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Hot Nonfiction Coming Out in October

Welcome to your monthly curated preview of interesting nonfiction books coming out, courtesy of my Literate Lizard Online Bookstore. Here’s what we have for October.

In politics, I’m looking forward to Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could, by Adam Schiff. As historian Ron Chernow blurbed: “Although he failed to secure the conviction of Donald Trump in the first impeachment trial, Adam Schiff has now vanquished him forever in these pages.” If only! But it still should be a good read. There are two books coming out on labor and inequality in the US. American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman focuses on the lives of displaced factory workers in Indianapolis, in terms of both their economic and psychological struggles. Matthew Stewart’s The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture looks at the economic lives and politics of the ten percent of Americans just below the uber-wealthy but above the 90% who have lost ground. All three of these books come out October 12th. Finally, the people behind the podcast Ear Hustle bring the experiences of the incarcerated to book form in This Is Ear Hustle: Unflinching Stories of Everyday Prison Life, by Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods. It comes out October 19th.

The race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine has now become a race to publish a book about the race. Two are coming out on October 26th: A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine, by Gregory Zuckerman, and The First Shots: The Epic Rivalries and Heroic Science Behind the Race to the Coronavirus Vaccine, by Brendan Borrell. Which to choose? Zuckerman is more of a business writer, particularly with The Wall Street Journal, but Borrell, who writes on many topics, got the movie deal: HBO is developing a limited series based on it.

In history, The Shattering: America in the 1960s, by Kevin Boyle attracts the interest of people of a certain age like myself who grew up in the era. But since so much of the race, gender, economic, military, education and political battles over the past 60 years are to an extent still refighting that era, this book should be of interest to all. Other history books of interest coming this month are Churchill's Shadow: The Life and Afterlife of Winston Churchill, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, and The Approaching Storm: Roosevelt, Wilson, Addams, and Their Clash Over America's Future, by Neil Lanctot. The Churchill book is touted as a reassessment of his legacy, while The Approaching Storm examines the interactions of two presidents and influential social activist Jane Addams as they debated over America’s role in the growing global crisis of World War I. Publication date for all three is October 26th.

Three books on the immigrant experience arrive on October 12th. In Concepcion: An Immigrant Family's Fortunes, author Albert Samaha traces generations of his family’s history from the Philippines to America. In an era of rising anti-Asian hate in the wake of Covid-19, Jay Caspian Kang’s  The Loneliest Americans is timely. He looks at the Asian immigrant experience of the millions who came to the United States after restrictions were lifted in 1965, in the wake of the Vietnam War and in the years since then. In Those We Throw Away Are Diamonds: A Refugee's Search for Home, Mondiant Dogon recounts the decades his family spent in refugee camps fleeing the violence of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Black interest, the books cover a wide range of topics. A major work of history, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, by Howard W. French, covers six centuries, moving African history from its intentional obliteration to a central place in global development. It comes out October 12th. Food and recipes take top spot in Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from Across the African Diaspora, Edited by Bryant Terry, with contributions from a global selection of 100 Black cultural luminaires. Publication date is October 19th. On October 26th, Glory Edim of Well Read Black Girl fame (Book and Website) returns with On Girlhood: 15 Stories from the Well-Read Black Girl Library, focusing on the writing of young women. And in the celebrity memoir genre we have Unprotected: A Memoir, by Billy Porter, in which the multi-talented actor, singer, director, composer, and playwright covers growing up Black and gay. Publication date is October 19th.

There is also Music is History, by Questlove, coming October 12th. The musician follows up his directing of the documentary Summer of Soul with this musical history of the past fifty years, choosing one song per year to represent issues of race, gender, politics, and identity. Other music and entertainment choices are Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen, by Brad Tolinski and Chris Gill, coming October 5th, and The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family, by the Howard brothers, actor/director Ron and actor Clint, arriving October 12th. Music history gets another look in Sellout: The Major-Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore (1994-2007), by Dan Ozzi (October 26th), as does movie history in Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Epic Story of the Making of The Godfather, by Mark Seal, arriving October 19th.

In celebrity categories all their own, we have yet another posthumous appreciation of globe-trotting adventure foodie Anthony Bourdain, with In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain, by Tom Vitale (October 5th). Actor Stanley Tucci also shows off his foodie chops in Taste: My Life Through Food (October 5th). Alyssa Milano delivers a memoir focused on her political activism and humanitarian work in Sorry Not Sorry (October 26th). Katie Couric covers a lot of gender challenges in her broadcasting career in Going There (October 26th). The prize of the month is Renegades: Born in the USA, in which Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen shoot the breeze about life, music and politics, with lots of photos and archival material thrown in. Renegades comes out on October 26th.

