Seeking engrossing nonfiction book suggestions for Europe travel
August 30, 2016 5:35 PM   Subscribe

Going to Europe and need books to pass time during the long flight there and various train trips between destinations. Strongly prefer nonfiction--more specs within!

I am going to Munich, Salzburg, Prague, and Amsterdam next month and am in desperate need of reading suggestions. I gravitate towards nonfiction almost exclusively; I genuinely cannot recall the last novel I read. Specific nonfiction I like:

- Anthropology/psychology/human nature: Stephen Pinker is one of my favorites.

- Sociology/long-form reporting: I read American Pain a few months ago (about the U.S. oxycontin epidemic) and devoured it in less than 3 days. John Krakauer is good too, but I think I've already read all his stuff!

- True crime/macabre: I prefer stuff written from a law enforcement/psychological perspective. I do not like Ann Rule as her flow-y style kind of annoys me. I prefer hard facts and analysis, not pensive narratives.

- History: Mostly history about the above topics. My threshold for dryness is pretty low, so I probably haven't read much that true history-buffs may tout. I like history of the Bill Bryson variety; i.e., a little bit about a lot of different things. His book At Home is probably one of my favorite books ever. I like pop culture and art history as well.

- I mentioned my destinations because I'd love to read something that focuses on some aspect of one of those cities or Europe in general. I'll probably try to find something about the Black Plague, since that would cover European history with a gruesome medical angle. In a totally different vein, if Bill Bryson wrote about Bohemian art history, that would be right up my alley as well.

- Additional data points: Loved Devil in the White City, Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, and The Monster of Florence.

- Don't care for politics, don't care for war, don't care for sports.

I realize this is all over the place, so I can further narrow parameters if needed. Thanks in advance!
posted by lovableiago to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Always.

Also, The Professor and the Madman, if you haven't already.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 5:45 PM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

posted by praemunire at 5:46 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not THE plague, but A plague: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:51 PM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: re: art history: I recently read, and really enjoyed, What Are You Looking At? by Will Gompertz.
posted by Old Kentucky Shark at 5:59 PM on August 30, 2016

Have you read Guns, Germs, and Steel?
posted by dinnerdance at 6:18 PM on August 30, 2016

Response by poster: I have read The Ghost Map and Guns, Germs, and Steel--but those are both on point, as are the other suggestions here...! :)
posted by lovableiago at 6:20 PM on August 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Since you liked Devil In The White City, have you read Erik Larson's other books?

You may also enjoy Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:28 PM on August 30, 2016

Columbine by Dave Cullen
Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Just about anything by Atul Gawande -- Better and Being Mortal are my favorites
posted by telegraph at 6:39 PM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is a classic (if "novelized") true crime book. I couldn't put it down.

I also recently read Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antionette and it covered a lot of European history of the 18th century. Also a page turner (even though you know how it ends...).
posted by pantarei70 at 6:43 PM on August 30, 2016

For the Plague, I thought The Great Mortality was pretty good.

Random suggestion: The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is about the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Steven Johnson's How We Got To Now is a fun read -- each section is about how a now-common invention shaped the modern world. Each chapter is pretty much a stand-alone essay. If you liked The Ghost Map, I think you'll enjoy this one too.

Laurence Bergreen's Over The Edge of The World and Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu might suit, though they're not about any of your destinations.
posted by Janta at 6:55 PM on August 30, 2016

Best answer: Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (evolutionary anthropology). Nice mix of biology/social sciences/history.

Her book, Mothers and Others, is also good, but not nearly as engrossing.
posted by tippy at 7:35 PM on August 30, 2016

Seconding Far From the Tree--it is absolutely AMAZING, but extremely sad/depressing. Lab Girl is terrific. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. I am currently reading On Trails and am not far in but like it so far.
posted by bookworm4125 at 8:01 PM on August 30, 2016

Best answer: Bill James's Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence is an incredibly engaging tour through the famous true crime cases of the last 200 years and the impact they've made on the press and society.

James is a clear thinker and a persuasive, funny writer, and in addition to retelling the cases in a compelling way he hangs all kinds of interesting theories off them, from a surprisingly detailed proposal for replacing large prisons with super-small, targeted ones to the connections between the social upheaval in the 20s and the 60s to extended defenses of the role of true crime in American law and culture. It's like a survey course taught by a professor who knows his subject inside and out and doesn't mind throwing the syllabus out when a thought occurs to him.
posted by Polycarp at 8:06 PM on August 30, 2016

Best answer: Take a look at Tulipmania
posted by raccoon409 at 8:19 PM on August 30, 2016

I really liked The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing, which is about artists and their representations of New York City/art done while in NYC. Artists include Warhol and also the woman who shot him, David Wojnarowicz's work reflecting the despair of AIDS burning through NY's artists' community in the 80s, and an intriguing discussion of Hopper's Nighthawks.

