Me read pretty nonfiction one day.
January 30, 2014 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Bookclub filter: Nonfiction with beautiful prose?

I enjoy nonfiction books, and I am eager to read more of them in my bookclub. The obstacle: my friend is not generally a fan of nonfiction, her main complaint being that the writing is just too journalistic/technical/cold/ugly compared to fiction. I often find this to be a feature rather than a bug, but to each her own. Nevertheless, I'd like to try to find something she will enjoy. Since this is for a bookclub, any suggested book should, in theory, foster interesting discussion in addition to being prettily written.

For point of reference: she sort of liked Devil in the White City (which I loved), but she felt it was still a bit dry. Her favorite books are generally historical fiction; her favorite author is Jane Austen.
posted by gatorae to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
I thought that Book of Ages by Jill Lepore was beautifully written, as was Eden's Outcasts by John Matteson.
posted by mynameisluka at 7:30 PM on January 30, 2014

I really like reading Michael Pollan just to read him, and his stuff is certainly very discussion-worthy.
posted by Sequence at 7:30 PM on January 30, 2014

William T Vollmann writes beautifully. He's not for everyone, but he has written across a broad range of topics, so she might find something of interest.

Craig Childs also writes wistfully of the deserts of the southwest.

Barry Mazur writes poetically about maths.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:33 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Try Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I don't think it can be called "dry" under any circumstances. Murder, mayhem, and vividly drawn characters, and when I say "characters," I mean Characters!

If your book club can do essay collections, here are three I ADORE:

Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, by Thomas Lynch

Stranger than Fiction, by Chuck Palahniuk
posted by janey47 at 7:47 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

I haven't read enough of him to recommend one in particular for your club, but I've always been impressed by John McPhee. He's known for doing exactly what you describe, bringing a creative, fictionlike quality to nonfiction.
posted by evisceratordeath at 7:54 PM on January 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Into Thin Air

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

And, like janey47 suggests, if essay collections are on the table--Consider the Lobster
posted by kagredon at 8:03 PM on January 30, 2014

James/Jan Morris's Pax Britannica trilogy, about the rise and fall of the British Empire, is witty, vivid, full of fascinating vignettes and character sketches, and generally delightfully written. (You don't have to read the entire trilogy -- they work well as stand-alone books, too.)
posted by zeri at 8:06 PM on January 30, 2014

Night Comes to the Cumberlands is beautifully written. It's about Appalachia, one of the poorest regions in America.

If you like autobiographies, Katherine Graham's Personal History is a fascinating and very detailed look back on her very impressive, interesting life as heiress, wife, widow, and leader of the Washington Post during Watergate.
posted by flyingfork at 8:10 PM on January 30, 2014

Jan Morris is awesome. I also love her Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.

Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is also awesome, but be aware that it is quite long.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:10 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is writerly as fuck and really a delight to read for the first time.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:11 PM on January 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Lewis Thomas
posted by John Cohen at 8:19 PM on January 30, 2014

Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is astounding. Also anything by Tracy Kidder: I've enjoyed Soul of a New Machine (featuring jessamyn's father), House, and Mountains Beyond Mountains.
posted by chinston at 8:19 PM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Lots of great recommendations here already.

I'll add Paul Monette's Borrowed Time, which is taking me forever to read in large part because a lot of the writing is so good I would hate to rush it. It's a memoir (and is at least billed as the earliest AIDS-focused memoir) about taking care of his dying partner in the early years of the epidemic. It's beautiful, but as horrible and sad as you can imagine.

(Aside from everything else to love, I guess Monette was a working writer in the 80s, and will occasionally intersperse these lovely meditations on illness and devotion with throwaway references to researching his novelization of the Predator movie or having brunch with Oprah.)
posted by jameaterblues at 8:21 PM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean.
posted by sapere aude at 8:23 PM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think there is a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of "people who like Jane Austen" and "people who like Laurie Colwin." Therefore, I recommend (as I so often do here) Colwin's two memoirs, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. They are both beautifully written.