In social history, we have Capote's Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era, by Laurence Leamer, which details Capote’s complicated friendships with a number of socialite women, along with what those women saw as his betrayal of them in his thinly veiled unfinished novel Answered Prayers. It comes out October 12th. Essayist Susan Orlean collects her writing about animal-human relationships in On Animals, coming out October 12th. In Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit, best known for her feminist writing, reflects on how George Orwell’s love of gardening shaped his political writing. It comes out October 19th. New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul gives pause to all of the internet addicts out there with 100 Things We've Lost to the Internet, coming October 26th. And Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol, by Mallory O’Meara, offers a feminist history of booze and bars. Get it October 19th.

Two books strive to help you save your sanity while waging the stressful fight to save the planet. On October 19th, naturalist Jane Goodall brings us The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, and on October 5th, Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh offers  Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet.

Finally, two books for kids. Elizabeth Warren is back on October 12th with Pinkie Promises, Illustrated by Charlene Chua, about dreaming big, and Notable Native People: 50 Indigenous Leaders, Dreamers, and Changemakers from Past and Present, by Adrienne Keene and illustrated by Ciara Sana, gives snapshot profiles of fifty Native Americans throughout history. It comes out October 19th.

Top Fiction Choices for October!

Here are some of the biggest fiction titles coming out in October, and all are available for pre-order now.

Two literary novelist faves are back. Jonathan Franzen brings us Crossroads, a tour de force family saga taking place on a single day, and Amor Towles offers The Lincoln Highway, a cross-country adventure spanning ten days. Both come out on October 12th.

In mysteries and thrillers, we have Silverview, a posthumous spy story from the master of the genre  John le Carré, coming out October 12th. Mystery master Louise Penny teams up with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the political thriller State of Terror, arriving October 12th. John Grisham brings a new legal thriller, The Judge’s List, on October 19th. On October 12th, Josh Malerman scares us with another horror story, Pearl (note that this is actually a reissued version of his earlier book, On This, the Day of the Pig, in case you read it back in the day). Damascus Station, by David McCloskey, is a ripped-from-the-headlines political spy thriller, coming out October 5th.

A number your favorite series are getting new additions, and there are also some brand new series just getting started. Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown are back with another feline Mrs. Murphy mystery in Claws for Alarm, arriving October 12th. The fourth volume in Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series brings the story to its conclusion: The Book of Magic comes out October 12th. Elizabeth Strout gives us more of her indomitable character Lucy Barton in Oh, William, coming out October 19th. Famed fantasy writer Terry Brooks kicks off a new series about a magical race of beings with Child of Light, coming on October 19th. Geoffrey Maguire is also kicking off a new series, this one spun off from his four book Wicked series based on the Wizard of Oz. The Brides of Maracoor features Elphaba’s granddaughter Rain, and comes out October 12th.

Finally, in a category all its own is Fan Fiction: A Mem-Noir: Inspired by True Events, by Brent Spiner. Yes, THAT Brent Spiner, Commander Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It promises to be a wild ride, and it comes out on October 12th.

Nominees for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction

The autumn award season is underway, with the National Book Awards, the Cundill History Prize, and the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfictionannouncing their longlists in recent days.

I’m going to take a look at one of the lesser-known prizes. The Baillie Gifford Prize is a British affair, celebrating nonfiction in all genres, from history to sports, politics to travel and they announced their longlist recently. The nominees will be winnowed down on October 15th, and the winner announced November 16th. Not all books are available in the United States yet, though can be obtained via Amazon (shudder) or other online sources for UK books. The Baillie Gifford prize also has an email newsletter and a podcast.

Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape, by Cal Flyn, sounds like fun to the traveler in me. The author explores rebounding nature in various landscapes abandoned by humankind around the world, such as feral cattle on an island off Scotland, or reappearing life forms in Chernobyl. Pack your bags! Also in the travel genre is Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey Into Muslim Europe, by Tharik Hussain. The book explores those European countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans that are more Muslim than not, such as Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro.

In politics, the damning account of the Oxycontin-peddling tycoons is one of the nominees: Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe. The story is still in the news: last week, the Justice Department filed an appeal to overturn a September 1st deal that granted sweeping immunity from opioid lawsuits to members of the Sackler family. Another corrupt billionaire gets covered in Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell, by Robert Preston. (That’s the British title, the link will take you to the American version with slightly different title.) The book details the media mogul’s rivalry with Rupert Murdoch and his spiral into corruption.

