Archive for the 'best science books 2010' category

Best Science Books 2010: Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

Oct 06 2011 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

A real straggler of a list for your reading and collection development pleasure.

Earlier entries in this year's list of lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here. The list of top books for 2010 is here. And no, I won't be recalculating the rankings at this late date.

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2010 Lane Anderson Award Shortlist: Celebrating the Best Science Writing in Canada

Aug 16 2011 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

I just got an email from the administers of this award:

$10,000 Lane Anderson Award Shortlist Announced
Celebrating the Best Science Writing in Canada

The six finalists competing for the 2010 Lane Anderson Award were announced today by Hollister Doll and Sharon Fitzhenry, Directors of the Fitzhenry Family Foundation.

The annual Lane Anderson Award honours two jury-selected books, in the categories of adult and young reader, published in the field of science, and written by a Canadian. The winner in each category will receive $10,000. Winners will be announced on 14th September.

"We want to honour the very best science writing in Canada and were especially pleased at the quality of the 44 titles submitted this year. The final short-list was determined on relevance of content to the importance of science in today's world, and the author's ability to connect the topic to the interests of the general trade reader," said Doll and Fitzhenry.

The Lane Anderson designation honours the maiden names of Robert Fitzhenry's mother, Margaret Lane, and his wife, Hilda Anderson Fitzhenry. The Fitzhenry Family Foundation is a privately directed Canadian foundation established in 1987 by Canadian publisher Robert I. Fitzhenry (1918-2008). The Lane Anderson Award is administered by Christopher Alam, a partner at the law firm of Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP

Adult Titles Shortlist

There's a York University connection here with Keeping the Bees by Laurence Packer.

Young Readers Shortlist

The award website is here.

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The Henrietta Lacks effect, or, The recipe for popular science success

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (TILoHL) by Rebecca Skloot was far and away the top science book of the year in my Best Science Books 2010: The top books of the year post from last month. In that post I took all the Best Science Books 2010 posts and tallied up the books with the most mentions. TILoHL was mentioned in 41 out of the 60 lists I found. The next highest was 17 mentions for The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

So, a pretty decisive victory. TILoHL was by far the best reviewed science book of the year.

What was interesting to me was that it seemed to cross-over quite a bit into an audience that wouldn't normally find and read science-themed books. It was really a very unique case of a breakout book that was able to find a much larger potential audience than a science book would normally have access to.

Was that just a feeling I had or was it backed up in some way. As I was compiling and posting the Year's Best lists, I did take note of the number of times TILoHL was the only science book mentioned or perhaps with just one other.

So, this analysis. Using the "data" I collected in the form of all those year's best lists, I decided to extract all the lists where TILoHL was the only book mentioned or where there was just one other. I've got all those lists below. From them I extracted the descriptive text that accompanied the book's selection. I looked at some key passages in that text.

What are the lessons?

Well, there is no "one answer," no secret ingredient that makes a science book cross over into a mass audience. And I also can't emphasize enough that this isn't real evidence, that what I'm looking at here is a very selective reading of the reviews and mentions of Skloot's book. Even of all the singleton listings I found, there's really only a handful that really jump out. But jump out they did.

And this is what I see as significant to the success of the book. People that were predisposed to like science books loved it and that shows through. More tellingly, however, are the cases where the reviewer didn't seem predisposed towards science books at all but still loved the story of Henrietta Lacks. Those were the key to the crossover/breakout success, the word of mouth that pushed the book over the top and into the stratosphere.

And what was it that drew those normally non-science friendly reviewers -- and the readers that flocked in their wake?

If there's any common theme it's that these normally picky reviewers loved TILoHL because it's more than "just" a science book. They saw it as a book that's also about people and society and ethics. Of course, from the point of view of someone inside the science world, we tend to see most science books as also about those things as well -- we don't see the practice of science as separate from human society. But somehow Skloot's book performed that most rare crossover and convinced everyone else that a book about science could also be about people.

