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Review of reviews: Books

What the critics said about the best new books: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body; Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey

Book of the week

Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin (Pantheon, $24)

Paleontologist Neil Shubin found what he was looking for during his sixth summer of fossil hunting in the Canadian Arctic. In 2004, while carving into exposed rock that dated from more than 350 million years ago, he and his small team uncovered several examples of an amphibious species that the world media would soon be calling the “missing link.” This creature, which Shubin and a research partner dubbed Tiktaalik roseae, boasted arm-like fins that made it look like a fish born to perform push-ups. It also had lungs and the oldest neck known to science. If a salamander was compelled to acknowledge a family resemblance, so were humans.

The “rather trite title” Shubin has chosen for his first book belies its ambition, said Alan Cane in the London Financial Times. In 240 “profoundly fascinating” pages, Shubin sketches the complete development of the human body by pursuing the simple idea that every limb, organ, and tissue is derived from an earlier life form. That story began long before Tiktaalik dragged its belly across the earth’s river bottoms, said Jesse Cohen in the Los Angeles Times. Shubin shows why sea sponges represented a major step up from single-cell organisms, how anemones pioneered “the body plan,” and how ostracoderms—owners of the first skulls—achieved that breakthrough through the fusing of thousands of tiny teeth. Quick to share with readers his own enthusiasms and misadventures, Shubin proves “a warm and disarming guide” throughout.

Living with a body plan that evolved in the sea does have distinct disadvantages, said Scott LaFee in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Hernias and hiccups, Shubin tells us, are expressions of an internal architecture that makes more sense for fishes and tadpoles. Even though Shubin’s tone is never confrontational, said Lizzy Ratner in The New York Observer, Your Inner Fish is obviously not a book that you’d expect Mike Huckabee or other skeptics of evolution to be curling up with this season. For all other readers, it offers “a surprisingly titillating” anatomy lesson. “By the final page, it’s hard to look at your hand without seeing the faint traces of a fin.”

Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey By Perri Knize (Scribner, $27.50)

Perri Knize was 42 when she became convinced that she should dedicate her life to mastering the piano. It had been some 25 years since she’d last considered a musical vocation and 15 since her last lessons. None of that mattered on the autumn day that she pushed a cassette recording of Chopin waltzes into her car’s tape deck and drove toward a Montana getaway completely enraptured by the pianist’s performance. “This is all I want to do with my life” were the words that filled her head. “They hit,” she says, “with all the force of an inner directive that cannot be ignored.”

The author’s romantic obsession was only just beginning, said Eugenia Zukerman in The Washington Post. For while Knize’s “deeply affecting” memoir begins with that awakening of artistic passion, the feeling soon enough attaches to a particular piano that nearly breaks her heart. After meeting this German Grotrian grand in a New York showroom and nicknaming the instrument “Marlene,” Knize mortgages her home to bring it West, only to find that the piano’s rich, sultry sound had become “a hoarse, broken voice.” Frustrated in her initial attempts to solve the problem, she “becomes as frantic and determined to find the cause as a mother whose child’s illness is deemed undiagnosable.” Though her self-dramatization can seem excessive, Knize “hooks you into her obsession with writing that is lucid yet lyrical.”

Much of the book ends up being an attempt to discern how Marlene’s “soul” came into being, said Mike Kroner in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Knize visits the Austrian forest where the spruce for the soundboard was felled. She introduces us to “the cranky artisans in the Grotrian piano factory” as well as numerous “brilliant, quirky piano players who share her obsession.” Her quest becomes a tribute to the lasting value of mindfulness and expertise, said Emma Brockes in The New York Times. Though at times the metaphorical aspects of the search threaten to overwhelm the actual story, grounded observations carry the biggest moments. The voice of any piano, Knize explains, is in part the product of a series of compromises that occur whenever it’s tuned. “By the end of the story,” when Knize fully appreciates the degree to which the sound she had struggled to re-create was an illusion, her predicament “has the weight of tragedy.”

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