Deborah Mason

Review by

All hell broke loose when Casey Parks came out to her family. But amid all their weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, there was a bright spark that came to dominate Parks’ personal and professional life for over a decade, which she recounts in Diary of a Misfit (14.5 hours). Parks’ stern, conservative grandmother took her aside and told her a secret: “I grew up across the street from a woman who lived as a man.” Parks’ search for this person sent her back to her childhood homes in Louisiana and Mississippi, and her investigation becomes entwined with her own story of growing up gay in the Deep South.

Parks has been deeply wounded by her family and her church, and as both author and narrator, she tells her story at some remove, as if she’s faithfully recounting it to a friend or therapist while trying not to relive her pain. Ironically, her restraint makes the scars she bears more evident—but it also makes her reconciliation with her past more triumphant.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Diary of a Misfit.

As both author and narrator, Casey Parks’ restraint makes the scars she bears more evident—but it also makes her reconciliation with her past more triumphant.
Review by

Adam Rutherford (A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Humanimal) earned his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. from University College London, including several years studying in the university’s Galton Laboratory. This straightforward sentence hides a deep irony. As readers of his book How to Argue With a Racist know, Rutherford is passionately anti-eugenics—while Francis Galton, for whom the Galton Laboratory is named, was the 19th-century scientist who coined the term eugenics and pioneered its ideology.

Divided into two distinct parts, Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics first outlines the history of eugenics, then lays out the scientific, ethical and moral arguments against it. The history is messy indeed. Galton and his contemporaries were brilliant scientists, statisticians and polymaths—but also white supremacists with repugnant ideas. First hailed as a way to promote positive attributes in humanity, eugenics quickly devolved into a racist movement that used mass sterilization and even murder to remove people with “undesirable” traits such as alcoholism, Down syndrome and schizophrenia from the human gene pool. Eugenics laws in the United States inspired Nazi euthanasia laws, and the Nazi classification of races owes a lot to the American model. Most ironically, the pseudoscience of eugenics gave birth to the actual science of genetics.

Rutherford believes this history is not over. He fears the politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs who use eugenic ideas for their own advancement or profit, and this fear gives the second half of the book its power. Rutherford has faith in science. It is genetics, he argues, that provides the best proof that eugenics has never and will never work. Our genome is too complex and intertwined for scientists to cleanly pluck negative traits from or insert positive traits into our biological makeup.

Eugenics is not science, Rutherford explains, but the corruption of science for the purpose of controlling people who are weak, vulnerable and poor. And it is this very corruption, as Control clearly demonstrates, that makes eugenics’ followers unworthy to determine who is and isn’t worthy of life.

Adam Rutherford builds on his previous works in Control, a powerful book that outlines the history of eugenics and offers impassioned arguments against it.
Review by

From childhood, death neither repulsed nor frightened Hayley Campbell but instead spurred her curiosity. So it was only natural that Campbell, a freelance journalist based in London, would interview people who make a living from death: not just a funeral director and an embalmer but also a crematorium operator, a crime scene cleaner, an executioner and more.

In All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work (9 hours), author and narrator Campbell is a probing investigator who elicits honest answers from her subjects. She is also an active observer of their work, even dressing a dead man for his funeral. With each interview, it’s clear she is affected by the presence of death, particularly after witnessing the preparation of a baby’s body for a forensic autopsy. 

Campbell’s voice becomes more introspective as she considers how the actions of death workers enable the living to meet death on their own terms. Though ironic at times, she is never ghoulish. Instead, her tone is always even, quietly emphasizing that death is the most natural thing in the world.

Read our starred review of the print edition of All the Living and the Dead.

As author and narrator, Hayley Campbell’s tone is always even, quietly emphasizing that death is the most natural thing in the world.
Review by

World War II is remembered as a conflict between democratic and fascist countries. But during the 1940s, nearly 10% of the residents of the world’s largest democracy were considered second-class citizens because of their race. Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad by Matthew F. Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, chronicles how Black Americans had to fight for the right to combat racism abroad because of the racism at home.

