Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

Welcome to Nonfiction November week 4! I’m hosting, so don’t forget to add your posts to the link-up at the very end.

Our theme:

Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction): Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

I absolutely love when nonfiction reads like well crafted fiction. But it takes more than just a novel-esque tale that happens to be true. When it’s a compelling story, detailed without information overload, and incorporates literary devices like vividly explored characters, creative storytelling and a solid plot, it becomes that incomparable peanut butter/chocolate combination of nonfiction that reads like fiction.

A favorite that mixes fiction elements throughout is John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. Some chapters read like a nail-biting thriller (one vividly rendered scene is haunting in how atmospheric and image-laden it is, more so than a lot of novels I struggle to recall) and others cover natural science, Russian history, biology, Russo-Chinese economics and the Siberian economy in an entirely readable way (surprisingly enough). These chapters would never be mistaken for fiction but they’re integral to the thriller storyline and thanks to Vaillant’s accessible writing, always compelling. The story’s ‘characters’ are richly portrayed, even the ones we only see in death. It’s one of the most extraordinary examples I know of what nonfiction can be.

On the other hand, plenty of nonfiction I love doesn’t read at all like fiction. Some biographies especially take a different tone and despite anecdotes that follow fiction-like narratives, don’t conform to that structure throughout. Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman is one, as is Edvard Radzinsky’s The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II, a weirdly wonderful mishmash-in-translation with quick, jerky sentences blending history, stream-of-consciousness depictions, mystical musings and diary excerpts. Jon Ronson’s investigative journalism isn’t fictiony either, using a more informative and humorous approach and signature wry tone that make his books compulsively readable and delightful, but decidedly not novels.

I also love the warm, direct voice of certain essays, like Laurie Colwin’s or the wonderful upcoming Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love and Food by Ann Hood, who’s influenced by Colwin and has a similar funny, conversational tone and casual structure. Buttermilk Graffiti and Eat, Live, Love, Die are also food-themed essay/memoirs that showcase their authors’ revealing voices while highlighting meaningful cultural and social ideas using this casual, conversational structure, and without many of the fixings of fiction.

These are all memoir, a genre that despite those examples often does read very fiction-like, since authors tell the progression of a life event or piece their story together in a way that mirrors a novel’s trajectory. Memoirs that read like fiction are great gateways to nonfiction.

One I mentioned last week, Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs about a young woman learning her own strength in Leningrad, could be mistaken for a novel with its strong voice, detailed scenes and evocative atmosphere. As could The Sound of GravelRuth Wariner’s moving, engrossing memoir of childhood in a polygamist cult offshoot in Mexico. A memoir reminiscent of historical fiction is Nina Willner’s Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall, a female-centric generational saga with Willner’s family as a kind of microcosm of contemporary German history.

Narrative (or creative / literary) nonfiction mixes in the element of dedicated journalism and research alongside literary devices used in the storytelling. When it’s done well, I find it hard to beat. Some favorites when you want a true story that reads like a novel:

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt – Possibly my top narrative nonfiction. Berendt’s story begins with a murder in the old-fashioned, uniquely southern atmosphere of Savannah but develops into so much more. The quirky characters of Savannah underscore that truth is stranger than fiction and Berendt brings the singular city alive in all its vibrancy.

Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 by Michael Capuzzo Maybe I just really love true tales of wild animals gone awry? This narrative of the Jersey Shore shark attacks upon which Jaws was based might be scarier (the shark swam up a creek; cue nightmares) than the fiction it inspired. It reads like a tense thriller with absorbing historical context.

Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad by Asne Seierstad – Using a multitude of sources to tell a story with frightening implications, Seierstad fills in the backstory of two Somali immigrant sisters who fled Norway for Syria, and their ever hopeful but unreliable narrator father who goes after them. Even in translation this read like excellent fiction: detailed, conflicted, emotional. Literary journalism at its best.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – Group biography of loosely connected people from the North Korean port city of Chongjin. Demick painstakingly fleshes out the lives and memories of these successful defectors; the stories have stuck with me down to the minutest details.

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc – LeBlanc embedded with an extended Bronx family, clustered primarily around two women. That immersive experience told with meticulous attention to detail and sensitivity to her subjects (but with camera-like third person narration) makes this so eye opening.

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell – Atmospheric account of a years-long bombing spate around New York City in the 1950s and the police and profiling work that went into solving it.

The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston – This modern narrative classic tracing ebola to the source, and relating the harrowing story of the virus entering the US through lab monkeys reads like a medical thriller, interesting even for those who normally don’t gravitate towards medical topics (me). The combination of intriguing detail that’s accessible for layman readers, well paced narrative as the unknown is revealed, and the author’s establishment of a sense of threat makes it unputdownable.

Do any of these appeal to you, or have you read them already? What are your favorite nonfiction titles that read like fiction? Looking forward to seeing your posts throughout the week, link them up below!

65 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

  1. I loved this topic! Like you I concentrated on autobiography and biography. I haven’t read any of your examples but they do appeal to me – especially Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Nothing to Envy and Random Family.

