Brian's Picks


When Brian isn't teaching science to high school students or being bossed around by his daughter, he likes to read poetry, literary fiction, and books about science and philosophy.  Carl Dennis, John Banville, and Steven Pinker are a few of his favorite authors.   

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Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594205071
Availability: Not Currently On Our Shelves. Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Press - May 2nd, 2017

Many books about human behavior are fairly simplistic, reducing the complexities of our behavior to whatever explanatory fad is popular at the time:  evolution, genes, environment, upbringing, etc. Sapolsky’s magisterial work, however, takes a completely new and creative approach.  By viewing behavior through a variety of lenses, he is able to focus in on details in the present as well as the distant past, demonstrating that behavior is, well, uh, complicated.  Full of wit and captivating anecdotes, this feast of a book will reward your attention with a better understanding of why we act the way they do and perhaps change how you think about many topics, ranging from free will to jurisprudence.

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Mrs. Osmond Cover Image
ISBN: 9780451493422
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - November 7th, 2017

John Banville is one of my favorite novelists, and, in recent years, he has shown himself to be something of a literary chameleon, using his considerable powers to mimic the writing styles of a few admired writers. I’m thinking now of his detective novel “Black-Eyed Blonde”, in which he dusts off Raymond Chandler’s indefatigable Philip Marlowe and sends him out on another case.

In his latest work, “Mrs. Osmond”, Banville pays homage to the 19th-century master Henry James by writing a sequel to “The Portrait of a Lady”.  Fans of James will certainly savor an opportunity to catch up with the incomparable Isabel Archer and the mysterious Madame Merle, and fans of Banville will delight in his lyrical prose (I actually read it aloud). You can certainly say one thing about Banville. He isn’t lacking in ambition.

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Selected Odes of Pablo Neruda (Latin American Literature and Culture #4) Cover Image
By Pablo Neruda, Margaret Sayers Peden (Translator), Margaret Sayers Peden (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9780520269989
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: University of California Press - May 17th, 2011

It’s simple. I read Neruda when I want - and desperately need - to fall back in love with the world.

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The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - And Us Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385537216
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Doubleday Books - May 9th, 2017

Many of the most beautiful and head-scratchingly odd productions of life are the result of sexual selection, a mechanism of evolution proposed by Darwin to explain ostensibly maladaptive features of organisms, such as the famous peacock’s tail. Prum argues that many of nature’s most dazzling displays - think of bowerbirds and the famous birds of paradise - are not, as commonly thought, honest signals of health and so-called “good genes”, but, rather, they evolved because the opposite sex found them, over many generations, aesthetically appealing. In essence - and my apologies to Keats - beauty is not truth, but, instead, a kind of gorgeous lie that needs no reason or justification.  By the way, the author’s discussion of duck sex alone makes this book well worth reading!

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The River of Kings Cover Image
ISBN: 9781250111753
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: St. Martin's Press - March 21st, 2017

Southern Literature seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance lately, and, among its many rising stars, Taylor Brown is certainly one of the brightest.  His work has garnered praise from the likes of Robert Morgan and David Joy, among many others.  In his latest novel, “River of Kings”, Brown superimposes three narratives to tell a story as rich and dark as alluvial soil.  Yet even in its darkest moments, Brown’s prose provides a sure and enduring light.

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The Risen Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062436320
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Ecco Press - July 25th, 2017

I have been a fan of Ron Rash’s work since  “One Foot in Eden” left me shaking my head in wonder a little over a decade ago.  His work, known for exploring human nature’s darker side, is also deeply humane and shines forth with a numinous beauty lacking in much of contemporary literature.  

The troubles begin for Eugene, the novel’s narrator, when he glimpses a young girl around his own age skinny-dipping in a secluded stream while he and his brother are out trout fishing.  This beautiful novel reminds us of the power of seemingly innocent encounters to nudge our lives onto entirely new trajectories.   In fact, the term encounter doesn’t quite capture what, in this case, feels more like a collision, for what else but a collision could leave Eugene so utterly changed?  To read the work of Ron Rash is to experience the transforming power of true art.

