Book recs please! Help me imagine a different life/place/time...
November 1, 2016 10:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for book recommendations. Specifically, books that make me feel like I understand on a human level what it would feel like to live a different life. This can range from non-fiction that tells stories of intense adventure experiences to fiction that really allows me to imagine what it feels like to live in a different time period. Basically, can you recommend books with powerful storytelling that allow me to imagine things that would otherwise be beyond my ken?

Examples of fiction that give me **that feeling**:
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague- Geraldine Brooks
Catherine Called Birdy- Karen Kushman
The Other Boleyn Girl-Phillipa Gregory

Examples of Nonfiction:
In the Heart of the Sea- Nathaniel Philbrick
The Spirit Catches You and then You Fall Down-Anne Fadiman
The Perfect Storm- Sebastian Junger
Into Thin Air- Jon Krakauer

It's hard for me to describe exactly what these books have in common but I think it has to do with the focus on people and their emotions and lives as a mechanism for understanding what might otherwise feel very distant and unfamiliar either because of time (e.g. the plague years were a looong time ago) or because the activity or place is so unfamiliar (e.g. Everest?).

I also really like the fact that they have a strong narrative/story telling bent rather than feeling informational/descriptive.

I really want to read more books that give me that feeling of going beyond myself and am hoping askmetafilter can point me in the right direction!
posted by jeszac to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Anna Karenina.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:49 AM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is excellent for this; Cromwell lives and breathes and thinks and loves and is profoundly alive as a fellow mind.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:51 AM on November 1, 2016 [12 favorites]

The White Tiger presents the perspective of a modern lower-caste Indian man. (This might not apply if you are Indian.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:55 AM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer.
posted by peacheater at 10:56 AM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
posted by Melismata at 10:58 AM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver takes to you the Belgian Congo in 1959, as one of four daughters of a wild-eyed evangelical priest.
posted by metaseeker at 10:58 AM on November 1, 2016 [15 favorites]

I got that feeling from many of Terry Pratchett's books, especially the Night Watch/Ankh-Morpork subserieses. Of course, they're entirely fictional in a fictional world, but I could really feel the city.
posted by Etrigan at 11:07 AM on November 1, 2016

Response by poster: These are great! Please keep them coming! I'm a pretty avid fantasy fan, but in this instance I'm looking for non-fiction or realistic/historical fiction.
posted by jeszac at 11:10 AM on November 1, 2016

Vanity Fair by Thackeray is one of the novels for which the book-review cliche "panoramic" was invented. It takes you through ~15 years in the lives of all manner of different people in the time surrounding the Battle of Waterloo—what they do to entertain themselves, what it's like to be a social climber, what it's like to be ruined, etc. Elizabeth Gaskell's North & South is another good one in the same vein.
posted by Polycarp at 11:17 AM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hawaii by James Michener did this for me.
posted by Draccy at 11:17 AM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The book that came to mind when I read your question was The Moor's Account by Leila Lalami.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:24 AM on November 1, 2016

Best answer: W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants, Rings of Saturn, or Austerlitz.
posted by gyusan at 11:24 AM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I thoroughly enjoyed Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman (and the subsequent two books).
posted by General Malaise at 11:26 AM on November 1, 2016

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
posted by holborne at 11:31 AM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I really liked "The Walled Orchard" and "Goatsong" by Tom Holt; lots of little bits about life in ancient Greece AND good characters and story as well.
posted by The otter lady at 11:33 AM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel "Americanah"
Zadie Smith's "White teeth"
Ann-Marie MacDonald's "Fall on Your Knees"
These three novels really take you into the minds of their protagonists in a very visceral, memorable way.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:39 AM on November 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

I can highly recommend Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings which will absolutely transport you to mid-century Jamaica. Anything by Toni Morrison (esp. Beloved and Jazz). David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas will take you to other worlds, both real historical ones and fantastical science fiction ones.
posted by dis_integration at 11:41 AM on November 1, 2016

Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.
posted by peacheater at 11:48 AM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The first book that came to mind for me was The Pillars Of The Earth, which is a sweeping saga about cathedral building in 14th century Britain. I believe there are a few sequels, as well.
posted by Sara C. at 11:49 AM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, another one: if you want a kind of hyper-masculine, picaresque satire of pre-Revolutionary America, John Barth's The Sot-weed Factor is a fun ride.
posted by dis_integration at 11:51 AM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

This thread might have some good suggestions for you.
posted by janey47 at 11:53 AM on November 1, 2016

Best answer: The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. He survived the ill-fated Shackleton expedition to the South Pole. It covers everything from preparing for the voyage by ship to returning to England. Vivid but not lurid.
posted by mrcrow at 11:57 AM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have to second The Poisonwood Bible. When I finished that book I felt like I had been to Africa with those characters. It is that intense.

Also, if you are interested in medieval history, The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.
Half the book is set in Oxford, in the near future, where time travel exists. The other half gives you a solid introduction to living in fourteenth-century England when plague killed an estimated 35 - 40% of the population. I know you're not looking for fantasy but the medieval half is really well done.
posted by tuesdayschild at 11:59 AM on November 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

John LeCarré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a novel about cold war era espionage. I found it to be an incredibly evocative depiction of plodding, routine bureaucracy mingled with creeping dread and paranoia in the British Secret Intelligence Service in the early 1970s.
posted by usonian at 12:07 PM on November 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Breaking my YEARS long MeFi lurking streak to recommend Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan novels. Four books covering decades of friendship between two women in post-war Italy, starting in childhood. You will be swept away.
posted by shes_ajar at 12:07 PM on November 1, 2016 [11 favorites]

One of my book group picks was The Tale of Murasaki, which tells the (fictional) story of the life of author of the iconic Japanese Genji stories.

I really didn't want to read it, but did so for the book group. Once I started it, I couldn't put it down. It's so outside the genre of fiction I'd usually read. I was completely transported to 11th century Japan. I loved it.

I'd also recommend Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, which is an epic tale in four volumes about India's struggle for independence, with a wealth of human stories interwoven through the narrative.
posted by essexjan at 12:22 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hard Living on Clay Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families and Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America both are immersive, highly readable studies of poverty's impact on the lives of specific individuals that changed the way that I think about it.

In a completely different direction, Verlyn Klinkenborg's strange and beautiful novel Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile attempts to imagine life from the perspective of a tortoise. It shouldn't work, but it does.

As a companion piece, I recommend Charles Bowden's astonishing essay "Snaketime" in The Charles Bowden Reader. Bowden himself, a former crime reporter turned investigative journalist and literary essayist, is a portal into viscerally seeing the world from the perspective of everyone outside the rosy glow of privilege, good luck, and the lies it allows us to tell ourselves. I still think about his essays "Rape" and "Using Our Children for Sex" a decade or so after reading them. I've never read anyone more capable of unsettling a sense that things are OK, or that they are going to be - absolute, uncommon, and unflinching honesty.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:26 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm also breaking a lurking streak to recommend The Warmth of Other Suns. It's a rich portrait of the migration of black southerners to the North that started in the early years of the 20th century and only finished when the south started to feel the effects of the civil rights movement. The strength of the book is that while it's a detailed look at three individual migrants, it's also supplemented with vignettes from the thousands of interviews carried out by the author. I put it into my reading list because I realized I was reading too much by old, white men and this was a refreshing, if occasionally painful, window into what was arguably one of America's largest, most under-reported migrations.
posted by crossswords at 12:37 PM on November 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

On the "different life" theme, check out this question on books about jobs/work.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:02 PM on November 1, 2016

"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson
posted by BeHereNow at 1:41 PM on November 1, 2016

