In the spring of 1981, four young gay male patients were referred to Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a young assistant professor at UCLA specializing in immunology, with a series of opportunistic infections. Author Bruce J. Hillman, MD charts the course that Dr. Gottlieb took that would lead to the discovery of AIDS and the dissolution of his academic career in A Plague on All Our Houses.
After contacting the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), an action that had to be suggested by the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) owning to Gottlieb’s professional naivety, he confirmed an additional case via autopsy. Gottlieb and his colleagues collected their data and he drafted what is now considered one of the most notable medical publications of the century. As the lead author of the NEJM article which described a new disease, Gottlieb was pulled in many directions: academic researcher, clinician, spokesperson, grant writer and fundraiser. As the doctor who discovered a new undetectable infectious disease, Gottlieb attracted many patients, most of whom were gay. At the same time, UCLA was trying to brand itself as a transplant center. A mixture of fear and homophobia began to build in earnest. Jealousy joined the mix when Gottlieb drew additional attention as the specialist who cared for Rock Hudson. When Elizabeth Taylor decided to dedicate herself to finding a cure after the death of her friend and a relative, she turned to Gottlieb for counsel, and the mixture neared the boiling point.
If you enjoyed Rebecca Skloot’s work examining the health and societal impact of the HeLa cells juxtaposed against the lives of her children deprived of their mother in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this medical story is for you.
The past is truly prologue in The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics. Author Stephen Coss transports readers to a time when newspaper publishers incited petty feuds and questioned scientific progress in order to increase their profit margin. An outbreak of smallpox provided the perfect opportunity for the new publisher James Franklin and his indentured servant and brother Benjamin to mock inoculation efforts by publishing an ill-informed doctor’s fears of the practice. Inoculation proponent Doctor Zabdiel Boylston found an ally in Cotton Mather to assist in his mission to inoculate willing Bostonians. In an obvious attempt to ease his guilty conscience for his role in the Salem witch trials, Mather gambled that Doctor Boylston would save more lives through inoculation than Mather had condemned through spectral evidence.
Meanwhile, fear of a subversive slave revolt was spawned when enslaved Africans shared their history of inoculation. It was not long before Bostonians feared the new medical practice more than the disease, owing to the compounding factors of a former Salem minister, images of a slave revolt and egregious medical editorials. As a result, the fever of 1721 would be remembered as one of the worst smallpox outbreaks in the Americas.
As Coss tracked the outbreak of smallpox across Boston and into the neighboring towns, another fever spread through the Massachusetts Bay Colony. An argument between the Royal Governor and James Franklin landed the latter in the jail, inspiring his brother to take up his cause in the name of freedom of the press. The events of 1721 not only set the stage for revolution, but helped shape the political and scientific mind of a young indentured man who would become known as “The First American.”
Author Beth Macy, former reporter for The Roanoke Times, used to hear rumors about local African American brothers who’d been kidnapped by the circus. Impenetrably shielded by their family, the brothers’ fate remained private until their grand-niece Nancy Saunders agreed to allow Macy to share their history. The result is Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.
Brothers George and Willie Muse were born in the 1890s in Truevine, VA, a rural and impoverished community of former slaves and their descendants — where Jim Crow reigned and “justice” might have meant lynching. Both brothers were born with albinism, which gave them golden hair, milky skin and light-sensitive pale blue eyes, which were a curse for children expected to toil in tobacco fields under the broiling sun. One day, the little Muse boys disappeared...the same day a White man in a carriage was seen riding through Truevine.
Before television or radio, America had the circus. Traveling circuses large and small entertained folks with their performers, animals and, though appalling by current sensibilities, sideshow acts. Featured along with giants, fat ladies and pinheads were the headliners billed as the Ambassadors from Mars, or sometimes as the sheep-headed cannibals Eko and Iko, aka George and Willie Muse, who eventually traveled the United States and abroad as part of the “greatest show on earth.”
Macy gives the reader two stories in Truevine. One is of the Muse brothers and their mother Harriet, an amazing woman — a Black domestic worker who repeatedly used the deeply racist legal system to challenge the influential entertainment industry to recover her children and end the exploitive working conditions under which they were held. The other, tightly entwined with the Muse narrative, is the historical detail on the circus and its freak shows, a microcosm which reflected broader societal norms. Well researched, fascinating and profoundly moving, Truevine is a story which needed to be told.
