LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
This year, like every year, NPR's Books We Love project rounded up hundreds of books that scratched whatever your reading itch might be. Today, we're going to talk about some of the nonfiction we loved in 2021. Maybe you'll find your next read that comes from the increasingly strange world we like to call reality. I'm Linda Holmes. And today, we're talking about some of the nonfiction books we loved on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HOLMES: Joining me today is NPR culture desk correspondent Neda Ulaby. Hi, Neda.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Hey, Linda.
HOLMES: I'm always delighted to have you here to talk about books or anything else. So NPR's Books We Love project used to be called the Book Concierge, if you're confused by that. But whatever you call it, it's a great way to find a book for any occasion, any reader, any set of tastes and interests. It's a labor of love and literacy put together by a wonderful team and dedicated, of course, to our dear friend and colleague and POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR panelist, NPR books editor Petra Mayer, who died in November. But we do want to dive right in with one of Neda's nonfiction picks from this year. Neda, what is your first pick?
ULABY: It's a book called "Four Lost Cities: A Secret History Of The Urban Age." So, first of all, who doesn't love a secret history? Second of all, this is by a writer named Annalee Newitz, who's an award-winning writer, uncannily accessible, who's written for Wired and authored other books. And this is a perfect lockdown book. It is a travel book that transports you, really, into four cities that Newitz describes as lost with a great deal of irony. OK. So the first one is the Neolithic settlement of Catalhoyuk. That's the world's very first city that we know of. It's 9,000 years old. Then they take us to Pompeii in Italy, which was a luxurious party city for the Romans before Vesuvius blew it up so spectacularly in 79 A.D. Then we go to the giant medieval city of Angkor in Cambodia, which, unlike Pompeii, did not have a tipping point of destruction, but instead underwent what Newitz calls a soft apocalypse. Finally, there is Cahokia. That's an ancient Native American city in what's now East St. Louis. And it was, at its peak, which was maybe about a thousand years ago, larger than Paris. And this is a great book for anyone who loves cities.
And Newitz isn't a professional archaeologist, but they are a really great journalist, which means they know exactly who to talk to - data archaeologists and urbanists. And they have an incredible eye for detail. And Newitz gives us the smells and the sensations and the excitement of what these places were. And perhaps there is something to learn from these cities that went away. They went away for different reasons over different spans of time. But when you think about, oh, you know, climate catastrophes and other issues, Newitz says that Angkor's diminishment was due to a - and this is a quote - "a trash fire fed on a toxic mix of bad leadership, bad city planning and bad luck."
HOLMES: Very good. Very good. So that is "Four Lost Cities: A Secret History Of The Urban Age" by Annalee Newitz. My pick for a nonfiction book this year is one that I listened to on Audiobook, as I often do in the car, driving my dog back and forth from day care, mostly. It's called "On Animals," and it's a Susan Orlean book. So this is an essay collection about a lot of the different ways that animals and humans exist on the planet together. She writes about animals who compete. There's a great piece about racing pigeons and a great one about a show dog. She writes about famous animals. There's a long piece about Keiko, the orca, who came, of course, to fame in "Free Willy" and then had this very long, complicated history once Keiko became kind of a public figure, I guess you would say. And she does write about her own - she has a menagerie on her farm, including her chickens, turkeys, ducks, dogs, cats. There's a great story about a cat. I really like Orlean on audio. I also love the audiobook of her book "The Library Book," which is about this massive public library fire at the Central Library in Los Angeles. So I love listening to her read her own book. I think she's one of those people who has, like, a great flair with her own tone and voice. I just loved this whole collection. It just was full of delights for me as a person who also loves reading about animals.
ULABY: You know, Susan Orleans (ph) and Annalee Newitz are both these kinds of, like, roving intellects who I will sort of happily follow into intellectual fire, if you know what I mean. Like, they - whatever they take on, I will go with them...
ULABY: ...Into that space. And another intellectual writer who I adore, but who's kind of a different kind, is Alison Bechdel, who wrote the book - it's called "The Secret To Superhuman Strength." And I have to say that I picked it up with kind of low expectations. I love Alison Bechdel. She's personally an extremely important writer to me. My coming-of-age was profoundly shaped by her series "Dykes To Watch Out For." It helped me really become who I was in my coming out and my sense of lesbian identity in the 1990s, although I'm about 10 years younger than she is. And I kind of was like, I've read "Fun Home." I've read the psychoanalytic stuff. I don't know what I was expecting. What I got - and I don't feel like I've seen this in a lot of reviews - was really, in some ways, a completely different but equally profound memoir as "Fun Home" was. This is one that takes on Bechdel's lifelong obsession with working out, which is an off-putting...
ULABY: ...Even to Alison Bechdel, it's off-putting, particularly as a form of queer identity and practice. Exercise can be a way of recovering and losing yourself. You know, there's a joke about - I've heard about gay men that gay men spend their childhoods - and this is obviously way larger than it should be...
HOLMES: Of course.
ULABY: ...That gay men spend their childhoods hating to go to the gym and their adulthoods refusing to leave it. But there is something about sort of uncovering who you are, figuring out - toddling between being told that you're a kind of worthless and aiming towards a kind of perfection that I don't think is exclusive to a queer identity but that can be felt particularly acutely when your body is a source of shame. What Bechdel does is she talks about - it's very much linked to her own sort of sense of being an androgynous person in some ways. Exercise was a way to exceed her female body and become something else. It was a way to feel good. It was a way to transcend. It's organized chronologically with her own life - first about how she would get lost in exercise as a little kid and about how she would look at the Charles Atlas advertisements in the back of comic books - so everything is all - is intertwined with Alison Bechdel - and look at these sort of idealized, very gendered bodies and think about her own relationship with them.
And this is also the kind of book that - as it involves - of course, like, she brings in the transcendentalists, and she brings in Adrienne Rich. And I didn't expect to learn, for example, that Buckminster Fuller was related to Margaret Fuller, but that's the kind of memoir this is - or that JogBras were originally fashioned from jockstraps. And ultimately, Linda, what she tells us is in this battle against pain and shame and these twin poles of perfection and worthlessness, the only thing to transcend is the idea that there's something to transcend.
HOLMES: Absolutely fantastic. And, you know, if you want to discover even more books NPR loved this year, visit npr.org/bestbooks. There is a nifty tag called nonfiction that will help you discover even more great nonfiction books. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you so much for being here, Neda, and bringing your great book recs.
ULABY: Linda, always a pleasure. I can't wait for the next time.
HOLMES: Absolutely. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we will see you all tomorrow.
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