The best nonfiction books that feature amazing flying things

Matthew Gavin Frank Author Of Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa
By Matthew Gavin Frank

Who am I?

Like many who carry over childish curiosity into adulthood, I'm attracted to forbidden places. I trespass. When I heard that a portion of South Africa’s coast was owned by the De Beers conglomerate and closed to the public for nearly 80 years, plunging the local communities into mysterious isolation, I became obsessed with visiting the place. Afterward, I began studying carrier pigeons—the amazing flying things that folks use to smuggle diamonds out of the mines. I wrote a book about this, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers. I'm also the author of nonfiction books about the first-ever photograph of the giant squid, working on a medical marijuana farm, and American food culture.


I wrote...

Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa

By Matthew Gavin Frank,

Book cover of Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa

What is my book about?

For nearly eighty years, a huge portion of coastal South Africa was closed to the public. With many of its pits now deemed “overmined” and abandoned, American journalist Matthew Gavin Frank sets out across the infamous Diamond Coast to investigate an illicit trade that supplies a global market. Immediately, he became intrigued by the ingenious methods used in facilitating smuggling, particularly, the illegal act of sneaking carrier pigeons onto mine property, affixing diamonds to their feet, and sending them into the air.

Frank soon meets Msizi, a young diamond miner, and his pigeon, Bartholomew, who helps him steal diamonds. It’s a deadly game: pigeons are shot on sight by mine security, and Msizi knows of smugglers who have disappeared because of their crimes.

The books I picked & why

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World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

By Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Fumi Nakamura (illustrator),

Book cover of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

Why this book?

There’s this rumor that poets look longer and harder at the ornaments of the world than do anyone else.  They keep looking, and looking, and looking, after most everyone else has long ago looked away, moved on. Here, in the wonderful world of poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first book of nonfiction, whimsy and reverence twine like the DNA helices of the flora and fauna she examines. In her essay on the firefly, I adore the part when the insects “…lose their light rhythm for a few minutes after a single car’s headlights pass. Sometimes it takes hours for them to recalibrate their blinking patterns.”

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

By Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Fumi Nakamura (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked World of Wonders as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Hands-down one of the most beautiful books of the year." -NPR

From beloved, award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil comes a debut work of nonfiction-a collection of essays about the natural world, and the way its inhabitants can teach, support, and inspire us.

As a child, Nezhukumatathil called many places home: the grounds of a Kansas mental institution, where her Filipina mother was a doctor; the open skies and tall mountains of Arizona, where she hiked with her Indian father; and the chillier climes of western New York and Ohio. But no matter where she was transplanted-no matter how awkward the fit…


Animals Strike Curious Poses

By Elena Passarello,

Book cover of Animals Strike Curious Poses

Why this book?

In Animals Strike Curious Poses, Elena Passarello’s brilliant essay collection, we learn the secret histories and trajectories of various “famous” animals and our odd human relationships with them. These essays know weird and delicious things about the recesses of our hearts (the corporeal and metaphorical ones). They know what goes on in the ganglia of the spider’s silk-spigot, and in the shadows cast by the giant carapace. In “Vogel Staar,” one of the most delightful essays collection, we learn of the pet starling that served as Mozart’s musical muse, presumably inspiring the composer’s more daring compositions.  

Animals Strike Curious Poses

By Elena Passarello,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Animals Strike Curious Poses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beginning with Yuka, a 39,000 year old mummified woolly mammoth recently found in the Siberian permafrost, each of the 16 essays in Animals Strike Curious Poses investigates a different famous animal named and immortalized by humans. Modeled loosely after a medieval bestiary, these witty, playful, whipsmart essays traverse history, myth, science, and more, bringing each beast vibrantly to life.

Elena Passarello is an actor, a writer, and recipient of a 2015 Whiting Fellowship in nonfiction. Her first collection with Sarabande Books, Let Me Clear My Throat, won the gold medal for nonfiction at the 2013 Independent Publisher Awards. She lives…


The Book of Delights: Essays

By Ross Gay,

Book cover of The Book of Delights: Essays

Why this book?

