Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of November 5th, 2007

“I DO NOT discombobulate easily,” boasted the irreplaceable Molly Ivins, who died in January of this year. But the Bush administration very nearly did discombobulate her: “I am so freaked out about what is happening to freedom in this country,” she admitted, “if I were anyone else but me, I’d be staging a pitched, shrieking, quivering, hysterical, rolling-on-the-ground, speaking-in-tongues fit.” Instead wrote Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault Against America’s Fundamental Rights (Random House, $24.95), which was published posthumously this week. Ivins’ own description of the book is spot-on: “a hopeful and gladsome romp through some serious terrain.”

TURNS OUT THAT the old chestnut about the taste of a madeleine triggering deep memory has a solid basis in scientific fact. In Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Houghton Mifflin, $24), Jonah Lehrer explains that our senses of smell and taste are “uniquely sentimental” because they “connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain’s long-term memory.” Not content with trumpeting Marcel’s cleverness, Mr. Lehrer—who worked in a lab while an undergraduate at Columbia—devotes chapters of his book to three other novelists (George Eliot, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf), a poet (Walt Whitman), a painter (Cézanne), a composer (Stravinsky) and a chef (Escoffier). In each case he argues that the artist anticipated the discoveries of neuroscience—and yet he’s not out to elevate art over science. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” he writes, “but we are also just stuff.”

A SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY designed book, Bernd Brunner’s Bears: A Brief History (Yale, $25) examines the shared history of people and bears—a sad, often brutal story punctuated here and there with humor and charm. Mr. Brunner reminds us of how the cuddly Teddy Bear got its name back in 1902 (it was thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, himself a passionate bear hunter), and comments, wryly, “It is difficult to avoid the impression that bears had to disappear before we could perceive them through a lens of such lovable harmlessness.”

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