Blood Legacy: Reckoning with a Family's Story of Slavery, by Alex Renton, should be available in the US soon. The author uses two points—one personal, that his ancestors owned Caribbean plantations and slaves, and one historical, that it was the slaveowners, not the slaves, who received millions in government compensation when Britain abolished the trade in 1833—to examine themes of the ongoing historic damage and the need for reparations. Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, by Sathnam Sanghera, is a more sweeping history but with a similar theme: how much of modern Britain is rooted in the predations of its imperial past, and that the ‘selective amnesia’ about that past must be put aside.

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955, by Harald Jähner, sounds interesting, covering the first decade after Germany’s defeat. “What does total defeat mean? Germany 1945–55. Ten years of poverty, ruins, fear, violence, black markets, manic hard work, inventive sex—and always, always, silence about the murdered millions of the Third Reich,” says Neil MacGregor. Aftermath hits US shelves in January.

The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans, by Eben Kirksey, is a deep dive into the brave new world of gene editing. As the publisher puts it: “He also ventures beyond the scientific echo chamber, talking to disabled scholars, doctors, hackers, chronically-ill patients, and activists who have alternative visions of a genetically modified future for humanity.” Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence, by Frances Wilson (subtitled The Trials of D. H. Lawrence in the U.S. version), focuses on the writer in the decade between 1915 and 1925, when, following the suppression of The Rainbow after an obscenity trial, Lawrence had a whirlwind decade of writing and traveling up to his tuberculosis diagnosis. The book focuses both on the tales he told about himself, and on the tales told about him by others, drawing on an eclectic source material of personal correspondence.

The longlist is rounded out by several memoirs. Consumed: A Sister's Story, by Arifa Akbar, examines the past and present of tuberculosis, after her sister shockingly died of the disease in London in 2015. No U.S. version yet. Things I Have Withheld, by Kei Miller, is a series of interlinked essays by the author, a Queer Black man, on the theme of the silences we carry with us about so many things: discrimination, race, gender and more. In Free: Coming of Age at the End of History, Lea Ypi recounts growing up in Albania during the transition from communism to democracy, with her entry into adolescence coinciding with a social regime being exposed as a lie. No U.S. edition so far. Finally, In Memory of Memory, by Maria Stepanova, the author reconstructs a life in Russia while sifting through the heaps of memorabilia in the apartment of a deceased aunt.

Only one of these books will be awarded the prize, but all are worthy of admiration.

Believing, by Anita Hill

Book cover of Believing, by Anita Hill, against backdrop of her testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings.

Anita Hill’s powerful new book Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence catalogs in detail what has transpired in the 30 years since the Clarence Thomas hearings, both the continuing forms of gender violence of all types, and also the occasional legislative and legal victories against that violence. But while she praises the work being done and those victories achieved, her primary focus never flinches from the deeply systemic roots of the problem, and how the current piecemeal legal approach thus far has been a valuable but ultimately inadequate response. Ending gender violence can only be accomplished by changing “the culture that supports it and the structures that enshrine it."

Aside from a chapter that looks at the suffragette era, Believing focuses mostly on the recent past and up to the present. She points to a survey done by mainstream women’s magazine Redbook in 1976 as “the first national attempt to get the facts about sexual harassment in the workplace.” This survey of 9,000 women was shocking at the time, laying bare a problem that until that point had been ignored for the most part, and even this survey focused almost exclusively on white-collar jobs.

The prevalent attitude at the time was that these experiences described by women were unfortunate, but nevertheless simply a natural, normal part of life. Hill quotes a 1976 decision in a civil rights discrimination case by federal judge Herbert Jay Stern:

The abuse of authority by supervisors of either sex for personal purposes is an unhappy and recurrent feature of our social experience…It is not, however, sex discrimination within the meaning of Title VII, even when the purpose is sexual.”

Similarly, in a 1975 suit by two women who said that their supervisor took repeated unsolicited sexual liberties with them. Federal judge William Frey acknowledged the facts the women presented, but denied that it reached the level of a civil rights claim, saying the supervisor’s behavior was “nothing more than a personal proclivity, peculiarity or mannerism…satisfying a personal urge.

