Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Book – It’s the fundamental question of the biological and social sciences — why do humans do the things they do? Every discipline has its own answers, from the complex chemical interactions of neurobiology to the deep history of evolution. In Behave, Sapolsky pulls together all of these and more to explore the causes and meanings of human behavior, with an eye toward the most important question of all: How can we be better people?

This book is long, hard going, but it’s well worth it – it’s one of the only books on neuroscience I’ve ever read where the author doesn’t treat the core biological mechanics of neurochemicals and genes as though that provides a meaningful answer to any question. Rather, Sapolsky goes into detail about the interaction between genes, hormones, biochemistry, environment, and long-lasting biological change, making it clear that while there’s a biological explanation for everything, there are so many variables involved that saying we can identify a single source of any given human behavior is laughable at best. The book really gets good in the second half, when he starts to apply all this to the things we’re really concerned about – compassion and generosity, violence and aggression. Sapolsky is optimistic overall, but he makes it clear that improving society is going to mean fighting our biology in some ways (or, more effectively, learning how to trick it).

Smoke by Dan Vyleta

51hNZ0nGxXL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Imagine that every time you do something wrong – tell a lie, steal something, think an uncharitable thought – everyone can see it, in the form of a little puff of smoke that comes up from your body. It leaves soot on your clothes, your pillowcases, your furniture. You must be perfectly good at all times, or clean everything constantly, or both. And if not – everyone will know.

That’s the world of Smoke, a tremendous new literary fantasy by Dan Vyleta. In Victorian England, the aristocracy are trained from childhood to never Smoke, to repress all their baser instincts to demonstrate their inherent superiority over the lower classes. But what if it doesn’t really work that way? What if Smoke isn’t sin, but something else? Thomas and Charlie, two boys at an elite boarding school in the countryside, begin to question what they’ve been told after a trip to Smoke-filled London, and before long their whole world is unraveling.

I loved this book and its incredible explorations of good and evil, sin and repression. In addition to telling the story of Smoke, it’s also full of all the things that make Victorian novels great – family secrets, corrupt leaders, criminals with a heart of gold, murder, disguise, horse chases, and romance.