On Nonfiction

A major reason I read is to learn about the world around me. Now, I have always believed that fiction is a valid way to achieve this. Obviously historical fiction can give a sense of historical events or place and time, but contemporary fiction – and even other genre fiction – can teach by putting the reader into the shoes of people from different backgrounds, in addition to just seeing the way people interact with one another in different circumstances, provided you believe the author’s rendering. Not to mention that even fiction often has interesting nonfictional tidbits.

That being said, when you want to get down to facts and brass tacks, nonfiction is the way to go. Unfortunately, for the last year or two I haven’t gotten around to much nonfiction. Some memoir, some very practical nonfiction (mostly relating to having a baby or getting said baby to go to sleep once in awhile), but not nearly enough ‘let me learn this because it sounds interesting, even if not actually relevant to my life’ nonfiction. Although I didn’t make it a formal resolution, I am trying to make it a point to read more nonfiction this year.

In order to make this happen, I am devoting the whole of this week to nonfiction reviews. I’ve got some American history, which is one of my greatest interests – which is interesting, because I almost never enjoy historical fiction with an American setting – plus two sweeping biographies of inanimate objects. I’m really enjoying this trend idea of setting sweeping histories of things as biographies, by the way. It lends a depth to the histories and keeps them from becoming dry as they could conceivably otherwise become.

What’s the best nonfiction you’ve read recently? I need more recommendations, to indulge my strong nonfiction cravings.

62 comments to On Nonfiction

  • Amy

    I’ve heard great things about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but haven’t cracked it open yet. One piece of nonfiction that I really enjoyed last year was Wolf: The Lives of Jack London. I didn’t know much about his life, which is fascinating, but it was also a history of his times as much as his life. Highly recommended.

  • Let me see, this is off the top of my head:

    Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (the audio is fantastic too)
    The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
    Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure and a Man Who Dared to See by Robert Kurson (fascinating story)
    Shadow Divers also by Robert Kurson
    Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott (which I *know* you have! lol)
    American Rose by Karen Abbott (I just started it, but I can tell it is going to be excellent)
    French Milk by Lucy Knisley (it’s a graphic novel, really well done)
    In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

    That’s all I can think of at the moment. Hope that helps!

    • I loved “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts,” and “Animal Vegetable Miracle,” both did more than the typical memoir. I have BOTH of the Karen Abbott books, actually. I really should read one of them.

  • I totally forgot! If you like travel nonfiction, J. Maarten Troost is hilarious and his books are great fun to read. Start with Getting Stoned with Savages, then go to The Sex Lives of Cannibals. I haven’t read Lost on Planet China yet, but I hear it’s good too.

  • Bill Bryson is also a great travel writer, but don’t read too much too close together or his “favorite words” will start to pop out at you. I recommend starting with his Australia book.

    My other go-to non-fiction writer is Mary Roach. Everything is great, but Stiff is the best!

    • I’ve read a couple of Bryson’s books and enjoyed them, but actually none of his travel writing stuff. I have his new one (also not travel) in my TBR stack, maybe I should pull it out.

      • kat duncan

        you must must must read ‘In a Sunburned Country’ it is bryson’s travel book about Australia, and speaking as someone who has read all his travel books, the best one! its funny and informative.

  • Hmm, I’ve read quite a bit of non-fiction in the last year.

    Recently finished up “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein which raises some really good questions about the pink princess culture being marketed towards girls.

    “Packing for Mars” By Mary Roach was an excellent look at all of the problems solving that goes in to space travel. It is a bit heavy on the bodily functions if you’re queasy about that, but it’s fascinating. I’ve heard good things about her other books too.

    I _really_ enjoyed “The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter, which talks about the transitory nature of term “white” and what that means.

  • Meg

    I went on a bit of a nonfiction kick last year, reading several memoirs and other pieces that I really enjoyed. Here are my recommendations:

    Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back by Claire and Mia Fontaine – a beautifully written and haunting story about how a mother copes with her daughter’s addiction to drugs.

    Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer – a breathtaking piece of nonfiction that tells the story of NFL-player turned soldier Pat Tillman. Enlightening, educational, and thought-provoking.

    Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart – a whimsical tale about a young girl from Iowa who worked at Tiffany and Co. in Manhattan during the summer of 1945. Hart was the first woman to work on the sales floor at the iconic store, and her memoir is an intriguing look at American youth culture in the mid 1940s.

    Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson – one of the best books on Hollywood I’ve read, that also dives into the life and culture of American women in the late 1950s and 1960s that I have read. This book reads like fiction, and I could hardly put it down.

  • I’ve been reading a nonfiction book over the past couple of weeks and I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s a sort of history of fundamentalism in America in one family. It’s really educational and well written but I can only handle small chunks of it at a time–that’s how I generally am with nonfiction because it’s so much to process.

  • I love non-fiction.