So, if you're writing a popular science book and hope to break out to a broader audience, heed the lessons of these reviews well.

  • A spoonful of sugar of sugar can make the medicine go down. It goes without saying that any book that hopes to reach a mass audience should be entertaining and engaging at the most basic level but it probably bears repeating.
  • A strong narrative really sucks people into a book and carries them to the end.
  • A lesson to be learned by all science writers -- you might have an interesting scientific story to tell, but why should "normal" people care? Your story has to connect with people's everyday lives and concerns. This can be a challenge for lots of areas of science, like theoretical physics, but it's key to be able to tell a story that ties directly to people's lives.
  • Related to the previous point, the book needs to be primarily about people, not machines or bacteria or whatever.
  • People also care about larger social issues, like medical ethics and the challenges of racism and poverty. Setting the scientific story against the background of these types of compelling social issues is a great way to cross over to the huge audience because it connects to what they see around them not some abstract theory or intimidating lab setting.

A caveat: I don't mean to imply by these points that there is only one way to write a science book. Every book, every author, every story will require different strategies. Similarly, success can be judged in different ways, not just by the degree of "crossover." But I do think these factors apply in this particular case and that there are some broader lessons that can be learned.

The analysis I've done here is somewhat superficial and hardly unique or original in the kinds of points I make. But at the same time, it's starkly apparent when you look at the reviews below what the key to Rebecca Skloot's success were: she had a great story, she told it exceptionally well and that story was one that held strong interest for people beyond the normal science audience. The reason for that strong interest was that the narrative of the book touched a lot of people on an intensely personal level as well as exploring important social issues.

Who wouldn't love a book like that.

Sounds easy.

And now for the admission of guilt. Yeah, I haven't read it myself. I don't even own a copy yet. And that's partially what got me writing this post because I'm certainly going to be among the first in line when the book comes out in paperback next week.

============

Here are the ones where TILoHL is the only science book mentioned. I've bolded some bits that seem particularly relevant. I think each review could be a lesson for a budding science writer on how to approach source material and turn it into stories people care about.

Salon.com

In 1951, a sample of cancer cells was taken from an African-American woman in Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital. Henrietta Lacks died not long afterward, but her cells live on, proving to be so exceptionally easy to culture that if you were to gather together all the tissue grown from them, the result would weigh 50 million metric tons. Lacks' famous cell line (christened HeLa) is now used in virtually every medical lab in the world, a remarkable scientific success story. Yet, as Skloot thoroughly and sensitively documents, Lacks' own descendants muddle through without health insurance or the education required to understand what their forebear contributed to the world. In fact, the Lackses have had a long, fraught and confused relationship with Johns Hopkins Hospital itself, characterized by mistrust on one side and condescending utilitarianism on the other. Skloot's skillful account of Henrietta's dual legacy is not, however, an indictment of particular researchers or labs. Instead, it masterfully reflects the tricky intersection of science and society and an American medical establishment responsible for both astonishing triumphs and lamentable failures.

New York Magazine

Skloot uncovered, then spent ten years researching, one of the world's great untold stories: the human origin of biology's most famous cells--an undying strain, used in labs to help solve problems from polio to AIDS to cloning, known only as "HeLa." Skloot returns these syllables to their owner: The cells were harvested from Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman dying of cancer in 1951 Baltimore.


Largehearted Boy

The "best of 2010" book lists are popping up everywhere, and Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks seems to be on them all (and deservedly so).

Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells live on long after her death. These HeLa cells have become key facets in modern health research, and Skloot's research uncovers not only Henrietta Lacks' life, but also that of her her family and the medical advances her cells have helped bring. The book doesn't shy away from questioning medical ethics, but Skloot doesn't preach, she clearly provides the facts and lets the reader make up his own mind.

Simply put, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the most arresting work of nonfiction I have read since Dave Cullen's Columbine, and is an always engaging and important book, an arresting combination of biography, science, and ethics.

