Tell me what fiction I should read
June 10, 2010 7:53 PM   Subscribe

Fiction for someone who prefers non-fiction. Suggestions?

I would like to read more, especially fiction,and actually have some time to do so. Sadly, I have not read a single fiction book in at least five years and basically know nothing about what's going on in fiction these days. I generally prefer non-fiction, especially books about food/food policy (Michael Pollan books, Righteous Porkchop), books about fighting for the little guys law and justice stuff, and pop statistics/psychology/sociology (Gladwell, mostly). That and all the many, many, historical books I read in college for my classes, favorite regions being Japan, Europe, South America.
When I was a kid I read everything I could get my hands on, and my favorites were fantasyish stuff like every single Roald Dahl kids' book, Dr. Doolittle books, The Giver, biographies, and all of Laura Ingalls books. The middle/high school reading I liked most were The Power of One, Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Joy Luck Club, Orwell, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and... I'm sure I've forgotten many. I was not so much a fan of Dickens, Bronte (either of them), Austen, and am apparently the only person on earth who didn't like Catcher in the Rye. I also don't like really fluffy reading, or books geared toward only women in a borderline romance novel way.
And, just because I love non-fiction so much, if you have any great non-fiction suggestions based on what I've set out, here, I'd definitely appreciate that, too.
So, please, suggest me some summer reading, learned Metafilter.
posted by ishotjr to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Wolf Hall if you'd like to read some first-rate literary historical fiction.

I'm sort of assuming that historical fiction is a good fit for what you want, given that you like nonfiction and don't want fluff. Another recommendation along these lines would be almost any novel by Gore Vidal, especially his historical stuff. I liked Burr and Lincoln quite a bit.

You might also really like any of the "New Journalism" from the 60s and 70s, which consisted mainly of nonfiction books written with the techniques of the novel. The standouts here would be:

In Cold Blood by Capote
Executioner's Song by Mailer
anything by Tom Wolfe.... there are lots of others in this mold.
posted by Philemon at 8:03 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

There were three Brontes actually, and I didn't like Catcher in the Rye either. If you liked The Giver, I recommend He, She and It by Marge Piercy and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Both of those were written in the 90s (so, they're not from the last five years). If you're not averse to YA, you might like Feed by M.T. Anderson. Right now I'm reading The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, I'm only one chapter in but what a chapter! I'm loving it. My husband read it before I did and gave it two thumbs up.

If you're looking for funny (a la Roald Dahl), I recommend Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde. If you aren't afraid of reading back a little bit further in the century, I am a smitten fangirl for Fitzgerald (Gatsby, the Last Tycoon, or his collected letters to Hemingway), Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell To Arms, Death in the Afternoon) and Joyce (Ulysses, but I haven't met many people who love it like I did - if you read it aloud, it helps). Faulkner is great but can be bleak. And I've spent the last six months glutting myself on every interview and short story The Paris Review offers on their website.
posted by annathea at 8:07 PM on June 10, 2010

oh, and non-fiction suggestions - anything by Mark Kurlansky. I particularly like Cod and A Basque History of the World, and think of them as a bit of a matched set.
posted by annathea at 8:08 PM on June 10, 2010

The Perfect Storm was a pretty great read.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:13 PM on June 10, 2010

..also, another book that goes into a lot of cool non-fiction backstory is Les Miserables.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:15 PM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you might enjoy Devil in White City by Erik Larson. It's a fictionalized tale of the Chicago World's Fair and a serial killer using the fair to further his aims.

Or maybe The Living by Annie Dillard, surprisingly gripping historical fiction set during the homesteading and early growth of Whatcom County, Washington.
posted by rube goldberg at 8:16 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just finished Junger's "War" , and while it isn't fiction it's a thrilling and eye-opening read.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:26 PM on June 10, 2010

Historical fiction, definitely not fluffy, complicated and long enough to be an academic tome: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. A mystery set in 19th Century England, bleak, compelling, intricate.

More historical fiction, less intricate and more dashing: Ironfire by David Ball. One of my favorite novels, set in the Mediterranean in the mid-1500s, culminating in the Siege of Malta. Political intrigue, piracy, bloody battles, religious zealotry, star-crossed romance - what's not to love?

Yet more historical fiction, with more romance than war but bloody enough nonetheless: The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye. Set in vividly portrayed British India, it tells of the romance between a British Army officer and an Indian princess, along with espionage, war and mutiny, culture clash, and the search for one's own identity.

And of course there's the whole Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian.

That should take care of your summer pretty nicely.
posted by Quietgal at 8:32 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a novel packed with historical info and anecdotes.
posted by tacoma1 at 8:46 PM on June 10, 2010

Master and Commander and Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian are two of the finest fiction books I have ever read. The language is incredible, and Post Captain is basically Jane Austen for men - witty, clever, fast-paced writing. The first half of the book literally had me laughing every paragraph.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:55 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. I've heard his book Kavalier and Klay is even better, but haven't read it yet myself.

