Nonfiction November Week 4: Stranger Than Fiction

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 StacksThis 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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48 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Week 4: Stranger Than Fiction

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  1. I love Ben Macintyre’s books and must get to this one. I’m especially drawn to the story of the disappearing Flight MH370 as well. It doesn’t seem possible that there has never been any resolution to this tragedy.

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      1. Ah I’m glad you asked me that. So I can recommend: Agent Zigzag which is about a guy called Eddie Chapman who got away with being a german double agent for years. Then he’s written one on the SAS and I love books on the SAS – not sure why. Also he’s written about Kim Philby. And one called Operation Mincemeat. The guy is basically a genius and can’t write a boring word.

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      2. I’ve still never read a book about Kim Philby so I might try to that one. Agent Zigzag sounds great and I’m really curious about the German agent aspect! He really does have a gift for storytelling.

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  2. More books to add for this reader! I did read Tunnel 29 and bought it for my son in law s a Christmas present. I saw your previous post about the book, and promptly got it at my library. Thanks, Rennie, for so many wonderful recommendations. Off to the library later to see what they have.


  3. Excellent choices. I am especially fascinated by Tiger, have to check that up. The Habsburg stories are always a favourite of mine, and will look into them. Tunnel 29 as well. I don’t think any fiction can make up for these stories.

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    1. I promise The Tiger is just exceptional. I don’t think anyone I’ve recommended it to has ever been disappointed in it, and that NEVER happens! If you like Habsburg stories you’d love those two, both are so good and SO crazy from start to finish! Tunnel 29 is the best narrative nonfiction I’ve read this year for sure, also just a completely unbelievable and heart stopping story.

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  4. Simon Winder’s Danubia basically consists of wacky stories about the Hapsburgs. I’d love to read more about the topic in a more conventional style, although the story itself is anything but.

    The books by Oliver Sacks also spring to mind — I’ve only read Awakenings and An Anthropologist on Mars so far, but there’s already lots of amazing material there about the vagaries of the human brain.

    Anyway, I agree this is a great topic and it’s fun to see all the possibilities.

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    1. I have a copy of Danubia and I need to finally give it a try…I was a bit hesitant because I didn’t love his Germania book…his sense of humor and snark didn’t work for me, but I’m always curious about anything Habsburg-related so it seems worth giving a chance!

      I added Oliver Sacks to my list last year thanks to your recommendations, if I remember correctly! I picked up a copy of one of them not long ago from a Little Free Library, I think it’s Anthropologist on Mars. I’m looking forward to that one!

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      1. Simon Winder is a Marmite kind of author I think. Not sure how you’ll get on with Danubia, but it does at least have lots of Hapsburg trivia. An Anthropologist on Mars is a must-read, on the other hand! Really made me think about how we perceive the world.

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  5. I think the books that I’ve read that really amazed me the most have been books about mountaineering and expeditions. Sometimes it’s because there are characters who take part in an expedition who behave so bizarrely that it beggars belief, often being petty or spiteful. Sometimes it’s the extreme conditions or hardship that stand out. Touching the Void by Joe Simpson is a story of extreme control of mind over matter and will to live when Simpson’s climbing partner in Peru was forced to cut the rope and leave him for dead… only he wasn’t. Annapurna, another mountaineering tale, tells the story of the first team to climb the remote mountain, which had not yet been properly mapped. I specifically remember part where somebody lost a glove. Horrendous! And that reminds me of Wild by Cheryl Strayed who went off into the wilds of the Pacific Crest Trail with her monster of a pack that rubbed her body raw and uncomfortable boots and… then carelessly lost one of them! All these books make me think, “there but for the grace of God go I” and I keep returning to these cautionary tales.

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    1. I can definitely see why those would be so affecting! The two mountain ones you describe sound interesting, if terrifying. I can’t even imagine. Definitely good picks for this topic! I finally read Into Thin Air this year and I was so unnerved by it, but I also struggled with it because I just couldn’t understand the motivation, as absolutely everything about that endeavor sounded terrible to me.

      Wild is the only one you mention that I’m familiar with, and I started but never finished it. The author bothered me so much in so many ways that I knew I wouldn’t be able to appreciate happens sometimes with memoirs!


