When I think about nonfiction reads for the summer, I always return to books that are both a lot of fun to read and that don’t take a lot of brainpower to parse through. The authors with books on this list are definitely smart, but they've also found a way to make their topics -- everything from the birth of forensic toxicology to the history of a favorite summer toy -- easily digestible even after a margarita or two.
Credit: Leisure at the swimming pool with towels and a book via Shutterstock
Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis
The world of competitive Scrabble -- where two letter words and those who memorize stem works rule -- is not for the faint of heart. Luckily, author Stefan Fatsis is around to make his way into this elite and strange club for us. In Word Freak, Fatsis chronicles his own journey towards becoming a Scrabble champion and profiles the people who have already made it to the elite ranks for this exclusive (and totally off-the-wall) club. This is a perfect book for board game lovers of all kinds.
The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman
If you're in need of a book that will make you feel more comfortable with your own summer travel plans, The Lunatic Express might be just the ticket. In the book, journalist Carl Hoffman decides to travel the world via some of the most dangerous methods of transportation available -- sinkable Indonesian ferries, cliff-diving Amazonian buses, and Indian commuter trains. Although the idea seems (well, really, is) remarkably foolhardy, it becomes clear in the book why Hoffman is taking this journey, and the emotional stakes really turn what could be a gimmicky book into a story with a lot of heart.
Fooling Houdini by Alex Stone
Of all the books on this list, I think Fooling Houdini delighted me most. Alex Stone is a physicist by day and amateur magician by night. After an embarassing showing at the Magic Olympics (yes, that really is a thing), Stone re-commits himself to becoming a master of his craft by seeking the help of some of the world’s best magicians and investigating the psychology, mathematics and neuroscience behind the best illusions. Fooling Houdini is a charming and deeply nerdy look into a society built on secrets that I couldn’t put down.
The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum
If you're more apt to pick up a historical thriller when sitting by the pool, then I can't recommend Deborah Blum's book highly enough. Set in New York City in the 1910s and 1920s, The Poisoner's Handbook is the story of two men -- chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler -- matching wits with the city's most devious criminals, whose weapon of choice was poison. The investigative techniques they developed have become the cornerstones of forensic science. This book is part Boardwalk Empire and part CSI, with enough (very understandable) chemistry to make you feel like you're learning a little bit too.
My Year With Eleanor by Noelle Hancock
Earlier this year, there was a bit of kerfuffle online about the idea of "chick nonfiction." Some people, understandably, thought it was a sexist and unnecessary term. Others (like me) thought it was a reasonable term to describe a sort of female-oriented nonfiction that’s starting to emerge. Whether you like the term or not My Year With Eleanor fits into the category perfectly. In the book, 29-year-old Noelle Hancock, an unemployed former entertainment blogger, decides that she needs to face her anxiety and learn to live her life again. Taking a page from Eleanor Roosevelt, who famously suggested,"Do one thing every day that scares you,” Hancock decides to face her fears -- one per day, one day at a time for a year. I thought this book was charming (if also a bit on the breezy side) and would make a perfect summer read.
The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry
Although most of us are probably most familiar with the murderesses of Cook County Jail from the movie and/or musical Chicago, their well-recognized tale is based on a series of real life murders in Chicago in 1924. In The Girls of Murder City, Douglas Perry recounts the story of how intrepid girl reporter Maurine Watkins captured the sensational stories of “Stylish Belva” Gaertner and “Beautiful Beulah” Annan -- the leading criminals on Murderess Row. Throughout, The Girls of Murder City is filled with tons of period details and highlights the sensational drama that helped begin the world of celebrity criminals
The Ball by John Fox
Summer is a time for play, and what is easier to play with than a ball? In The Ball, author John Fox tries to answer a seemingly simple question: Why do we play ball? To explore the topic, Fox goes back to the historical roots of some of today's most beloved games -- football, baseball, tennis, rugby and others -- to try and figure out what makes these games tick. Part travel narrative, part history, part evolutionary psychology, I thought The Ball was a smart and playful read from beginning to end.
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