The week in books

April 2, 2009

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel Levitin, McGill professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience, McGill University. Aurum Press, £14.99, ISBN 9781845134778

"It is Levitin's belief that all songs essentially fit into one of six categories, each of which corresponds to a basic evolutionary function ... If the categories seem slightly arbitrary, there is still fun to be had in watching Levitin - a man with skittishly broad musical tastes and a light, easy style - fitting songs into his boxes ... I had never before thought of the Hokey Cokey as a 'religious' song. As with other ritualistic songs, Levitin argues, it 'guides participants to the proper, rigid, accurate performance of the ritual' - in this case putting your right foot in, out and shaking it all about."

Bee Wilson, The Sunday Times

Designing the Seaside: Architecture, Society and Nature by Fred Gray, professor of continuing education, University of Sussex. Reaktion Books, £19.95, ISBN 9781861894403

"Gray's study is rooted in his knowledge of Brighton, 'Britain's greatest seaside resort' ... Although Designing the Seaside is dry at times, the wonderful illustrations (including McGill's saucy postcards) more than compensate. From pavilions and piers (including the scandalous demise of Brighton's West Pier), to bungalows, beach huts and bathing machines ('the first purpose-designed form of seaside architecture'), this is a fine celebration of a very English invention."

P.D. Smith, The Guardian

A History of Canadian Culture by Jonathan Vance, professor and Canada research chair in history, University of Western Ontario. Oxford University Press, £18.99, ISBN 9780195419092

"This book is full of stories that will have you muttering 'I didn't know that.' With pleasure, too, because the guy really is a storyteller ... Vance, who has in previous books been exploring and reflecting on our achievements as warriors, inventors and athletes - as manifestations of our culture - always seems to come back to writers as the heartland. And this reviewer would be enchanted to think that his comments might, among other impulses, send some readers off to explore the animal stories of the great Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, who for a while was known as the Father of Canadian Poetry."

Patrick Watson, The Globe and Mail

The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal by Julie Greene, associate professor of history, University of Maryland. Penguin, $30.00, ISBN 9781594202018

"Less interested in the now fabled engineering feats of the project, (Greene) instead emphasizes the human dimension - the daily lives of the thousands of workers and family members who journeyed to the Canal Zone from all parts of the world seeking adventure, better wages or simply a fresh start. Who were they? What jobs did they do? Where did they live? What did they eat? How were they governed? Her answers provide a fascinating look at those who actually built the canal between 1904 and 1914, a largely forgotten population of 60,000 brought to life in a remarkably creative way."

David Oshinky, The New York Times.

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