The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love
by Michael D. Lemonick.
Doubleday, 2017 ($27.95)
Lemonick, an editor at Scientific American, delivers a finely observed profile of Lonni Sue Johnson, an artist and musician who developed a rare viral infection of the brain that destroyed much of her capacity to recall the past and form new memories. Amazingly, the virus left many other parts of her cognition intact, including her speech, exuberant personality, and ability to write, draw and play the viola. Because she was more accomplished before her illness than any other amnesiac previously studied, Johnson has offered scientists an unparalleled opportunity to learn how memories are made, stored and retrieved—for instance, after becoming sick, she failed to recognize many well-known works of art but recalled in perfect detail how to paint a watercolor and describe her technique. Lemonick details Johnson's willing participation in this research, writing of how she lightened up sessions in the functional MRI machine by singing to herself. He also introduces readers to Johnson's mother and sister and the community of neighbors and artists in her adopted town of Cooperstown, N.Y., who rallied to her aid, such as by playing music for her in the hospital and ensuring that she could continue making art. —Christine Gorman
Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society
by Cordelia Fine.
W. W. Norton, 2017 ($26.95)
The hormone testosterone has taken on almost mythical status in popular consciousness, often credited with outlandish feats, such as causing the 2008 financial collapse (supposedly because it drove male-dominated Wall Street to extreme levels of risky behavior). But psychology professor Fine demonstrates that testosterone “is neither the king nor the king maker—the potent, hormonal essence of competitive, risk-taking masculinity—it's often assumed to be.” She canvasses the history of research showing that testosterone's effects are less powerful and predictable than commonly thought and that male and female brains are not nearly as divergent as popularly believed. Further, she convincingly and entertainingly demonstrates that, despite stereotypes, such characteristics as risk-taking, competitiveness and nurturing are not “essential” to one sex over the other and cannot be blamed for the lack of equality between males and females in contemporary society.
Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History
by Bill Schutt. Illustrations by Patricia J. Wynne.
Algonquin Books, 2017 ($26.95)
Plenty of animals cannibalize one another as part of mating or child rearing or for simple hunger. That includes biology professor Schutt, who ate cooked placenta osso buco as research for this humorous history. The story's appetizer is an exploration of cannibalism in nature, such as the practices of fish parents that swallow mouthfuls of their own eggs or of spiders that eat their partner's abdomen while copulating. Humans are the book's main course. Sometimes we consume one another under great duress, such as the famous Donner party, the 19th-century pioneers who ate their dead after a snowstorm marooned them in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We even eat other humans for supposed medicinal benefits: pharmacies sold powdered ancient Egyptian mummies as recently as 1908; today some mothers consume their own placenta for unproved health benefits. The book is enhanced by the charming drawings of Pat Wynne, whose art has also graced the pages of this magazine. —Ryan F. Mandelbaum
Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life
by Haider Warraich.
St. Martin's Press, 2017 ($26.99)
Medical advances over the past century have given doctors unprecedented tools to stave off death, pushing life expectancies longer and longer. But the more we learn about dying and how to prevent it, the blurrier the line looks between life and death, physician Warraich writes: “These days we can't even be sure if someone is alive or dead without getting a battery of tests.” Both research and human experience would benefit if we could talk more openly about death, he argues. To aid that goal, Warraich demystifies what is known and unknown about how cells and bodies die, while sensitively grappling with the changing cultural landscape surrounding the end of life, including patients who tweet and share the details of their decline on social media. His story is filled with compassionate accounts of the different ways he has witnessed people meet death in the modern age.