Such attitudes were in full force when Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court in October of 1991. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

The Amur River, by Colin Thubron, and the urge to travel

I do love travel writing, and Colin Thubron is one of the greats. In his new book, The Amur River: Between Russia and China, he travels the length of the Amur, a little-known river despite being the tenth longest in the world. Along the way, Thubron suffers chronically sore, swollen ankles and ribs, gets dragged along the ground by a runaway horse, is a passenger in a car that crashes into a ditch, hitchhikes solo between towns in remote regions that almost never see Westerners. He mostly travels alone, only occasionally with a guide. He sleeps in guesthouses such as one that “is a gaunt room, asthmatic with dust. The beds that line the walls hold a few threadbare blankets and their mattresses are soiled with overlapping stains of urine. Some filmy water stands in a plastic tub.”

Did I mention he was in his eighties when he did this?

I suppose there are some who read this and think “Why on earth would someone subject themselves to all that at that age!?” Others, myself included, think “Oh please, let that be me when I’m in my eighties!” Well, in truth, perhaps my tolerance for tribulation amidst the adventure doesn’t extend quite that far, but the experiences I yearn for aren’t too far off. I understand this urge to travel.

The book opens in Mongolia, at the bucolic headwaters of what will eventually become  the Amur, a barely inhabited stretch of thousands of miles of mountains and boggy grasslands. Thubron is traveling through this sacred Genghis Khan territory on horseback, with one guide and two horsemen. The horses are tough, scarred and partly untamed. They periodically bolt and leave rucksacks scattered across the landscape to be retrieved. At one point, Thubron’s stallion stumbles in the uneven terrain, briefly trapping the author beneath its torso. The horse rights itself and bolts, with one of Thubron’s feet still caught in the stirrup. Fortunately, he is dragged only a short distance before he manages to slip his foot out of his loose sneaker.

In Mongolia, the author finds a sense of pride, of survival. The Soviets had sought to wipe out the local culture, but now there is a resurgence in pride, a veneration of the glorious past of Genghis Khan, of their nomadic lifestyle. But soon, this phase of the journey ends. Thubron bids farewell to his Mongolian comrades and crosses into Russia alone.  (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, by Mary Roach

Don't miss the latest fun science book from Mary Roach, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. Roach has been entertaining us for years with her seriocomic science books with one-word titles: StiffSpookBonkGulpGrunt, and the three-word Packing for Mars, about cadavers, the afterlife, sex, eating, the military and space travel, respectively. Her science is well-researched, her humor is outstanding, and the zeal with which she engages in participatory exploration is always fun.

The one time I met Ms. Roach in person at the Book Expo in 2010, I advised her to “keep having fun,” and she does indeed seem to be doing so. To write this book, she took a certified Wildlife-Human Attack Response Training, traveled to India to report on elephant, leopard and monkey assaults on humans and property, tracked cougars, stared down a bear foraging through dumpsters in downtown Aspen, watched a dying tree get its top third dynamited off, and so much more. In short, having fun!

It seems there are some 2000 animal species in 200 countries committing acts that for them is just following instinct, but for humans is viewed as an egregious offense against our glorious selves. The book opens with a trial in 1689 in which caterpillars were ordered to appear in court for the offense of trespassing and stealing from people’s gardens. The caterpillars evidently fled under the guise of butterflies.

Death or injury by animal gets lot of press, given the unusual and sensational nature, so to speak, of the acts. In truth, at least in North America, death by mammal attack is rare. As Roach points out, “for most of the past century, your odds of being killed by a cougar were about the same as your odds of being killed by a filing cabinet.” There also have been cases where an animal was wrongly accused, and the human murderer was able to go free. Or vice-versa, as in the famous Australian ‘the dingo took my baby’ case. A woman claimed a dingo had taken her baby from the family’s campsite, but lacking a body or evidence, and with experts testifying that a dingo didn’t have the chops to carry off a ten pound child, the mother was convicted of murder. Three years later, searchers found a dingo lair with remnants of the baby’s clothes. The mother was freed.

This is where the importance of human-animal attack forensics comes in. We learn how bears tend to be sloppy killers while cougars are more efficient. We learn why these animal attacks often show signs of scalping the victim: the human head is too large for their jaws, and their teeth simply slip across the skull. They also tend to avoid clothed areas, either because they don’t like the taste and texture, or perhaps they don’t realize that clothing is just a wrapping for meat. (Although bears can be very proficient at unwrapping food; one was observed peeling the foil from a Hershey’s kiss. And bears, when raiding kitchens, evidently prefer premium ice cream like Haagen Dazs to supermarket brands.) (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

Great September Nonfiction New Releases

The summer is ending and the Fall publishing season is heating up. Here are some notable nonfiction books hitting the shelves in September.