As the turn of the 20th century neared, many London newspapers hawked the frenetic belief madness, criminality and disease plagued the lower classes more so than at any other time in history, thus endangering not only the future of the Kingdom but of the human race. When young Robert Coombes stabbed his sleeping mother to death and hired an addled-minded adult to help pawn the family’s belongings, no newspaper missed the opportunity to horrify the nation. Compounding the natural repulsion of matricide, Robert, his younger brother and their self-selected guardian enjoyed games of Cowboys and Indians in the backyard while Emily Coombes’ corpse rotted away in the upstairs bedroom. Kate Summerscale unwinds the facts and lies twisted into the half-truths printed at the time in The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer.
Throughout the trial, much was made about how the lowbrow “penny dreadfuls” Robert read had influenced him, and the possibility that the shape of his head or the size of his brain might have affected his emotional state. Little attention was paid to the home environment or family unit. The science of the day deemed Robert to be insane at the time he committed the act. Summerscale follows Robert out of the Holloway Jail to the aptly named Murder’s Paradise at the Broadmoor Asylum, through his release and emigration to Australia, into the trenches of War World I and to an almost cosmic final purpose.
Bereaved fans of Ann Rule and anyone not so patiently waiting for the perpetually in development theatrical version of The Devil in the White City will enjoy this page-turner.
It is a truth in America today that a single woman in possession of good fortune (or little or no fortune) may not be in want of a husband. According to data taken in 2012 from the Pew Research Center, 17 percent of women aged 25 or older have never been married, and the age when women do get married rose from 20 in 1960 to 27 in 2012. Why are so many women waiting to get married, if they even marry at all? The rallying cry of many magazine articles and talk show hosts seems to be: “What’s wrong with these women?”
According to Rebecca Traister’s book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, absolutely nothing is wrong. Traister doesn’t condemn women for remaining single or for marrying; passing a value judgment on a woman’s life is not what this book is about. Instead, she objectively considers the reasons why women make the choices they do, and examines the societal implications of these choices.
Traister examines the way single women now — the never-want-to-be married, the divorced, the widowed and those considering marrying later — interact with the world around them within the context of the centuries that women were restricted to the roles of housewives and mothers to the exclusion of all else. She reviews the economic and social trends as they’ve rapidly changed over the past couple of decades, culminating in women today having more freedom to live their lives as they wish. According to Traister, the way women exercise these freedoms is changing America’s political, social and economic landscape in ways our social and political structures aren't currently prepared to support.
Traister balances the political and socio-economic discourse with her interviews with single women of different ages and backgrounds. These interviews provide real-life examples proving that broadly classifying the single woman experience into one category is an exercise in folly. Not all single women share the same experience — for instance, the experiences of a single white female, in the past and today, are very different from a single woman of color, and the interviews illuminate this in a very real way.
Traister writes with clarity and comprehension, which makes All the Single Ladies an accessible and thought-provoking read perfect for anyone — married or single — looking to better understand the shifting paradigms and needs of our society. Fans of the book may also wish to read Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed for another perspective on the role of women in America.
Hair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.
Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?
The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.
Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.
Hysteria, hallucination or superstition? Stacy Schiff does not provide readers with the answer, but she does give us all the ammunition we need to come to our own conclusions in The Witches: Salem, 1692.
Massachusetts, 1692. The time and place should be immediately recognizable. It was arguably the darkest period in early colonial American history. The colony was dotted with small villages and towns that lingered on the edge of wilderness and the unknown. Harsh winters and Indian raids kept colonists wearily alert. Religion provided guidance, if not solace, in everyday life but did little to dispel the monotony of winter days spent indoors. Could all of this have led young girls to writhe and contort and then accuse others of causing their discomfort through witchcraft, which then led the accused to implicate their own families and neighbors? All in all, 20 people were executed for witchcraft. Nineteen were convicted of witchcraft and hanged while one refused to enter a plea and was crushed to death under the weight of heavy stones.
Little historical documentation of the Salem Witch Trials survived, either due to the shorthand of court transcriptionists or later loss from war. Much of what did survive comes from secondhand accounts or accounts written down years after the trials. Schiff thoroughly interpreted what little documentation survived from 1692 and 1693. Her take on the trials is heavy on facts with not so much narrative. The Witches is a well-researched book about the Salem Witch Trials that focuses on the leaders of the community.
If you want to balance your nonfiction reading of the trials with fascinating fictional versions, check out The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Conversion, both by Katherine Howe, and Arthur Miller's classic The Crucible.
From its curious inception as an emulation of American postwar Ivy League attire to its evolution into countless worldwide labels, Japanese menswear has pioneered the world’s most popular looks of leisure. W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is a fantastic look at the history of men’s fashion in Japan.
