For your booklovers, here are a few from our friends from this year.
In the picturesque village of Guzmán, Spain, in a cave dug into a hillside on the edge of town, an ancient door leads to a cramped limestone chamber known as “the telling room.” Containing nothing but a wooden table and two benches, this is where villagers have gathered for centuries to share their stories and secrets—usually accompanied by copious amounts of wine.
It was here, in the summer of 2000, that Michael Paterniti found himself listening to a larger-than-life Spanish cheesemaker named Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras as he spun an odd and compelling tale about a piece of cheese. An unusual piece of cheese. Made from an old family recipe, Ambrosio’s cheese was reputed to be among the finest in the world, and was said to hold mystical qualities. Eating it, some claimed, conjured long-lost memories. But then, Ambrosio said, things had gone horribly wrong. . . .
By the time the two men exited the telling room that evening, Paterniti was hooked. Soon he was fully embroiled in village life, relocating his young family to Guzmán in order to chase the truth about this cheese and explore the fairy tale–like place where the villagers conversed with farm animals, lived by an ancient Castilian code of honor, and made their wine and food by hand, from the grapes growing on a nearby hill and the flocks of sheep floating over the Meseta.
What Paterniti ultimately discovers there in the highlands of Castile is nothing like the idyllic slow-food fable he first imagined. Instead, he’s sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery, a blood feud that includes accusations of betrayal and theft, death threats, and a murder plot. As the village begins to spill its long-held secrets, Paterniti finds himself implicated in the very story he is writing.
Equal parts mystery and memoir, travelogue and history, The Telling Room is an astonishing work of literary nonfiction by one of our most accomplished storytellers. A moving exploration of happiness, friendship, and betrayal, The Telling Room introduces us to Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras, an unforgettable real-life literary hero, while also holding a mirror up to the world, fully alive to the power of stories that define and sustain us.
A quarter-century ago, Boston had the dirtiest harbor in America. The city had been dumping sewage into it for generations, coating the seafloor with a layer of “black mayonnaise.” Fisheries collapsed, wildlife fled, and locals referred to floating tampon applicators as “beach whistles.”
In the 1990s, work began on a state-of-the-art treatment plant and a 10-mile-long tunnel—its endpoint stretching farther from civilization than the earth’s deepest ocean trench—to carry waste out of the harbor. With this impressive feat of engineering, Boston was poised to show the country how to rebound from environmental ruin. But when bad decisions and clashing corporations endangered the project, a team of commercial divers was sent on a perilous mission to rescue the stymied cleanup effort. Five divers went in; not all of them came out alive.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents collected over five years of reporting, award-winning writer Neil Swidey takes us deep into the lives of the divers, engineers, politicians, lawyers, and investigators involved in the tragedy and its aftermath, creating a taut, action-packed narrative. The climax comes just after the hard-partying DJ Gillis and his friend Billy Juse trade assignments as they head into the tunnel, sentencing one of them to death.
An intimate portrait of the wreckage left in the wake of lives lost, the book is also a morality tale. What is the true cost of these large-scale construction projects, as designers and builders, emboldened by new technology and pressured to address a growing population’s rapacious needs, push the limits of the possible? This is a story about human risk—how it is calculated, discounted, and transferred—and the institutional failures that can lead to catastrophe.
Suspenseful yet humane, Trapped Under the Sea reminds us that behind every bridge, tower, and tunnel—behind the infrastructure that makes modern life possible—lies unsung bravery and extraordinary sacrifice.
Pickett’s Charge, by Charles McNair.
A comedy, a tragedy. Threadgill Pickett, veteran of the Civil War, breaks out from an Alabama old folks home and starts a quest northward to kill the last living Union Soldier. This is to avenge his brother, who was needlessly killed by Union soldiers, outside of any conflict. On his journey Threadgill encounters two brothers building a time machine, a trio of Klu Kluxers, a man collecting raccoons that turn out to be rabid, a wannabe country singer, and a truck-driving woman to make men stand in awe. He also encounters a Utopian society of blacks and whites who share family, food, love, and grief.
Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel
The wars of the past decade have been covered by brave and talented reporters, but none has reckoned with the psychology of these wars as intimately as the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Finkel. For The Good Soldiers, his bestselling account from the front lines of Baghdad, Finkel embedded with the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion during the infamous “surge,” a grueling fifteen-month tour that changed them all forever. In Finkel’s hands, readers can feel what these young men were experiencing, and his harrowing story instantly became a classic in the literature of modern war.
In Thank You for Your Service, Finkel has done something even more extraordinary. Once again, he has embedded with some of the men of the 2-16—but this time he has done it at home, here in the States, after their deployments have ended. He is with them in their most intimate, painful, and hopeful moments as they try to recover, and in doing so, he creates an indelible, essential portrait of what life after war is like—not just for these soldiers, but for their wives, widows, children, and friends, and for the professionals who are truly trying, and to a great degree failing, to undo the damage that has been done.
The story Finkel tells is mesmerizing, impossible to put down. With his unparalleled ability to report a story, he climbs into the hearts and minds of those he writes about. Thank You for Your Service is an act of understanding, and it offers a more complete picture than we have ever had of these two essential questions: When we ask young men and women to go to war, what are we asking of them? And when they return, what are we thanking them for?
In 2007, the X Prize Foundation announced that it would give $10 million to anyone who could build a safe, mass-producible car that could travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas. The challenge attracted more than one hundred teams from all over the world, including dozens of amateurs. Many designed their cars entirely from scratch, rejecting decades of thinking about what a car should look like.