      1. Into Thin Air is one that I haven’t got round to yet. We had the dream of going to Everest Base Camp when we were younger, but weight and age have slowed us down so much, I can’t see it ever happening. We’re walkers, not climbers and though it’s pretty, I’m not that much a fan of snow. I’d rather see plants.

        As for Cheryl Strayed, I think it was the descriptions of the pain she endured and the stupid things she did that kept me hooked. It resonated greatly, especially as I read it while walking and camping high in the Swiss mountains at the time. There’s a reason I don’t backpack! I was just reminded of the ultimate annoying author in a similar vein: Ffyona Campbell (even the spelling of her name is annoying) who came across as a selfish, self-centred petulant teenager in her account of walking across Australia from east to west.


    1. There was another book a few years ago about a tiger in India, No Beast So Fierce. It actually referenced this one a few times. I was really disappointed in it though and can’t really recommend it…I promise The Tiger is worth your time though!


    1. I don’t think that we have!! I’m obsessed with her too, and forever on a mission to make more people know about her because she’s not super well known in the US and as you already know, she should be!! Are there any other books about her you’ve read? I’ve read two biographies, The Reluctant Empress and The Lonely Empress.

      These two are both excellent, one is more of a quick highlights reel of her biography alongside the story of one of her jewelry stars being stolen, and Twilight of Empire is actually more about her son and his murder-suicide. She’s only a peripheral character in it but that story is also so fascinatingly bizarre!

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      1. Her son and the murder suicide is BANANAS. I don’t know how more people don’t know about her. I learned about her when I went to Vienna and that portrait of her with the diamond stars in her hair were everywhere and I needed to find out who she was! That’s where I bought The Reluctant Empress. It’s the only one I’ve read but now I have three more to get to!

        I know you don’t read fiction but Alison Pathak did a duo of historical fiction about Sisi and they were so good! I think Daisy Goodwin has one about her as well that I liked a lot.
        I’d love to read more about her childhood, her siblings and of course, her insane cousin Ludwig!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t get her lack of total fame either! I never would have heard of her if I hadn’t lived in Vienna, and I really don’t get it because her story truly has it all. I’m not even that into royal histories but I’m all about hers, it’s just so crazy fascinating! You definitely would love these two I think, they’re right up your alley. It was one of the diamond stars that was stolen (by a Canadian thief!) and it’s the last known surviving one so Austria was totally devastated and so upset about it they didn’t even want to publicize the news it was missing at first.

        I think Katie @ Doing Dewey mentioned that historical fiction duo when I originally reviewed these two books! I totally get the urge to write fiction about her life because there are just so many great stories there. There’s a biography of her crazy cousin Ludwig called The Swan King, by Christopher McIntosh, that’s been on my list forever. It has kind of so-so reviews so I’ve never been in a big hurry to get to it, although I guess I should because his story is bananas, too! Did you visit his castle in Bavaria? It really is gorgeous. I also stumbled on the spot by accident where he drowned in Lake Starnberg, it’s marked with a cross. That story is so creepy too!!

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      3. Yes! His castle is incredible! I’ve been lucky enough to go more than once (my cousin lived in Bavaria until recently). The spot where he drowned would be such a surreal spot to stumble upon!
        I think I remember hearing about the diamond stars. Now I definitely need to read these.

        How do we make Sisi famous over here???

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Okay, I knew I was going to walk away from your post with a ton of new books for my TBR pile, but seriously … all of these sound amazing! Sadly, the only one I’ve read so far is A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear. But hey, that just means I have a lot of pages to look forward to, right?

    The Disappearing Act is right up there at the top. What a bizarre story—and the sheer amount of speculation without definitive answers has been wild. And The Tiger! What in the world. And then Dead Mountain … I’ve read a lot about the incident and it freaks me out. The new popular theory, while providing some closure and offering probably the best explanation of what happened, actually made me feel worse about it. I mean, how awful.


  7. I am developing a love/hate relationship with your blog. I love your posts and hate the fact that I can’t read faster. I’m buying a couple of these to give as Christmas presents to family members in the hopes that my reading backlog will diminish to the point that I’ll be able to borrow them in the future. 🙂


  8. These all sound like such incredible stories! This was such a great topic idea from Chris. I feel like it’s surfaced some really good books. I’d especially like to get to A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear and The Disappearing Act.The Tiger sounds interesting, but I think I’d be too sad for the tiger to enjoy it.


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