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5 New Nonfiction Books You'll Love

Erik Larson revisits World War II, and forensic pioneer Edward Oscar Heinrich is compared to Sherlock Holmes

collage of The Splendid and the Vile, American Sherlock, Why We Can't Sleep, Overground Railroad and The Lost Family book covers


If you're looking for an absorbing story that will simultaneously entertain and educate you, add these five new nonfiction books to your need-to-read list.

The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are

Libby Copeland

Many of us send away our saliva for DNA testing as a lark, but the results can be a disturbing surprise for some — proving that they're not biologically related to their fathers (known in the biz as “non-paternity events"), for instance. Copeland, a longtime journalist, has written a smart and absorbing exploration of the ethics and privacy questions surrounding this relatively new ability to confirm who's who on our family trees. Now, she writes, “when one person spits into a vial or swabs her cheek, the whole family is implicated.” It's a page-turner, thanks to a story that's woven into the narrative about a woman named Alice Collins Plebuch who'd grown up believing she was of British-Irish descent. After genetic testing revealed Eastern European Jewish ancestry, she set off on a dogged quest to understand where those genes came from. By the end you'll also be eager to find out where the disconnect occurred (and the answer's a doozy).

The Lost Family book cover


The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

Erik Larson

Larson is the master at making history as compelling as the best fiction, which is why his previous books — among them The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts — were No. 1 best sellers. The author doesn't disappoint in his latest, a deeply researched story about Winston's Churchill first year as prime minister, starting May 10, 1940, a few months after the start of World War II. The story captures Londoners’ terror during the German bombing assault; Churchill's diplomatic maneuvering, including cajoling America for support; his and his family members’ domestic lives; and a rich portrait of the man himself (fun fact: He couldn't bear the sound of whistling). More profoundly, though, the book makes a dramatic case for Churchill as bold savior in the face of German aggression. “Churchill brought to No. 10 Downing Street a naked confidence that under his leadership Britain would win the war,” Larson writes, “even though any objective appraisal would have said he did not have a chance.”

The Splendid and the Vile book cover


Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Midlife Crisis

Ada Calhoun

As Gen X women reach middle age they are often anxious and overwhelmed — by careers, child care, eldercare, relationships — and, the 40-something Calhoun argues, some of their emotional exhaustion stems from too many choices. That's not such a bad situation to be in, members of the older generation might think, but, based in part on her own experience, the author insists that “possibilities create pressure.” She notes how Gen Xers’ second-wave feminist parents have pushed their daughters to “have it all” (as in, “Why be a nurse when you could be a doctor?"). Calhoun is not really trying to offer advice, but, by illustrating her own journey, provides an example of how women at this life stage can learn to empower themselves, focus on what's most important to them and thrive, despite heavy expectations from themselves and others.

why we cant sleep book cover


Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America

Candacy Taylor

Many of us were loosely introduced to the Green Book by the wonderful 2018 Oscar-winning film of the same name. This fascinating new history dives far deeper into the story behind the Negro Motorist Green Book, published from 1936 to 1967, which allowed African Americans to find hospitable accommodations and resources during a time when they were at best unwelcome and at worst unsafe when they traveled. Taylor describes how postal worker and entrepreneur Victor Hugo Green was motivated to compile this “bible of black travel,” with a mission that was so radical in that pre-civil rights era that simply to be listed in the book was an act of courage. The author has also curated a three-year mobile Smithsonian exhibit on the Green Book that will be at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, from June 13 to Sept. 13.

Overground Railroad book cover


American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI

Kate Winkler Dawson

Fans of the hit TV series NCIS, CSI and Mindhunter are likely to be gripped by this story about forensic pioneer Edward Oscar Heinrich, heralded by the author as “the most famous criminalist you've likely never heard of.” During the crime-ridden 1920s and 1930s — an era of underfunded police departments outsmarted by savvy criminals — Heinrich invented techniques that broke some of the country's toughest cases. The author reconstructs his most remarkable ones with vivid detail, thanks to Heinrich's meticulous record-keeping. The detective, of course, was endlessly compared to Sherlock Holmes — something he apparently wasn't too pleased about, despite seeming to share the same kind of deductive brilliance as the fictional detective. Dawson writes that Heinrich once snapped at a reporter who made the comparison, “Not Sherlock Holmes. Holmes acted on hunches. And hunches play no part in my crime laboratory."

American Sherlock book cover