Jason Fagone follows four of those teams from the build stage to the final race and beyond—into a world in which destiny hangs on a low drag coefficient and a lug nut can be a beautiful talisman. The result is a gripping story of crazy collaboration, absurd risks, colossal hopes, and poignant losses. In an old pole barn in central Illinois, childhood sweethearts hack together an electric-powered dreamboat, using scavenged parts, forging their own steel, and burning through their life savings. In Virginia, an impassioned entrepreneur and his hand-picked squad of speed freaks pool their imaginations and build a car so light that you can push it across the floor with your thumb. In West Philly, a group of disaffected high school students come into their own as they create a hybrid car with the engine of a Harley motorcycle. And in Southern California, the early favorite—a start-up backed by millions in venture capital—designs a car that looks like an alien egg.
Ingenious is a joyride. Fagone takes us into the garages and the minds of the inventors, capturing the fractious yet beautiful process of engineering a bespoke machine. Suspenseful and bighearted, this is the story of ordinary people risking failure, economic ruin, and ridicule to create something vital that Detroit had never pulled off. As the Illinois team wrote in chalk on the wall of their barn, “SOMEBODY HAS TO DO SOMETHING. THAT SOMEBODY IS US.”
On November 28, 1979, squadron commander and Navy pilot Peter Rodrick died when his plane crashed in the Indian Ocean. He was just thirty-six and had been the commanding officer of his squadron for 127 days. Eight thousand miles away on Whidbey Island, near Seattle, he left behind a grief-stricken wife, two daughters, and a thirteenyear-old son who would grow up to be a writer—one who was drawn, perhaps inevitably, to write about his father, his family, and the devastating consequences of military service.
In The Magical Stranger, Stephen Rodrick explores the life and death of the man who indelibly shaped his life, even as he remained a mystery: brilliant but unknowable, sacred but absent—an apparition gone 200 days of the year for much of his young son’s life—a born leader who gave his son little direction. Through adolescence and into adulthood, Rodrick struggled to grasp fully the reality of his father’s death and its permanence. Peter’s picture and memory haunted the family home, but his name was rarely mentioned.
To better understand his father and his own experience growing up without him, Rodrick turned to today’s members of his father’s former squadron, spending nearly two years with VAQ-135, the “World-Famous Black Ravens.” His travels take him around the world, from Okinawa and Hawaii to Bahrain and the Persian Gulf—but always back to Whidbey Island, the setting of his family’s own story. As he learns more about his father, he also uncovers the layers of these sailors’ lives: their brides and girlfriends, friendships, dreams, disappointments—and the consequences of their choices on those they leave behind.
A penetrating, thoughtful blend of memoir and reportage, The Magical Stranger is a moving reflection on the meaning of service and the power of a father’s legacy.
Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II, by Wil S. Hylton.
In the fall of 1944, a massive American bomber carrying eleven men vanished over the Pacific islands of Palau, leaving a trail of mysteries. According to mission reports from the Army Air Forces, the plane crashed in shallow water—but when investigators went to find it, the wreckage wasn’t there. Witnesses saw the crew parachute to safety, yet the airmen were never seen again. Some of their relatives whispered that they had returned to the United States in secret and lived in hiding. But they never explained why.
For sixty years, the U.S. government, the children of the missing airmen, and a maverick team of scientists and scuba divers searched the islands for clues. They trolled the water with side-scan sonar, conducted grid searches on the seafloor, crawled through thickets of mangrove and poison trees, and flew over the islands in small planes to shoot infrared photography. With every clue they found, the mystery only deepened.
Now, in a spellbinding narrative, Wil S. Hylton weaves together the true story of the missing men, their final mission, the families they left behind, and the real reason their disappearance remained shrouded in secrecy for so long. This is a story of love, loss, sacrifice, and faith — of the undying hope among the families of the missing, and the relentless determination of scientists, explorers, archaeologists, and deep-sea divers to solve one of the enduring mysteries of World War II.
The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by David Epstein.
We all knew a star athlete in high school. The one who made it look so easy. He was the starting quarterback and shortstop; she was the all-state point guard and high-jumper. Naturals. Or were they?
The debate is as old as physical competition. Are stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Serena Williams genetic freaks put on Earth to dominate their respective sports? Or are they simply normal people who overcame their biological limits through sheer force of will and obsessive training?
The truth is far messier than a simple dichotomy between nature and nurture. In the decade since the sequencing of the human genome, researchers have slowly begun to uncover how the relationship between biological endowments and a competitor’s training environment affects athleticism. Sports scientists have gradually entered the era of modern genetic research.
In this controversial and engaging exploration of athletic success, Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein tackles the great nature vs. nurture debate and traces how far science has come in solving this great riddle. He investigates the so-called 10,000-hour rule to uncover whether rigorous and consistent practice from a young age is the only route to athletic excellence.
Along the way, Epstein dispels many of our perceptions about why top athletes excel. He shows why some skills that we assume are innate, like the bullet-fast reactions of a baseball or cricket batter, are not, and why other characteristics that we assume are entirely voluntary, like an athlete’s will to train, might in fact have important genetic components.
This subject necessarily involves digging deep into sensitive topics like race and gender. Epstein explores controversial questions such as:
Are black athletes genetically predetermined to dominate both sprinting and distance running, and are their abilities influenced by Africa’s geography?
Are there genetic reasons to separate male and female athletes in competition?
Should we test the genes of young children to determine if they are destined for stardom?
Can genetic testing determine who is at risk of injury, brain damage, or even death on the field?
Through on-the-ground reporting from below the equator and above the Arctic Circle, revealing conversations with leading scientists and Olympic champions, and interviews with athletes who have rare genetic mutations or physical traits, Epstein forces us to rethink the very nature of athleticism.