Spring 2020 Nonfiction Picks

Complicating the ordinary, letters from home, the arrival of a meteorite, and the disappearance of a son: E.J. Koh, Dinah Lenney, Harry Dodge, and Roman Dial take us into very different, very real worlds with these nonfiction selections.


Coffee by Dinah Lenney


• By Dinah Lenney
• Bloomsbury, 192 pages, $13.45

Your morning cup of joe is more complicated than it looks. Just ask Dinah Lenney, author of Coffee, the latest in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series—which asks writers to ruminate on ordinary things in complex terms. Lenney’s distinctively urgent voice is perfect for this form. She presents herself as a connoisseur (her coffee ritual includes freshly roasted small-batch beans brewed in a Chemex) but not an elitist: Chock Full o’ Nuts gets the same attention as the pricier stuff. Where Lenney really shines, though, is in her ability to interweave environmental, sociopolitical, and cultural concerns with reflections on time, womanhood, and family. Her lyrical prose is as invigorating as a strong jolt of caffeine.

—Liska Jacobs

The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir by E.J. Koh


• By E.J. Koh
• Tin House, 224 pages, $22.95

When E.J. Koh was 15, her parents moved to Korea for work and left her with her brother in California. The Magical Language of Others alternates a narrative of that period with translated letters from her mother. “If her letters could go to sleep,” Koh writes, “my translations would be their dreams.” Each page comes woven with a magical idea. “There is a Korean belief,” she explains, “that you are born the parent of the one you hurt most.… I was the reincarnation of somebody wronged, and no wonder I took out a chunk of my mother’s body.” Where do mothers end and daughters begin? Do we love or haunt one another? This memoir is an unforgettable lyric of sacrifice and abandonment.

—Melissa Chadburn

My Meteorite: Or Without the Random There can be No New Thing by Harry Dodge


• By Harry Dodge
• Penguin Books, 336 pages, $18

“Liquid time…doesn’t always move in one direction,” Harry Dodge writes in his memoir, My Meteorite. Central to the book are the death of Dodge’s adopted father and a renewed relationship with his birth mother. This offers a chance to contemplate some uncanny coincidences between these individuals. Such concurrences, Dodge asserts, are complex, representing “flows of events in which every other possible event is happening in infinite other worlds.” A meteorite heralds the arrival of more coincidences, inspiring meditations on everything from sex to artificial intelligence to the universe. What emerges is a genre-defying book about the irrevocable ties that bind us, written in a voice that is stark, unique, and deeply resonant.

Alex Espinoza

The Adventurer's Son by Roman Dial


• By Roman Dial
• William Morrow, 368 pages, $28.99

An epic and intimate study of the allure of raw wilderness, The Adventurer’s Son is explorer and biologist Roman Dial’s can’t-put-down account of his son, Cody, who at age 27 hiked alone into a vast jungle in Costa Rica—and disappeared. As local officials hampered the ensuing two-year search and a reality-television crew falsely claimed that the younger Dial was a misguided drug tourist, his father had to face a difficult and devastating truth: that in sharing with Cody a lifetime of scientific exploration ranging from the Aleutian Islands to Borneo, he had inspired his beloved boy to follow in his risk-taking footsteps, with tragic results.

Dean Kuipers

Liska Jacobs is the author of two acclaimed novels, Catalina (FSG Originals) and The Worst Kind of Want (MCD | FSG).
Melissa Chadburn’s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, Longreads, and dozens of other places.
Dean Kuipers’s most recent books are a memoir, The Deer Camp, and, with his wife, Lauri Kranz, the how-to A Garden Can Be Anywhere.
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