Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Discussion: Nonfiction Book Recommendations

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Are you a seasoned nonfiction lover who's running out of books to read? Or, are you new to nonfiction and worried that all nonfiction reads like a college textbook? Either way, I can help. Today, I'm recommending 9 stunning nonfiction books. These books are engaging and quick to read. I promise they won't bring back bad memories of all-night study sessions. The books on this list are so fascinating that you won't even realize you're learning.

🖉  Nonfiction Book Recommendations  📚

The Lost City Of Z: A Tale Of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon by David Grann

Biography / Adventure / History

What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett and his quest for the Lost City of Z?

In 1925, Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world's largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humans. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions inspired Conan Doyle's The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions round the globe, Fawcett embarked with his 21-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization (which he dubbed Z) existed. Then his expedition vanished. Fawcett's fate, and the tantalizing clues he left behind about Z, became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness.

Why I love it: Mostly, this book taught me to stay out of the Amazon. There are too many bugs! Everything is gross and deadly. I'm too fluffy for that nonsense. Percy Fawcett was an intense dude with controversial ideas about ancient Amazon civilizations. Like many old-time explorers, he was exceedingly selfish. He just left his wife and kids and went gallivanting around the wilderness for years at a time without the ability to contact them. I wouldn't let my husband get away with that. Percy's disappearance is a compelling mystery that kept me flying through the pages. I couldn't put this book down, even though I knew the mystery wouldn't be solved. I appreciate the end of the book where the author talks about how our understanding of the Amazon has changed. When Percy Fawcett was exploring, many people thought his ideas about lost Amazon cities were ridiculous. Nowadays, we're not so sure. Maybe Percy was on to something . . . . (I'd search for El Dorado myself, but, you know, there's all that gross and deadly stuff. Maybe it's best to let the city be lost.)

Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Anthropology / History / Sociology

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.

How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?

Why I love it: If you took everything that interests me about human behavior and crammed it into one book, you’d come up with this one. It’s fascinating! It delivers exactly what it promises in the title. It starts by talking about six different species of human-like creatures and then follows Homo Sapiens through the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the scientific revolution. It’s provocative and thought-provoking. I didn’t always agree with the author’s conclusions (especially about the agricultural revolution), but he argues his points well enough that I can see where he’s coming from. I’m surprised at how quickly I got through this book. It’s massive and more academic than what I usually read, but the writing style is engaging, and the author asks interesting questions. I love that the book focuses on humanity as a whole and not on individual humans. I need to find more history books like this one. Recommendations, please.


Sociology / Technology

In an era of increasing social isolation, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are among the most important tools we have to understand each other. We use social media as a mirror to decipher our place in society but, as Chris Bail explains, it functions more like a prism that distorts our identities, empowers status-seeking extremists, and renders moderates all but invisible. Breaking the Social Media Prism challenges common myths about echo chambers, foreign misinformation campaigns, and radicalizing algorithms, revealing that the solution to political tribalism lies deep inside ourselves.

Drawing on innovative online experiments and in-depth interviews with social media users from across the political spectrum, this book explains why stepping outside of our echo chambers can make us more polarized, not less. Bail takes you inside the minds of online extremists through vivid narratives that trace their lives on the platforms and off, detailing how they dominate public discourse at the expense of the moderate majority. Wherever you stand on the spectrum of user behavior and political opinion, he offers fresh solutions to counter political tribalism from the bottom up and the top down. He introduces new apps and bots to help readers avoid misperceptions and engage in better conversations with the other side. Finally, he explores what the virtual public square might look like if we could hit reset and redesign social media from scratch through a first-of-its-kind experiment on a new social media platform built for scientific research.

Why I love it: It's hard to review this book because it was a weirdly personal reading experience for me. I can't explain my thoughts without telling my whole life story, which exactly 0 people want to hear because it's mind-numbingly boring. Basically, I found this book comforting. It confirmed some of my suspicions and helped me realize that I'm not going insane. (It's always a good day when you realize you're not going insane.) A team of researchers discovered that Americans aren't actually as politically polarized as we believe. Our political conversations have just been hijacked by extremists who attack moderates and discourage them from participating in political discussions. Americans think we're polarized because moderates aren't talking. We only see the incessant yammering of extremists. The author isn't optimistic that our current social media platforms can fix the problem, but he has ideas for new platforms that will encourage moderates without rewarding trolls and extremists. I hope he gets funding to test his ideas. If you're interested in how social media shapes our perceptions, you need to read this book. It's thoughtful and well-researched.

