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ShattuckIn this edition, wily WWII widows, double-muscle cows (Google this at your own peril), and separating actual facts from alternative ones...

Erin Kodicek: I'm reading The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (March 28), a book I was initially reticent to pick up. It's yet another novel about brave women showing off their braveness against the backdrop of WWII (in this case, widows of a few of the conspirators involved in the assassination attempt on Hitler). Not that this subject matter ever ceases to be compelling; there's a reason why the genre is so wildly popular. But at some point fatigue begins to set in, and an author really needs to bring it. So far, Shattuck does. I'm excited to see how the plot plays out (yet also cringing at the parallels the story draws to today. Another good reason to eschew fatigue).

Jon Foro: It sounds a little like something you'd hear about on the Home Shopping Network, or maybe a 30-minute infomercial on your local cable sports network in that dead zone between football and baseball seasons: "CRISPR: An easy and cost-effective way to manipulate... your genes"? But that’s where we're at, I guess. Doubt it? Search "gene-edited dogs" and get a load of the images. Like me, you might decide that this is something you should know about.

So, two books: First, Bonnie Rochman’s The Gene Machine (available now), which looks at DNA manipulation in the context of parenthood – the benefits, pitfalls, and ethical dilemmas, of which there are many. Next, A Crack in Creation (June 13) by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg, two of the principals involved in the development of CRISPR. This is the dark one. If the dogs didn’t do it, try “double-muscle cows” and imagine a person.

Adrian Liang: How to get to the facts is a question I’m now asking myself daily. This weekend I’ve placed in my fact-finding crosshairs two books. First is The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Tom Nichols, wherein the crisis to be averted is that “today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.” It should be interesting to see how he contrasts expertise with widespread knowledge availability, which seem to be in contrast here but should, in an ideal world, support each other toward the ultimate goal at getting at the solution. The customer reviews are very positive, and The Death of Expertise is one of our best books of the month in nonfiction. The second fact-finding book I’m reading is Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions (April) by Richard Harris. Harris investigates why biology—specifically the search for cures to diseases—relies so much on experiments that often cannot be replicated, and why pointing out this problem is anathema to an industry that relies on big breakthroughs for funding. I’m a few chapters in already and find it incredibly stimulating in how it focuses on getting the fundamental data right before you build elaborate theories.

Finally, I want to plug—again!—Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything by Ulrich Boser. This is my new favorite nonfiction book that I’m hand-selling among my coworkers. One of Boser’s main teachings is that you need to figure out what you don’t know in order to figure out what you need to know (Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known unknowns”). I’ve been using Boser’s six steps for mastery in my daily life for about a month now, and it can be uncomfortable to realize just how large my ignorance is. But that’s progress, and progress often isn’t comfortable.

Sarah Harrison Smith: I’m about halfway through Alison MacLeod’s short story collection, All the Beloved Ghosts, which Bloomsbury’s publishing next month. Perhaps because a number of these 14 short stories were commissioned for BBC radio, they’re often distinguished by voice. MacLeod, raised in Canada but now living in the United Kingdom, moves masterfully from Standard English to first person narratives with the distinct slang and cadences of immigrant cultures. In my favorite story so far, “There are Precious Things,” a group of very different people lumped together on a train begin to argue after one makes a racist comment. The passengers react according to their natures. One man, suffering from dementia, is scared and bewildered: “Voices. Such noise. Such terrifying noise. …Everyone is a stranger.” And yet another feels spiritual ecstasy. On a “wave of love,” she hears “the voices swell and harmonies surge.” We are all soloists and part of the choir, MacLeod seems to say—and where one begins and the other ends is the mystery she explores in these thought-provoking and differentiated stories.


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