Gripping, page-turning history books
January 9, 2012 5:03 AM   Subscribe

Any suggestions for gripping historical non-fiction books?

I'm looking for really gripping books on historical events. I've loved the mefi threads about narrative non-fiction, but I've noticed that most of the suggestions are contemporary, or stem from an author's personal experiences, say, following the subject around.

Any ideas for gripping page-turners on historical events where the author didn't have a front seat view? Any subject or era would do; I'm most interested in the writing.

posted by EtTuHealy to Writing & Language (55 answers total) 131 users marked this as a favorite
Dava Sobel does good work in this front -- "Longitude" and "Galileo's Daughter" are particularly good exemplars of the relatively recent "Importance of tiny things" popular science writing trend. Ditto "Salt" by Mark Kurlansky.

"The Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson was terrific, but some of my public-health acquaintances think Johnson was pushing a particular viewpoint and ignored some things that may have contradicted his narrative slightly.
posted by Etrigan at 5:08 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Crowley's Empires of the Sea is a wonderful telling of the Christian and Ottoman empire clashing on Malta, and how a tiny group of knights and locals held off the full force of the Ottoman navy.

I also really enjoyed Team of Rivals, which details the lives and machinations of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet members, all who wanted the top spot for themselves.
posted by ukdanae at 5:12 AM on January 9, 2012

Shelby Foote's The Stars in Their Courses, about the battle of Gettysburg, or The Beleaguered City, about the siege of Vicksburg.
posted by Trurl at 5:19 AM on January 9, 2012

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang.
posted by zeikka at 5:22 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These are great -- thanks! Keep 'em coming :).
posted by EtTuHealy at 5:22 AM on January 9, 2012

No Ordinary Time
posted by Fairchild at 5:29 AM on January 9, 2012

Leo Marks, "Between Silk and Cyanide"
posted by thelonius at 5:32 AM on January 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne.

S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon spans two astonishing stories. The first traces the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history. The second entails one of the most remarkable narratives ever to come out of the Old West: the epic saga of the pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her mixed-blood son Quanah, who became the last and greatest chief of the Comanches.

posted by R. Mutt at 5:40 AM on January 9, 2012

James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" is a beautifully-written one volume history of the American Civil War.

Everything I've read by David Halberstam has been really gripping. In particular, I really enjoyed "The Best and the Brightest," which is about how JFK's cabinet members convinced themselves and him to that getting involved in Vietnam was a good idea. "The Powers That Be," about the rise of four media empires was also great.

Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August" does an amazing job of capturing the confusion, stupidity, and panic on all sides that characterized the lead-up to and first month of the First World War.

Robert Caro is another favorite: maybe start with "The Power Broker," about Robert Moses' dominance of NYC development, and move on to his five-volume(!) series on LBJ if you like it (three are out, the fourth will be published this spring).
posted by burden at 5:53 AM on January 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Zimmerman Telegram also by Barbara Tuchman.

For a bite-size bit of Shelby Foote, have a look at Stars In Their Courses, which is a standalone extract (from his 3-volume masterpiece) that tells the story of the battle of Gettysburg.
posted by jquinby at 6:00 AM on January 9, 2012

Oh, and - man alive, no list on gripping historical non-fiction is complete without The Devil in The White City by Erick Larson. Two fascinating stories centered around the worlds fair in Chicago.
posted by jquinby at 6:02 AM on January 9, 2012 [10 favorites]

Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City is about Daniel Burnham and the building of the Worlds Fair in Chicago, and also a creepy serial killer drama...and going to be a movie next year. I'm listening to his new one, In the garden of the Beasts, about the US ambassador to Berlin in 1933. (Just started, so I can't vouch yet.)

I really enjoyed Charles C. Mann's 1493: Uncovering the new World Columbus Created, to the point that I'm going to be rereading it very soon, as well as cracking into his previous book, 1492. (Warning: you may not be able to stop saying "homogenocene," nor stop noticing the effects of the Columbian exchange everywhere you look.)

