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The Violinist's Thumb is about DNA. It's about how our genes affect our abilities and outcomes, and about the people along the way who have been instrumental (eh? like a violin? eh?) in discovering or demonstrating genetics at work.
The title comes from Niccolo Paganini, a violinist so talented that the church refused to bury him for decades after his death because of rumours that he had made a pact with the devil in order to play as he did. Turns out, he just had a genetic disorder that allowed him to bend his fingers and thumbs at bizarre, unnatural angles, a condition which also certainly shortened his life.
The Violinist's Thumb is, well, a bit "science-y" in places. It's been a long time since I've had to keep track of terms like genetic coding, DNA and RNA strands, double helix and chromosonal markers (Is that last one even right? I should know this. I JUST read a book about DNA!) Some of it took me back to high school and university biology classes, and some of it caused me to glaze over a bit (much like The Calculus Diaries). But the heavy duty big brain required to follow the technical aspects of the book is more than mitigated by the wealth of interesting anecdotes
throughout the book. Sam Kean tells us about Gregor Mendel's nervous breakdowns, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's famously stunted growth, and Tsutomu Yamaguchi--"the most unlucky man of the twentieth century"--who, after being caught by the atomic blast in Hiroshima got on a train and went to Nagasaki, just in time for the second bomb to drop.
Sam Kean has also hidden a little reward for his readers within the book, much like a marked chromosone in someone's DNA. It's an acrostic, or an encoded message composed of the first letter of several lines or paragraphs of text. He invites readers to email him when they've found it (or if they haven't found it and want help!). Normally I LOVE puzzles like this, but since I've been reading the EPUB edition, I'm not sure if the first letters of the lines in my copy are the same as those in the printed edition. Every time I adjust the font, the lines change! I hate to give up on a puzzle, though, so I might have to get my hands on a print edition. Well played, Kean, well played.
Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley.com. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.