Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han: Simon Han’s debut novel scrutinizes the American dream through the Chengs, who have recently emigrated from China. The family settles in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, where Patty works in semiconductors and Liang is a photographer. Their son, Jack, spends the first six years of his life in China, where his grandparents raise him until his parents are ready for him to join them in the United States. His sister, Annabel, is born in the U.S., and her relationship to China is abstract, as she has never been there but speaks Mandarin at home. Things aren’t going particularly well with 5-year-old Annabel. At school, she’s practicing manipulation on a friend, and other parents are leery of her. When she begins sleepwalking, Jack deems himself her protector. In Nights When Nothing Happened, Han explores all that can get lost in the spaces between people. A fateful Thanksgiving Day serves as the crux of the story, but the tale spans much further than that, back to the mysterious death of Liang’s mother when he was an infant, which has haunted him his whole life. While the book is driven more by characterization than by plot, Han delivers the few pivotal moments with such skill that they are jaw-droppers. Han displays incredible range as a novelist, oscillating between honest, almost tangibly real scenes, opaque dreams and refractive memories. He portrays Annabel’s and Jack’s points of view with remarkable integrity, while Liang and Patty are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, doing their absolute best for their children while grappling with their pasts. Han’s prose is vivid yet restrained, and his characters are multidimensional and alive. Emotionally resonant and packed with nuance, this is an exemplary debut novel.
Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett: If you think you know all about the brain, think again! According to neuroscientist and Northeastern University professor of psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett (How Emotions Are Made) in her delightful new book Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, “your brain is not for thinking.” This is the titular half-lesson that introduces this slim tome of short, informal essays, which are “best read in order, but you can also read them out of sequence.” Instead of including all the scientific specifics in the book itself (which, quite honestly, could get tedious if you’re reading for pleasure), Barrett handily moves the full explanations and references to her website, sevenandahalflessons.com, and merely includes an appendix with selected details at the back of the book. Barrett poses some interesting questions, such as “Why did brains evolve?”–busting the myth that it was for thinking and revealing that it was actually for body-budgeting, providing energy efficiency for our ancestors much like a renewably fueled car. She writes with precision and clarity as she covers topics as broad as the tricky business of comparing different species’ brains, the fact that all mammals’ brains are built from a single manufacturing plan and the difference between brains and minds. Barrett uses comparisons to everyday things and practices to help readers understand the brain’s complexity. For example, in the chapter “Your Brain Is a Network,” she likens the brain’s vast collection of interconnected parts to the internet’s network of linked devices and the intricate dispatch routes of transportation networks. As a result, interesting concepts such as tuning (strengthening the connections between neurons) and pruning (when less-used connections weaken and die off) are presented in approachable ways. Some topics are less fun but still worthy of consideration, such as the heartbreaking effects of adversity, poverty and neglect on the brains of developing children. Barrett also explains what sets our brains apart from those of other species, highlighting the things that make us human, such as social reality, creativity and communication. The brain can do a great deal of impressive things yet still misunderstand itself. On the path to better self-knowledge, Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain sheds some light on our most powerful organ and its intriguing processes.
Dolly Parton, Songteller by Dolly Parton: ‘Tis the season to be Dolly! In Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, the lovable, candid, tell-it-like-it-is singer shares her own story through the lyrics of her songs. While fans love Parton for her crystal-clear vocals and her charming, witty stage presence, she’s always thought of herself as a songwriter first, and this book illustrates her deep devotion to music that captures a moment or tells a heart-rending tale. As she reveals, “I write a lot from my own heart. But I also just have a big imagination. When I was young, we didn’t go to the movies, so I just created my own stories. It’s kind of embedded in me to make up songs and stories.” Chock-full of never-before-seen photographs and memorabilia from Parton’s archives, every chapter tells a portion of her biography. Using lyrics from 175 of her songs–including “Coat of Many Colors,” “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene”–she traces the journey from her Tennessee mountain childhood to her role on “The Porter Wagoner Show,” her 9 to 5 days and her bluegrass albums. As she provides a glimpse into the origins of each song, Parton notes that she has “never shied away from any topic, whether it was suicide or prostitution or women’s rights or whatever…Whatever it is, I can say it in a song, in my own way.” Parton tells her stories with a grin and a twinkle in her eye. Her book invites us to sit a spell as she weaves her enchanting storytelling web around us, wrapping us in the warm, silky threads of her voice and comforting us with her presence.