And, of course, if you haven't already read everything by Sarah Vowell, her books are great, too--though you may find her too personal, they're wonderfully informative.
posted by mimi at 6:04 AM on January 9, 2012

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian tells the story of Powell's run down the Colorado River. The second half is preey wonky (details on political infighting through the rest of Powell's career), but the first half is pretty gripping stuff.
posted by notsnot at 6:06 AM on January 9, 2012

Whoops, beaten by not previewing! So here's another: Vive la Revolution by Mark Steel, an entertaining history of the French Revolution.
posted by mimi at 6:07 AM on January 9, 2012

I said this before in other threads:

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is absolutely fascinating.
posted by MustardTent at 6:24 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

While technically a novel I think The Killer Angels should be on this list.
posted by H. Roark at 6:50 AM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are a million Lincoln books to choose from (Team of Rivals being the current most popular), but I found The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage un-put-down-able.

(I haven't read this yet, but The Madness of Mary Lincoln is a reassessment of her time declared insane, based on some recently-found letters -- everyone I know who's read it has raved about it. I know they're doing a Civil War sesquicentennial re-enactment of it coming up at the Lincoln Museum, though.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:53 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm in the middle of Laurence Bergreen's Columbus: The Four Voyages which I am finding very engaging.
posted by Jode at 6:56 AM on January 9, 2012

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson - I liked this even more than Larson's The Devil in the White City

Confessions of a Spy by Pete Earley - about how the spy Aldrich Ames was caught (may be out of print, but you could probably find it at the library)

And I second Manhunt by James Swanson - it read like a movie!
posted by stampsgal at 7:06 AM on January 9, 2012

"Life and Death in Shanghai" by Nien Cheng is amazing. (it's about her imprisonment and subsequent life during and following China's cultural Revolution.)
posted by bearette at 7:06 AM on January 9, 2012

William Manchester's The Arms of Krupp is quite good, although with some problems. It should be required reading for Occupy Wall Street, probably.
posted by kengraham at 7:15 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Barrow's Boys. The subtitle nails it: "A Stirring Story Of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy ."
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:22 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love Kurlansky but there are a set of his books that overlap strongly. Don't read Salt and Cod and the history of Basque cooking all right on top of each other.

A couple of books that might be up your alley that I've recently enjoyed: The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century, by Harold Schechter;
For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago, by Simon Baatz.
posted by immlass at 7:26 AM on January 9, 2012

oops! I just read your post again and I guess my suggestion doesn't fit your requirements. Still, it's a great read.
posted by bearette at 7:27 AM on January 9, 2012

Long ago and far away, "The White Nile" and "The Blue Nile" by Alan Moorehead are terrific reads about African exploration and the search for the source of the River Nile.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:40 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are incredible -- thanks everyone!! Exactly what I'm looking for!
posted by EtTuHealy at 7:41 AM on January 9, 2012

The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars also available on kindle. Highly readable about a grim subject.
posted by adamvasco at 7:43 AM on January 9, 2012

I just read and really enjoyed Destiny of the Republic, a surprisingly gripping account of the assassination of James Garfield.
posted by fancypants at 7:49 AM on January 9, 2012

The Last Place on Earth, the story of Scott and Amundsen's race to the South Pole. Huntford's equally gripping
posted by Melismata at 8:22 AM on January 9, 2012

woops, that was cut off. equally gripping Shackleton will make you beyond exhausted. (They had to CLIMB the mountain before reaching help??)
posted by Melismata at 8:23 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia is Rudyard Kipling brought to life. It's brilliant, brilliant stuff.
posted by BobbyVan at 8:41 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing Devil in the White City. Such a fantastic book.

I also loved Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:51 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror (I know a lot of historians hate her, but she's eminently readable!)

God's Long Summer (about civil rights in the 1960's)
posted by guster4lovers at 9:09 AM on January 9, 2012

Havana Nocturne is the story of "How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution." Very interesting.

"The Killer Angels," "The Best and the Brightest," and "The Guns of August" all strongly recommended as well.
posted by Clambone at 9:28 AM on January 9, 2012

I think you would enjoy The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado
posted by seriousmoonlight at 9:35 AM on January 9, 2012

Nthing Erik Larson's Devil In The White City.

