Biography, Business, Criticism, Film, History, Psychology, Science, Sociology, Top Picks

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2)

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerThis was the first book I started in 2013, and it proved to be the most difficult and rewarding read I tackled the entire year. It is not uncommon for people to believe that we are living in the most violent period in human history. The record size of our current population means that the absolute number of violent deaths recorded today are larger than the numbers of historical violent deaths. Our global media structure also means that knowledge of these events is more widespread. But as a percentage of the population, Steven Pinker shows that the number of violent deaths in the modern world is lower than it has ever been in recorded history; you are less likely to die of violent causes today than at any other time in human history. Pinker expects readers to doubt his hypothesis, and the first part of the book is spent marshaling evidence for his claim, while the second part focuses on identifying the factors that may have contributed to this decline. Although the numerous examples of historical and modern violence make for heavy emotional reading, Pinker’s optimism that we can do better, and his insights into how, are incredibly important.

Categories: Science, History, Psychology, Sociology

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (eISBN 978-0-307-95295-0)

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissLiterary history records two men called Alexandre Dumas, a father, who wrote well-known novels such as The Three Musketeers, and his somewhat less famous son, the playwright. But the novelist’s father, also Alexandre Dumas, the first of that name, is formidable character in his own right, and it his life that is chronicled here by Tom Reiss. Born the illegitimate son of an itinerant French noble on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Dumas became a free man upon his arrival in France. Dumas achieved power and success in the French Revolutionary Army, before the colour of his skin brought his fortunes crashing back to earth when Napoleon assumed power. His son eventually drew inspiration from his life story for many of his novels, but the real story is perhaps even more interesting. The Black Count is as much a history of revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a biography, but Reiss writes about history with an immediacy that makes his overviews extremely readable.

Categories: Biography, History 

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies  (ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4)

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine BasingerI Do and I Don’t articulates the important differences between romantic comedies and the genre  Jeanine Basinger defines as the marriage movie. The work is descriptive rather than analytic, assembling evidence for the existence of this new genre, and laying out the types of plots and problems most commonly dealt with in movies that are about marriages rather than courtships. Basinger’s encyclopedic knowledge of American cinema, sense of humour, and willingness to go against popular opinion make her the perfect guide. Existing in a space somewhere between academic writing and popular nonfiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to just any reader, but if you have an interest in film studies, or cultural portrayals of marriage, I Do and I Don’t delivers.

Categories: Criticism, Film, History

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (ISBN 978-0-393-08157-2)

Cover image for Gulp by Mary RoachTake a sharp sense of humour, ruthless inquisitiveness, and the willingness to ask awkward questions, and you have the popular science oeuvre of Mary Roach, who is able to hit the mark time and time again with her humourous investigations into the grossest and most obscure areas of scientific research. Her sense of humour can carry even a squeamish reader through these topics, and her explanations and anecdotes are accessible even to those with little to no science background. In Gulp, Roach takes on the science of the digestive system, from saliva to flatulence and everything in between.

Categories: Science 

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (ISBN 978-1-4000-6980-4)

Cover image for Salt Sugar Fat by Michael MossWell known for his investigative reporting on food issues, Michael Moss takes on the processed food industry, examining the roles that salt, sugar, and fat play in making these food products edible and craveable. Flavour and taste have been extensively researched, and food companies use this knowledge to design products with precisely honed “bliss points” that make them almost irresistible. However, this book is interesting not because it retreads the well known harms associated with processed food products, but because Moss delves into the difficulties these companies face in improving the health profiles of their products in the face of killer competition, and minimal government regulation. In fact, American government food subsidies for meat and cheese may even play a role in the high fat content of the American diet.

Categories: Business, Science 


Looking for more recommended reads? Check out my top five non-fiction reads from 2012. 

Non-Fiction, Science

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Cover image for Gulp by Mary Roachby Mary Roach

ISBN 978-0-393-08157-2

I don’t want you to say ‘this is gross.’ I want you to say, ‘I thought this would be gross, but it’s really interesting’ Okay, and maybe a little gross.”

