Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. by Danielle AllenHarvard University professor Danielle Allen had a much-loved younger cousin, Michael, who drifted into petty criminal activities that escalated until he was convicted of a felony at age 15; while rebuilding his life after 11 years of imprisonment, he was murdered. In Cuz, Allen chronicles Michael's life and death while criticizing the American criminal justice system. This heartwrenching memoir starkly contrasts Michael's life with Allen's relatively privileged one and offers details about how society fails young African American men. For additional memoirs that delve into these issues, try Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped and Lezley McSpadden's Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil.
A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War by Deborah CampbellCanadian journalist Deborah Campbell began working undercover in Syria in 2007, reporting on Iraqi refugees. She became friends with Ahlam, an Iraqi woman who did humanitarian work and (at risk to her own safety) provided information to foreign reporters. After they had worked together for several years, Ahlam was arrested, and Campbell embarked on a dangerous and frustrating search for her. Vividly describing conditions in Syria, from the refugee camps to the jails, this award-winning, emotionally intense memoir may appeal to those who appreciated David Rhode and Kristen Mulvihill's A Rope and a Prayer or Amanda Lindhout's A House in the Sky.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan EigIn this balanced biography of boxer Muhammad Ali, author Jonathan Eig relates Ali's family background, the complexities of his status as a celebrity, and his later life, in addition to his boxing career. Ali places political and personal controversies in the context of the 1960s and draws on previously unavailable resources to correct the record in some instances. For another well-researched and compelling study of Ali, take a look at David Remnick's King of the World.
God's Wolf: The Life of the Most Notorious of All Crusaders, Scourge of Saladin by Jeffrey LeeCrusader Reynald de Chatillon was the only Christian leader who directly attacked the legendary Sultan Saladin during the 1180s. He's seldom recalled in the West, but is still viewed with hostility in the Islamic world -- in 2010 a terrorist bomb addressed to "Reynald de Chatillon" was hidden in a London FedEx shipment. Though Reynald's Christian rivals and Muslim enemies characterized him as a brutal, violent renegade, journalist Jeffrey Lee portrays a brilliant leader with diverse talents and a chivalric manner. This accessible, thoroughly researched portrait will intrigue Crusades buffs and those interested in current Christian-Islamic relations.
Real American: A Memoir by Julie Lythcott-HaimsIn this absorbing, moving, and candid memoir, bestselling author Julie Lythcott-Haims recounts her upbringing as a biracial child in 1970s America. Pulling no punches, she recounts the effects of racism on her psyche during her childhood and teen years, as well as the issues she faced in bringing up "quadroon" children with her Jewish husband. Her gradual understanding of the world as complex rather than starkly black and white leads to her self-acceptance, as well as making her determined to help Americans address racism more forthrightly.
Focus on: Science and Medicine
My Brief History by Stephen HawkingIn My Brief History, British physicist Stephen Hawking recounts his personal story with humor (he's often laugh-out-loud funny). He describes his early years, his barely average secondary and undergraduate marks, and his diagnosis at age 21 with a motor neuron disease. Summarizing his subsequent scientific achievements and his failed marriages, Hawking presents a charming account of his life, captivating the reader with humility and frankness rather than emotion. If this short autobiography leaves you wanting more, try Hawking's A Brief History of Time; the 2014 film The Theory of Everything; or episodes of the PBS television series Genius.
Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray MonkOften called "the father of the atomic bomb," physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer followed his work on the Manhattan project with a postwar position as the chief advisor to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission -- although his political affiliations and reluctance to work on the development of the hydrogen bomb later made him an outcast. Focusing explicitly on Oppenheimer's scientific contributions, author Ray Monk's account also details how anti-Semitism affected his earlier career and McCarthy-era anticommunism muted his later achievements. This book offers a valuable complement to Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's American Prometheus.
The Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic and the Endangered by Michele RaffinA certified aviculturist and founding director of Pandemonium Aviaries in Los Altos, California, author Michele Raffin became involved in bird rescue when she helped a friend who had found an injured dove. Over the course of 15 years, she began to volunteer at a homeless bird shelter, took in birds at her home, and became an expert at caring for exotic birds. Affecting and informative vignettes about the birds she's known add color to her informative memoir, which discusses the plight of endangered species alongside Raffin's adventures in aviculture.
Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives by David Oliver RelinWhile planning a book on Himalayan mountaineers, journalist David Oliver Relin met a mountain-climbing American ophthalmologist who inspired him to write about a project that restores the sight of Nepalese villagers. American Geoff Tabin and Nepali Sanduk Ruit have developed a method for cataract surgery that allows them to treat patients in under four minutes for only $20. Overcoming skepticism at their unconventional technology deployed in challenging conditions, the two doctors have made a huge difference both in Nepal and other parts of the world. Second Suns provides an inspiring chronicle of their achievements.
The Secret Lives of Bats: My Adventures with the World's Most Misunderstood Mammals by Merlin TuttleAt age 17, ecologist Merlin Tuttle became fascinated by bats that lived in a local cave. In this engaging memoir, he relates his subsequent lifetime of studying these much-misunderstood, oft-maligned creatures. Explaining how he tracks their social relationships and their contributions to sustainable ecology, he recounts his unnerving adventures while observing and photographing them. Both bat-fans and the bat-averse will find The Secret Lives of Bats informative and compelling.
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