The World from Beginnings to 4000 B.C.E.

The hominid fossil record begins some seven million years ago with species that are like humans but not human. But on what basis do we identify members of our own family and say that they are not merely humanlike but human? Ian Tattersall makes it clear that we haven't figured it out, and that this is what makes paleo-anthropology an interesting -- and very human -- endeavor. In this brief volume Tattesall can only hit the high points of the fossil chronology, such as "Lucy" "Turkana Boy," and "Peking Man." More important is his demonstration of how the sparse fossil record combines with the superabundance of life on earth to make questions of human identity and origins particularly challenging. Given the fluid concept of species itself -- as many definitions "as there are naturalists" -- can there be a standard definition of a human? "Defining" characteristics such as big brains and small canine teeth have come and gone. Upright posture is the current favorite, but Tattersall looks beyond the singular to complex combinations of traits that are greater than the sum of their parts. Whatever it was (probably language) and wherever we place it, such a combination separates Homo sapiens from all the other hominids that ever were; not least, perhaps, the capacity for self-reflection that motivates us to look into our own beginnings. -

July 28: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped on this day in 1814.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).