose. It’s rather elegant, moving through the mechanisms of molecular biology to explore the underlying questions of when and how life began. But it’s in the second half of the book that Rutherford, a science writer, begins to explore the extraordinary experiments that are testing the limits of the creation of life. Here he provides a “snapshot of this embryonic field of the engineering of living things” or “next generation farming.” This is synthetic biology, a scientific area that is no more than a decade old and that, in Rutherford’s words, “takes the principles of biology and reinvents them with the goal of engineering solutions to specific human problems.” Not enough fuel to feed our energy-hungry towns and cities? A company in California has inserted a piece of DNA in the genome of brewer’s yeast that gives rise to biodiesel fuel . Can’t transport heavy bricks to a far-off planet so that we might one day build something there? (It costs about five grand to launch a single pound of anything into outer space.) NASA has teamed up with students at Brown and Stanford to try to figure out a genetic sequence transmitted via E. coli bacteria that could turn moon dust into cement. Many of these experiments are untested in the real world, and Rutherford is careful not to get too starry-eyed about any of the people or experiments he depicts. But the setbacks and impracticalities don’t really diminish the sense of possibility. Even through Rutherford’s eminently sensible lens, it’s hard not to get excited.

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence

by Joseph J. Ellis

When historians tell the story of American independence, says the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis, they tend to segregate the political narrative from the military one. But those two stories, says Ellis, “are incomprehensible unless told together.” In order to paint that more complete picture, Ellis has zoomed in on a few crucial months in 1776—“the crescendo moment in American history.” During this period, he argues, fundamental debates over the composition of the electorate were initiated, thus setting “the entire liberal agenda for the next century”; the basic framework for American foreign policy was outlined; the powerful idea of British military invincibility confronted the comparably powerful idea of an inevitably independent America; and, crucially, British commanders failed to strike a fatal blow to the ragtag Continental Army that might have quashed the rebellion in its nascent stages. Although the book is a worthwhile chapter in the excellent library of Ellis-produced literature on the American Revolution, his focus on a few pivotal months gives it the feel of appendage, albeit a well-executed one, to a longer work.

How to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind Control

by Frank Swain

A reader hoping for a guide to this sinister science might be momentarily disappointed. The author, a science journalist, plays pretty fast and loose with his theme—the book is not so much a “how to” as a “how we’ve tried” (and mostly failed) to revive the dead, prolong life and otherwise control other creatures’ brains. The conceit can sometimes feel a little thin. (“So you want to create your own zombie army,” is one random chapter opener.) But the book succeeds wonderfully as a hybrid, stitched-together work, not unlike some of the composite creatures Swain describes: one part history, two parts science and at least three parts “I can’t believe someone did that!” For example, in 1943, at a New York meeting of the Congress of American-Soviet Friendship, a biologist used the severed head of a dog to demonstrate that it was possible to sustain organs after the death of an animal or human. These Frankenstein-style moments are many, but I found myself most captivated when Swain strayed from the sensational to the factual. A mosquito infected with the parasite that causes malaria will feed leisurely on the human (the better to spread the bug), rather than gulp and run (the better to avoid sudden death by swatting). In “some form of molecular deception,” writes Swain, the parasite “convinces the mosquito to risk its own life to serve the parasites’ needs.” This type of behavior modification isn’t exactly mind control, but it’s a fascinating real-life example of the way one creature can alter the behavior of another.

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo

by Tim Parks

There were moments as I was reading Italian Ways when I began to feel as though I was part of some absurd experiment—a book all about trains? And the trains in just one country? The places the author goes, the people he meets, the bureaucracies and customs of the transportation system? Well, yes. But through these ordinary experiences Parks learns “the Italian way of doing things,” what makes the country chug along and retain its distinct identity . A Brit who has lived in Italy for 32 years, he’s also a perfect guide—an outsider, but one with a deep familiarity and respect (plus a dash of exasperated skepticism)—to the country’s celebrated eccentricities. Parks has a charming voice and a novelist’s eye (he’s written 16 works of fiction) for the karmic ebb and flow that can tip the inhabitants of a train carriage from anomie to bonhomie. Toward the end, Parks, at a dinner party, struggles to explain his project: “Not a travel book. And it’s not a book about trains as such.” Rather, he says, it’s about “the details, and the way one detail calls to another in a kind of tangle.” I’m not sure that explanation makes his point all that much clearer, but like a pleasurable journey without a definitive destination, I found myself happy to tag along for the ride.

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