    A Family of Readers: The Book Lover’s Guide to Children’s and Young Adult Literature by Roger Sutton

    Notes from the Cracked Ceiling: Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and What It Will Take for a Woman to Win by Anne Kornblutt

    White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise

    Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof

    And if you happen to like The Daily Show, you should check out Earth (the book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race by Jon Stewart.

  • Woman by Natalie Angier <— I learned SOOO much and had to buy a copy after first reading a library book.
    The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson – <– just fascinating and well done balance of different viewpoints in entertaining well-written easy to read narrative.

  • I highly recommend Delhi by Sam Miller and Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods. The latter is a memoir, but she interweaves the history of the Congo into her book and it’s fascinating/heartbreaking.

  • Apollo’s Angels, about the history of ballet. Definitely a must-read if you’re at all interested in the subject.

  • I highly recommend Unbrkoen by Laura Hillenbrand. It was a fantastic story, almost unbelievable, but in the end life affirming. I reviewed it here – http://bookdiary2010.blogspot.com/2010/12/unbroken.html

  • I just finished Manhunt by James Swanson, about the 12-day hunt for John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln. It was fascinating and intense; Swanson is truly a fantastic writer. I highly recommend it.

  • I LOVE reading non-fiction. I love learning about new things especially now that I’m not in school. I really love travelogues–Bill Bryson is a fave!

    I’m doing a Non-fiction challenge on my other blog to read non-fiction about a variety of subjects. (www.brokeandbookish.blogspot.com )I’ve gotten a lot of good suggestions from other people’s lists!

  • A few off the top of my head:

    Dead Men Do Tell Tales – Not for the squeamish, but highly recommended if you have any interest in forensics or enjoy the TV show Bones. This is one of the books Emily Deschanel read to prepare for her role as a forensic anthropologist.

    The Crimes of Paris – A history of forensic science in France. I’m reading this now and I’m enjoying it. It’s amazing how much modern criminology owes to the French.

    The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke – A look at Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 Presidential campaign which was ultimately cut short by his assassination. I think this was my favorite non-fiction read last year.

    • All sound really good, but I’m particularly drawn to The Crimes of Paris, thanks!

      • The Crimes of Paris is one of those rare books where I’m reading portions of it aloud to whoever is nearby, prefaced by, “Hey, did you know that …?”

        I’m LOVING this post, by the way. I have had a New Year’s resolution to read more non-fiction for the past three years and this post has given me so many great ideas!

  • kat duncan

    Winterdance: the fine madness of running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen

    West with the Night by Beryl Markham

    Ada Blackjack: a true story of surviving in the arctic by Jennifer Niven

    If i think of more i shall post again.

  • Whoa, I need to bookmark this post. I need to read more non-fiction and there are so many good recommendations here!

  • I’ll second (third, sixth, whatever) the recommendations for Bryson and Roach.

    Some other non-fiction I’ve really enjoyed: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, the essay collection Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, either of Victoria Findlay’s books (although I liked Colors a little better than Jewels), The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr, and of course my standard science-for-non-science-people recommendation: Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson.

  • Amy

    I’m attempting to read more non-fiction this year too; one a month is my goal. My next book is all about the Jamestown settlement and from the little I’ve skimmed, it looks interesting.

  • Add me to the others who recommend Bryson and Roach! I have At Home myself and can’t wait to read it. I also think you’d love Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. And if you’re on Netgalley, I highly recommend you take a look at acquiring copies of “Sex on Six Legs” – which is about insects and so bizarre but fascinating – and Chasing Aphrodite by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino, an expose of an art museum and its acquiring practices. I’ve held my reviews for both until closer to release dates but they are really superb.

    Also, I’m similar about American history. I like it as history (though it’s not my favorite) but I don’t enjoy much of it in historical fiction.

    • I have Schiff’s book, I must get to it. I will definitely check out those NetGalley books you recommend too. I’m still trying to figure out what my issue is with American history in fiction, do you have any idea?

      • I wish I knew because then I might like it too! I always thought it was because I learned too much about it in school and got tired of it, but now that I have enjoyed several non-fiction books I can’t really figure it out. It could be because it’s often dreary, and I know I have to be in the right mood for a depressing book (although there is no right mood for a book about the Civil War!).

  • Seconding the recommendation for Unbroken – really amazing story and remarkably well written!

    And if you like American history, perhaps something by David McCullough? I haven’t read too much of his stuff but I enjoyed 1776 and have heard really good things about John Adams and Truman.

    I’ll have to go take a peek at what else I tagged “nonfiction” last year…

  • Loving all these recommendations.

    A recent favourite of mine was Tall Man: The death of Doomadgee by Chloe Hooper. A look a the death in custody of an indigenous Australian on Palm Island. It explores the conditions in Aboriginal communities, their relationship with the law, police, and the tragedy of deaths in custody.