The irony of this was not lost on African Americans, who were acutely aware of how segregation kept them from full citizenship. Adopting a “Double Victory” strategy, Black Americans treated the war as a means of defeating foreign fascism and domestic racism. Half American recounts the history of this struggle, from Langston Hughes’ newspaper coverage of the Spanish Civil War to the mistreatment—even murder—of returning African American veterans. Furthermore, Delmont demonstrates that this story is not frozen in the past but is key to understanding—and changing—our present.

This book would have been a significant contribution to our knowledge of World War II history even if Delmont had only focused on the performance of African American combat troops. The Tuskegee Airmen are famous, but fewer people are aware of the Black Panthers, a Black tank battalion that served in Italy, or the Montford Point Marines, who were the first African American marines and fought valiantly at the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima. But Half American is more than an excellent introduction to this underappreciated chapter of military history. It is also a groundbreaking illumination of African American civilians’ complex involvement in World War II.

In addition to official records, Delmont used archives, oral histories and contemporary coverage from the Black press to document his work. As a result, Half American gives voice not only to prominent African American leaders such as Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall, but also to Black soldiers, factory workers and other everyday people who contributed to the war effort—people who are rarely mentioned in history books, even though they created history.

During World War II, Black Americans had to fight for the right to combat racism abroad because of the racism at home. In Half American, Matthew F. Delmont chronicles that fight.
Review by

In This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch: The Joy of Loving Something—Anything—Like Your Life Depends on It (6.5 hours), Australian journalist Tabitha Carvan offers an exuberant celebration of obsessions. Through her candid exploration of her own fascination with Benedict Cumberbatch, star of “Sherlock,” The Imitation Game and Doctor Strange, Carvan makes the case that women shouldn’t hide or diminish what brings them pleasure—rather, they should embrace it.

Tabitha Carvan
Read our interview with Tabitha Carvan: “When something brings people so much joy, why can’t we just let it?”

Carvan is a witty and ironic writer, and voice actor Tanya Schneider does an excellent job conveying the author’s humorous perspective. Why is it acceptable for a man to plaster his office with paraphernalia for his favorite sports team, but a woman can’t wear her Benedict Cumberbatch hoodie outside her house without embarrassment? Amid the humor, Carvan still takes her subject seriously, and Schneider not only captures Carvan’s perplexity as to why female obsessions remain hidden but also convincingly articulates Carvan’s argument that women need to share their passions publicly. We need to embrace the joy and strength that our passions bring us, Carvan insists.

Both funny and profound, this is a deeply enjoyable audiobook.

Voice actor Tanya Schneider convincingly articulates Tabitha Carvan's argument that women need to share their passions publicly. Both funny and profound, this is a deeply enjoyable audiobook.
Review by

Reading One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank is like watching an artist piece together a mosaic. A splash of blue sea here. A mother’s song over there. The smell of Purim pastries. The flash of first love. But the mosaic is never completed. Instead, a terrible wind descends, leaving the artist to pick up the pieces as best she can and begin a new image.

Here, the artist is Stella Levi, a 99-year-old Jewish woman living in New York City. The mosaic is the Juderia, the main Jewish quarter on the island of Rhodes, where Levi was born in 1923. And the wind is the Holocaust, which reached the Juderia in the last months of World War II and scattered Levi’s parents, family, friends and community. One Hundred Saturdays is the story of that time and place, but it is also much more: a story of friendship, survival, reinvention and courage.

Frank, author of The Mighty Franks and What Is Missing and a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, met Levi by chance—or perhaps serendipity—when he rushed in late to attend a lecture, and the elegant older woman in the chair next to him struck up a conversation. The following Saturday, he found himself in Levi’s Greenwich Village apartment, the first of 100 Saturdays that he would spend with her over the following six years. Over the course of those visits, Levi became both a friend and muse as she recounted the minutest details of her life, from its rich beginning to its remarkable present.

Maira Kalman’s illustrations, heavily influenced by Matisse with their deceptive simplicity, rich colors and delicate textures, are perfect complements to Levi’s story, portraying vanished scenes from life on Rhodes before the Holocaust. Together with the text of Frank’s beautiful book, they create a sensitive portrait of an extraordinary woman. Fiercely independent, keenly intelligent and remorselessly honest, Levi refuses to be defined solely by the tragedy of her youth. Her life has been a constant evolution, and her final years are being lived with the same vitality as her earliest ones.

