The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, by Jeff Guinn
I'm going to try to not be dramatic about how much I loved this book, but I also want everyone I've ever met to read it so we can discuss. Almost everyone has heard of Jonestown and its infamous demise, but this incredibly well-written and thoroughly-researched book goes deep into the origin of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. There are so many crazy stories that I don't want to spoil them here, but the one thing I found most fascinating was that the Peoples Temple (and Jones) actually did a lot of good for people before it all went wrong.
I became majorly obsessed with Jones while reading this book and cults fascinate me so much that I'm always afraid that I'm going to accidentally end up joining one—good thing Jonestown is no longer an option because I might have booked a ticket to Guyana even in spite of all of the warning signs.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John M. Barry
I had high hopes for this book, but unfortunately it wasn't great. The parts of the book that actually cover the great influenza pandemic of 1918 were very interesting, but the other half was a meandering and dry history of medical research. Maybe I was just burnt out on medical books by the time I got to this one, but there were so many names to keep track of that even I eventually lost interest. It's also anti-climactic because—spoiler alert!—there is still no cure for the flu, and vaccinations aren't 100% effective. This book could've been half as long and would've benefited from stringent editing—I don't regret reading it, but by the end I was only skimming.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
I read about some pretty dry / gross / strange topics, but this may have been the most depressing streak of books I've put together yet. It feels wrong labeling any book as more of a downer than the diary of Anne Frank (see below), but The Road is definitely a contender. This story about a father and son traveling across a post-apocalyptic, burned out America is Bleak with a capital B. Even though I knew that going in, I was still bummed out by just how ugh this book made me feel. McCarthy's writing style might not be for everyone, but there was insight hidden within all of the darkness, and The Road will stick with me for a long time (hopefully it isn't too accurate of a preview of things to come).
I had never heard of John Hunter before picking up this book, but afterwards I want to tell everyone about him. The book calls him the father of modern surgery, but he was so much more—a prolific collector of medical curiosities and specimens, a believer in evolution and a passionate naturalist. He held opinions and made discoveries that were hundreds of years before their time.
His collection of anatomical, pathological and zoological specimens—housed at the Hunterian Musueum inside of the Royal College of Surgeons in London—is one of the largest and oldest in the UK, comprising "more than 3,500 anatomical and pathological preparations, fossils, paintings and drawings." It's currently closed until 2020 for renovations, but after reading about Hunter I think a visit to his prized collection would be the best way for me to honor his memory.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
I'm not going to presume to write a review of one of the most famous books of the 20th century, but I don't think there's ever a bad time to revisit this classic. I'm sure I read this at some point in school, but I picked it up recently as a weekend book because it's a small, lightweight paperback. I was struck by how prescient and thoughtful Frank is—which of course makes her story all the more tragic.
I was a teenage girl once—although obviously under drastically different circumstances—but I was surprised by how much I could relate to her musings about both her inner and outer lives ("Who would ever think that so much can go on in the soul of a young girl?"). It will never cease to be unfair or desperately sad that Frank's life was cut short, but at the very least her incredible spirit lives on through her writing.