In Ross Gay’s linked essay collection, The Book of Delights, the desire to record joyous observations, and to examine the complexities and “underbellies” of such quotidian moments—becomes, as the book progresses, an act of political commentary, and unexpected engagement of social justice. The essay, “Bird Feeding,” shows Gay obsessively watching a man feed a pigeon until their bodies—that of the man and that of the bird—seem to fuse together. “How often do you get to see someone slow dancing with a pigeon!” Gay exclaims, revealing the often-hidden tenderness that can exist between human beings and wild birds.   

The Book of Delights: Essays

By Ross Gay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Book of Delights as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
As Heard on NPR's This American Life
'The delights he extols here (music, laughter, generosity, poetry, lots of nature) are bulwarks against casual cruelties . . . contagious in their joy' New York Times

The winner of the NBCC Award for Poetry offers up a spirited collection of short lyric essays, written daily over a tumultuous year, reminding us of the purpose and pleasure of praising, extolling, and celebrating ordinary wonders.

Among Gay's funny, poetic, philosophical delights: a friend's unabashed use of air quotes, cradling a tomato seedling aboard an aeroplane, the silent nod of…


Men We Reaped: A Memoir

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Why this book?

Ward’s memoir examines the untimely losses of five young men in her life in the span of four years. The book is a stunning, sobering meditation on the impact of trans-generational mourning on the present moment, and the ways in which the cumulative grief of a community relates to decades-worth of institutional bigotry in the U.S. In one of the book’s many wrenching scenes, Ward, as a young woman, observes her mother cleaning the mansion of a rich white family. The wife—her mother’s employer—asks Ward about what she’s learning in school, as “the family’s parrot… kept in a four-foot-high cage in a corner squawked and spread its wings.” As the scene progresses, the image of the caged parrot gathers an almost impossible gravity and power.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir

By Jesmyn Ward,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Men We Reaped as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

_______________ 'A brutal, moving memoir ... Anyone who emerges from America's black working-class youth with words as fine as Ward's deserves a hearing' - Guardian 'Raw, beautiful and dangerous' - New York Times Book Review 'Lavishly endowed with literary craft and hard-earned wisdom' - Time _______________ The beautiful, haunting memoir from Jesmyn Ward, the first woman to win the National Book Award twice 'And then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped' - Harriet Tubman Jesmyn Ward's acclaimed memoir shines…


Sidewalks

By Valeria Luiselli, Christina Macsweeney (translator),

Book cover of Sidewalks

Why this book?

Valeria Luiselli dissects the odd systems and networks of our world’s cities and reveals in their hidden corners and corridors strange and magical identities. Luiselli’s essays further interrogate a city’s relationship to the bodies, cultures, artifacts, and languages that inhabit its spaces. In the essay, “Flying Home,” Luiselli journeys to Mexico City, the place of her birth, and, staring out of her airplane window, considers the city’s layout from this great height. This act of “mapping” according to her extraordinary vantage (suspended in flight), allows for a greater, incantatory meditation on our various perceptions of “home,” and how said perceptions depend as much on the imagination and on ephemeral memories as they do on reality.   

Sidewalks

By Valeria Luiselli, Christina Macsweeney (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sidewalks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Luiselli's essays (originally published in Mexico) have been released to great acclaim abroad and has been translated for and published in the UK, Italy, Germany, and The Netherlands
Alma Guillermoprieto called Luiselli "one of the most important new voices in Mexican writing" at BEA and Luiselli is similarly known to and beloved by Latin American writers and venues including PEN America, the Americas Society, and the Mexican Cultural Institute
Luiselli's work is well known to bilingual Spanish language readers (including invitations to appear at Instituto Cervantes in Chicago and the Spanish language bookclub at McNally Jackson)
Luiselli is an engaging…


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