Best answer: I had a teacher once who divided poems into two broad classes: the kind that claims “I know what it was like; I was there too,” and the kind that claims “you have NO IDEA what it was like; I ventured where you cannot.” I sometimes use this as a broad metric for other kinds of books too. The first two suggestions that occurred to me -- Wolf Hall & The Doomsday Book -- were already noted above & I’m nthing them. But I think they’re more “I was there too” works & if you are looking for more isolating / ecstatic / disorienting “you have no idea” type books that are also strong psychological portraits, here are a few:

Stanislaw Lem, Eden or Solaris
Knut Hamsun, Hunger
Nikos Kazantzakis, St. Francis (also published as God's Pauper)
posted by miles per flower at 1:57 PM on November 1, 2016

Best answer: You might enjoy Annapurna: A Woman's Place by Arlene Blum. It is a fascinating, absorbing, and at times harrowing true story about the American Women's Himalayan Expedition.
posted by ourobouros at 1:58 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series: She spent a considerable amount of time researching and an imagining what it would would be like to be alive 30,000 years ago at a point where the ice age was still very much in evidence and where human and Neanderthal populations were co-existing.
posted by rongorongo at 2:02 PM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Katherine Boo's Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, a nonfiction study of life in a Mumbai slum.

Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree is about families where the parents differ radically from the children in some way, such as disability or the child's being a prodigy or autistic or transgender. It provides some vivid case studies of situations that I think many folks outside the situation would have trouble imagining. (I especially learned a lot about the Deaf community.)

Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts is the memoir of a young man hiking across Europe shortly before WWII. Truly an experience that would be radically different today.

And nth-ing Wolf Hall, whose atmosphere feels early modern to me in a way that is true of few works of historical fiction in that period.
posted by praemunire at 2:59 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis - a fictional telling of a true 16th century French legal case.
posted by vunder at 3:03 PM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nicola Griffith's Hild. 17th-century historical fiction about St. Hilda of Whitby growing up as a young woman. It's thoroughly researched, but written with a light, elegant touch; Griffith has written sci-fi before, and her world-building experience shows. I think you'll like the way she imagines the psychology of people living in a very different time from ours -- the experience of being literate/illiterate, relations of power, what it's like being an independent thinker or strong woman in such times, etc. She's working on further books in the series.

I'm not usually a huge fan of historical fiction (though obviously I ought to check out some of the suggestions here!); I've read too many psychologically anachronistic novels where the historical bits feel like pasted-on "set dressing." But Hild blew me away.
posted by stellarc at 4:35 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon is a remarkable glimpse of life in C10th Japan.

Another genuinely entertaining memoir from history is the autobiography of the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.

Also remarkable is the Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong, written by an C18th Korean aristocrat who, without getting too spoilery, had a very dramatic life (it’s divided into four sections; at a pinch you could skip the second and third which are relatively dry).
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 4:53 PM on November 1, 2016

I just picked up Being a Beast after hearing the author on This American Life. I'm about one chapter in and I'm fascinated.
posted by atropos at 5:55 PM on November 1, 2016

Historical fiction: Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace, a fictionalized account of Grace Marks, the 19th century Canadian servant convicted of killing her employer and his housekeeper/mistress. There is a long section featuring a sea voyage from Ireland to Canada, and I felt like I was there, trapped miserably with the other passengers. It's a great book (and soon to be a CBC/Netflix miniseries directed by Sarah Polley).

Nonfiction: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick, about six North Koreans who managed to escape the country. It's probably the best nonfiction book I've ever read; I felt completely immersed in another world while I was reading it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:05 PM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My absolutely favorite author for this is Marge Piercy. She writes wonderful, epic, female-centric novels about interesting historical periods that typically follow several characters through real-world events. She draws really interesting characters, and really shows you what the material circumstances of their lives were like. The best of the bunch is Gone to Soldiers, about WWII, which follows 10 characters, including a female French Jewish resistance fighter, an American spy in Europe, a munitions worker in Detroit, and one of the first female pilots in the auxiliary Air Force. There's also one about the French Revolution, and one about the women's suffrage movement of the late 19th century. She also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about young women in college in the early 1950s that really brings you into that time and place.

