William likes to think of himself as a guy with eclectic tastes, but that mostly means his to-be-read pile grows much faster than his ability to keep pace. He is primarily drawn to non-fiction (world history, the medieval era, and writing about the environment to be particular), but leavens it with a healthy dose of science and general fiction. If you remember only one thing about him, let it be that he can eat an entire frozen pizza in one sitting.
Since at least War of the Worlds, the concept of “first contact” has been well-trod in fiction. Now Ellis, primarily known for her astute and funny film criticism on YouTube, has made her contribution to the genre, and I’m pleased to say it’s a success. Tonally it’s somewhere between E.T. and Arrival, but carves out a space for itself. Ellis performs a good balancing act between an often playful authorial voice, suspense, and exploring philosophical questions - of personhood, group identity, cultural distance, even genocide - that you might expect in a story like this. Setting the book in 2007 rounds out it thematically and offers whiffs of nostalgia, but ultimately is secondary to Ellis’ thoughtful treatment of its core themes, the development of the central relationship, and the satisfying escalation of the story as Ellis doles out revelations.
In 1961, a plane crashed as it carried UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, on a mission to mediate an end to the ongoing Congo Crisis - no one survived. Though official investigations have either come up inconclusive or ruled the crash an accident, there’s good reason to suspect that the plane may have been brought down deliberately (most signs point to Belgian affiliated colonialist forces). Now Ravi Somaiya, displaying his chops as an investigative journalist, has cut through the miasma of aimless conspiracizing to get as close to the truth as we can with all the facts that haven't been lost or buried. In doing so he not only has penned a book that reads something like an espionage thriller, but has offered the casual reader a window into the Cold War in the Congo, where superpowers, European business interests, ruthless expatriate mercenaries, and ambitious local power-players all vied to control the country’s precious resources, at the expense of the Congolese.
The role of "barbarians" as villains in the decline of the Western Roman Empire is all but taken for granted - but what happens if you invert the perspective of that story? On its face, this slim book is a valiant attempt to reconstruct the likeness of a man who has been vilified and forgotten in equal measure for his sack of Rome in 410, but it achieves something greater than that - this is one of the rare books of popular history that can offer insights to newcomers and those already familiar with the era. Boin can only offer us silhouettes of Alaric, but in doing so gives the reader a compelling portrait of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity and the people just beyond its borders. As it teetered and turned inward, Roman elites ever more violently rejected outsiders even as they continued to exploit their labor and their desire to integrate. The fall of Rome has been fodder for bloviating commentators for a millennium, but Boin, who does as well as anyone can with the sparse source material from the era, is never didactic. He doesn’t need to be, because the contemporary parallels are all too apparent.
Though the conclusion to the story that began in Wolf Hall of Thomas Cromwell’s rise and fall might be foregone, as a quick scan of his wikipedia page will tell you, watching the dominos fall is as fascinating as it has ever been. Mantel’s style might not be for everyone, but I found it wonderful, weaving between the complex interior life of Cromwell, the machinations of court politics, and the texture of daily life in a tumultuous era with ease. The dialogue is both clever and natural (while avoiding glaring anachronisms), imbuing her many characters with a sense of authenticity and depth, as if she had animated an antique portrait. In places, especially as the inescapable past begins to catch up with our protagonist, it’s even a little spooky. Frankly I could go on and on about how good this book is, but I’ll sum it up with this: I don’t even really care about the Tudor era or Henry VIII, and I devoured this trilogy - it’s the best historical fiction I’ve ever read.
It’s not often you come across a book that is equal parts riveting and thought-provoking, but to cast this book purely as a page-turner (though it was just that for me) would be to damn it with faint praise: this an utterly fantastic work of narrative history, among the best I’ve ever read. It is a highly readable, meticulously researched, and even-handed reflection on the costs of political violence. I can’t recommend it enough.
In Higginbotham's hands, the Chernobyl disaster reads like a thriller, taking the reader beat by beat through the leadup to the night reactor four exploded, made possible by exhaustively detailed research and dozens of interviews with the people involved. Beyond an account of the disaster itself though, this book is a post-mortem of how powerful, sprawling institutions can sleepwalk into disaster through the sidelining of safety measures and internal accountability in the service of PR, deadlines, and personal advancement. In that respect, it has an unexpected resonance with our current moment.
This book is absolutely loaded with forgotten puzzle pieces of American history, from the astonishing to the absurd - it’s as insightful (and morbidly fascinating) as any non-fiction I’ve ever read. As a history of American imperialism, it strikes a good balance between readability and detail - Immerwahr largely forgoes sanctimony in favor of a matter-of-fact approach, leavened with wry, often morbid humor when it’s fitting.
Hochschild’s account of one of history’s most egregious, murderous frauds is, frankly, a feat of narrative history - it’s exceptionally well-researched, reads like a novel, and lets its unvarnished depiction of colonialism do all the work of indicting it without the need for polemics. It’s also got a lovely new paperback edition, so it’s a great time to pick up a copy.
If you’re alarmed after reading this, good - you should be. This is not a book of easy solutions, but rather, to crib a sentiment from astronaut Edgar Mitchell, a book that makes you want to grab a politician by the scruff of his neck and say “read this you S.O.B.”
A briskly paced, eminently readable introduction to the crusades that is both sweeping in its ambition and granular when it chooses to be. If you're at all interested in the middle ages, you're in safe hands with Jones - he knows how to spin a yarn, but he also has clearly done his research, and it shows in his choice of vivid anecdotes and illustrative profiles of people both great and small. He understands the importance of the crusades not only as a discrete set of conflicts, but as a surprisingly wide-ranging institution with a lasting influence.
Structured like a mystery (that also shows the process by which our understanding of history has evolved), this portrait of Polynesian settlers’ bewildering, ingenious feat isn’t just informative, it’s downright stirring. By the time you finish this book you’ll be hard pressed not to be moved by the heights humans can achieve through collective effort and dedication.
An unorthodox and fascinating blend of true crime and natural history. Through the lens of a heist and its aftermath, Johnson asks serious questions about humanity’s compulsion to possess nature.
This book floored me. Each narrative thread is excellent (and often surprisingly funny) and the way they weave together is masterful. Marra’s commitment to beauty in dismal circumstances is moving, but never saccharine - its intense poignancy is earned.
This book filled me with existential dread! With wit and clarity, Kolbert takes the reader on a tour of the various ways human society is unthinkingly eradicating species on a scale unseen since the end of the dinosaurs. If that sounds hyperbolic to you, try giving this book a read and let the facts speak for themselves.