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July 25, 2008 Edition

Vermeer’s Hat, by Timothy Brook

By looking closely at examples of seventeenth-century art, Brook unravels what was going on in that rapidly changing time. Vermeer’s “Officer and Laughing Girl” takes readers to the New World, with beaver pelts and Peruvian silver, and also demonstrates the rise in European women’s status. A blue-and-white Chinese-style plate showing Chinese figures smoking launches a discussion of the introduction of tobacco to the East. Color plates let readers examine each piece Brook introduces, as art history, economics, world history, and cultural mores all come to light in this fascinating book.

An Ocean of Air, by Gabrielle Walker

Though we rarely give it much thought, we live in the depths of an ocean, venturing into the heights only occasionally. Walker takes us on a tour of the temperature layers, currents, and variable ingredients that make up our atmosphere in this fascinating study. From the riveting opening story of Captain Joseph Kittinger, who free-fell through our atmosphere in 1960, to the invention of Freon (the same inventor gave us leaded gas) and the subsequent discovery of holes in the ozone layer, Walker’s conversational style and rigorous research come together to form an enlightening whole.

Nim Chimpsky, by Elizabeth Hess

In the 1960’s, raising infant chimpanzees in human homes became the latest “fad” in behavioral studies. One of the most famous chimps to be cross-fostered was Nim Chimpsky, as part of a language-use study by Professor Herbert Terrence, who was hoping to challenge linguist Noam Chomsky’s assertion that language was a human-only trait. Treated like a human child by his human family, Nim wore clothes, ate at the dinner table, and went to school to learn sign language. By the time Terrence had concluded that chimpanzees cannot possess language skills, Nim had learned over 100 signs (arguably demonstrating language proficiency) and become deeply bonded with his family. But Terrence was through with the experiment and Nim was removed from his family. Hess’s objective writing makes Nim’s story, and that of other chimps used in experiments, all the more wrenching.

Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin

Suspense and surprise in a book about fossils and anatomy? Shubin, a paleontologist and anatomy professor, writes so engagingly about his profession that readers will share his thrill of curiosity and discovery. Whether he’s turning rocks over in Nova Scotia looking for evidence of shoulder development, or in the classroom explaining how the top vertebrae evolved into cranium and jaw, Shubin has a knack for setting the most interesting tidbits against a solid background of information, ensuring that his readers fully appreciate the wonders he unfolds before them.

Apples are from Kazakhstan, by Christopher Robbins

Surprised to find that Borat’s nation of origin isn’t imaginary and intrigued by the bits of information he come across, Robbins sets out to find out more about an almost invisible land. Shrouded in secrecy by both the tsarist and Soviet governments, Kazakhstan is home to oil, tulips, and yes, apples, but also of remarkably liberal views and a wide range of nationalities. This part travelogue, part history of the country, studded with sketches of oil rigs, camels, and yurts, is a quick and interesting introduction to an area few Westerners know much about.

Invisible Nation, by Quil Lawrence

Journalist Lawrence has spent many years in Iraq and Kurdistan, where he is the correspondent for the BBC/PRI program “The World.” Through personal stories and government records, Lawrence tells the story of a people without a nation, the Kurds, who were promised sovereignty by Europe after World War I, but who are still living as citizens of other nations. Subjected to ethnic cleansing in Iraq, harassed and suppressed by Turkey, hated by Iran, and marginalized in Syria, the Kurds are now the closest they’ve ever been to their goal, but only because American troops are helping maintain Kurdistan, a portion of northern Iraq. What will happen if we ever leave Iraq or lose interest in supporting the Kurds in their quest for independence, as we have done before?

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