Truth can be stranger than fiction, and, in the hands of a skilled writer, can be infinitely fascinating. There is no end to the possibilities that reading nonfiction presents, running the gamut from well-crafted memoirs to true crime and history, personal development, popular science, and beyond. Here are some recent works of nonfiction guaranteed to entertain and enlighten you—and sometimes shock you or even make you laugh.
The Body by Bill Bryson
This is no dry medical text. Instead, it’s a vibrant, readable “tour” of the human body from head to toe. Bryson, with his signature wit, guides us through how our body functions, how it can remarkably heal itself, and (sadly) how it can sometimes fail. Plus, you’ll come away with fascinating factoids you can whip out at your next dinner party. Example: if you unraveled and laid out all the DNA in your body from end to end, it would stretch ten billion miles, reaching beyond Pluto’s orbit (mind blown).
The Appalachian Trail by Philip D’Anieri
Though it was the aforementioned Bryson who was famous for his Appalachian Trail memoir, A Walk in the Woods, D’Anieri’s debut narrative presents a fresh take drawn from his urban and regional planning background and his passion for telling the trail’s history through the lives of those who shaped it. The trail’s long-overlooked history is revealed, from the lobby for federal funding and its rerouting to accommodate scenic parkways along ridgetops to its neglect during and after World War II. D’Anieri introduces the Swiss scientist who made “Appalachian” a common term, National Park Service staff, and early park advocates. He closes by exploring solutions for ecological damage caused by the trail, as well as efforts to address the lack of diversity among trail users.
The Good Girls by Sonia Faleiro
Teenage friends Padma and Lalli, growing up in a crowded village in western Uttar Pradesh, were so inseparable that everyone called them both “Padma Lalli.” Then, in summer 2014, the girls went missing and were found hours later hanging in the mango orchard during peak season. The ensuing investigation caused their small community to implode, sparking a national conversation about sex and violence, politics, caste systems, and codes of honor in this small village in northern India.
Flight of the Diamond Smugglers by Matthew Gavin Frank
This fascinating investigation into the role of carrier pigeons in South African diamond smuggling is a suspenseful tale of narrative reporting. Before the overmined towns along South Africa’s Diamond Coast are abandoned, journalist Frank drives from Oranjemund, Namibia, to several De Beers mining towns. Frank quickly becomes obsessed with the various methods used in illegal diamond smuggling, especially the sneaking of carrier pigeons onto mine property, affixing diamonds to them, and sending them into the air to fly home. The endangered lives of local diamond diggers are contrasted with the corporate boardrooms of De Beers as Frank interviews those involved in the diamond trade, getting ever closer to the mythical Mr. Lester, a tall-tale villain meant to deter would-be smugglers and the only one who can answer Frank’s questions, if he is, in fact, real.
Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
New York Times-bestselling author and journalist Keefe delves into the history of the Sackler family, one of the richest in the world and known for its generous donations to art and science. Then it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing the painkillers behind today’s rampant opioid crisis. Keefe starts the generations-long saga with the three Sackler brothers, doctors who weathered the Great Depression and terrible anti-Semitism, whose research into drug treatments launched a growing fortune that allowed the Sackler name to be attached to philanthropic causes worldwide. Keefe’s deeply researched exposé uncovers the Sackler family’s disregard for anything except for amassing more privilege, power, influence, and wealth.
Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law by Mary Roach
I loved Mary Roach’s columns when she wrote for Reader’s Digest, and her science writing never fails to please with her combination of research, first-hand experience, and witty style. In her newest book, Roach delves into human-wildlife conflict, talking with animal-attack forensics investigators and other specialists and exploring the complicated relationships between wildlife and humans worldwide. Immersing herself in her own wildlife encounter experiences, such as harassment by monkeys and traveling to India to examine high death rates by elephants, Roach engages and entertains the reader throughout.
The Babysitter by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan
True crime fans will be fascinated by this part memoir, part crime investigation. On Cape Cod in the 1960s, Liza Rodman lived with her mother, who worked summer days in a local motel and danced most nights in Provincetown bars. Liza’s babysitter, a good-looking handyman from the motel where her mother worked, would take Liza and her sister on adventures, such as visiting his “secret garden” in the woods. Liza saw Tony Costa as one of the few compassionate adults in her life. She was completely unaware her babysitter was a serial killer, even when the case made headlines in 1969. Not until decades later did Liza make the connection between her kind babysitter and the infamous killer of numerous women. After becoming obsessed with the case, Rodman and co-writer Jordan reveal the unfathomable story of a charismatic, but deadly psychopath through the eyes of young Liza, who once called him friend.
Book lovers, unite! Central Rappahannock Regional Library has a plethora of virtual and in-person book groups to help you connect with fellow readers and explore great reads. Visit https://www.librarypoint.org/book-groups/.
Tracy McPeck is the adult services coordinator at Central Rappahannock Regional Library. This column first appeared in the Free Lance-Star newspaper.