An Immense World is an accessible, illuminating and exciting reading experience. Yes, nonfiction about the science of animal senses can be page-turning!
An Immense World is an accessible, illuminating and exciting reading experience. Yes, nonfiction about the science of animal senses can be page-turning!

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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.


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.


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.

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

Readers may be most familiar with Ed Yong from his Pulitzer Prize-winning science writing for The Atlantic. His first book, the New York Times bestselling I Contain Multitudes, explored the world of microbes. In his new work of nonfiction, An Immense World, Yong tackles the realm of animal senses, taking readers on a fascinating journey backed up by impressive research.

Yong's scope is far-reaching, and the issues and scientific concepts involved are sometimes complex. But much like a skilled mountain guide, he takes the time to prepare readers for what lies ahead. In the introduction, Yong not only identifies basic terms (such as stimuli, sense organs and sensory systems) but also provides guideposts for the journey ahead, challenging readers to use their imaginations in order to overcome the blind spots humans inevitably have when trying to understand sensory systems immensely different from our own. As Yong writes, “Our intuitions will be our biggest liabilities, and our imaginations will be our greatest assets.”

Subsequent chapters do indeed engage the imagination. Yong's book is organized by different senses, some which are familiar—such as smell, taste and sound—and others much less familiar. In a chapter titled “The Rippling Ground: Surface Vibrations,” we learn about scientist Karen Warkentin's groundbreaking discovery that embryonic tadpoles can hatch early if they sense a snake attack. Other such fascinating anecdotes abound throughout this book, and it's safe to say readers will have a hard time not sharing newfound knowledge in daily conversation. For example, did you know that Philippine tarsiers emit sounds with frequencies above the ultrasonic boundary, or that 250 species of fish can produce their own electricity?

Yong brings to this project a supreme mastery of science writing for the general reader, so don't be intimidated by the nearly 50-page bibliography. An Immense World is an accessible, illuminating and endlessly exciting reading experience. Yes, nonfiction about science can be page-turning!

While this title is perfect for adult nature lovers, the accessibility of Yong's approach also makes this a wonderful gift for high school or college students interested in science. For at its heart, this treasure of a book is a sober reminder of what's at stake in the 21st century—and today's students will be tomorrow's researchers and citizen scientists. “A better understanding of the senses can show us how we're defiling the natural world,” Yong writes in his closing chapter. “It can also point to ways of saving it.”

An Immense World is an accessible, illuminating and exciting reading experience. Yes, nonfiction about the science of animal senses can be page-turning!

Following a breakup with his fiancée, “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent Conor Knighton sought distraction in travel. He spent a year touring the nation’s 63 national parks, and in Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park, he provides a funny, fascinating account of his trip. Knighton, who started his trek at Acadia National Park in Maine, shares hilarious anecdotes from the road and provides insights into the history of the park system. Reading groups will enjoy digging into themes of nature, conservation and the allure of travel.

In The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America, Elizabeth Letts chronicles the extraordinary travels of Annie Wilkins. In 1954, Wilkins learned that she had only a few years to live. Determined to see the Pacific Ocean, a lifelong dream of hers, the 63-year-old set out on her horse, Tarzan, riding from Maine to California and attracting national attention along the way. Letts brings Wilkins’ adventures to vivid life in this unforgettable book.

Mark Adams’ Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier is a spirited tribute to one of America’s most idiosyncratic states. Inspired by Edward H. Harriman’s famous 1899 exploration of the Alaskan coastline, Adams (Turn Right at Machu Picchu) traveled the same route as Harriman and his crew. He documents the ways in which Alaska has changed in the intervening years and crosses paths with an array of colorful characters, providing astute observations about environmentalism, Alaskan history and the oil industry in the process.

Kate Harris was a Rhodes scholar studying at Oxford and MIT when she set out to travel the Silk Road by bike, an excursion she recounts in Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Harris, who had long dreamed of exploration, was accompanied by her best friend, Mel. Together, they cycled their way into Turkey, India, Nepal and China, traveling for nearly a year. Harris mixes history, geography, travel writing and personal reflection to create a richly detailed narrative that’s a testament to the transformative power of travel.

These true stories of national park-hopping and continent-traversing will inspire reading groups.

Like much of human life, love can be messy. Add in the complications of conducting a very long-distance, mostly digital love affair, and you get a dubious recipe for happily ever after.

Jamaican American Sutanya Dacres was leading a rather humdrum, unsatisfactory life in New York City. Then one night she met a sexy Jewish Algerian Frenchman in a bar. There was instant attraction—but she lived in the Big Apple, he resided in the City of Light, and cultural and racial differences (she's Black, he's white) lay in the shadows. Despite these challenges, they sustained a three-year digital courtship until they decided to marry and make a life à deux in Paris. “It was us against the world,” Dacres writes, “and we would move through life's ups and downs with ease and grace, together.”

