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A Free Life is the only life for the book’s protagonist, Nan Wu—-who, along with his wife and son, immigrates to the United States from China in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Yet, despite his earnest attempts to assimilate and his hope that his son will “grow into an American,” Nan finds it difficult to sever his attachment to his homeland. A Free Life, Ha Jin’s first novel set in America, may be his most autobiographical—-Jin was at Brandeis University completing a Ph.D. in English when Tiananmen Square prompted him to remain permanently in the States with his own wife and son. Jin discusses and signs copies of his work at 7 p.m. at Olsson’s Books & Records, 418 7th St. NW. Free. (202) 638-7610. —-Krista Walton
Oliver Sacks’ latest book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, feels like a summing-up of the neurologist’s four decades of work. That’s partly because he revisits many of the patients featured in his previous writings: People who know Sacks through his best-sellers have already met the woman who couldn’t stop “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” from playing in her head, the Tourettic jazz drummer known for his “sudden and wild solos,” and the tumor-stricken man who recovered his sense of spontaneity when Sacks took him to a Grateful Dead concert. The focus on music gives Sacks a chance to produce a guidebook to a universe of neurological issues, from familiar cases of autism, perfect pitch, and synesthesia to lesser-known genetic disorders such as Williams syndrome, which comprises mental retardation and an intense love for music. Covering a little bit of everything, though, means many of his tales feel undernourished, if not insubstantial. It’s unclear, for instance, why a one-page squib on the connection between a motor disorder and Jewish prayer deserves its own chapter; though he has a great story in Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who developed an obsession with piano music after he was struck by lightning, evidence of emotional damage (such as Cicoria’s divorce) merits only a passing mention. The more details Sacks provides, the more his prose sings: A beautifully turned chapter on Clive Wearing, a pianist who lives in a perpetual state of amnesia, proves that Sacks can be a storyteller as much as a case-study-teller. Sacks discusses and signs copies of his work at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919. —-Mark Athitakis