Buy it on Amazon

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Biography / History

Two thousand years ago, an itinerant Jewish preacher and miracle worker walked across the Galilee, gathering followers to establish what he called the “Kingdom of God.” The revolutionary movement he launched was so threatening to the established order that he was captured, tortured, and executed as a state criminal.
Within decades after his shameful death, his followers would call him God.
Sifting through centuries of mythmaking, Reza Aslan sheds new light on one of history’s most influential and enigmatic characters by examining Jesus through the lens of the tumultuous era in which he lived: first-century Palestine, an age awash in apocalyptic fervor. Scores of Jewish prophets, preachers, and would-be messiahs wandered through the Holy Land, bearing messages from God. This was the age of zealotry—a fervent nationalism that made resistance to the Roman occupation a sacred duty incumbent on all Jews. And few figures better exemplified this principle than the charismatic Galilean who defied both the imperial authorities and their allies in the Jewish religious hierarchy.
Balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources, Aslan describes a man full of conviction and passion, yet rife with contradiction; a man of peace who exhorted his followers to arm themselves with swords; an exorcist and faith healer who urged his disciples to keep his identity a secret; and ultimately the seditious “King of the Jews” whose promise of liberation from Rome went unfulfilled in his brief lifetime. Aslan explores the reasons why the early Christian church preferred to promulgate an image of Jesus as a peaceful spiritual teacher rather than a politically conscious revolutionary. And he grapples with the riddle of how Jesus understood himself, the mystery that is at the heart of all subsequent claims about his divinity.

Why I love it: If you're looking for a book that will put religion in historical context, check this one out. It's exactly what I wanted! I wanted to learn more about what was happening in history when the world's major religions started. In this book, the author reconstructs first century Israel/Palestine/Judea. He discusses a few of the groups who lived in the area and the massive conflicts they had with each other. He also talks about which bits of the Bible he thinks are historically accurate and which aren't. He then uses his knowledge of history to uncover the "historical Jesus." The author mostly just shrugs at the miracles and resurrection stuff. He's more interested in the events that would have shaped Jesus's life. I don't know enough about history or religion to judge the accuracy of the author's claims, but I found the book fascinating. The writing style is very readable. I got through it in two days, which is much faster than I usually read nonfiction.

Buy it on Amazon

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Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

History / Sociology

The book that sparked a national conversation. Exploring everything from eradicated black history to the inextricable link between class and race, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race is the essential handbook for anyone who wants to understand race relations in Britain today.

Why I love it: Reviewing this book goes against the point of the book. The author says that whenever she talks to white people about race, the focus of the conversation shifts, and the conversation becomes about white people’s feelings. That frustrates her because she’s trying to talk about race. If I review this book, it’ll take the focus off the book’s message (understanding modern racism), and put it on my (a white person’s) feelings about the book. So, I won’t review the book. I’ll just say three things. Thing one: I learned the most from the chapters on British history and feminism. Thing two: The book’s title is click bait. I expected a Twitter hot take, but it’s actually well-researched. Thing three: You should read it. It will make you think.

Buy it on Amazon

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Bomb: The Race To Build—And Steal—The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

History / Military / Politics

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a uranium atom split in two.

That simple discovery, dealing with the tiniest of particles, launched a cut-throat race that would span three continents. The players were the greatest scientists, the most expert spies, hardened military commandos, and some of the most ruthless dictators who ever lived. The prize: military dominance over the entire world.

This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world's most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.

Why I love it: It’s a short, fast-paced book about the atomic bomb and the Soviet government’s efforts to steal it. Steve Sheinkin is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. He manages to make history books read like thrillers. This is not dry, boring textbook history! There's a twisty plot and unpredictable "characters." I especially like the discussion about the ethical dilemmas the scientists faced. They knew they were creating something that would irrevocably change the world in horrible ways. I highly recommend this book if you like history or spy thrillers.


Psychology / Self-Help / Memoir

After a stint policing the rough streets of Kansas City, Missouri, Chris Voss joined the FBI, where his career as a hostage negotiator brought him face-to-face with a range of criminals, including bank robbers and terrorists. Reaching the pinnacle of his profession, he became the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Never Split the Difference takes you inside the world of high-stakes negotiations and into Voss’s head, revealing the skills that helped him and his colleagues to succeed where it mattered most: saving lives. In this practical guide, he shares the nine effective principles—counter-intuitive tactics and strategies—you too can use to become more persuasive in both your professional and personal life.


Why I love it: The author is a former hostage negotiator who teaches readers how to talk to strangers and get what they want out of the conversation. I learned a lot from the book. The author doesn’t pad the book with unnecessary fluff. He gets right to the point, gives clear examples, and uses bullet points to summarize the most important parts of each chapter. It’s an extremely readable guide that I can see myself referencing in the future. The author also tells stories of his time as an FBI hostage negotiator. I could not do that job. There’s too much pressure! The book mostly focuses on business negotiations where there is a lot of money at stake, but many of the author’s tips can be applied to any negotiation situation.


Buy it on Amazon

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 Wilderness Survival / Medicine / Adventure

A true-life scientific thriller no reader will forget, Surviving the Extremes takes us to the farthest reaches of the earth as well as into the uncharted territory within the human body, spirit, and brain. A vice president of the legendary Explorers Club, as well as surgeon, explorer, and masterful storyteller, Dr. Kenneth Kamler has spent years discovering what happens to the human body in extreme environmental conditions. Divided into six sections—jungle, high seas, desert, underwater, high altitude, and outer space—this book uses firsthand testimony and documented accounts to investigate the science of what a body goes through and explains why people survive—and why they sometimes don’t.


