I have flashbacks of being assigned a good deal of tedious nonfiction reading back in high school and college. I doubt I retained most of what I read, if I even finished it. And that was back before my smartphone effectively destroyed my attention span. Thankfully, not all nonfiction is the cerebral equivalent of eating dry toast. Narrative nonfiction, for example, reads like a novel, so you get the benefit of learning something new while being entertained. A win-win! Here are some nonfiction picks that will keep you engaged and interested to the end.
Better Living Through Birding, opens a new window by Christian Cooper
Cooper’s lifelong love of birds began in his childhood on Long Island and has endured through his college years at Harvard and beyond. Self-described as a “Black gay activist birder,” Cooper’s experience with birding at home and abroad provided him with both the sharp observation skills needed to navigate his world as well as life lessons on self-acceptance. While birdwatching in Central Park in 2020, Cooper was falsely accused by a white woman of threatening her, the retelling of which Cooper handles with grace without sugarcoating persistent racism and police brutality. Part memoir, travelog, and guidance on the art of birding, Cooper captivates with his fascinating life and love of the natural world.
Poverty, by America, opens a new window by Matthew Desmond
Pulitzer Prize-winning sociologist Desmond contends that poverty persists in the United States because the rest of us benefit from it. Why is it that one of the richest countries on Earth has the most poverty? Desmond shows how wealthy Americans keep poor people poor, both knowingly and unknowingly. Poor consumers are overcharged for financial services and housing, while affluent families enjoy tax breaks, student loans, and other forms of federal aid. Welfare programs are hard to access, and poverty is worsened by residential segregation and the underfunding of education, mass transit, and healthcare. Desmond calls for wealthier Americans to become “poverty abolitionists” who will insist on collective bargaining and work together to create new systems that ensure prosperity is shared.
A Fever in the Heartland, opens a new window by Timothy Egan
In this shocking page-turner, Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning author Egan tells the story of the Ku Klux Klan’s rise to power in the 1920s, driven by a charismatic charlatan whose power ran unchecked until one woman stopped him in his tracks. Starting with Evansville, Indiana, petty criminal David C. Stephenson became the Klan’s Grand Dragon of Indiana in 1923. Stephenson essentially took over the state, controlling the governor, the legislature, and a 30,000-man private police force, while expanding the Klan’s national reach. Despite efforts to stop the Klan, it wasn’t until Stephenson kidnapped and raped a Department of Public Instruction employee, Madge Oberholtzer, that his reign came to a halt. After dosing herself with bichloride of mercury during the assault, Oberholtzer died 29 days later, having dictated a full account of Stephenson’s crimes. Stephenson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, and the Klan’s grip on Midwestern politics was subsequently released.
The Angel Makers by Patti McCracken
Award-winning journalist McCracken’s debut examines one of history’s largest murder rings in the Hungarian town of Nagyrév in the 1920s. The story opens with a discourse on the difficult job of mothers and midwives. One such midwife, known as Auntie Suzy, used her position and access to arsenic as a means of helping poor, overtaxed women handle abusive husbands and sickly children. Starting out as an occasional death, the women became emboldened over decades, resulting in the murders of over 160 men and boys. A series of anonymous notes sent to the authorities in 1929 led to the trial of 16 women, all of whom were convicted of murder by arsenic poisoning.
The Sullivanians, opens a new window by Alexander Stille
In this absorbing account, journalist Stille interviews 60 former members of the Sullivan Institute, a radical polygamous therapy group founded in 1957 by married therapists Saul Newton and Jane Pearce. The institute encouraged commitment-free sexual experimentation, where children were raised communally with loose parental bonding, or they were mistreated at boarding schools. Newton eventually replaced Pearce with a series of polygamist marriages, and became controlling and sexually abusive toward his patients. Somehow, the commune thrived into the 1980s, disbanding in 1991 and leaving an entire generation of commune children to deal with the fallout. Through interviews with ex-members and their children, Stille uncovers how Newton and his wives seduced patients, promoted alcohol abuse and promiscuity, and left many of the children unaware of who their birth parents were.
Anansi's Gold, opens a new window by Yepoka Yeebo
British Ghanaian journalist Yeebo tells the story of John Ackah Blay-Miezah, a con artist who scammed people worldwide into giving him their money. In the 1970s, President Kwame Nkrumah was ousted by a CIA-funded military junta, which also spread the lie that Nkrumah was hiding the country’s gold overseas. Seeing an opportunity, Blay-Miezah stepped in and convinced Ghana’s military ruler, Ignatius Kutu Acheamopong, that Nkrumah had left a secret trust fund to help the Ghanaian people and that he was the one entrusted with disbursing it. Though Blay-Miezah was in prison for fraud, he convinced Acheampong that all he needed was a passport and his freedom. He then convinced investors to help him “rescue” the supposed trust fund from the United Bank of Switzerland, but the investors had to pay to access the fund. Child actor turned diplomat Shirley Temple, as well as former Nixon attorney general John Mitchell, also figures into the vivid narrative, brought to life by Yeebo’s meticulous research.
Adult Summer Reading at Central Rappahannock Regional Library is wrapping up. By August 25, log books read between May 15 and August 15 to earn your limited-edition pen. Visit librarypoint.org/summer, opens a new window for details.
Tracy McPeck is the adult services coordinator at Central Rappahannock Regional Library. This column first appeared in the Free Lance-Star newspaper.