Skinny Legs and All, or anything by Tom Robbins. Funny shit.

Anything by John Irving.
posted by wwartorff at 9:04 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy Frederick Forsyth novels and short stories; spy novels, mysteries, lots of contemporary history details.
posted by galadriel at 9:07 PM on June 10, 2010

Nicholson Baker's fiction (The Mezzanine, Fermata) often has a deep attention to the details of the real world. Warning: often contains sex.

In a somewhat different way, K.J. Parker (the Engineer trilogy; The Folding Knife) and Peter Watts (Blindsight) also have a lot of historical-technological and scientific information, respectively. Warning: both authors are very, very dark.
posted by novalis_dt at 9:17 PM on June 10, 2010

These Is My Words
posted by Sassyfras at 9:24 PM on June 10, 2010

Neal Stephenson's oeuvre is all pretty geeky and laden with facts and technology and exposition. You might particularly enjoy the Baroque Cycle novels.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:30 PM on June 10, 2010

i'm a heavy non-fic reader and found a home in t.c. boyle's "drop city"....gripping, real, and relevant...
posted by lakersfan1222 at 9:33 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

here are some non-fics which are kind of mind-blowing, since you asked:

seductive poison, by deborah layton
black dahlia avenger, by steve hodel

layton's book is from the inside of the jim jones cult all the way to guayana. and hodel's book is his own eventual conclusion that his own father committed the black dahlia murders in camp and a really good read

both gripping reads.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 9:38 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor is actually a very well-done, fictionalized blend of pre-/post-Independence India and the Mahabharata. It takes a bit of knowledge about both to truly appreciate, but you could enjoy it plenty without.

I second anything by Tom Robbins, especially Skinny Legs and All, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, or Jitterbug Perfume.
posted by shesdeadimalive at 10:09 PM on June 10, 2010

You like fantasy, but you don't mention if you've ever tried Tolkien. Lots of what's in his books is fantasy-geography, politics, philosophy, and of course linguistics. Some don't consider him a great author as a result.

In addition to Stephenson, another sf writer with a lot of non-fiction appeal is probably Kim Stanley Robinson, best known for the Red Mars trilogy. Huge chunks of the books are lengthy explanations of Martian climate or geography* (real or human-altered) or political or economic systems.
* technically, areography

In the same vein, but more earth-bound, you might look into fiction with a travel theme, e.g. Paul Theroux -- or other authors known as much for their non-fiction. Tom Wolfe, perhaps.

Dunno if technology, war, and adventure appeal to you, but if so Tom Clancy is your guy (and he now has reams of imitators). A bit cheesier choice would be Clive Cussler. I've always felt this stuff appealed to guys who are mainly interested in the hardware and not the actual story so much.
posted by dhartung at 10:19 PM on June 10, 2010

Cormack McCarthy - I'm an avid non-fiction reader, but just tore through 4 of his books, starting with Blood Meridian, which is loosely based on a real gang that hunted Native Americans' scalps for bounty money in late 19th century.

I went on to The Road, a very realistic apocalyptic novel based on a father and son's journey to...? after the "end of society".

Then I continued onto No Country for Old Men, which I knew well from the movie I loved, and then ended on Child of God, about a demented serial killer living off the land in the 19th century.

You can tell I favor extreme themes, but isn't truth stranger than fiction?
posted by jfstanley at 10:38 PM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Borges' fiction. All of it.
posted by juv3nal at 1:18 AM on June 11, 2010

A.S. Byatt's Possession is fiction that reads like non-fiction. Fowles's French lieutenant's woman is fiction with an sorta anthropological overview. You said you don't like Austen, but Kay Weldon's Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen is an epistolary novel (ish) concerning itself with the reason Austen wrote of the things she did. Isherwood's Berlin stories drop you into pre-WWII Berlin. James Baldwin's novels, particularly Another country, read as a bulletin (even tho the bulletin is a half-century old).

You should know that lots of reasonable people can't stand Catcher in the rye.
posted by goofyfoot at 2:22 AM on June 11, 2010

You might like Robert Anton Wilson. A lot of his stuff reads like non-fiction.
posted by Eumachia L F at 2:29 AM on June 11, 2010

"A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry takes place during India's Emergency, and is in parts tragic, and hilarious.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:52 AM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Margaret Atwood's stuff is incredibly engaging and not at all "fluff" (with the exception of The Robber Bride, which I absolutely hated). I recommend trying either The Blind Assassin, or Oryx and Crake.
posted by litnerd at 5:59 AM on June 11, 2010

i'm a heavy non-fic reader and found a home in t.c. boyle's "drop city"....gripping, real, and relevant...

I don't read a lot of fiction (besides Aubrey-Maturin, maybe 1 novel a year), but I really liked Drop City.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:07 AM on June 11, 2010

You might give James Michener a try, whose hallmark is the interweaving of researched history/place and multi-generational fictional storylines. Although he wrote for a mass-market audience, I find his writing style to be a cut above that of many formulaic or "genre" writers. There's a good shot that he's written about places or historical processes that particularly interests you.