One Hundred Saturdays is the story of a Jewish community before the Holocaust, but it is also much more: a story of friendship, survival, reinvention and courage.
Feature by

True-crime books are frequently framed as guilty pleasures. Often sensational or even lurid, they feed our inner rubberneckers. But in the hands of a tenacious reporter, true crime can also expose devastating truths about human nature.

 We Carry Their Bones

Book jacket for We Carry Their Bones by Erin Kimmerle

We Carry Their Bones is Erin Kimmerle’s firsthand account of the discovery, exhumation and identification of 51 bodies buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Truthfully, it is obscene to call Dozier a school. The inspiration for Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, Dozier was a prison where boys and young men were exploited, abused and often left to die from their injuries, beginning in 1900 and lasting until its closure in 2011. Kimmerle, a professor of forensic anthropology, led the team of volunteers and students who combed through layers of obstinate Florida clay to find and reclaim these lost boys, despite fierce opposition from townspeople and politicians.

Kimmerle’s commitment to finding the truth was grounded in her identity as a scientist. She didn’t fit facts to a predetermined answer but allowed the facts to lead her. Her dedication to clarity is reflected in her writing style as well. Without ever losing the thread of her story, Kimmerle outlines precisely, patiently and clearly each step of her task—including dealing with court appearances, bureaucratic battles and hostile town officials, as well as the myriad engineering and scientific difficulties she faced.

But We Carry Their Bones is not just a procedural: Kimmerle’s account of how her investigation unfolded also illuminates why it was so important. Unearthing these boys’ bodies likewise unearthed Dozier’s history, forcing onlookers everywhere to confront the racism and classism that sanctioned the crimes Dozier employees committed against so many young people. And most of all, restoring the boys’ names and returning their remains to their families brought both healing to the survivors and a measure of justice to the dead, demonstrating that something like peace is possible if amends are sincerely made.

 Trailed

Book jacket for Trailed by Kathryn Miles

In 1996, Julianne Williams and Laura Winans, two young women deeply in love, were murdered while backpacking in Shenandoah National Park. Kathryn Miles, a journalist and science writer, learned about their murder several years later while teaching at Unity College, where Laura had been a popular student. An enthusiastic backpacker herself, Miles was fascinated by the case and set out to write an article about the double murder. Instead, she ended up writing her fifth book, Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders.

Reading Trailed is like taking an interesting and often treacherous hike with a friend who is not afraid to explore the side trails. The main trail in the book is, of course, the story of Julianne and Laura, their deaths and the investigation that followed. But as Miles became more immersed in their story, she discovered other trails that looped back to Julianne and Laura: similar murders in and around the National Park System, especially of young women, members of LGBTQ communities and people of color; the lack of law enforcement resources allocated to park rangers; the many flaws in the initial investigation of Julianne’s and Laura’s murders that eventually led to the prosecution and persecution of a man who was probably innocent; and the community of cold case investigators and exoneration attorneys who helped Miles hunt for the real killer.

Like Kimmerle, Miles uses a true-crime story to shed light on society’s ills. Miles believes that Laura and Julianne weren’t murder victims who happened to be lesbians; they were murder victims because they were lesbians. Similarly, the flawed investigation shows the disastrous impact that confirmation bias can have on an innocent man—while letting the guilty man remain free. Meticulously honest and lyrically written, Trailed is an elegy to two young women and an indictment of the system that failed them.

 Rogues

Book jacket for Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe

In Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks, a collection of 12 articles previously published in The New Yorker, author and journalist Patrick Radden Keefe undertakes a different kind of sleuthing. There is no single crime that unites these pieces; for that matter, not every piece concerns a crime. The article on Anthony Bourdain, for example, is remarkably crime-free, if you discount his use of illegal drugs. Instead, Keefe focuses on “rogues”—not the jolly scallywags that the word often evokes but rebels, outliers, rule-breakers and operators who recognize no boundaries between themselves and the objects of their obsessions.

