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Novels For The Science-Attuned Brain

Ah, New Jersey!
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
Ah, New Jersey!

By the time this post goes up, I'll be vacationing in New Jersey. (No jokes please!) My destinations are Springsteen Country and the beach, or as we say in my home state, The Shore.

Novel-reading on the beach is one way I'll relax. During some future fantasy vacation, I'd love to do nothing but read, inhaling a book a day.

In case anyone wants to try that out, here are five recommendations for books I've recently enjoyed in my favorite genre: novels that reward a science-attuned brain. None is about science, yet each stretches the mind on 13.7-type topics.

Monday: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. In North Korea, a military eavesdropper and professional kidnapper uses stolen identities and some pretty nifty technology to save a loved one from Kim Jong Il's rule. Perhaps because Johnson has travelled in North Korea, the novel rings out with vivid details of repression and resistance in a place entirely foreign to most of us.

Tuesday: Gold by Chris Cleave. Two British women athletes train for cycling gold ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. Family dynamics pressure each of them as they match their pace on the track. Cleave brilliantly describes how elite competitors, fighting screaming muscles and oxygen debt, win or lose not just by tenths-of-seconds but thousandths-of-seconds.

Wednesday: The Submission by Amy Waldman. The architect chosen in a "blind" competition to honor victims of a Manhattan terror attack turns out to be named Mohammad Khan. That he's an American doesn't stem the outcry: How could a Muslim have been chosen for this job? Waldman writes a lovely meditation on prejudice, and the politicization of Islam in the U.S. today.

Thursday: Birds of a Lesser Paradiseby Megan Mayhew Bergman. Bergman's dozen stories reveal human nature's intricacies through the miracles and muck of the natural world. With names like "The Cow that Milked Herself," and lemurs as characters, the stories delight with fresh turns-of-phrase about the daily worlds we inhabit.

Friday: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. The story of Kemal and Fusun in Istanbul sets the stage for Pamuk's tour de force of love and obsession (and Turkish society). When Kemal cannot be with Fusun, he devotes his life to collecting memories and artifacts (a button, a china dog) of the times they spent together.

In reality, I could never read five novels as substantive as these in only five days. So why tether the books to days of the week? Regular readers of our 13.7 blog will catch on.

The Monday book (the day Stuart Kauffman normally posts) is a nonlinear story that reveals how unpredictable the course of our lives is, because we are always becoming (not just being).

The Tuesday book (Adam Frank's day) puts time, and human perception of it in our ultra-fast world, at its heart.

The Wednesday book (Marcelo Gleiser's day) takes up questions of faith, religion and secularism.

The Thursday book (my day, though not this week!) connects people and other animals.

The Friday book (Alva Noë's day) considers the meaning in who we are to each other and explores the nature of addiction.

An affinity for science (both natural and social) may translate to extra layers of appreciation for all we find around us, even in fictional worlds.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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