A Year in Reading: Tahmima Anam

December 18, 2015 | 2 books mentioned 1 2 min read

covercoverI’m writing a novel about a paleontologist, so the books I’ve read this year stray far from my usual reading habits. At the Water’s Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs by Carl Zimmer is about two great macroevolutionary events: the conversion of fish to land animals, and the subsequent return of land animals to the sea. Zimmer has the gift of explaining major scientific discoveries in the simplest, most seductive terms: the book is every bit as gripping as any adventure thriller.

The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History is a beautiful illustrated introduction to one of the great research collections devoted to the natural world. My favorite chapter is about Stupendemys Geographicus, the largest species of turtle ever discovered. The shell, which was found in the Venezuelan desert in 1972, was so big that it had had to be broken into 30 pieces for shipment. I’ve seen the reassembled fossil, and it sits like a giant undulating cape in the middle of the museum, 6 million years old and, as its name suggests, utterly astonishing.

coverFinally, a novel: Euphoria, by Lily King, about a bunch of crazy anthropologists in New Guinea at the start of the 20th century. As a student of anthropology, the figures of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson were mythical, not least because they didn’t just write the canonical texts of the field, but were also in a love triangle that led Mead to leave Fortune for Bateson in the summer of 1933. Lily King’s book brings all of that alive, the biographical element in service of a genuinely original plot — if only she had written the book a decade ago, when I was a sad graduate student who dreamed of being a writer.

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is an anthropologist and novelist. Her debut novel, A Golden Age, was winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. In 2013, she was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. She is a judge for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and a Contributing Opinion Writer for The New York Times. Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, she now lives in London.

One comment:

  1. Aw, you rarely see the pink and smiling axolotl around these parts — or any parts — Bravo!

    Your excellent piece makes me want to read non-fiction. The old, retrograde Peabody Museum was just about the greatest place a kid could visit, with its mummies and jewels and whale bones and the the endless, dreaded glass flowers. Row upon row of glass pistils stamens petals sepals — exhaustive and exhausting. I’m sure the Harvard is more up to date and interactive in its newest incarnation, and I do look forward to the book. (The big turtle!)

    But I will forever love the Pueblo diorama (circa 1965) with it’s tiny figures eternally scrambling up a tiny ladder to reach the high, tiny houses carved into the cliffs. And the even tinier dog, lagging sadly behind on the flat green expanse below. How would he get up the ladder? Why did they leave him? What calamity drove them? No one could say. But there they were, year after year, supremely unchanged and mysterious, the poor tiny beings, stuck mid-flight, with no surcease, no rest, no end in sight. Their terrifying stasis seems beautiful still and still unplumbed.

    Long gone, I’m sure, and no doubt for the better, but I would love to see it again with my 8 year old eyes. And to read the books you’ve suggested — great piece!

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