Mary Roach sticks to her successful formula of inquisitiveness regardless of taboos and humour in the face of squeamishness in her exploration of the science of the digestive system. Roach delves into the scientific literature, and finds the most unusual quests for knowledge, from fecal transplants to fistulated stomachs and beyond.  Then she tracks these scientists down and asks them questions that are even more unconventional. Her queries are one part Mythbusters—could Jonah really have survived inside a whale stomach?—and one part Ripley’s Believe it or Not—did you know that Elvis may have died not of a drug overdose but of constipation? That said, she writes about disgusting science—saliva, flatulence odours, and constipation—in a way that a person (I’m not saying me) who cried over their ninth grade frog dissection lab can get through with relative ease. I just can’t recommend eating while you read.

Roach is possessed of the kind of curiousity that makes you glad she isn’t a scientist herself—god knows what she would get up to—but happy that she is willing to do the research and leg work to get her bizarre questions answered for our reading pleasure. Her bibliography is full of papers with titles like “Optimizing the Sensory Characteristics and Acceptance of Canned Cat Food: Use of a Human Taste Panel,” and “Garlic Ingestion by Pregnant Women Alters the Odor of Amniotic Fluid.”  It also takes a particular sang-froid to interview a convicted murderer about what it’s like to hold a balloon of smuggled tobacco inside the rectum, for example. Oh to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. For each new, potentially revolting topic, Roach hooks you with a humourous anecdote or an insightful question before putting the science to you in terms the general reader can understand.

Gruesomely fascinating from start to finish, Gulp is aimed squarely at those readers with an appetite for obscure knowledge.


Cover image for Bonk by Mary RoachAlso by Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex 

Humour, Non-Fiction, Science

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Cover image for Bonk by Mary Roach by Mary Roach

ISBN 978-0-393-06464-3

“This book is a tribute to the men and women who dared. Who, to this day, endure ignorance, closed minds, righteousness, and prudery. Their lives are not easy. But their cocktail parties are the best.”

With Bonk, Mary Roach delivers a smart and funny read about the history of the scientific investigation of sex. She pays tribute to the researchers who have dared to investigate this taboo subject, evincing a great sense of humour about the prudish state of affairs. At the same time, she calls attention to the truth of the matter; what is truly amazing about the science of sex is how much don’t know or don’t know for certain. Researchers struggle for the funding and human subject review board approval they need to conduct their studies, only to be faced with the further difficulty of being treated as perverts by their colleagues, and having to cloak their research in euphemistic language in order to achieve publication. Unfortunately, as a book of science and humour, Bonk does not delve into what could be done to improve this state of affairs. Certainly, as Roach has demonstrated, we have come a long way, but there is a long way yet to go.

Despite the humourous style, this is not recommended reading material for the faint of heart; Roach investigates and discusses medical procedures that would make most people cringe. Some of the historical procedures (and even a few of the modern ones) are both terrifying and hilarious. Be prepared to read about relocated clitorises, inside out penises, toothbrushes inserted head-first into urethras, and much more. Roach does deploy comedy to mitigate some of the horror, and her sense of humour is fully in line with her subject. For example, she assigns a penile implant patient the pseudonym Mr. Wang.

Roach is also a relentless researcher; she asks all the pertinent questions and then she delivers the answer, even if it turns out that the answer is “we don’t know.” However, even she comes up against impenetrable walls due to the delicate subject. Virginia Johnson (of Masters and Johnson) refuses to speak with her, and the Kinsey Institute informs her that certain videos are “not available” for viewing. Her research is by no means confined to books and archives, although she has uncovered some of the very interesting patents in the U.S. Patent office (for example Patent 3, 941, 136 which is an anal electrostimulator designed to induce orgasm, defecation or urination in animals). She visits the researchers and doctors in person, and even volunteers herself and her husband as study participants in order to provide an inside view which considers the research subject as well as the scientists.

This book contains a lot of footnotes, but don’t skip them! These are not the usual dry research notes and asides, but rather, hilarious tangential tidbits that Roach obviously could not pass up including somewhere. A moderately long bibliography is included for those interested in further, but the hardback edition lacks an index.