    It reads like a narrative. Recommended to anyone interested in Australia, Australian history, social justice, law, race relations.

    • Social justice and race relations ALWAYS interest me, I’ll have to look it up!

      • Oh! That just reminded me, you might like a book called There Are No Children Here which looks at the history, development, and decline of Chicago’s south side. Not sure if there’s an updated version since it may be slightly out of date, but it’s still a really interesting look at local racial, political, educational, and overall socioeconomic issues.

  • Oh my, where do I even begin! Some of my favorite nonfiction authors are Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, Jon Krakauer, Deb Blum, Trevor Corson, and Erik Larson. They all write really interesting books on some offbeat topics. Oh, and Tracy Kidder. He is amazing, a must read.

    Stephen Fatsis writes some very good sports nonfiction — Word Freaks, about competitive Scrabble, is excellent.

    The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is an amazing book. I’m reviewing it tomorrow, and it’s highly recommended. I just started Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, which I’m also enjoying.

    I did a post awhile ago with some of my favorite narrative nonfiction authors which has some more recommendations on it: http://www.sophisticateddorkiness.com/2010/09/reader-question-well-known-literary-journalism/

    I should stop now :)

    • Oh, I remember that post, I’ll have to go back and look at it again. I actually have The Warmth of Other Suns, I asked for it for my birthday, I’ll have to pull that out. I also bought Thunderstruck for my Nook, so I should get to that soon.

  • If you have any interest at all in science, I really recommend The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean.

  • My favorite non-fics with American history twists: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and Devil in the White City.

  • Ruth Ann

    If you want something really fun to read, try “The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean” by Susan Casey. Ms. Casey goes around the world in the company of surfers in search of the biggest “surfable” waves. She also consults with scientists who are trying to determine why outsized waves occur in various parts of the ocean, literally coming out of nowhere, and what they can do to more accurately predict their occurrence in the future. She also talks to Lloyds of London underwriters and salvage operators as well as others. So, you see, it’s really two books in one: surfers surfing big, big waves and people who are affected by big waves in one way or another. A completely different book from those recommended here, and something nice and light and fast-paced that can be picked up and put down without any real loss of continuity.

  • This post is such a great idea! I’m writing down titles as I read each comment. There’s The Lost City of Z by David Grann. I listened to some of it on audio and it was fantastic. Right now I’m reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It’s amazing so far. Barbara Kingsolver wrote an essay collection called Small Wonder. It’s one of my favorite works by her.

  • I also want to read more non-fiction–somehow my TBR shelf always ends up being about 75% fiction/memoir. I just went over to my bookcase to see what non-fiction I’ve loved. One of my favorites is Marilyn Johnson–she wrote about obituaries in The Dead Beat and librarians in This Book is Overdue, and her writing is very much in the Mary Roach mode. Also fun:

    The Dead Travel Fast – a history of vampires in pop culture
    A Vindication of Love – about romance in literature and how romance is good
    Candyfreak – Steve Almond on candy and being obsessed with candy
    Random Family – about an extended family in the bronx
    Growing Up Fast – about pregnant teens in mass.

  • Liz F.

    I typically do not read nonfiction, but once I started thinking about it I do have some favorites. I read Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (which has been mentioned multiple times already) after listening to a radio interview. It was funny and enjoyable. I’m looking forward to checking out her other books.
    I very much enjoyed both Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt as well as his more recent book, The City of Falling Angels.
    I found Sixpence House by Paul Collins (a travelogue/memoir) to be absolutely quirky and delightful (especially as a book lover).
    For book club, we read Faith Club as well as Parenting Beyond Belief both of which sparked great discussions in our small, but diverse group.
    Currently The Worst Hard Times is sitting in my TBR pile…but I haven’t been motivated to pick it up.
    Hmmm…perhaps I read more nonfiction than I thought!

  • I like John McPhee, Mark Kurlansky, Alison Wier, David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Alexandra Fuller, Peter Mayle, Dava Sobel, Bill Buford,Alan Pell Crawford, …

  • Meg

    Despite my love of history, I find it really hard to get into non-fiction. So much of it is very well written, of course, but somehow… there’s a disconnect for me.

    The only non-fiction work I’ve started to read recently was Inventing Niagara by Ginger Strand, which tells the history of the world’s most famous waterfall — and how it came to be such a major tourist trap! I love, love, love Niagara and thought I would enjoy learning all about its history, and I am… but still. Not drawing me in as much as I’d hoped.

  • John Adams and 1776 are great NF of the Civil War era. Also, Under the Banner of Heaven is amazingly well told for a NF.

  • Zee

    I’m going to second (or 43rd :D) anything by David McCullough. I’ll also add Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers by Stephanie Levine. It is a great look at the girls in the Lubavich society in New York. Also Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent. It is a memoir by an American midwife.