Slate

Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a detective story about a poor black woman and her magical cells. Born on a Southern tobacco farm, Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 after being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins. Without her knowledge or consent, scientists cut cells from her cervix and cultured them. In the lab, they grew into a cell line, called HeLa, that proved more robust than any before it. Lacks' cells were the ingredients for research into everything from the polio vaccine to chemotherapy and gene mapping. Skloot follows the cells on their scientific journey, using them to teach us about major medical advances. Even better, she takes us deep into the Lacks family, which learns about HeLa almost by accident and then grapples with feeling excluded from its powers. "Them doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people," Lacks' daughter tells Skloot. "But it didn't do no good for her, and it don't do no good for us." This is a voice not often heard in discussions of science. Skloot gets credit for bringing it to the fore and carefully thinking through the hard questions surrounding informed consent. Best of all, her book sings. She spent 10 years reporting and writing, and the effort pays off--she has turned unlikely material into a pleasure read.

Wichita Eagle

Sixty years ago, a woman named Henrietta Lacks was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Her cells were taken, without her knowledge or consent, for research and grew into a thriving cell line called HeLa, shipped all over the world for research. This book, a gripping combination of biography, science and history, tells the story of Henrietta's life and her family's realization of her contribution to science, plus the changes in medical ethics over the past few decades.

USA Today

Oprah Winfrey (who has bought the rights) is among the fans of this moving true story about a black woman whose cells were used extensively in research after her death -- without her family's knowledge.

Chicago Sun-Times

My choice this year was not the kind of book I typically read, but it was without question my favorite of 2010. Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is chock-full of science writing but don't let that scare you. Skloot weaves the tale of one of the most important developments in the history of science -- the reproduction of HeLa cells -- with the human story behind it. She breaks down the science so it's easy to understand, and the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells are still used 60 years after her death for scientific research, will break your heart.

Chamber Four

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the bizarre story of a tobacco farmer whose cancer cells have been used in scientific research for decades after her death. The book features a rare combination of great writing, fantastic storytelling, and deep social significance. Skloot admirably weaves several storylines--Lacks's life and death, the growth of HeLa cells, the many scientific advances those cells have made possible, the lives of Lacks's decedents--into a cohesive and gripping book. But Immortal Life sits on top of my list because of its social importance. The story of Henrietta Lacks was a generation or two from being completely forgotten. It would have been a shame to lose this piece of our history, not just because of the scientific significance of HeLa, but also because of the perspective Lacks's life and death adds to the Civil Rights struggle. Thankfully, with this book, Rebecca Skloot has made Henrietta Lacks truly immortal.

Here are a couple where only one other book is mentioned.

The Daily Beast

A surprisingly gripping account of the life of one Henrietta Lacks, unknown to most but touched by all because her line of cells were used in some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century. Skloot's biography finally and masterfully recognizes her unheralded contribution.

O Magazine

An uneducated black woman dies young and poor, but her cells live on, leading to countless medical breakthroughs--and to this multilayered narrative of race, class, and family.

Barnes & Noble (review here)

In contrast, science writer Rebecca Skloot also had a Helen Lane footnote moment in high school, but saw in that footnote the nucleus of a story about science and society. After ten years of HeLa sleuthing, Skloot's hunch has paid off handsomely: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a modern classic of science writing.

Let me qualify that. This isn't science writing in the sense of Stephen Jay Gould or Richard Dawkins: Skloot doesn't spend a lot of time describing or extolling scientific discoveries. For her, the science is a bit player -- though an important one -- in a complex and fascinating drama about how medical research intersected the lives of a poor black family in America. Her mixture of science and biography is sui generis, and its themes profound: racism, ethics, and scientific illiteracy. (excerpt of review)

US News & World Report

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. A true account of Henrietta Lacks, who died eight months after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. Lacks's tissue cells, taken without her permission, are alive today and have been a cornerstone of the multibillion-dollar biomedical research industry--used to develop the polio vaccine and in research for cancer, cloning, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and Parkinson's. Skloot explores the human consequences of the intersection of science and business, rescuing one of modern medicine's inadvertent pioneers from an unmarked grave.