Keefe introduces readers to a notable rogues’ gallery, including a woman who must spend her life in hiding after informing on her mobster brother, an assistant professor who went on a shooting spree after being denied tenure, an IT guy in a Swiss bank who spilled the beans on hundreds of tax evaders and a lawyer who defends only death penalty cases. “Buried Secrets,” which details the struggle between an honest Guinean president and an unscrupulous Israeli diamond merchant over the world’s richest iron ore deposit, could easily have come straight out of a John le Carré novel. “The Avenger,” on the other hand, is a heartbreaking account of a man’s search for his brother’s murderer, the Lockerbie bomber.

Keefe has written several lengthy investigative books, including Empire of Pain, the comprehensive story of the Sackler family’s complicity in the opioid crisis. By contrast, he is working within the confines of 10,000-word articles in Rogues, so there is little room for self-reflection or digression. Instead, he makes full use of journalistic tools for fact-finding: keen observation, meticulous research and insightful interviews with the rogues, their associates and their victims. As a result, each essay is a taut, highly honed yet powerful reflection on the creative and corrosive effects of obsession.

Read more: Patrick Radden Keefe narrates the audiobook for ‘Rogues.’

Scientists and journalists are on the case in three noteworthy books about unsolved murders and other long-buried secrets.
Review by

The dystopia envisioned in singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe’s third album, Dirty Computer, provides the backdrop for her first story collection, The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer (12 hours).

New Dawn, a totalitarian regime that rules through surveillance and memory erasure, has deemed that only the “clean” are worthy. Others—particularly members of the LGBTQ community, people of color and their allies—are labeled “dirty computers” and must be reprogrammed or destroyed. The five stories of The Memory Librarian, each written in collaboration with a distinguished speculative fiction author (Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado and Sheree Renée Thomas), describe the fear of living under such a regime as well as the joy and courage that can be found in a community of resistance.

Monáe’s narration of the preface and first story is elegant and measured. Her reading of “The Memory Librarian” is particularly taut, reflecting the balancing act that the librarian Seshet must perform between her duties under New Dawn and the hidden memories and desires of her inner life. Voice actor Bahni Turpin’s performance of the remaining four tales is electrifying, particularly in the finale, “Time Box Altar(ed),” in which three children learn to dream of a better future, and then fight for it.

Elegantly narrated by author Janelle Monáe and voice actor Bahni Turpin, The Memory Librarian explores the joy and courage that can be found in a community of resistance.
Review by

There are times when only a gothic novel will do, and such times call for Gallant (7.5 hours) by V. E. Schwab, author of the Shades of Magic series. Everything you could possibly want is present in Schwab’s latest standalone: a mysterious manuscript, a haunted house (the titular Gallant) and an unlikely heroine in the form of Olivia Prior, the orphan who unravels Gallant’s secrets.

Actor Julian Rhind-Tutt delivers an outstanding performance as the audiobook narrator. As a veteran film and voice actor, he brings nuance and sensitivity to his reading, with a low, husky voice that makes listening to Gallant a unique pleasure. Rhind-Tutt sounds like he’s sitting with you in a darkened room, confiding a secret so profound that only you, his listener, can be trusted with it.

Read our review of the print edition of Gallant.

The low, husky voice of actor Julian Rhind-Tutt makes listening to V. E. Schwab’s Gallant a unique pleasure.
Review by

If you enjoy hiking up and down remote mountains while laden with excessive outdoor gear, then The Hiking Book From Hell is probably not the travelogue you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you enjoy strolling through your city, hanging out in pubs or chatting with strangers, then author Are Kalvø is your man. Kalvø, one of Norway’s most popular satirists, is a cheerful urbanite with little to no interest in nature. In his mid-40s, however, he realized that many of his friends were joining the swelling ranks of people who subject themselves to deprivation and possibly even death in pursuit of an “authentic” experience with nature. This insight brought Kalvø face to face with life’s most profound question: Is it them, or is it me?

Kalvø also had serious questions about Norwegians’ mania for nature. As a committed extrovert, he found their quest for isolation and silence disturbing. Also, nature worship can be exclusionary; the high cost of equipment and clothing ensures that nature is reserved for the well-off, while proposals to make the outdoors more accessible to disabled people are vigorously opposed. And if people went into nature to lose themselves in a transcendent experience, then why were there so many nature selfies on Instagram?

