I tend to read way more fiction than non-fiction. Last year, I read 6 non-fiction books out of 46 total. (It’s because I have to spend so much time reading non-fiction/news/journals for all my various science-related hats I wear that I just want to go home and read about something that isn’t real.) But this month, 3 of 4 were non-fiction. So there I go.
(Updated in 2020 to reflect my refined genre classifications.)
Water 4.0, David Sedlak
I’m in a program to train graduate students in the leadership and communication skills necessary for a career in things like science policy. We’re working on the state of drinking water in the US. To get rolling, we were semi-assigned this book (it was technically optional, but it was the top recommendation for background reading, and let’s be real, my solution to everything I don’t know is to read a book about it anyway). I honestly would not have ever had a reason to run across, let alone read, this book otherwise, and boy would I have been missing out. It turns out that the history of water is ancient and disgusting and also not really all that much more advanced now than it was in the time of the first major urban water systems in antiquity. Yeah, we don’t get polio or cholera anymore (in developed countries) (usually), but the inefficiencies in how we handle this resource – which is very much not renewable – are embarrassing. Having gone to college in SoCal, it’s especially mortifying how LA is literally sucking the surrounding areas dry to turn what should be chaparral/desert into pools and quads. The subject matter is fascinating and for most people will be very surprising, but I have to ding points for a complete lack of attention to water systems outside of Europe and North America.
Format: nonfiction. Subject: urban planning, politics, history. Rating: 2/3.
Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep, Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek
I went to a panel at the Society for Neuroscience conference on writing about science for the public, which included author Bradley Voytek as a panelist. After the panel I immediately headed over to the commercial exhibits to get the book from the publisher’s booth, where not only were they sold out, but they told me it was their best-selling book at the event. I ordered a copy and completely forgot about it until it turned up about six weeks later, fortunately just before I moved. I then hauled it to the new apartment, stuck it on my bookshelf, and forgot about it again. (You’d hardly believe that I’m a huge zombie nerd, but it’s the truth.) I was prodded out of inaction by an invitation to speak on zombie neuroscience at a private event at the Pacific Science Center! I immediately plowed through it and was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s the best general primer on neuroscience I’ve read. I don’t tend to read many neuroscience books because, frankly, they’re usually either boring to me as a person who knows a lot already (but great for general audiences!) or irresponsibly speculative. These guys, however, used zombies to structure an introduction to neuroanatomy, and it was really fun. If you are NOT a neuroscientist, and you’re looking to learn more about the brain, I highly recommend this! If you ARE a neuroscientist, I still recommend it as a great model of science writing, but don’t expect to learn much you don’t already know.
Format: nonfiction. Subject: neuroscience, zombies. Rating: 2/3 for neuroscientists, 3/3 for general audience.
The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson
Anyone who has ever asked me for a non-fiction book recommendation knows that I am a huge devotee of Bill Bryson. A Walk in the Woods and A Short History of Nearly Everything are two of the first books I can remember reading. I cite him with pride as one of the biggest influences on my own style of writing. I say this to underscore how much it pains me to say that I really did not like this book. I love Bill Bryson’s work for being witty, insightful, curious, insightful of the best and worst of the people he encounters, and impeccably written. This book was none of those things. It was mean, not witty. It took potshots at entire groups of people based on unsourced stereotypes. It was lazily researched, in its history and in his inexplicable pattern of repeatedly turning up at museums and whatnot only to find them closed. It felt like it was written for a contractual obligation during random weekends instead of a work he actually cared about. I certainly hope that it was slapdash because he’s got something awesome and time-consuming coming down the pike, but that doesn’t excuse the “you kids get off my lawn” stream of insults. Go read one of Bill Bryson’s many other better works, and skip this.
Format: essays. Subject: travel. Rating: 1/3.
Lord John and the Private Matter, Diana Gabaldon
I finished the fifth Outlander book last month and I wasn’t quite emotionally or logistically ready to tackle the sixth of these doorstoppers. I love them to bits and I think everyone should read them, but there’s just a lot of book there. So I opted to take a break and read one of her “short” novels (hahahaha 350 pages is not a short novel, but her normal novels are 850+ pages) in the spin-off Lord John series. John starts off as a very minor character, first appearing as a teenager in the second book, and then reemerging as an adult later. (He wasn’t in book 5, though I know he comes back later, and part of why I picked up his book is that I missed him.) This book read almost like fanfiction of the main series – stars a beloved but minor character and focuses on his adventures while he’s not involved in the main plot, and is a different genre (just mystery, rather than like 12 genres at once as the main series does) than the original series. (This is especially funny since Diana Gabaldon reportedly does not like fanfiction very much.) I have to admit that I didn’t figure out how all the pieces of the mystery fit together until about halfway through the main perpetrator’s confession, but I’m not even sorry, because it was an engaging and intricate plot and I didn’t know how 18th century morgues work and that was kind of a key piece of the puzzle (not much of a spoiler – it’s a freaking murder mystery, of course there’s a morgue). It was also an unusual look at what it meant to be gay in a time where that was officially very much not acceptable, and how John and others did (or didn’t) find a community anyway. This book won’t make much sense to you unless you’ve read through at least the first 3 Outlander books, so do that first, but this was great as both a part of the larger Outlander universe and as a (really not at all standalone) story on its own.
Traditional genre: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Outlander can be shelved almost anywhere. Setting: historical, mystery (no fantasy here, unlike the main series). Story genre: mystery. Rating: 3/3.