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The threat to polar bears' lives is a threat to humankind, James Raffan writes in Ice Walker. Photo: Paul Sounders/Getty Images

> Facts and Non-Fiction

Thought-Provoking Tomes

The latest crop of nonfiction examines polar bears, the untapped potential of the Canadian diaspora and books bound in human skin / BY Athena McKenzie / November 1st, 2020

It’s no secret real life can be stranger than fiction, but these recent titles show it also makes compelling reading. This month’s offerings range from a fascinating look at how the loss of polar bear habitat is a wakeup call for the world to a searing snapshot of the lives of people around the globe from Humans of New York blogger Brandon Stanton.


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1Ice Walker: A Polar Bear’s Journey Through the Fragile Arctic by James Raffan

(September 29)

The Story: To prompt readers to ponder what humans are doing to the earth, author James Raffan admits he “stretches the bounds of creative nonfiction” in his book about Nanurjuk, a fictional polar bear in southwestern Hudson Bay. As global temperatures rise and the sea ice melts, Nanurjuk and her young are forced to hunt on land where they face threats from other predators ­– including humans. In relating how polar bears and humans coexist in the Arctic, weaving in cultural and natural history, Raffan aims to show what is happening to the polar bear is happening to us.

“We are polar bears, and the polar bears are us, and so a threat to their lives really demands a hasty course correction for humankind, too,” he wrote in a recent op-ed piece in The Globe and Mail.


The Author: Raffan has spent 40 years exploring and writing about circumpolar countries. He is an international fellow of the Explorers Club, former chair of the Arctic Institute of North America and a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.


The Relevance: With climate scientists estimating polar bears will be extinct by the end of this century, Ice Walker is yet another clarion call for reversing climate change and saving the planet.

2Missing from the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto's Queer CommunityBy Justin Ling

The Story: For years, a serial killer targeted Toronto’s Gay Village even as police dismissed the notion. Only after they arrested Bruce McArthur in 2018 for the murders of eight men did the full extent of his crimes become apparent, as they reopened more than two dozen cold cases dating back to 1975. Ling, who has been reporting on the missing men for five years, tells the complete story of the McArthur murders, recounting the victims’ lives and explaining how the queer community responded.


The Author: A freelance investigative journalist, Ling hosted “The Village,” the third season of the CBC podcast Uncover, which examined cold cases from the 1970s that were reopened as a result of the McArthur investigation.


The Relevance: As police agencies are being held to account for abuses of power, the book reveals how homophobia and racism played a part in the Toronto police investigation into the missing men.


3Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future by John Stackhouse

(October 6)

The Story: The Canadian diaspora numbers three million people, and includes entrepreneurs, educators and humanitarians. Stackhouse argues that in the digital century, when the Canadian voice is much diminished as the influence of developing nations grows, this contingent of expats should be leveraged to expand and build our global identity, beyond maple leafs and backpacks.


The Author: Long-time Globe and Mail foreign correspondent and former editor in chief John Stackhouse is now a senior vice president at Royal Bank Canada, where he interprets economic, technological and social trends and how they affect society.


The Relevance: Once an important middle power on the world stage, known for brokering peace and dispensing foreign aid, Stackhouse argues Canadian expats can reshape Canada’s place in the 21st century.

4Humans by Brandon Stanton

The Story: Stanton, who started the Humans of New York photography project in 2010, travels to more than 40 countries to capture this compelling collection of interviews.

“People in general are very similar in their aims and desires,” he says in a Washington Post interview. “Ninety-nine percent of life being lived around the world is still about people’s families; it is still about people’s relationships. It’s not about politics; it’s not about conflict.”

There are the first two female athletes in Saudi Arabia, the 29th king of the Akwamu empire in Ghana, a new mom struggling with depression in Berlin and Tanqueray, a New York stripper in the 70s who danced in so many mob clubs, she learned to speak Italian. “I was the only Black girl making white girl money,” she tells Stanton, sometimes as much as $3,000 on road trips.



The Author: When Stanton lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago in 2008, he moved to New York and decided to take up photography, with a grand to chronicle 10,000 New Yorkers on his blog. Humans of New York now more than 20 million followers on social media and has raised over $12 million US for featured individuals and non-profits.


The Relevance: As evidenced by HONY’s massive global following, people are seeking connection through shared, personal stories that remind us what it means to be human.

5Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skinby Megan Rosenbloom

(October 20)

The Story: Equal parts investigative journalism, academic intrigue, historical drama and ethical discourse, Dark Archives offers a disquieting look at anthropodermic bibliopegy – the practice of binding books in human skin. These books can be found in many of the world’s most famous libraries and museums, and Rosenbloom investigates their origins, including details about how her team of scientists, curators, and librarians test suspected anthropodermic books, delve into their creation and wrangle with the morality of their custodianship.


The Author: A former journalist, rare-book specialist and self-described death-positive librarian at UCLA, Megan Rosenbloom is a member of The Order of the Good Death as well as The Anthropodermic Book Project, which researches books bound in human skin.


The Relevance: The books exist, and we can’t unmake them, Rosenbloom says, so she uses them to highlight how race, gender, poverty and the colonial mindset of Western medicine contributed to their production.

6The Spider: Inside the Criminal Web of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwellby Barry Levine

(October 20)

The Story: As elusive in death as he was in life, Levine does some deep digging to lay out the late convicted sex trafficker’s formative years going back to his childhood and his first sexual offences as a young man, how he made his $600-million fortune, and his relationship with British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, who was arrested in July on numerous criminal charges related to choosing, grooming and even abusing young women she procured for Epstein.

Levine explores Epstein’s connections to powerful men like Prince Andrew, former U.S. President Bill Clinton and current U.S. President Donald Trump, arguing it was his long-time friendship with Trump though the ‘90s and early ‘00s that ultimately led to his downfall.

He also details Epstein’s last days in Paris and the behind-the-scenes efforts by police to organize his surprise arrest at a New Jersey airport on July 6, 2019 and examines questions surrounding his apparent suicide in a Manhattan jail cell.

The Spider exposes how Epstein operated and evaded justice for so long – and how he drew so many others into his criminal web,” according to publisher Penguin Random House. Featuring rare and never-before-seen photographs, The Spider exposes how Epstein operated and evaded justice for so long—and how he drew so many others into his criminal web.



Featuring rare and never-before-seen photographs, The Spider exposes how Epstein operated and evaded justice for so long—and how he drew so many others into his criminal web.



Featuring rare and never-before-seen photographs, The Spider exposes how Epstein operated and evaded justice for so long—and how he drew so many others into his criminal web.


The Author: A veteran investigative reporter and editor, Barry Levine led the National Enquirer to a Pulitzer Prize nomination for its 2010 coverage of presidential candidate John Edwards.


The Relevance: The spider may be dead, but the web of deceit is still being spun. Maxwell denies allegations she procured, groomed, abused and trafficked underaged girls and young women for Epstein; accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre insists Maxwell and Epstein not only recruited and abused her for three years, but made her have sex with Prince Andrew when she was just 17, and Prince Andrew still has not been questioned or volunteered to help the investigation into Maxwell and Epstein’s alleged sex-trafficking ring.



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