With the year half over, let’s see what new and wondrous upcoming nonfiction we have to look forward to in the coming months!
Here’s what I’m excited for:
The Icepick Surgeon : Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science, by Sam Kean (July 13) – Beginning “with Cleopatra’s dark deeds in ancient Egypt,” this covers “origins of much of modern science in the transatlantic slave trade of the 1700s, as well as Thomas Edison’s mercenary support of the electric chair and the warped logic of the spies who infiltrated the Manhattan Project. But the sins of science aren’t all safely buried in the past. […] We can draw direct lines from the medical abuses of Tuskegee and Nazi Germany to current vaccine hesitancy, and connect icepick lobotomies from the 1950s to the contemporary failings of mental-health care. Kean even takes us into the future, when advanced computers and genetic engineering could unleash whole new ways to do one another wrong.”
I haven’t read Sam Kean yet but he’s a popular science writer, and this seems crucial for the current moment, although I think some of the stories might be familiar.
Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health, Dr. Leana Wen (July 27) – Wen is an immigrant from China whose family was “at times homeless despite her parents working multiple jobs” and experienced food insecurity. She attended college at age 13 and entered the field of public health “as the way to make a difference in the country that had offered her such vast possibilities.”
This last year has shown us the incomparable importance of a robust, well-funded public health system and I’m afraid it’s a lesson we still haven’t absorbed very well. I’m interested to learn what work is going on within this field.
The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit, by John V. Petrocelli (July 27) – “No matter how smart we believe ourselves to be, we’re all susceptible to bullshit and we all engage in it. While we may brush it off as harmless marketing sales speak or as humorous, embellished claims, it’s actually much more dangerous and insidious. It’s how Bernie Madoff successfully swindled billions of dollars from even the most experienced financial experts with his Ponzi scheme. It’s how the protocols of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward resulted in the deaths of 36 million people from starvation. […] If we don’t question the information we receive from bullshit artists to prove their thoughts and theories, we allow these falsehoods to take root in our memories and beliefs.”
Sounds similar to the cons that circumvent our trust mechanisms. I can’t resist these stories!
The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence, Stephen Kurczy (August 3) – “Green Bank, West Virginia, is a place at once futuristic and old-fashioned: It’s home to the Green Bank Observatory, where astronomers search the depths of the universe using the latest technology, while schoolchildren go without WiFi or iPads. With a ban on all devices emanating radio frequency interference (RFI) that might interfere with the observatory’s telescopes, Quiet Zone residents live a life free from constant digital connectivity. But a town that on the surface seems idyllic is a place of contradictions, where the provincial meets the seemingly supernatural, and where quiet can serve as a cover for something darker.”
I didn’t know this place existed and now I must know everything. This is also billed as “Walden meets Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and although I have yet to find anything compared to Midnight that actually lives up to it, I’ll keep trying them, especially if there’s a message about “the role of tech in our lives.”
Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, by Rupa Marya, Raj Patel (August 3) – “An associate professor of medicine at UCSF and a frontline responder to the COVID-19 pandemic teams up with the activist and bestselling author of The Value of Nothing to explain how colonization has made us sick and how decolonizing food and medicine can help us heal.” I’m already on board, but this is also described as “a medical tour through our digestive, endocrine, circulatory, respiratory, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems” that “illuminates what ails us as a whole, mapping the hidden connections between our biological systems and the profound injustices of our political, economic, social, and ecological systems.”
Sounds complex but informative, and the issues around inequality of medical care and injustices inherent in the system are topics that deserve better understanding.
Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea, by Bill François, translated by Antony Shugaar (August 17) – “If we listen to the ocean, what do we hear? What can it teach us? How can it change us?” I’ve only read the first few pages of this translated-from-French account of the author’s beginnings as a marine scientist but I loved it immediately. This is narrative nonfiction that promises “a mix between science and storytelling from the past and present,” tied together by exploring the lives of fishes. It seems quite lyrical and is an interesting — and I think unusual — topic for translated nonfiction.
The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal, by Mary L. Trump (August 17) — Although I still haven’t read Too Much and Never Enough, it received a lot of praise last year and I was endlessly impressed with Mary Trump in her interviews and media appearances. Imagine coming from that greedy family of business monsters and turning out as intelligent, introspective, and well spoken as she is. She’s also a psychologist and expert in trauma, psychopathology, and developmental psychology, so I’m curious about how she analyzes the issues we face in a still very divided country.
Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall, by Helena Merriman (August 24) – This is based on a podcast, which gave me pause because I consider the book-podcast connection like the blood-brain barrier: we need to be very careful about what crosses it. But this was a BBC 4 podcast and I think BBC programs tend to be better than your average podcast, so I’m optimistic. This story is absolutely bonkers: a 22-year-old escaped East Berlin, then tunneled back in to help others escape. Except a Stasi agent infiltrated the group he organized. I’m nervous already. Ultimately he pulled it off, and 29 people were freed.
The Secret History of Food: Strange but True Stories About the Origins of Everything We Eat, by Matt Siegel (August 31) — “As a species, we’re hardwired to obsess over food,” Matt Siegel explains as he sets out “to uncover the hidden side of everything we put in our mouths. Siegel also probes subjects ranging from the myths—and realities—of food as aphrodisiac, to how one of the rarest and most exotic spices in all the world (vanilla) became a synonym for uninspired sexual proclivities, to the role of food in fairy- and morality tales. He even makes a well-argued case for how ice cream helped defeat the Nazis.“
I’m sold on that alone, but the description also calls Siegel “an armchair Anthony Bourdain, armed not with a chef’s knife but with knowledge derived from medieval food-related manuscripts, ancient Chinese scrolls, and obscure culinary journals.” A world of yes.
Slonim Woods 9: A Memoir, by Daniel Barban Levin (September 7) – I heard about this cult, run by conman Larry Ray out of his daughter’s Sarah Lawrence dorm (Slonim Woods 9) on an episode of the Zealot podcast. It is quite the story. Author “Daniel Barban Levin was one of the original residents of Slonim Woods 9. Ray coached Daniel through a difficult break-up, slowly drawing him into his web. After two years of escalating psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, Daniel found the strength to escape from Ray’s influence and take control of his own life.”
Escaped-from-a-cult memoirs fascinate me so much, because the authors themselves often seem to be working through what drew them to the groups, making for a compelling psychological exercise and insight.
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach (September 14) – In beloved popular science writer Roach’s latest, she explores “the curious science of human-wildlife conflict, a discipline at the crossroads of human behavior and wildlife biology“: “Roach tags along with animal-attack forensics investigators, human-elephant conflict specialists, bear managers, and “danger tree” faller blasters. Intrepid as ever, she travels from leopard-terrorized hamlets in the Indian Himalaya to St. Peter’s Square in the early hours before the pope arrives for Easter Mass, when vandal gulls swoop in to destroy the elaborate floral display. She taste-tests rat bait, learns how to install a vulture effigy, and gets mugged by a macaque.”
It also sounds like — no surprise — humans are usually the problem, but also the solution, she suggests.
Personal Effects: What Recovering the Dead Teaches Me About Caring for the Living, by Robert A. Jensen (September 28) Jensen is chairman and co-owner of Kenyon International, “the world’s leading disaster clean-up corporation.” He’s participated in cleanup, recovery, and repatriation efforts for tragedies including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 South Asian tsunami, and the 2010 Haitian earthquake. His work in returning items to families is important for closure; as he puts it: “I’m the one putting the punctuation on the past.”
This is one of those topics that you know is incredibly important, yet when I try to think about how it works, I draw a total blank. And Jensen’s work with victims’ families sounds like such a poignant, meaningful element.
Russia Upside Down: An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War, by Joseph Weisberg (September 28) – The creator of the TV show The Americans is a former CIA officer and spy novelist. I did not know this but I’m intrigued. I find that any commentary around Russia and the nonstop friction with our former Cold War nemesis is illuminating in some way. Weisberg writes that “Russia changed in many of the ways that America hoped it might—more capitalist, more religious, more open to Western ideas. But US sanctions have crippled Russia’s economy; and Russia’s interventions have exacerbated political problems in America.” He interrogates long-held assumptions and America’s own policies. This is such a relevant geopolitical area, as I doubt we’ve seen the end of Russian hacking and election meddling and the US will soon need to address their continuing aggressions with Ukraine. It never ends between we two.
Any of these pique your interest? What upcoming nonfiction are you looking forward to?