Someone already suggested Pillars of the Earth, which was my first thought, so I will suggest Ken Follet's Century Trilogy, which follows several families in Russia, the US, Germany, and the UK through the 20th century. The first book, called Fall of Giants, covers the WWI era and was the best, and most interesting to me as someone who had not studied much about that era. (The second book covers the 1930s and 1940s and is still interesting. The last book covers the Cold War and is just ok.) But that first book - wow! I really felt like I understood that intense era after reading it.

Finally, this is a bit more obscure, but I really liked Meredith Tax's two books about a Jewish family that flees pogroms in Russia and comes to the Lower East Side of NYC. The books are a pretty familiar immigrant tale, but they really do make you feel what it was like to go through that, including both success and heartbreaking loss. The first one is Rivington Street.

Seconding the Ferrante novels. They are perfect for this. And thanks for this question! As you can probably tell, this is my favorite kind of book.
posted by lunasol at 7:03 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just Kids by Patti Smith
All the Light We can Not See by Anthony Doerr
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tae Twan Eng
The Conquerer Series by Conn Iggulden
Kabloona by Gontran De Poncins
and lastly Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett
posted by bluesky43 at 7:06 PM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

and nthing The Poisonwood Bible. It is a transformative book.
posted by bluesky43 at 7:08 PM on November 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was coming to reccomended Hild, so allow me to second it instead.
posted by (Over) Thinking at 8:47 PM on November 1, 2016

Best answer: Hild is fantastic.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is also good. And if you like Connie Willis (Doomsday Book is one of my all-time favorites) try Blackout and All Clear. Set in the same time-traveling universe (set a few years after Doomsday Book; these two books are not sequels to Doomsday Book, but they do share a couple of characters), the historians travel to London during WWII.
posted by sarcasticah at 10:21 PM on November 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you only ever read one novel about the theological struggles of an elderly, dying congregationalist minister in mid-20th century Iowa, make it Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.
posted by trotzdem_kunst at 2:01 AM on November 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Crimson Petal and the White is written in a very immediate fashion with lots of detail and really brings you into the world (Victorian London).
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:26 AM on November 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

My suggestions:

• The Tale Of Genji, by Lady Murasaki, written in 11th century Japan. Because Lady Murasaki was writing for people of her own time period and culture, you get that experiencing-another-life sensation in two different ways. She puts you in the mind of her characters -- but you have to put yourself in the mindframe of her intended reader. I found it a fascinating exercise in reading between other people's lines.

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, set in 1950s India. Manages to have a vast scope while never losing sight of the little details that make up people's every day lives.
posted by yankeefog at 6:06 AM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Memoirs of Hadrian

Seriously!!!! Trust me!!!
posted by xammerboy at 2:03 PM on November 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have a few!
The Eagle of the Ninth - Roman Britain
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - 1799 Japan through the eyes of a Dutch visitor
Burial Rites - 1829 Iceland, in addition to feeling like you are there setting-wise, I also really felt empathy for her situation, condemned to death as a murderer.
The Remains of the Day
posted by katieanne at 8:13 PM on November 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

and for non-fiction: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes particularly the sections about her actual work in the crematory.
Big Dead Place, which I know I read about here.
posted by katieanne at 8:23 PM on November 2, 2016

Plains Song does this for me, by the underrated Wright Morris.
posted by Rykey at 8:55 PM on November 2, 2016

The great travel writer Jan Morris wrote a great book -- Conundrum -- on her transition from being born a man to becoming a woman. It is truly unique, a great writer of prose writing on a deeply personal topic with extraordinary honesty and grace. It moved me very much.
posted by rahulrg at 5:13 AM on November 3, 2016

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