Best Books of the Month: Nonfiction

Jon Foro on February 05, 2019

In February's batch of most excellent true tales: An exploration of the worlds hidden beneath our streets and sidewalks; an investigation into the wrongful arrest of three black teenagers in, and how it shaped a major American city; a blow-by-blow account of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; behind the scenes of an iconic (and hyper-violent) American cinematic classic; and the weird world of liquids.

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Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt

A fascinating look at the life and history—human and otherwise—of the world beneath our feet, Underground explores the strange relationship people have always had with the dark, hidden corners of the earth, simultaneously afraid of potential dangers and entranced by the possibility of unseen wonders. While Underground’s subterranean adventures through tunnels, catacombs, and other claustrophobia-inducing locales are worth the price of admission alone, it’s the voyages into topics that on the surface may appear wide-ranging—such as the biology of caves in South Dakota, the songlines of the Indigenous Australians, and the similarities between ancient dwellings in Turkey and ant nests—that upon closer inspection reveal a surprising degree of interconnectedness and ultimately take the book into uncharted territory. —Matt Fyffe

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Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America by Kyle Swenson

"This story is about more than three lives unjustly stolen; it's also about how a city can finally face down—and fix—its ugly past," says journalist Kyle Swenson about his investigation of three black teenagers arrested and convicted in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1970s for a crime they didn't commit. Good Kids, Bad City probes how these three young men became the victims of the sometimes overboiling racial tensions in Cleveland, and how a city's culture can sabotage justice. Much like Matthew Desmond's Evicted and Anna Clark's The Poisoned City, Swenson's connection to his subjects—the convicted men and their loved ones—is what delivers an emotional jab to the gut. This harrowing slice of urban dwellers' lives will affect readers who reside far beyond Cleveland's city limits. —Adrian Liang

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Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham

A minute-by-minute account of the explosion and meltdown of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four, which you may know as the worst nuclear disaster in the history of unintentional nuclear disasters. In 1986, the USSR was still so buttoned up that little information about the accident leaked beyond its borders, not to mention the human consequences. Higginbotham describes how the influence of the Communist Party facilitated and compounded the catastrophe: The pressure of arbitrary deadlines and quotas was so great that corners were cut (and lied about) at every level, resulting in flawed plans, construction materials, and operating procedures. The cognitive dissonance was so great that the station managers refused to believe the scale of the disaster—even though they were on site themselves, receiving eyewitness reports there was nuclear fuel burning in the open air and irradiated workers were burned and dying. This is dense, terrifying stuff, and absolutely compelling. —Jon Foro

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The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film by W.K.Stratton

Stratton tells the fascinating history of the making of the movie and documents for the first time the extraordinary contribution of Mexican and Mexican-American actors and crew members to the movie's success. Shaped by infamous director Sam Peckinpah, and starring such visionary actors as William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brien, and Robert Ryan, the movie was also the product of an industry and a nation in transition. By 1968, when the movie was filmed, the studio system that had perpetuated the myth of the valiant cowboy in movies like The Searchers had collapsed, and America was riled by Vietnam, race riots, and assassinations. The Wild Bunch spoke to America in its moment, when war and senseless violence seemed to define both domestic and international life. 

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Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives byMark Miodownik

Set over the course of a flight from London to San Francisco, Liquid Rules offers readers a fascinating tour of these formless substances, told through the language of molecules, droplets, heartbeats, and ocean waves. Throughout the trip, we encounter fluids within the plane—from a seemingly ordinary cup of tea to a liquid crystal display screen—and without, in the volcanoes of Iceland, the frozen expanse of Greenland, and the marvelous California coastline. We come to see liquids as substances of wonder and fascination, and to understand their potential for death and destruction.

More of the best nonfiction of February:

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