The best books of the month: nonfiction

Jon Foro on June 21, 2019
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Sure, we announced our picks for the best books of the year so far earlier this week, but we would be remiss if we passed up an opportunity to talk about the best books of June before turning the page to July. I will admit there's some overlap in the nonfiction lists—June has been a very good month for true stories, including: the pursuit and trial of a celebrity killer in 19th century Gotham; a heist gone spectacularly wrong; the real-life Skynet that might be watching you right now; and, in a classic lede-burial, our top pick for 2019 nonfiction... so far.


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The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation by Rich Cohen

Cohen takes readers on an adventure back to the New York underworld of the mid-1800s. Drawing on archival materials and including newspaper accounts of the day, Cohen introduces us to the last man hanged as a pirate in this fair city on Friday the 13th, 1860: a handsome, charismatic thief and killer called Albert Hicks. Hicks roamed ports and dives, working for a time with a sidekick named Tom Stone, “Sundance to Hicks’s Butch,” but by 1860 Hicks was once again working alone. Hicks’s final crime was the brutal murder of three men aboard an oyster sloop; he killed them, stole their money and valuables, then attempted to sink the ship. The ghost ship was discovered with frightening evidence of the bloody crime, and the search for the killer began. Cohen recounts not only this heinous crime, but the life of a man who in a strange way embodied the soul of America at the time, “courageous yet grotesque.” Cohen’s remarkable tale is a fascinating window on an early underworld legend in a city that made a star out of a killer. —Seira Wilson


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Norco '80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History by Peter Houlahan

Lately there's a large amount of nostalgia for the 1970s, but it’s not unreasonable to say that the "Me Decade" was objectively terrible: Gas shortages, Watergate, the Vietnam War, Patty Hearst, Jonestown, Ted Bundy, airplane hijackings, Battle of the Network Stars. But those things are fun to read about! Norco '80 is no Ocean’s 11—it’s the story of a violent bank robbery attempted by a gang of scroungy, heavily armed young men under the command of an apocalyptic guru, a pointless catastrophe featuring multiple fatalities, a downed helicopter, and consequences reaching well into the following decades.


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Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All by Arthur Holland Michel

We're all becoming accustomed to cameras everywhere, from our traffic lights to laptops, TVs, doorbells, and even our stuffed animals. But have you heard of Gorgon Stare? It's the "godlike surveillance system" developed by the Pentagon for overseas nemesis-peeping, able to track thousands of targets at once across city-sized expanses. And when used with AI, it can foresee attacks and save lives. But how will you feel when the same technology is applied domestically? Eyes in the Sky (June 18) shows us that it's already here, applied broadly and in secret, and that the potential ramifications go well beyond accurate traffic reports. With a name like Gorgon, what could go wrong?


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Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Heads-up to your inner Gilgamesh: "The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree." Starting with that sentence, Macfarlane explores not only the physical world beneath our feet—from catacombs to caves to nuclear waste facilities to the land underneath Greenland shrinking ice cap—but also the realm of "deep time," a parallel expanse of past and future almost unimaginable to human intellect, but also irresistible to contemplate. Like this one-of-a-kind book. And we love the jacket by Stanley Donwood, who creates Radiohead album covers in his spare hours. (Note: As our nonfiction top pick for the best books of the year so far, this one should have been at the top of the list. But you'll be seeing it again soon, and maybe often.)


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More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk by John Doe

A few years ago, John Doe—co-leader of the legendary LA band X—gathered friends and musicians for Under the Big Black Sun, a crowd-sourced tale of the origins of punk music in Southern California. He takes the same approach in More Fun in the New World, a second volume (again with co-conspirator Tom DeSavia) that continues the story into the mid-1980s, when punk might have seemed dead, but actually evolved and diversified into any number of sub-genres that subtly influenced (and continue to influence) mainstream culture.


More of the best nonfiction of June:


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