According to Marx, the concept of fashion was never prevalent in male life in Japan before World War II. Caring about one’s appearance was viewed as effeminate; instead, men dressed in functional, traditional raiment. After the bombs fell and the war ended, many people were forced to make their own clothes out of leftover military surplus like parachutes and fatigues. It wasn’t until the imminent arrival of the 1964 Olympics that men began to ponder their looks and shirked survivor chic.
Marx traces the origins of some of Japan’s earliest men’s fashions back to a couple of standout individuals who would all live on to create, control and influence the country’s leisure fashion industry throughout the second half of the 20th century. It began with the “ivy” look, Japan’s best attempt at manufacturing clothing reflective of what students at northeast American colleges were wearing. In the late 1960s, Ivy relaxed into the “heavy duty” look, which brought denim jeans to Japan and elevated American outfitter companies like L.L. Bean to cult status. Fueled by a bubble in the economy, fashion hotspot Harajuku popped up overnight and exploded into Japan’s most frenetic fashion district, housing imports and original brands men couldn’t buy quickly enough.
Over time, Japan’s fashion endeavors evolved from emulation into innovation, leading to greater exports and global brand presences. The story is incredibly interesting, and Marx’s research and presentation are as impeccable as his style. Readers who enjoy microhistories or are into lifestyle reading will find Ametora to be irresistible.
In his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt was a superstar — a fearless adventurer, penniless aristocrat and brilliant polymath. He befriended and collaborated with many of his illustrious contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was the personal hero of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and his work was the basis for their great achievements. But he is largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, despite lending his name to numerous places and even species. In her latest book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, author Andrea Wulf seeks to reestablish Humboldt’s celebrity and pay homage to his genius.
In keeping with a biography of a man whose curiosity knew no limits, Wulf’s take on Humboldt’s life is multi-faceted and includes detailed, interwoven narratives of the scientific fields his work impacted. She examines how his personal relationships, politics and ethics were formed and how he used his beliefs, in turn, to enact change in the turbulent world around him. Humboldt undertook two major expeditions — one to South America and another stretching across Southern Russia into the Mongolian steppes. The product of these voyages emerged as theories he developed about the interconnectedness of the natural systems that are the foundation of our understanding of biology today. His major work Cosmos can easily be seen as the precursor to the major documentary phenomena of 2006, Planet Earth. And yet Humboldt also famously brought a sense of wonder and poetry to his work that helped to form the Romantic and Transcendental movements in the arts. Reading about Humboldt’s remarkable achievements and the fantastic experiences of his journeys instill one with a sense of wonder and curiosity about what is outside.
This book has been released alongside a spate of literature on the natural world, including the 2015 edition of The Best of American Science and Nature Writing (edited by Rebecca Skloot), and many of these new titles will be make for good pairings alongside this denser read. The Curious Nature Guide and Cabinet of Curiosities will be particularly useful to any budding naturalists inspired to get out and explore the world around you, like Humboldt did.
Following the devastation wrought by World War I, grieving Europeans and Americans sought the answer to the question: What happens to us after death? Many turned to Spiritualism, the belief that the dead can communicate with the living, and popularized consulting mediums and psychics to contact their dead. But how would you know if the dead were really speaking through the medium, or if you were in the presence of a talented (or sometimes not-so-talented) fraud?
One answer: apply science and logic to test a medium’s abilities. David Jaher’s debut book The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction and Houdini in the Spirit World describes just such a test held in the mid-1920s and the furor that surrounded its most likely candidate. Sponsored by the magazine Scientific American, a large cash prize was offered to the medium who could provide proof of his or her abilities, proof that had to withstand scientific scrutiny by an investigative panel of judges.
What set out to be an objective experiment in psychic research became anything but, dominated by the personalities involved. Jaher’s cast ranges from the champion of Spiritualism and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to one of the judges, the escape artist who actively sought to expose fake psychics, Harry Houdini. Most important of all was the so-called Witch of Lime Street, a Boston woman known as Margery or Mina Crandon, who supposedly could call on her deceased brother to perform various ectoplasmic phenomena.
Jaher provides a deeper understanding for a little-known craze of the Jazz Age. His level of detail is meticulous and illuminating, capturing the complex relationships and beliefs of everyone involved, living or apparition. His objective recounting of the contest and the fallout that followed allows readers to make their own judgment of the people involved. Readers who enjoy learning about the more obscure events in history will definitely enjoy this book. But this book could also be enjoyed by those who have wondered if there is life after death, or who appreciate the complexity of human relationships.