It is now thirty years since George Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and since Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary committee about the sexual harassment Thomas had inflicted on her. Joe Biden chaired those hearings, and although she did endorse him in 2020, it is an uneasy truce. In her new book Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence, Hill takes a powerful look at how little has changed over the past three decades, and examines how gender discrimination and violence remain prevalent in daily life, even with the renewed awareness brought about by the Kavanaugh hearings and the #MeToo movement. Publication date is September 28th.

Speaking of #MeToo, Tarana Burke, one of the founders of the movement, hits the shelves on September 14th with Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement. Burke takes us from the shame she felt from her childhood sexual assault through becoming a fierce organizer on issues of racial justice, arts and culture, anti-violence and gender equity. Check out her website as well.

The posthumous memoir of the artist Wilfred Rembert is arriving September 7th (he passed away earlier this year at age 75). Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist's Memoir of the Jim Crow South is illustrated throughout with examples of his paintings on carved leather, artwork based on his life story of growing up in Jim Crow Georgia, of his time on a prison chain gang, and of the time, at age 21, he was stripped of his clothing and strung upside-down from a tree by a group of white men intent on lynching him. The artwork is luminous, the story gripping and inspirational. Check out the Winfred Rembert website to see his artwork.

Native American poet (and current U.S. Poet Laureate) Joy Harjo has a new memoir coming out on September 7th. Poet Warrior: A Memoir weaves together prose, poetry and song about her ancestors, her life, her inspirations and her activism. Her earlier memoir, Crazy Brave, as well as her books of poetry and her children’s book For a Girl Becoming are also available.

The Chinese immigrant experience in America also gets the memoir treatment in Qian Julie Wang’s Beautiful Country: A Memoir, coming out September 7th. In China, her parents were both professors, but in 1994, when the author was seven years old, they emigrated to the United States for a life as illegals working in New York City sweatshops. It’s an amazing story of the emotional and physical toll of lives lived in the enforced shadows of anti-immigrant America.

The American Revolution and the Civil War get fresh treatments in two new histories. In The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783, Joseph Ellis takes as his starting point the idea that the colonialists viewed their action as a ‘cause, rather than a ‘revolution’. This ambiguous term gave cover to a wide range of competing improvisations that somehow coalesced into a new nation. He takes a deep look at the issue of slavery, and also offers profiles of the roles played by overlooked women, Black and indigenous participants. Coming September 21st.

Allen Guelzo takes a new look at the Civil War Confederate general in Robert E. Lee: A Life. Early reviews seem filled with words like ‘even-handed’, ‘balanced’ and ‘judicious’, which in some cases may feel like subtle synonyms for reclamation or whitewashing. My sense is that the book strives to put the man into his historical context while exploring what the publisher calls Lee’s “hypocrisy and courage, his outward calm and inner turmoil, his honor and his disloyalty”. We shall see. Coming September 28th. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

In Memory of Explorer Extraordinaire David Roberts, 1943-2021

David Roberts, writer, explorer and champion of the environment and of indigenous history, passed away last week at age 78. The two books I’d read of his, 1997’s In Search of the Old Ones, and its 2015 follow-up The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest, rekindled my fascination with the American Southwest landscape. It also stirred my lifelong yearning for adventure. The idea that there were untrammeled ancient ruins hidden throughout the canyonlands made me swoon with excitement.

Take, for example, this description from The Bears Ears: A Human History of America's Most Endangered Wilderness:

I was ready to hike on, but Vaughn had swiveled his binocs far to his right. “Check it out,” he said quietly. “Somethin’ right under the capstone layer. Way back, maybe half a mile. I raised my Leica Trinovids, found the spot, and focuses. “Wow, I muttered. “Nice glassing.”

It would take us another day to hike to the site, as...we discovered that the ruin could not be seen from directly opposite it. Nor was there any hint of it as we made our way along the capstone layer that guarded the elusive prize. We kept tiptoeing out to the edge of the cliff to peek sideways underneath its brim, never an easy task in the canyon country….We later realized that the ruin could be detected only from the vantage point where Vaughn had first seized it in his binocs. That invisibility had been a cardinal advantage for long-ago architects living in daily fear.

Just as we began to think we had overshot the site, we found a slope where dirt and stone rubble interrupted the capstone shelf. We scrambled down that chute, turned the corner—and there it was.