Also gripping, for slightly different reasons: Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy, a three-volume history of the Americas which begins with pre-Columbian myths and the Spanish Conquest, moves on to cover the colonization of North and South Americas and its breakup into independent nations, and concludes with the 20th Century. What is most striking is Galeano's style -- he writes entirely in a series of brief, vivid vignettes that cover just about everything -- pop culture, art, politics, progressive movements, folk tales, slice-of-life mundanities -- there's one page where you jump from a strike at a silver mine in Peru to a scene with Mark Twain writing "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" to the slaughter at Wounded Knee.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:52 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

So many good suggestions here! Two more that kept me riveted recently:

Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn.

White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India, by William Dalrymple.
posted by artemisia at 10:19 AM on January 9, 2012

Also a good narrative by Larson, Isaac's Storm documents the events that led up to the disastrous Galveston Hurricane.

The Codebreakers is a thick volume that's well worth reading for its coverage of military and civilian intelligence wars in WWI and WWII.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:20 AM on January 9, 2012

Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival is an account of the 30 or so women who marched with the Communist army on the Long March in 1934-5. These people covered over 4000 miles in 370 days while scavenging food and fighting the Nationalists. Not only does it tell the story of the march, it also tells the backstory of these women's lives before they joined up with the Communists.
posted by elmay at 10:20 AM on January 9, 2012

Seconding, very strongly, the suggestion for In The Heart Of The Sea. The Poisoner's Handbook by Blum was excellent, and also good is Prohibition, by Akrent.
posted by jeather at 10:55 AM on January 9, 2012

The plague race is the very exciting story of the first to discover bubonic plague transmission.

Skeletons on the Zahara is the jaw dropping tale of sailors lost in the sahara desert.

King Leopold's Ghost is a terrible story of the colonial Congo.

The Professor, The Banker and The Suicide King is the story of the world's richest poker game, and pretty crazy.

Gang Leader for a Day was quite interesting to me, as an Australian, and could certainly be characterised as gripping, even though I had some major problems with the author and his approach.
posted by smoke at 2:11 PM on January 9, 2012

1. Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty. It's about Henry Morgan and the real pirates of the Caribbean. Engaging, plain-spoken, fascinating.

2. The Illustrious Dead by Stephan Talty. The story of Napoleon's invasion of Russia and how it was typhus, not the Russians or winter or anything else, that really kicked Napoleon's ass.

3. Band of Brothers by Steven Ambrose. If you've seen the miniseries, it's still worth the read. You will find that HBO actually toned down the heroism for the show. But the book isn't an unabashed "ooh-rah" for the Army; Ambrose talks plainly about looting and other less-than-admirable behaviors. So worth reading.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 2:17 PM on January 9, 2012

I loved "The Gunpowder Plot" by Antonia Fraser, about, obviously, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. I also really enjoyed Gene Smith's "American Gothic", a really fascinating look at the Booth family (John Wilkes and Edwin), which of course covers the assassination of Lincoln as well.
posted by OolooKitty at 2:49 PM on January 9, 2012

"The Professor and the Madman," about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Weirdly gripping, considering that it was about a dictionary.
posted by Etrigan at 5:33 PM on January 9, 2012

I second King Leopold's Ghost. Bury the Chains, also by Adam Hochschild, is a great one too.
posted by phonebia at 6:27 PM on January 9, 2012

Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts, about the famine that killed ~30 million people in China in the mid-20th century

This is Paradise! by Hyok Kong, about the 1990s famine in North Korea, with striking illustrations supporting the story. This little-known book deserves to be a classic.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang: 20th century China
posted by Corvid at 8:03 PM on January 9, 2012

posted by Ideefixe at 9:28 PM on January 9, 2012

I would highly recommend "The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914" by David McCullough.
posted by of strange foe at 10:05 AM on January 10, 2012

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre, the true story of how a fabricated character altered the course of World War II - through an ambitious, intricate plan with the sole aim of convincing Hitler that the Allies weren't going to invade Sicily.

How do you fabricate a character? For starters we'll need a suitable dead body, clothing, personal effects...hmm maybe a background story as well, lets see: photos from fiance, letters from concerned father, nightclub ticket stubs, shirt receipts, office papers...wait, this bloke sounds too perfect! Lets throw in some personality flaws shall we: notes asking for money back, overdrafts, expired ID cards... Fascinating stuff. All the more incredible because the plan actually worked!
posted by fix at 11:34 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 by William Trotter. First war history book I read, and was very accessible without being too jargon oriented.
posted by FJT at 4:21 PM on January 10, 2012

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