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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.