There are very few ruins anywhere in the Southwest that you can’t really see until you’re only thirty feet away from them. In that instant, Vaughn and I stared wordless.

They had found a well-preserved four-room, two-story Native American ruin dating to the 1300s or earlier, with much of the walls, doorways and ceiling intact, hidden deep in the forbidding canyonlands. There are hundreds if not thousands of such ‘lost’ ruins throughout the Southwest, and Roberts has scrambled, climbed and bushwhacked his way to the rediscovery of many of them. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

The Sunset Route, by Carrot Quinn

Books like Carrot Quinn’s powerful new memoir The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Forgiveness, and Freedom on the Rails in the American West always leave me a bit stunned. The personal histories told in books of this genre--of childhood abuse, neglect, poverty and alienation--are stories that seem beyond the capacity of a child to survive, and yet...here are sublime, luminous books produced by the survivors of those childhoods. I think here of varied books like Educated, by Tara Westover, The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution, by Peter Andreas, and so many more.

The genre can cover a wide range of experiences. There are parents who are incapable of showing love, parents who are sometimes inspiring yet also can behave in destructive ways, parents who lash out and tear down, parents who love and yet drag their children on wildly inappropriate adventures. The best of these books relate the harrowing experiences of the author while also seeking to understand and even forgive the parents under whom they suffered.

What do we read about in The Sunset Route? It’s a story of crushing poverty for her and her brother, in a filthy home with a mother, who she refers to as Barbara, who is increasingly in the grip of a schizophrenic breakdown:

Barbara is straddling me as I lie on my back in the hallway. Her long fingers wrapped around my neck. She is strangling me. I came home hungry this afternoon, to an apartment without food. I tried to talk to Barbara but she couldn’t hear me, couldn’t see me. She was far away, in a place where I couldn’t reach her, a place in which she’s been spending more and more time. I screamed at her. Suddenly she leapt up and shoved me onto my back on the dirty carpet and now she is strangling me. Her hair is wild, the stink of her body like a fog. The claws of her fingers dig into the soft skin of my neck. It’s a curious sort of intimacy. Barbara wants to destroy me. She is a strong river current, a howling winter wind. I have to struggle against her in order to live. And yet, part of me thrills at her touch. At her acknowledgement of me.

The book moves back and forth through time, from her early childhood, to her teen years, as in the excerpt above, and into adulthood. These adult sections of the book are a picaresque journey through a little-seen side of America, a world of crossing the country by hopping freight trains and hitchhiking, of dumpster diving and shoplifting for food, of money gathered through odd jobs, sex trading and medicine clinical trials, of free camping and anarchist house-squatting for shelter. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

A Brief History of Motion, by Tom Standage

Tom Standage’s new book A Brief History of Motion promises a little more than it delivers, but it is still a very entertaining and informative book. My one qualm is that it begins with its promised history of all sorts of human mechanical motion, but midway through veers into the single lane of how the car gained primacy. 

The book begins with an environmental catastrophe that confronted humankind in the late 1800s, as a way of setting the stage for his end-of-book optimism about changing the gasoline-based car culture before it is too late in our current time. That earlier catastrophe was horse manure.

Horse manure was already a problem in cities by the mid-Nineteenth Century, when a newspaper described New York City streets as “one mass of reeking, disgusting filth, which in some places is piled to such height as to render them almost impassable.” By the 1890s, the problem had become dire. With the growth of city factories, steam locomotives boosting intercity travel, and the development of inner suburbs served by horse-drawn streetcars, horses became more vital than ever to the economy. The number of horses increased fourfold between 1870 and 1900, while the human population only doubled.

New York City now had 150,000 horses, each of them producing the rank stew of 22 pounds of manure and a quart of urine each day, turning the streets into rivers of filth in wet weather, and the air into clouds of foul dust in dry weather. In addition, some 15,000 horses died each year, and were often left rotting on the street for days. (Methane gas was less of a problem; horses produce only a small fraction of the gas produced by cows.) Traffic was often impassable with the crush of horse-drawn vehicles.

An interesting aside is that an outbreak of the equine flu in 1872 sidelined horses and mules for weeks, crippling the economy. “The present epidemic has brought us face to face with the startling fact that the sudden loss of horse labor would totally disorganize our industry and commerce,” wrote The Nation. Sort of like what happened with Covid, or what will happen with a crippled internet or electrical grid. Economies seem to hang on an over-reliance on the technologies of the day. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

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