Seattle Times

In the 1950s, the doctors who took cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American farmer, never imagined creating HeLa -- the "immortal" cells grown in culture that live on and save lives around the world. Skloot's tireless reporting is sensitively done and written with unusual clarity; she erases the line between lab and humanity with inspiring deftness.

And a bonus review from Brian Switek because it's so telling.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a triumph of science writing (it is truly one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read), and I was deeply affected by it on a personal level. The story reaffirmed that small events can have major repercussions, and as sad and angry as the tale of the Lacks family made me by the end of the book, I was glad that [Rebecca] Skloot had worked so hard to reach them. Through something as simple as wanting to learn more about Henrietta's life, Skloot and the Lacks family were able to create a fitting tribute to Henrietta and her legacy. For the first time, the most important woman in modern medicine is having her story told, and I truly hope that it gets the attention it deserves.

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Best Science Books 2010: The top books of the year!!!!

Feb 02 2011 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

Every year for the last few years I've collected lists of notable science books from various media sources. I certainly continued this tradition for books published in 2010! I can tell it's a very popular service from the hit stats I see for the blog and from the number of keyword searches on "science books 2010" or whatnot I see in the logs.

Last year I started taking all the lists and tallying up all the "votes" to see which are the most mentioned books from the year. An interesting exercise, to say the least! While the "winner" wasn't in any sense the best book of the year, it was certainly very revealing to see what the most reviewed and acclaimed book was.

As with last year, some of the lists have been from general media sources, in which case I've just extracted the science-related books. From science publications, I've included most or all of the mentioned titles.

This year I've looked at 60 different lists, spread among 46 different posts. Last year I looked at 33 different lists over 32 different posts, so I had significantly better coverage this year. That was mostly thanks to the amazing work gathering Year's Best Book lists over at the Largehearted Boy blog. Thanks!

Since I covered so many more lists this year, I'm upping the number of mentions a book needs to get to be included on this list from 3 to 4. And

And I'm still bringing 21 books to this summary list compared to 16 last year. I'm listing those 21 below.

Some notes/caveats, mostly similar to last year:

  • These aren't in any way the "best" books of 2010, only the most popular books on year's best lists. For the most part, all the books mentioned will likely be very good since they've attracted the most media "best" mentions. But, they are also almost certainly the books that had the biggest promotional budgets and sent out the most review copies. Realistically speaking, of course, Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is so far above all the rest in terms of mentions that it's probably pretty uncontroversial to state that it is simply the best science book of 2010.
  • There are probably one or two straggler "best of" lists that haven't come out yet and I'm sure there are a bunch that I missed. Since I saw so many lists, I feel pretty confident that the list is fairly representative of reviewer sentiment.
  • Similarly, there may be lists that were published that I just missed.
  • Finally, in some of the longer mainstreams lists that I did see, I can't guarantee I consistently pulled in the same "edge cases" in to my science-y lists. There were numerous books mentioned twice or three times so one or two of those might have squeaked onto this list. Of course, I can't guarantee complete accuracy in any of the steps of the whole process.
  • British, American and Canadian publication dates can mean that a 2009 British & Canadian book is a 2010 American book and vice versa. It happens.
  • There were 215 different books mentioned among the various lists, up from 175 last year. My list is in a Google Docs spreadsheet here. If you have any questions about the spreadsheet, just let me know.

Enjoy -- and good reading!

Any comments? First of all, there's a fair bit of actual science among the books, not just more edge cases or books about historical or socail aspects of science. That's a pretty noticible difference from last year. Second, not a whole lot of women on the list, unfortunately, although better than last year. And two out of the top three is significant too. Third, some good general technology books and some "social" technology books like the Facebook item or Shirky's Cognitive Surplus.