You might also try Laura Shaine Cunningham's two memoirs, Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country, or perhaps Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:39 PM on January 30, 2014

It doesn't specifically answer your question about lovely writing, but another way to approach your goal of finding enjoyable nonfiction for your friend would be to consider biographies of authors of the fiction that she likes. Roald Dahl's memoirs Boy and Going Solo read just like his fiction -- fantastic, especially Going Solo. There's a bio of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote the Anne of Green Gables series, that I'm finding really interesting right now and I think anyone who loves those books would be glad to get inside the author's head.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:08 PM on January 30, 2014

It's been a while since I read them, but I found In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick and The Bounty: the True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander to be absolutely gripping. Jane Austen is my favorite author too, but I loved Devil in the White City, so not sure where my recommendation falls in usefulness. She might enjoy The Bounty because it provides further insight into the world Jane Austen lived in.
posted by sumiami at 9:40 PM on January 30, 2014

Hard to say without a more detailed definition of "beautiful" -- from your description of your friend's tastes it sounds like she's more looking for not-boring than poetic. I'd recommend Mary Roach, who writes very entertaining, not-at-all-dry nonfiction with a comic tone. Stiff is her most well-known book but they're all good.
posted by phoenixy at 9:40 PM on January 30, 2014

I immediately thought of Assassins of the Turquoise Palace. The author is a Iranian poet but this book is about the assassination of Iranian dissidents in Germany and then the German prosecutors' investigation of the killers. It was one of the best books I've ever read. My dad and I were reading it simultaneously and resorted to stealing it whenever the other made the mistake of setting it down.
posted by carolr at 10:36 PM on January 30, 2014

Lit, by Mary Karr. She's a poet. Her memoir is extraordinary.

The Indifferent Stars Above, about the Donner party. This book is haunting...

Let's Take the Long Way Home - one of the most powerful meditations on friendship and loss that I've ever read. Gorgeously written.
posted by artemisia at 12:14 AM on January 31, 2014

Anything by Joan Didion, The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem being the great gateway collections to her longer stuff like Where I Was From and The Year of Magical Thinking.
posted by book 'em dano at 12:33 AM on January 31, 2014

I suggest "Running in the Family" by Michael Ondaatje. It's beautifully written nonfiction prose about a visit back home to Sri Lanka and you can't help but be enveloped in the sights, smells and sounds of his trip. Rich, moving and well worth your time!
posted by but no cigar at 12:43 AM on January 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just finished reading Morrissey's autobiography. It tapers off in the back half, but the prose he uses to describe his childhood in Manchester and life in Los Angeles is fantastic.

Otherwise, 2nding Joan Didion.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:18 AM on January 31, 2014

I would suggest books by WG Sebald and Claudio Magris.

Both may from time to time slip out of purely non-fiction, but there is so much more going on in their writing. Memory, travelogue, history, culture, loss and longing.
posted by sagwalla at 2:51 AM on January 31, 2014

Stephen Greenblatt

Some Australians: Helen Garner, Arnold Zable
posted by Coaticass at 3:30 AM on January 31, 2014

Great sugeestions from everyone I will have to look them up

Here are a few I have enjoyed -

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
A very disturbing true story about Extreme Mormon Fundamentalists. Also a lot of good history on the beginnings of Mormonism

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
Story of Jim Jones, his followers and the mass suicide in Guyana

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
Incredible story about President Garfield's assassination and the medical care at the time

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
True Story - goes fast

Girls Like US by Sheila Weller
Biography of Carole King, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell

Stories I Only Tell my Friends by Rob Lowe

The Six Wives of Henry the Vlll by Alison Weir

Cleopatra A Life by Stacy Schiff
posted by MrsMGH at 5:35 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bruce Chatwin - In Patagonia or The Songlines
posted by IndigoJones at 7:23 AM on January 31, 2014

Fact of the matter is that I'll attempt to persuade everyone to read Truman Capote sooner or later, but I do believe that In Cold Blood compares well with Devil in the White City (or with damn near any book concerning crime). If you could be tempted by shorter works I also find his "The Muses Are Heard" quite satisfactory, about a hundred pages concerning an American production of Porgy and Bess in the Soviet Union.

To work the propensity for historical fiction you might consider Georges Simenon's Pedigree, which he began as a memoir but transformed into a novel that exhibits what Werner Herzog later popularized as "ecstatic truth"; as Simenon said, "nothing is true but everything is accurate."
posted by mr. digits at 7:27 AM on January 31, 2014

Charriere's Papillon may also be apt, and it covers a lot of ground.
posted by mr. digits at 8:59 AM on January 31, 2014

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov.
posted by languagehat at 9:02 AM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Jesmyn Ward's Men We Reaped fits the bill.
posted by jabes at 4:12 PM on January 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Speak, Memory, Nabokov's autobiography.
posted by merejane at 4:46 PM on January 31, 2014

Tom Holland is a novelist who writes popular histories with beautiful prose.
posted by sakahane at 5:01 AM on February 1, 2014

Patrick Leigh Fermor! Start with A Time of Gifts
posted by rahulrg at 4:50 PM on February 4, 2014

Anne Fadiman: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader.
posted by pimli at 5:24 AM on February 15, 2014

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