An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales Book Review

Cover image courtesy of Random House

By Oliver Sacks; 330 pages. From the book jacket: "In his lucid and compelling reconstructions of the mental acts we take for granted -- the act of seeing, the transport of memory, the notion of color -- Oliver Sacks provokes anew a sense of wonder at who we are."

Sometimes, the books that have a meaningful impact on your parenting aren't parenting books at all. Sacks' essays, celebrating the way the brain works even when it works in unusual ways, can give you vital insights into your own paradoxical child.


  • An interesting, engaging read
  • Makes neurological concepts understandable
  • Looks at its subjects outside a clinical setting, in their real lives
  • Essay structure means you can skip stories that don't interest you
  • Offers an appreciation for the unique abilities of people with disabilities


  • Not a hands-on, practical parenting book
  • Scientific subject matter does require some thought and concentration
  • Sacks is not an impartial narrator, which is a problem if you disagree with him
  • Depiction of Temple Grandin's work in slaughterhouses may unsettle the squeamish


  • Chapter 1: The Case of the Colorblind Painter
  • Chapter 2: The Last Hippie
  • Chapter 3: A Surgeon's Life
  • Chapter 4: To See and Not See
  • Chapter 5: The Landscape of His Dreams
  • Chapter 6: Prodigies
  • Chapter 7: An Anthropologist on Mars
  • Selected Bibliography
  • References
  • Index


An Anthropologist on Mars isn't any sort of parenting primer. It's not going to show you 10 ways to get your child to behave, or top techniques for improving learning.

But if you believe that understanding the ways in which our neurological quirks define us, and how even the most profound weaknesses can coexist with strengths, this is a book you will find entirely useful. It's also fascinating and enjoyable to read, and who can't use more of that?

Sacks, perhaps best-known for being played by Robin Williams in the movie version of his book Awakenings, writes about seven neurologically challenged individuals: a painter who becomes colorblind late in his career; a man whose brain tumor leaves him stuck in the past; a surgeon with Tourette syndrome; a man blind from birth who has his sight restored as an adult, an essay also made into a movie, At First Sight; a painter who obsessively recreates the village of his childhood; a young artist who is an autistic savant; and, in the title essay, Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who has written books about living with autism.

The book's title refers to the way Grandin describes her experience of learning about the odd social ways and expectations of people who aren't autistic. But for those of us who have often felt their children were from another dimension, it could describe the experience of reading this book. You'll learn a lot about your little Martian, and maybe feel more hopeful, too.

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