Nonfiction November continues to fly by! I’ve been very excited for this week’s prompt, courtesy of Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks:
Week 4: (November 22-26) – Stranger Than Fiction with Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks: This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.
I love this idea, because it’s definitely one of the reasons I’ve found nonfiction more compelling than fiction in general. I love learning about true stories that outdo anything we could imagine.
My top pick here is a perfect example in this genre. The first time I read it after it came out in 2010, I was telling anyone who would listen about what I was reading, and they all kept asking me the same thing: This is real?
John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival is a narrative nonfiction account of an Amur tiger in the remote Primorye region of Siberia who went “cannibal” – the term used by the locals when tigers turned to eating humans. But what was the most unbelievable about this story with many unbelievable components was that the tiger began stalking and attacking specific humans, meaning it was able to hold onto ideas about revenge.
This is one of my favorite books of all time: it’s stunningly beautifully written, wholly unputdownable, and it packs in memorable educations about tiger biology alongside the history and ecology of the region, a place where Vaillant sadly points out that things were probably better under communism, as well as following the narrative of a Russian tiger conservation group dispatched to handle the escalating situation. It manages to be terrifying, poetic, and hauntingly educational.
This is the book I use as an example whenever someone says they can’t read nonfiction because it’s not XYZ whatever reason, as I promise this one ticks every requirement box you could possibly have.
Other stories that have made my jaw drop in disbelief that they’re really, actually true:
Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs, by Greg King and Penny Wilson and Stealing Sisi’s Star: How a Master Thief Nearly Got Away With Austria’s Most Famous Jewel by Jennifer Bowers Bahney – I mention this any time I write about her, but Sisi’s story is the epitome of stranger than fiction. You could not make up all the weird, exciting, tragic, macabre stuff folded into her life story. The wholly unlikely theft of her most precious piece of jewelry right out of its display case in a heavily guarded and secured imperial palace is just icing on the cake.
Tunnel 29: The True Story of an Extraordinary Escape Beneath the Berlin Wall, by Helena Merriman – One of my favorites this year, a beautifully structured narrative of the group of students who tunneled between East and West Berlin and led an escape group had me gasping in disbelief multiple times. It plays out like a movie, and the fact that anyone involved with this story survived is pretty miraculous.
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre – I haven’t gotten around to reviewing this, but it made me see why Macintyre is so popular in the spy nonfiction genre. This is the tense and thrilling story of a quiet Soviet bureaucrat who began spying for and eventually escaped to England. Even though I knew he survived, his final escape is the heart-pounding, page-turning, unlikely stuff of fiction.
The Disappearing Act: The Impossible Case of MH370, by Florence de Changy – What could be stranger than a Boeing 777 disappearing from thin air with hardly any trace to be found even years later? A French journalist exhaustively researched this mystery for years and presents her theories of what she thinks took place. It’s an intense but very compelling read, and although I’m not sure I agree with her final conclusion, it really emphasized how exceptionally odd every single element of this story was.
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, by Denis Covington – Adrenaline junkie journalist Covington was reporting on the story of an Alabama snake-handling preacher who tried to kill his wife with rattlesnakes when he found himself becoming a believer in the weird and terrifying practice of snake-handling himself. The book is both an exploration of the practice’s history as well as Covington’s experience in the small but intense church.
A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town, by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling – This was a Nonfiction November recommendation from Christopher last year, he’s really the master of this topic. Libertarians run a New Hampshire town as a Libertarian social experiment, cutting off social services by vote. Then come the fires, and then the bears.
Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, by Donnie Eichar – The Dyatlov Pass Incident has made headlines recently as a new theory’s emerged of what may have caused the mysterious and completely bizarre, brutal deaths of nine student hikers on a ski trip in the Ural Mountains in 1959. This is another story where every detail is stranger than what came before, and it’s hauntingly scary.
The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir, by Ruth Wariner – Not only stranger than fiction, but probably one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, Wariner’s story of growing up in a Mormon polygamist group in Mexico is heartbreaking, there’s no way around that. But Wariner is a tough survivor, and she saved her family as well, so there are a lot of redeeming elements here. I’ve always wondered how this didn’t become as well-known and everywhere as Educated, because I think it’s an even stranger, wilder story, and exquisitely well written.
What are your Stranger than Fiction picks? Don’t forget to link up with Christopher this week!
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