Also, V.S. Naipaul, a Trinidadian novelist, who I find very "approachable" for a Noble laureate and whose works are steeped in a sense of place and history.
posted by drlith at 6:13 AM on June 11, 2010

Seconding Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. He does a fantastic job of intertwining fantastical fiction with (as far as I know) very well-researched historical detail. Although the wikipedia entry does mention some historical inaccuracies.
posted by antifuse at 6:15 AM on June 11, 2010

Here are some novels I liked that involved a lot of research.

- The Millennium Trilogy.
In general, mystery/thriller sounds like a good fit for you. The authors tend to be scrupulous about facts and the books are set in all different parts of the world, and in various historical periods. Check out John LeCarre and Graham Green.
Note: the progenitor of the Millennium Trilogy is the Martin Beck series. (Read them in order!)

- "Blindsight" by Peter Watts
Watts is a sci-fi writer who is obsessed with detail. "Blightsight" is a good story with pages and pages of end-notes.

-Anything by Dan Simmons.
Start by reading "Hyperion" and "The Terror." The former is a sci-fi adaptation of "Canterbury Tales." The latter is "a fictionalized account of Franklin's lost expedition of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror under Captain Sir John Franklin to the Arctic to force the Northwest Passage in 1845 - 1848."

- "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry.
The problem with threads like this is that people just wind up listing their favorite books, regardless of whether or not they fit the OP's criteria (although yours is very loose -- almost to the point that just being "recommend some good books.") I'm a little worried this falls under that category. But it does tickle some non-fiction-fiction neurons. It's an incredibly detailed western with the scope of a great quest novel (such as "Lord of the Rings"). It has characters as sharply drawn as Dickens characters, and the prose is incredible. I think of it as one of the Great American Novels -- right up there with "Moby Dick" and "The Great Gatsby."

- "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel" by Susanna Clarke
"An alternative history set in 19th-century England around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it is based on the premise that magic once existed in England and has returned with two men: Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange. Centrring on the relationship between these two men, the novel investigates the nature of 'Englishness' and the boundary between reason and madness. It has been described as a fantasy novel, an alternative history, and a historical novel.

The narrative draws on various Romantic literary traditions, such as the comedy of manners, the Gothic tale, and the Byronic hero. The novel's language is a pastiche of 19th-century writing styles, such as those of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Clarke describes the supernatural with mundane details. She supplements the text with almost 200 footnotes, outlining the backstory and an entire fictional corpus of magical scholarship."

- The Claudius novels by Robert Graves
(See also: The BBC TV series!)

- Nthing the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian.

- "All the Kings Men" by Robert Penn Warren.
posted by grumblebee at 6:46 AM on June 11, 2010

Take a look at Norman Mailer: specifically, The Naked and the Dead or The Executioner's Song.
posted by Prospero at 7:11 AM on June 11, 2010

Here are some novels that were written with lots of knowledge of anthropology and international development interwoven into the text:

Fieldwork: a Novel by Mischa Berlinski
Norman Rush's novels Mating and Whites
posted by umbú at 10:38 AM on June 11, 2010

Seconding wwartorff's suggestion of John Irving, and suggesting "A Prayer for Owen Meany." I think Irving's also written a non-fiction book called "Trying to Save Piggy Sneed."

Chuck Palahniuk is probably best known for being the author of "Fight Club." Not sure if you would like his style, but I found him very pleasurable to read. Fast though, and you'll blow through his books quickly. He's written a book of non-fiction that I liked called "Stranger than Fiction: True Stories."

Finally, I really enjoyed "The Undertaking: Life Studiens from the Dismal Trade" by Thomas Lynch. It profoundly changed the way that I view death and funerals. I pick it up and re-read it about once a year.
posted by avoision at 11:32 AM on June 11, 2010

Did you read comics as a kid? I second wwartorff's partial recommendation for Kavalier and Clay - I've read it and at times, it felt like reading a dramatic biography.

I also recommend coming to terms with dropping a book after, say, 50 pages if you're not getting into it. That way, you can recalibrate your fiction tastes more quickly, since you've been away for so long.
posted by tantivy at 4:51 PM on June 11, 2010

I would recommend The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.

Like you, I only read non-fiction for years. Then a friend gave me this book, and after bugging me about it for months, I relented and opened it up. I have since given it to many friends. It really is a unique and special book.

Murakami is a well known Japanese author and the novel takes place (mostly) in Japan. Check out some reviews online!
posted by t a t a at 5:49 PM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the suggestions! I will check as many of these out as possible. The John Irving suggestion was spot on. He is one of the ones I like but forgot about.
posted by ishotjr at 9:24 PM on June 11, 2010

I came back here just to publicly retract my earlier endorsement of The Imperfectionists. I was so disappointed by it. Rachman can write though, so hopefully by his second book he'll have worked out the kinks.
posted by annathea at 1:36 AM on June 25, 2010

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