In Dinner for One: How Cooking in Paris Saved Me, podcaster Dacres recounts how this fairy-tale romance went sour. Two years into the marriage, the Frenchman left. Now a heartbroken expat—alone, divorced and navigating the complications of being a single Black woman in Paris—Dacres tried to allay her fears, confusion and despair with too much wine and loveless encounters with men. But when “the deep shame that had been bubbling beneath the surface finally erupted,” she writes, “it was clear that I could no longer hide from myself.”

Dacres recounts with self-deprecating, often brutal honesty her journey to understand and connect with her true self. Like a play, Dinner for One is structured with a prologue and successive acts, ending with Dacres' gradual and passionate awakening to the very French art of cultivating pleasure, self-worth and an appreciation for well-conceived, delicious food. When Dacres began to cook for herself in her Montmartre apartment, she formed a healing relationship with food as a means of self-care and growth—a hard-won redemption via the myriad joys of French culture.

Often humorous and uplifting, Dacres' writing is also a bit uneven in parts, sometimes due to superfluous details or unnecessary dialogue. But her true writer's talent shines when she relates her forays into the world of French cookery. Overall, Dinner for One is hopeful, salubrious and, like a meal served with love, a balm for the spirit.

Sutanya Dacres’ memoir about recovering from heartbreak in Paris is hopeful, salubrious and, like a meal served with love, a balm for the spirit.

Families separate for many reasons, but when war rips them apart, their longing for one another can be especially acute. Sometimes family members completely lose contact with each other, never knowing if the other is living or dead. In her riveting Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Zhuqing Li narrates the dual biographies of her aunts, who were separated by the Chinese Civil War.

At the center of Li's story is the Flower Fragrant Garden, the idyllic setting where sisters Jun and Hong grew up in relative security in the early 20th century. Li writes that the compound was “one of Fuzhou's biggest and richest homes. . . . The main building was a grand, two-story red-brick Western-style house rising from the lush greenery of the rolling grounds. A winding path dipped under the canopy of green, linking smaller buildings like beads on a necklace.”

In 1937, during Japan's war with China, the sisters were forced into exile and left their garden behind. Then, in the political turmoil that followed the war with Japan, Jun and Hong followed different paths, separated by the Nationalist-Communist divide that erupted after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. Jun moved to the Nationalist stronghold of Taiwan, where she became a successful teacher and later a businesswoman whose acumen brought her to America. Hong became a prominent physician on China's mainland, “famous as a pioneer in bringing medical care to China's remote countryside, and later the Ôgrandma of IVF babies,' in vitro fertilization, in Fujian Province.”

Hong left her family behind completely as she embraced her life in the new People's Republic of China, but Jun longed to reunite with her sister. In 1982, the two met again for the first time in 33 years, and through their conversations, Jun began to understand the reasons Hong had to pledge her unwavering support to the Communist party in order to survive. After that, the two sisters never met again. Jun died at 92 in 2014 in her home in Maryland, and in 2020, where the book ends, Hong was still seeing patients in China at the age of 95.

In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Li eloquently tells a moving story of her aunts and their resilience throughout one of China's most fraught centuries.

Zhuqing Li tells the moving story of her aunts, separated by the Chinese Civil War, and their resilience throughout one of China’s most fraught centuries.

Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation (14 hours) takes listeners through Hannah Gadsby's life up to the release of “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette,” her groundbreaking 2018 Netflix special, in which she declared her intentions to quit comedy while offering a razor-sharp commentary on the industry's dark side. 

As an autistic lesbian arts historian whose best friends growing up were her elderly neighbors in Tasmania, Gadsby has a unique perspective to share. From barely making it through school to mingling with Jennifer Aniston at Hollywood parties, she's had quite the journey. Gadsby is a marvelous storyteller, and as a narrator she guides us through the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious story of her life with good humor and a dry wit. Her impressions of her Mum are very funny and give us a real sense of the woman's charmingly brusque personality. 

Four years after “Nanette,” Gadsby continues to bring eye-opening insight to the art of storytelling.

Hannah Gadsby is a marvelous storyteller, and as the narrator of her memoir's audiobook, she guides us through heartbreaking and hilarious moments with good humor and a dry wit.

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Meredith Maran had been married to the woman of her dreams, living in a gentrifying Oakland, California, neighborhood and making a decent living as an author (of more than a dozen books) and freelance writer. But when her marriage slowly turned toxic and she suffered other personal and financial setbacks, Maran opted for the mother of all do-overs—moving to Los Angeles and taking a job at a clothing company where, at age 60, she became both employee and honorary mom to her younger co-workers. The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention offers a bracing look at the joys and challenges of starting over as an older woman.

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