I realize NY isn't one of your destinations, but you might find those crowded cities reflected here.
posted by taterpie at 9:30 PM on August 30, 2016

Missoula by Jon Krakaur checks a lot of your boxes.
posted by childofTethys at 11:03 PM on August 30, 2016

File under macabre: The Adversary, a true story of monstrous deception by Emmanuel Carrere
posted by nikoniko at 12:39 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, if you haven't read Primo Levi's books Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, they are among the best books I've ever read - and I mostly read and enjoy fiction. They are about human nature – how one's humanity is preserved, and or lost – and what happens to the psyche under the most horrific circumstances.
posted by nikoniko at 12:54 AM on August 31, 2016

Not a book as such but there is a Great Course's lecture series on the Black Death available on Audible.
posted by poxandplague at 2:36 AM on August 31, 2016

Also in the vein of At Home you may like Salt and Cod by Mark Kurlansky and Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson.
posted by poxandplague at 2:45 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

Prague Winter by Albright has history and a sense of place. Tongue Set Free by Canetti may also be of interest. Bury Me Standing is a fascinating read on the Roma of Central Europe. Amsterdam , a History of the World's most liberal city is on my to-read list.
posted by childofTethys at 3:36 AM on August 31, 2016

Best answer: Since you mentioned Devil in the White City you might like In the Garden of Beasts. It takes place in Berlin before WWII and is less about war and more about fish out of water.

For your Netherlands leg, I really enjoyed Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City. It has everything: art, pirates, sociology, philosophy.
posted by Brittanie at 3:38 AM on August 31, 2016

The already-mentioned Danubia and its predecessor Germania by SimonWinder are delightful and engrossing.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:01 AM on August 31, 2016

Your bookshelf could be my bookshelf! If you haven't read The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum, I think you will love it. It's about the beginnings of scientific forensic medicine in New York.
posted by backwards compatible at 5:18 AM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also wanted to recommend Salt and Cod by Mark Kurlansky (and his The Big Oyster).
You might like Shot in the Heart: Mikal Gilmore. Has some overlap with Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven in setting and culture.
posted by Gotanda at 5:23 AM on August 31, 2016

Seconding Patrick Leigh Fermor. Also, The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. It's subtitled "By Train Through Asia," but there's quite a lot of By Train Through Europe in it as well.
posted by 256 at 6:38 AM on August 31, 2016

The Lost City of Z about Amazon explorers.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:42 AM on August 31, 2016

Have you read anything by Mary Roach? Her stuff is hysterical and informative. Also I really enjoyed Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, but I love Lincoln history.
posted by PJMoore at 9:08 AM on August 31, 2016

On my phone so I can't link, but I adored the Seven Ages of Paris. Really good look at broader French history through the sometimes tumultuous life of its capital.
posted by Tamanna at 9:19 AM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you liked Devil in the White City, you'd probably like Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It's by the same author and not quite but almost as engrossing. Also along those lines, I couldn't put down historical book In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette. Oddball characters! Starvation! Syphilis! Bears!
posted by pangolin party at 9:21 AM on August 31, 2016

The Professor and The Madman might be right up your alley.

Also, you'd probably enjoy Oliver Sacks, though it doesn't quite fit the parameters for this particular situation.
posted by GoldenEel at 12:11 PM on August 31, 2016

May I suggest The Proud Tower: a Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman. The WaPo reviewer said "It is not, as I thought, a rather elegiac portrait of the good old days before the world tore itself apart, but a clear-eyed depiction of how the nations of the West were setting themselves up, all unwittingly, for the catastrophe to come. " Eight essays on such things as anarchists, the Dreyfuss Affair, the US turn towards imperialism, peace conferences at the Hague, prewar German culture with Nietzsche and Strauss, and the birth of socialism, etc.
posted by MovableBookLady at 4:09 PM on August 31, 2016

Best answer: There's always Neither Here Nor There by Bryson. Also not Europe related, but in the travel vein... I found his In a Sunburned Country absolutely fascinating.

Also second Mary Roach. She's Bryson-esque. I enjoyed Stiff and Gulp.
posted by raspberrE at 7:18 PM on August 31, 2016

I saved this from a different thread if translated works are of interest:
posted by childofTethys at 5:08 AM on September 2, 2016

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