Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

Song of the Shank, Redeeming the Dream, and More on Our Must-Read List

Talk to the animals.

Laurel Braitman

In dealing with a difficult dog that suffered extreme separation anxiety, local writer Laurel Braitman became intrigued by the idea that animals can suffer from mental illness every bit as varied and complex as ours. Her work earned her a Ph.D. from MIT, but Animal Madness is still a fascinating read for the layperson, with studies of how animals can suffer from everything from PTSD to OCD, and an optimistic view of how zookeepers and scientists are embarking on the difficult work of healing their troubled minds without the use of language. If you've previously scoffed at that one friend with a dog on Prozac or a cat on Ativan, it's definitely an eye-opener.

Appearances: Book Passage Corte Madera, 6/24; Headlands Center for the Arts, 8/10

I'm a sucker for any novel that draws my attention to a fascinating and little-known figure from the past, and Blind Tom Wiggins, the subject of Jeffery Renard Allen's Song of the Shank, definitely falls into that category. Born into slavery, Wiggins (who was likely on the autism spectrum) was a wildly talented pianist who performed for President James Buchanan and Mark Twain, yet left no recordings or diaries to tell his story. Allen uses him as a centerpiece around which to introduce the sad and shifting world of Reconstruction, where the end of slavery certainly didn't mean the end of suffering. (Incidentally, if you haven't read Ta-Nehisi Coates' terrific recent Atlantic piece on reparations, get on that.) Allen's novel is getting all kinds of acclaim for its stellar prose and compelling story. 

Appearances: Booksmith, 6/24

With Pride coming up this weekend, it's a great time to look back on the fall of Prop 8 and DOMA, which made last year's event so special. A whole host of work on the subject is coming out: Jo Becker's Forcing the Spring has already been widely debated, and the lawyers who argued the case, David Boies and Theodore F. Olson, are now releasing their own story of the five-year journey to defeat Prop 8, Redeeming the Dream. (Fun fact: they worked together on the case years after arguing opposite sides in Bush v. Gore.) And if you'd rather consume the tale in documentary form, HBO is airing The Case Against 8 all week long.