Why I love it: If you’re interested in medical nonfiction, it’s completely captivating. And completely horrifying. It kept me awake for several nights because I couldn’t stop reading. The book is exactly what it says on the cover. The author is an “extreme medicine” doctor who works with astronauts, deep ocean divers, and mountain climbers. The book is about what happens to humans in environments that are not human friendly. The stories the author tells are simultaneously terrifying and amazing. That’s why I couldn’t stop reading them. I liked every chapter, but I think my favorite is the one about Everest. I’m never going to climb that mountain. Nope, nope, not worth the potentially horrific side effects.

Buy it on Amazon

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Biography / History / Wilderness Survival

In September 1921, four young men and Ada Blackjack, a diminutive 25-year-old Eskimo woman, ventured deep into the Arctic in a secret attempt to colonize desolate Wrangel Island for Great Britain. Two years later, Ada Blackjack emerged as the sole survivor of this ambitious polar expedition. This young, unskilled woman—who had headed to the Arctic in search of money and a husband—conquered the seemingly unconquerable north and survived all alone after her male companions had perished.

Following her triumphant return to civilization, the international press proclaimed her the female Robinson Crusoe. But whatever stories the press turned out came from the imaginations of reporters: Ada Blackjack refused to speak to anyone about her horrific two years in the Arctic. Only on one occasion—after charges were published falsely accusing her of causing the death of one of her companions—did she speak up for herself.


Why I love it: I have massive respect for Ada. She needed money, so she agreed to be a cook / seamstress / housekeeper for an Arctic expedition. She didn’t know how to hunt or build shelters, but she figured it out real quick when she got trapped on a freezing island for two years. Calling this book Ada Blackjack is slightly inaccurate because it’s about the entire expedition. For long stretches of the book, Ada fades into the background while the author focuses on the other explorers, their families, and the men who organized the expedition but didn’t go on it. I was kind of disappointed by the shifts in focus, but I understand why they happened. Ada rarely talked about her experiences in the Arctic. Other people never shut up about their theories of what went wrong. The author is just working with the information that’s available. Still, I recommend this book if you’re interested in historical expeditions. I wish more people knew about Ada. I’d never heard of her. I'm glad her story is being told.


Buy it on Amazon

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Talk to me about the best nonfiction books you've read recently!


  1. New header? Or am I just now noticing? Either way, it looks great. I remember your review of Ada Blackjack and afterwards I ended up Googling her name in order to read more. Such an interesting story!

  2. So many of these sound fabulous. I've read Lost City of Z, and Sapiens and Breaking the Social Media Prism both sound like books I'd like to read.

  3. Sapiens, Zealot, About Race, Surviving The Extremes, and Ada Blackjack all sound like books I'd like.

  4. Great list. I'd like the Amazon book, the Ada Arctic book, and the Jesus one. All look fascinating. I have a pile of nonfiction books as well ... but just haven't found the time yet .... Cheers.

  5. I'm pretty new to nonfiction myself, but Sapiens does sound super interesting!

  6. The Lost City of Z was a wild read - it's sad to know that we'll probably never know what happened to him.

  7. These all look good. SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND BY YUVAL NOAH HARARI, sounds like something I might like to read.

  8. You've got a few books on here that I haven't heard of before but they sound really interesting.

  9. Interesting list. I have have to be in the right mood for nonfiction, but I enjoy it now and then. I try to give all genres a fair chance.

  10. I truly think every non-fiction book I own, I own at your recommendation! I have Ada Blackjack because of the last time you talked about her, and now I NEED the extremes one, and the human one tbh. Zealot and the social media one also seem really interesting. You always find the best stuff!

  11. Great list. I have read your first title here ten years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it:https://wordsandpeace.com/2011/01/18/the-lost-city-of-z/
    Sapiens in on my TBR

  12. Zealot sounds right up my alley! I really have to recommend Bart Ehrman's bibliography if you enjoy learning about the history of Christianity!

  13. This is an excellent list! Sapiens has been on my tbr for far too long and I'm glad to have your reminder. The social media book and Ada Blackjack sound very interesting, too.

  14. I never should have read this post because now I have 8 new books on my wishlist (I already read "Sapiens"). LOL

    I participate in "Non-fiction November" and this fits well. This week, our topic was "Book-Pairing" and mine was about Afghanistan

  15. The Lost City of Z is one of my favorites. Great picks!

  16. So many great picks! I have read some and others are awaiting my attention from my TBR. I love giving non-fiction recs, too!!

  17. The book about social media sounds important and timely. I'm so frustrated with the increasing polarization and fed up with Facebook. Thanks for the great recommendations. One nonfiction book I found "unputdownable" was Killers of the Flower Moon.

  18. See, one of the uber-confusing things about the US from a British perspective is that you have places called Kansas City in Missouri. ;)

  19. These all sound really interesting. This was thought-provoking: "Americans think we're polarized because moderates aren't talking." How do we listen better to those silent voices?

    I read some really good nonfiction books this year, including Hidden Valley Road, Prairie Fires, and When Breath Becomes Air.

    1. Unfortunately, that's not just an American problem.