BTW, I really do appreciate the comments I've gotten both online and off about the usefulness of this bizarre project/obsession. It can be a bit of a slog sometimes as well as sucking most of the blogging energy out of me for a couple of months, so the comments help keep me motivated.

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Best Science Books 2010: O'Reilly Radar

Jan 29 2011 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

Another list for your reading, gift giving and collection development pleasure.

  • The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande
  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change by Clive Hamilton
  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

Earlier entries in this year's list of lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here.

(Oh dear god, I think this is it. The last list. I think. I hope. Anyways, I'm working on the 2010 summary post that'll tally and rank all the books from the lists I've posted. I'll hopefully get that up next week.)

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Best Science Books 2010: Mother Nature Network

Jan 27 2011 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

Another list for your reading, gift giving and collection development pleasure.

  • The World According to Monsanto by Marie-Monique Robin
  • The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean
  • Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben
  • Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon
  • Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World by Stan Cox
  • Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg
  • The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
  • Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari With a Cast of Trillions by Mark W. Moffett
  • Arctic Sanctuary: Images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with photography by Jeff Jones and essays by Laurie Hoyle
  • The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth by Charles Wohlforth

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

Earlier entries in this year's list of lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here.

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Best Science Books 2010: Brain Pickings

Jan 26 2011 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

Another list for your reading, gift giving and collection development pleasure.

  • Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
  • Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky
  • What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
  • What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman
  • I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted by Nick Bilton
  • The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home by Dan Ariely
  • A Lab of My Own by Neena B. Schwartz
  • Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century by Carl Schoonover

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

Earlier entries in this year's list of lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here.

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Best Science Books 2010: USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, AAAS

Jan 21 2011 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

Another bunch of lists for your reading, gift giving and collection development pleasure.

USA Today

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Chicago Sun-Times

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

American Association for the Advancement of Science

  • The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe by Loree Griffin Burns & Ellen Harasimowicz.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
  • The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science by Sean Connolly

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

Earlier entries in this year's list of lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here.

(Only two more lists to go...)

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Best Science Books 2010: Popular Mechanics

Jan 20 2011 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

Another list for your reading, gift giving and collection development pleasure.

  • You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier
  • Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History by Kalee Thompson
  • Lunatic Express: Discovering the World... Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains and Planes by Carl Hoffman
  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
  • Come Up and Get Me: An Autobiography of Colonel Joseph Kittinger by Joe Kittinger and Craig Ryan
  • More Show Me How: Everything We Couldn't Fit in the First Book by Lauren Smith and Derek Fagerstrom
  • The Wolf: How One German Raider Terrorized the Allies in the Most Epic Voyage of WWI by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen
  • The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey
  • The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War by C.J. Chivers
  • What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
  • Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth by James Tabor
  • Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish by James Prosek
  • Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell
  • The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

Earlier entries in this year's list of lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here.

(Yes, I am totally running out of energy on this. Only a few more posts then I'll start working on the big summary post.)

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Best Science Books 2010: The Australian, The Independent, January Magazine and Page One Book

Jan 13 2011 Published by under best science books 2010, science books

Another bunch of lists for your reading, gift giving and collection development pleasure.

The Australian

  • Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

The Independent

  • Bad Ideas?: An arresting history of our inventions: How Our Finest Inventions Nearly Finished Us Off by Robert M. L. Winston
  • Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society: 350 Years of the Royal Society and Scientific Endeavour by Bill Bryson

January Magazine

  • Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment by David Kirby
  • Here's Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math by Alex Bellos
  • How to Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson


Page One Book

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier
  • The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
  • The Whale: in Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare

I'm always looking for recommendations and notifications of book lists as they appear in various media outlets. If you see one that I haven't covered, please let me know at jdupuis at yorku dot ca or in the comments.

I am picking up a lot of lists from Largehearted Boy.

Earlier entries in this year's list of lists can be found here and the 2009 summary post here.

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