I’ve got a roundup of new nonfiction that’s especially heavy on mysteries, medicine, and magic. Onward!
The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370, by Florence de Changy — Le Monde journalist de Changy investigates the “Kafkaesque” March 2014 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. I watched an episode of Drain the Oceans about this story (right before a transatlantic flight; what’s wrong with me) and was so intrigued by it. The description calls it “one of the most profound mysteries of the 21st century,” and it’s one of those internet late-night rabbit hole type of stories. This isn’t out in the US but I think it’ll be worth ordering the UK release. (February 4, Mudlark)
Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, by Suchitra Vijayan — This is touted as narrative nonfiction, a genre I find irresistible, and the “first true people’s history of modern India, told through a seven-year, 9,000-mile journey along its many contested borders.” India is a major blind spot in my knowledge and reading areas. Vijayan is a lawyer and political analyst with lots of impressive-sounding academic and research experience, so seems well-positioned to write on the subject, with extensive personal travels that “document how even places just a few miles apart can feel like entirely different countries.” (February 16, Melville House)
Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays, by Lauren Hough – Hough was born into the notoriously horrific Children of God cult and grew up in seven countries around the world before she was able to get out of the cult and settle in the US. These essays sound like a funny yet meaningful mishmash of life stories about her upbringing in a cult, queer identity, and the myriad odd jobs she’s worked, and Roxane Gay loved it, so. (April 13, Vintage)
Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?: Essays, by Jenny Diski – I hadn’t heard of Diski but I’m intrigued by a New Yorker quote that she “expanded notions about what nonfiction, as an art form, could do and could be.” “From Highgate Cemetery to the interior of a psychiatric hospital, from Tottenham Court Road to the icebergs of Antarctica, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? is a collective interrogation of the universal experience from a very particular psyche: original, opinionated—and mordantly funny.” That sounds amazing. Are you familiar with Diski already? My curiosity’s piqued. (April 20, Bloosmbury USA)
The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story, by Kate Summerscale – “London, 1938. In the suburbs of the city, a young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves and eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a turtle materializes on her lap. The culprit is incorporeal.” Enter Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian ghost hunter with the International Institute for Psychical Research (positive they’ve come up on Last Podcast before), and, unsurprisingly, a darker story than anything supernatural — one of abuse, trauma, and mental turmoil. Summerscale is an award-winning author but I haven’t read her yet, and supernatural debunking tales are my absolute fave so very excited for this one. (April 27, Penguin)
White Magic: Essays, by Elissa Washuta – In Washuta’s latest, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe member writes about her Native legacy of witchcraft and how she adapted it to her own use, especially following her own bipolar misdiagnosis and “a decade of abuse, addiction, PTSD”: “She interlaces stories from her forebears with cultural artifacts from her own life—Twin Peaks, the Oregon Trail II video game, a Claymation Satan, a YouTube video of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham—to explore questions of cultural inheritance and the particular danger, as a Native woman, of relaxing into romantic love under colonial rule.” Skeptical about witchcraft-anything but fascinated by the topics (and this would be a great choice for the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge Indigenous Cultures category). (April 27, Tin House)
The Memory Thief: And the Secrets Behind How We Remember: A Medical Mystery, by Lauren Aguirre -“How could you lose your memory overnight, and what would it mean? The day neurologist Jed Barash sees the baffling brain scan of a young patient with devastating amnesia marks the beginning of a quest to answer those questions. First detected in a cluster of stigmatized opioid overdose victims in Massachusetts with severe damage to the hippocampus—the brain’s memory center—this rare syndrome reveals how the tragic plight of the unfortunate few can open the door to advances in medical science.” This sounds fascinating, and is an evolving corner of scientific study. The research also leads to Alzheimer’s, a still-mysterious illness despite its prevalence. This is described as “genre-bending and deeply-reported,” which sounds perfect. (April 27, Pegasus)
Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Uninterrupted, by Suleika Jaouad – Jaouad was diagnosed with leukemia before her 23rd birthday, uprooting the life she was building for herself as a war correspondent based in Paris. After years of chemo and intense treatments, she was “cured” but it led to the realization that “a cure is not where the work of healing ends; it’s where it begins.” She embarked on a cross-country road trip to meet people she’d corresponded with during the years of her ordeal: “a teenage girl in Florida also recovering from cancer; a teacher in California grieving the death of her son; a death row inmate in Texas who had also spent years confined in a room.” This sounds so powerful and important, and early buzz around it is strong. (April 30, Random House)
Uncaring: How the Culture of Medicine Kills Doctors and Patients, by Robert Pearl – Reading about problems in medicine, healthcare and patient treatment has become a major interest, and topics that I’m afraid we ignore at our own peril, especially in the US. Pearl, an MD and Stanford professor, unpacks a number of problems, like doctors facing burnout, navigating the influence of big pharma and insurance companies, and a highly competitive culture. “In our rush to express gratitude for “frontline” doctors, we are also neglecting their humanity, for better and worse. If we want to improve medical outcomes, for doctors and patients alike, we need to start seeing health care professionals as the real and flawed human beings they actually are.” (May 18, PublicAffairs)
The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Parasite and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease, by Daisy Hernández – “Why do some infectious diseases make headlines and others fall by the wayside?” If this past year has taught us anything, it’s the disturbing lesson of how differently economic and social groups were affected by the coronavirus even within the world’s wealthiest country, and how fucked up that is. This looks at Chagas disease, a potentially lethal insect-borne infection affecting 300,000 Americans — more prevalent than Zika virus. It “tells the story of how poverty, racism, and public policies have conspired to keep this disease hidden—and how the disease intersects with Hernández’s own identity as a niece, sister, and daughter; a queer woman; a writer and researcher”. Thoughts of deadly infection-carrying bugs make my skin crawl, but this is an important public health topic and I’m intrigued by the detail that only the US and Latin America are homes to this insect. Seems like something we should better understand. (June 1, Tin House)
Do any of these pique your interest too? What new nonfiction is on your radar this year?