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    1. I’m new to Laurie Colwin and fell completely in love with her!! Ann Hood even has an essay in this collection about how much Colwin meant to her too, it’s very sweet. She just managed to affect so many people so deeply.

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  2. Such a thoughtful post! I definitely agree that memoirs can be a great gateway into nonfiction for those who typically avoid it, especially when it comes to coming-of-age memoirs, which often read like a first-person bildungsroman.

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    1. Thanks so much! I know what you mean, I went through a big phase of coming-of-age memoirs and I love the Bildungsroman feel. It’s a story that’s always the same but always so different, somehow. I always find myself recommending memoirs to people who want to read more nonfiction but are wary about it…memoirs often have creative flourishes in the writing that help with appealing to strictly fiction readers.

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  3. I adored Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I have a whole post planned for this week but have just realised that I’ve read the brief wrong! My post is about fictionalised accounts of real-life events and that’s not really the topic. I may post it anyway 😂

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    1. Isn’t it an incredible book? I’m not a big re-reader but I’ve read it multiple times and fall in love with it again each time. And please, no worries! Maybe I threw too much into the prompt to give people options and it ended up confusing instead 😂 but you should have fun with it and adapt it to what works for you anyway, so of course post it! ❤️

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  4. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but I’ll get to it eventually, I bet. In the meantime, we do have some other favourites in common, like Laurie Colwin’s essays. And John Vaillant’s writing. I really like the sounds of Asne Seierstad’s book: I’ve added that to my TBR. Thanks! (Including my link above too. Thanks very much for hosting!)

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    1. Midnight in the Garden is so worth the read when you’re in the mood for it. It sounds like we have a lot of favorites in common then! Two Sisters is one of my favorites from this past year, it was so interesting and engrossing. Glad to pass the recommendation along to you 🙂

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  5. I can’t think of any that I’ve read that read like fiction off the top of my head – or at least not the whole book. I always think Erik Larson is good at giving that fictional feel to some of his chapters when he’s describing events, though he reverts to traditional non- fiction writing for the background and analysis – that combination really works for me. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil sounds great – another one for the wishlist! Great post! 😀

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    1. Erik Larson is also a big name in this category and you know, I didn’t particularly love either of his books that I’ve read! I always feel weird about that because he’s uber popular and especially for narrative nonfiction. But I really like what you mentioned, about mixing the writing in both fictionally-inspired styles and more traditional nonfiction writing and analysis, he absolutely has mastered that. I really loved that method in the book I mentioned, The Tiger, the combination works so well.

      Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is such a wonderful book, it’s one that I’m always happy to reread. Glad you liked the post and happy to give you a great recommendation! 🙂

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  6. This is such a great topic for Nonfiction November. I really had fun with it. You have so many great sounding books here. My list is growing. I had thought about including Forty Autumns, and wish I’d thought about Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I didn’t realize that book was nonfiction until I was in the middle of it!

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    1. I am just so happy to hear that, Susie, especially that you had fun with it! And I know exactly what you mean about Midnight in the Garden, I think it was the first time I’d ever read nonfiction that had that effect on me, that I wouldn’t necessarily have known it wasn’t a novel. It made me so interested in narrative nonfiction! I’m glad to hear you liked Forty Autumns too, and happy to give you some more for your ever-growing list!

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  7. I loved the Vaillent Tiger book, and have wanting to reread it but couldn’t remember the title. Thanks for the reminder!
    And I’ve just returned from a conference focused on narrative nonfiction. Very interesting…

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    1. Oh I’m so happy to be able to remind you of that one, I think I recommend that book more than any other (and sometimes people look at me sideways for it, but isn’t it just so good?!)

      A narrative nonfiction conference sounds pretty amazing!

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  8. I sometimes try to match my Nonfiction Reading with my current fiction reads. This month I’m reading German Literature. Tied to that I’m reading Weimar in Exile- The Anti- Fascist Emigration in Europe and America by Jean Palmier. Very long and detailed it goes into a lot on German writers reaction to Nazi rule.

    I normally read several books at once. I was recently given a review copy of a biography Mel Brooks Funny Man by Patrick McGillgan. I love his movies and am grateful to learn about how they were created.

    I like biographies of writers. I am currently also reading Neruda: The
    Poet’s Calling by Mark Eisner. I bought it marked down short time as a kindle from $16.95 to $0.95. (Now sale over ).

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    1. I think that’s a great idea, there’s so much nonfiction that can boost your understanding of what you’re reading in a novel and add to the background of the story. The Mel Brooks biography must be good, I love his movies too and that would be interesting to learn about their process or inspiration!

      I subscribe to a bunch of the daily ebook deal email newsletters, for better or for worse as I end up buying way too many of them…

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  9. Kudos to you for coming up with such an interesting question. Not sure my answer has done it justice however 🙂
    Of all the books you’ve listed Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is the one that has me most interested. I suppose because North Korea is such a closed society and there are so many rumours about life there….

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    1. Oh thank you so much! I’m glad to hear it was a thought-provoking topic!

      I’m intrigued by anything about North Korea for the same reasons, and I promise that one is very revealing. I learned so much from it. The stories are told so personally, it’s affecting. I can’t recommend it enough.

