Best Books of the Month: Nonfiction

Here are a few of our favorite nonfiction titles for January. See more of our nonfiction picks, and all of the Best Books of the Month.

Lost-City225The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

In 2012, author Douglas Preston joined a team of explorers searching for Ciudad Blanca (“The White City”), a legendary ruin hidden in the dense jungle of eastern Honduras. To this point the city – also known as “the Lost City of the Monkey God” - was literally a legend; while various hucksters and hoaxers had claimed to have discovered the abandoned metropolis, no credible evidence had ever been presented, and its very existence remained shrouded in doubt. In addition to the objective hazards of tropical disease, wild boars, and the deadly fer-de-lance viper, locals stoked the mystique, describing various curses awaiting would-be discoverers. Don’t pick the flowers, or you’ll die.

But this team had an advantage that previous searchers had lacked: LIDAR, an advanced laser-imaging technology able to penetrate the dense jungle canopy – just enough – and return detailed elevation profiles from which subtle, man-made anomalies could be identified. Almost immediately, two major sites emerged, their scale and architecture indicating a civilization to rival another local, more famous power, the Maya.

The announcement had consequences. The fledgling Honduran government, having gained power through a military coup, sought to use the discovery to bolster its status with the population, while the academic community ripped the expedition with accusations of Indiana Jones-style exploitation and shoddy scientific methods, cries which could be uncharitably interpreted as sour grapes. Encroaching deforestation and the prospect of looters created urgency to conduct a ground survey, and the team ventured into the wilderness and all the hazards that awaited, including an unexpected and insidious danger that cursed the team well beyond their return home.

The author of over 30 books, including number of bestselling thrillers co-written with Lincoln Child, Preston knows pace, and he packs several narratives into a taut 300 pages. Indiana Jones criticism aside, the story of the discovery and exploration of the ruin is solid adventure writing, and he walks a fine line in dealing with the archaeology community’s response, reporting on the bases for their criticism where they chose to provide it. And by invoking Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Preston speculates on the mysterious, sudden demise of the White City and its inhabitants, drawing ominous parallels between their fate and possibly our own. Lost City is a tale that manages to be both fun and harrowing, a vicarious thrill worthy of a place on the shelf next to David Grann’s The Lost City of Z.


T-Rex225Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine

Fine knocks it out of the park with her smart and eye-opening investigation into why we give credit to (or blame) testosterone for so many behaviors. With a writing style that reminds me of Mary Roach and her gift for seeking out the ridiculous, Fine puts under the microscope our assumption that testosterone is the wonder hormone that makes men risk takers and competitive and, in its absence, women less so. This might sound like heavy stuff—like the gender studies classes I avoided in college—but Fine invites you to laugh with her as she punctures outdated notions and points out obvious weaknesses in the mighty social (not scientific) barricade of sex-specific dogma and the daily throwaway comments that carelessly reinforces that wall. After reading Testosterone Rex, my new resolution is to never say "Boys will be boys" again. Because while boys are, of course, boys, we owe it to them—and to girls—to understand that they are not defined by this single hormone. —Adrian Liang


Unsettlers225The Unsettlers by Mark Sundeen

These days, more and more of us are seeking an improved quality-of-existence by reaching back for simpler pleasures, exchanging the mass-produced and processed for small-batch and crafted. Some drop out of the rat-race altogether, living in tiny homes and keeping a single fork. Sundeen goes beyond hipster beards and artisanal cheese, taking a closer look at the iconoclasts and idealists walking the walk in their efforts to create more meaningful, if not easier, lives.



Books-for-Living225Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

In 2012, Will Schwalbe published The End of Your Life Book Club, a bestseller that was at once an homage to his dying mother and to literature itself. Books for Living is a deep-dive into the joys of reading itself, as well as a prescriptive reading list for coping - and understanding - our modern world. His timing couldn't be better.




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