Accompanied by his wife, the “Head of Documentation,” Kalvø went on two nature treks to see what all the fuss was about—but he never really found out. Climbing steep, fog-bound mountains in the rain is as much fun as you would expect. Skiing for miles can be pretty boring. And, as he discovered, there’s something about being one with nature that changes ordinary people into boastful, unbearably smug liars who tell you with a straight face that a hike is “lovely” when they really mean “likely to kill you.”

But Kalvø tells his story with such deft humor and affectionate irony, wonderfully conveyed by Lucy Moffatt’s translation, that all you can do is laugh at his misadventures—and be grateful that you’re reading The Hiking Book From Hell in the comfort of your home.

Are Kalvø, an urbanite with no interest in nature, tells of venturing into the outdoors with such deft humor that all you can do is laugh at his misadventures.
Feature by

As we age, most of us will experience a debilitating or life-threatening illness at some point. Two nonfiction books take an unflinching look at this reality while painting a compassionate picture of how we and our health care providers could approach illness and death with more empathy, honesty and courage.

Healing

Cover of Healing by Theresa Brown

Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient is Theresa Brown’s searingly honest and deeply personal account of her experiences as a breast cancer patient. Brown, a registered nurse with a Ph.D. in English literature, has written and lectured extensively about the American health care system. As a former oncology and hospice nurse, Brown knew that patients often got a raw deal, but only after her own diagnosis did she realize how needlessly cruel that deal could be.

Brown has profound gratitude for her family, friends and medical team, who all supported her as she recovered, but she is also angry. She faced a host of necessary evils during her treatment, including invasive diagnostic procedures, painful surgeries and debilitating side effects from chemotherapy. But in a series of devastating vignettes, Brown also details the many unnecessary evils she endured in a system that favors profit over the needs of the patient: Diagnoses were delayed, questions left unanswered, test results undelivered. She was even forced to negotiate byzantine regulations on her own because her health care providers were stretched too thin to ensure that these basic duties were fulfilled effectively or graciously. Even though Brown was a seasoned health professional with extensive knowledge and professional contacts, she had to fight to be treated humanely. One can only imagine the obstacles less experienced patients must face every day.

Healing is both a moving memoir and a clarion call to action. When health care becomes a profit-making industry, dominated by hedge funds and corporate interests, we all lose. Instead, Brown argues, we must return to a system where meeting the patient’s needs—physical, emotional and social—is the priority.

The Day I Die

Cover of The Day I Die by Anita Hannig

In The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America, anthropologist Anita Hannig takes a different but no less passionate approach to her examination of death and dying in America. After becoming interested in how Oregon’s assisted dying law worked, Hannig embedded herself in a volunteer group that helps terminally ill patients take advantage of the law. She soon realized that the law, with its many hoops and barriers, could be like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s girl with the curl on her forehead. When it works, the law is very good. Hannig’s case studies of patients who have enough luck and resources to meet the demands of the statute demonstrate that assisted death can be, paradoxically, life-affirming. Autonomy can be restored to patients who have long been at the mercy of their diseases, and knowing when one will die can be an opportunity for reconciliation, reunion and gratitude.

But when things go bad, the law can be horrid. It is reasonable to have strict conditions surrounding assisted dying to ensure that the decision to end one’s life is freely made. But those conditions can have devastating effects upon patients who desperately want to die but cannot meet the requirements. Patients with ALS, for example, might lose their ability to communicate their assent before the deadline. Advanced Alzheimer’s patients are categorically denied access to assisted dying because they have lost the ability to fully understand their decision. Hannig rigorously details these and other situations in which people’s physical or mental deterioration, lack of resources or sheer bad luck result in a painfully prolonged life and terrifying death.

In her introduction, Hannig acknowledges the anthropologist’s dilemma: The act of observation is an imperfect tool for research, since it can change both the observer and the observed. However, it can also change the reader, since it is impossible to read Hannig’s book without being moved. Regardless of your stance on assisted dying, The Day I Die will make you reconsider how dying could and should be.

The personal stories in these nonfiction books set a more humane benchmark for patients and providers.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!