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.
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 Gravel, Ruth 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!