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  10. Thank you for this erudite post about the nonfiction books you’ve been reading. I belong to a Yahoo group called AllNonfiction and will read a few of the books that the members have selected, but of late they’ve been reading too many political books; these are my least favorite nonfiction books to read. I prefer reading memoir, autobiography, biography, and the like, written by literary people. Currently I’m reading two by Claire Tomalin, known for her excellent biographies. One of those I’m reading is “A Life of My Own”, her own life story. The other is her book on Katherine Mansfield, the novelist and short-story writer who moved in the Bloomsbury circles and died tragically young from TB. Strangely enough, Tomalin’s own autobiography is nowhere near as well-written as her biographies of others are. Do you suppose that it’s more difficult to write one’s own story than it is to write those of others?

    Thank you for all that you do. I’ve subscribed to your WordPress blog and will be keeping up with your posts.

    Ellen C. Lee

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ellen, thanks so much for this very thoughtful comment!

      That would be frustrating if a book group was reading a lot of political nonfiction, I see your point there. I suppose the political environment is so heavily on people’s minds at the moment so maybe that’s the reason for the popularity. I’ve read some lately but it’s also not my most preferred genre.

      That’s such an interesting point you make about biographers writing their own lives and whether it’s more difficult, I hadn’t considered that before. It does seem like it could be more problematic, in terms of being objective, or deciding what’s essential for telling the story. I don’t know another context for it beyond Claire Tomalin’s situation, and I’m embarrassed to say I still haven’t read anything of hers yet. (Maybe I’d start with the Katherine Mansfield one, I liked her short stories that I’ve read in the past.) It sounds like you have a great perspective to compare Tomalin’s work since you’re reading these different books in parallel, you’ll have to let me know your thoughts when you’re finished!

      Thanks again for your kind words, I hope I’ll be able to help you find some interesting recommendations!

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  11. Quite an interesting topic, one I hadn’t given thought to before. The first book that came to mind was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s been many years but I still recall having to remind myself of it being a true story as I was reading. Most of the time I prefer to have clear distinctions between the two genres but in the hands of really good writers, the reads-like-fiction outcome works for me.

    Excellent discussion!

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    1. In Cold Blood is such a good one! I think he made a big change in the genre with that one, it’s when “nonfiction novel” started getting used because (I think) he’d invented some dialogue or bits like this but the bulk was true. In any case I think it showed more of what was possible. I’m always bothered by not knowing what’s true in that kind of situation, though…like you I prefer clear distinctions between the two. But I love when a writer can blend research and journalistic standards with creative writing, it’s the literary sweet spot for me. Glad the topic was interesting for you!!

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  12. This week’s topic really had me sit and think for a bit and now that I’ve read your post (I should have definitely started here) I want to go back and completely redo mine!

    Asne Seierstad! Have you read her book about Anders Breivik and the massacre he committed? It was masterful and I think it actually broke something in me.

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    1. Your post was fantastic!! You had such a thoughtful take on it!

      Two Sisters is the only book of Asne Seierstad’s I’ve read so far but I loved it. I avoided the Anders Breivik one because the topic is so instinctively repulsive, but on the other hand, I’ve only heard the highest praise for it. I was so impressed with how excellent her writing was even in translation, which can be a challenge in nonfiction, I think, so I’d like to give it a chance but ugh…I can understand the idea of it breaking something in you.

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      1. It was honestly an incredibly thoughtful book, which is not small feat given the subject matter. I don’t know if this makes a difference but in the end she writes about how she asked the families of the children if she could write about them. They all said yes, they didn’t want their children to be forgotten.

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      2. Oh that’s really good to know, actually. that story just has the potential to get even more upsetting, somehow. I’m intrigued though because I loved her style, and I was reading reviews after you mentioned it…I think I’m going to try it. Thanks for the information about it!

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      3. It really does, I think because it’s human nature to automatically want to look away from something so horrific, but it makes so much sense that the parents would want their children remembered in a respectful way. I can believe it’s that affecting, I’m going to wait until I’m emotionally braced for it.

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  13. I love your thoughts on this subject. I feel like yours is a much more well rounded answer than mine (which will go live tomorrow). But I truly enjoyed this topic. It really helped me organize my thoughts on why certain NonFiction books appealed to me and others did not.

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  14. I love your description of what makes nonfiction read like fiction! I think you captured a lot of the elements that can really make a book work for me.

    I also like your example of Jon Ronson’s books as nonfiction that doesn’t read like fiction. That makes me start to think of other authors I love, like Mary Roach or Leslie Jamison or Roxane Gay, whose work doesn’t quite read like fiction either. When I was writing my post, I was leaning more towards all nonfiction should read like fiction – with engaging ‘characters’ and a strong thread that pulls you through – but it’s definitely true that some nonfiction I enjoy doesn’t have quite the same narrative structure as fiction. I’ve also been reading some nonfiction lately that I feel like I have to work harder at than I’d be willing to for nonfiction and I’m enjoying the challenge, but wasn’t quite sure how it fits here, whether it reads like fiction or not.

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