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Darwin's Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393239898
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - September 5th, 2017

Having read a few books about Charles Darwin over the years, I began James Costa’s book, “Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory”, slightly worried I’d soon find myself skimming pages of familiar anecdotes . As it turned out, my concerns were entirely unfounded, for the Darwin I met in the pages of Costa’s delightful book seemed revived and reinvigorated.

The effect produced is partially due to Costa’s lively and, at times, playful prose, but equal credit should go to his refreshing approach to the subject.  He doesn’t dawdle in the company of hand-wringing Darwin, dyspeptic Darwin, or the famous Darwin in mourning.  As the subtitle suggests, Costa celebrates the tireless experimentalist who possessed an almost preternatural gift for shedding preconceptions and seeing the world as it actually was!

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Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062339331
Availability: Not Currently On Our Shelves. Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Ecco Press - December 6th, 2016

When I was younger, I approached books with a sort of reverence, half expecting their contents to change my life in some tangible and irrevocable way.  For better or worse, a few did.  I expect much less from books these days.  In fact, most of the reading I do feels more like a mild, if often enjoyable, diversion.  This is no doubt due, at least in part, to the fact that I recently turned forty.  I wish it weren’t the case, but I’ve surely become, like many others my age, set in my ways.  

That being the case, it may surprise you to learn that a book provocatively titled “Against Empathy” recently convinced me change my behavior for the better (I think).  You’re probably thinking, “Hey, I thought empathy was a good thing.”  It is, of course, in many situations, but it can also be, in some contexts, a poor guide to acting ethically.  For example, most people empathize rather selectively, doling it out to people who think, look, and act like them while callously ignoring those faceless others whose needs are often far greater.  Empathy, it turns out, is also innumerate, often decreasing as the number of people in need, in fact, rises.   Think of the almost nothing you feel for countless millions dying of preventable causes across the globe compared to emotional tug you get when you meet an individual suffering from cancer.  This is a rare book that has the potential to both challenge thinking and change behavior!


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A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution Cover Image
ISBN: 9780544716940
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Houghton Mifflin - June 13th, 2017

If reading a book about cutting-edge scientific research sounds a bit intimidating because, let’s face it, nearly every scrap of science you crammed into your noggin during high school and college has since fallen out, don’t fret.  The authors of this important and thought-provoking book about CRISPR, a game-changing gene editing tool,  generously dedicate sections of the book to getting readers up to speed on basic concepts. As the authors make abundantly clear, it is crucial that as many people as possible understand what CRISPR is and how it works because its impact will soon touch nearly every aspect of our lives, extending far beyond the ivory towers of science.

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Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies Cover Image
ISBN: 9780199678112
Availability: Not Currently On Our Shelves. Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Oxford University Press, USA - September 3rd, 2014

If you are a fan of Daniel Dennett or Steven Pinker, you will love Nick Bostrom's thought-provoking book about the future of artificial intelligence. He makes a strong case that we need to anticipate the dangers that are inherent in creating a superintelligent entity because we can't assume that its interests will align with our own.

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The Brothers Karamazov Cover Image
By Fyodor Dostoevsky, Richard Pevear (Translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (Translator)
ISBN: 9780374528379
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - June 14th, 2002

I first read Dostoevsky one summer while at NCSU. I checked out an old copy of his shorter works from the university library.  I was hooked. From there, I started reading his longer works:  Crime and Punishment, Demons, The Idiot, The Adolescent, and, of course, The Brothers Karamazov, his greatest novel.  In my opinion, the only other writer who can compare to Dostoevsky in his understanding of human nature is Shakespeare. Don't be inimidated by the length of this novel.  It is one of those books that should be required reading for all humans.