Looking for gripping non-fiction
September 26, 2017 11:20 AM   Subscribe

I know such a thing exists, but I'm having a hell of a time finding any I haven't already read. I also have one particular requirement: no love stories.

So, for Reasons, I'm looking for some seriously engrossing non-fiction because I need to be distracted from real life. At the moment, for reasons I won't get into but are probably relatively obvious, I really don't want love stories -- any type of love stories. So, no stories of a wife fighting to find a cure for her husband's terminal disease or something like that (I realize this is probably a teeny sub-genre of non-fiction, but I'm just getting it out of the way).

I could summarize what I'm looking for as non-fiction with a strong narrative. I guess I'm looking for stuff like "Into the Wild" or "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer, or "The Perfect Storm" by Sebastian Junger. "The Tiger" by John Vaillant is probably also a pretty good example. (I've read all of those and found them to fit the bill.) Right now, I'm most of the way through an 800-page biography, "The Emperor and the Wolf," about Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, but I think that's working mostly because I'm a big fan of both Kurosawa and Mifune. Still, if anyone has any biographies that would fit the bill, I'm totally interested.

I would also add that I'm totally open to engrossing fiction that has no trace of a love story. This is way harder to find than you might think; believe me, I've tried. Forget any Victorian stuff, especially Dickens. Forget Murakami. Hell, forget "Lord of the Rings." A friend of mine tentatively suggested Neil Stephenson's "The Diamond Age" and the "Snow Crash," but he wasn't quite sure whether those would work.

posted by O Sock My Sock to Media & Arts (58 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
The justifiably praised Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

And previously: "great narrative nonfiction reading".
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:27 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Beatles: The Biography

Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iranian Hostage Crisis

Apollo 13

Helen and Teacher

Oh man, I could go on, but these are my favorites. I live for this type of book. Happy reading!
posted by Melismata at 11:31 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I really, really enjoyed Nothing to Envy, but one of the single storylines does have a romance. Would it help if I tell you how it ends? Or which sections to skip? Memail me if so.

My Traitor's Heart, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" and Awakenings were all assigned reading in the same narrative non-fiction class where I read Into the Wild, and I don't remember romance in any of them. Family love, yes, but no romantic love.
posted by theweasel at 11:31 AM on September 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I found Oregon Trail: A New American Journey to be pretty compelling. It's a memior of a pair of brothers driving a mule team and covered wagon across the Oregon Trail (c. 2005). It has some paternal/fraternal relationship stuff.

Richard Rhodes's classic Making of the Atomic Bomb is also a page turner. Relatedly, Eric Schlosser's Command and Control definitely adds some perspective to everyday problems.
posted by janell at 11:32 AM on September 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Dave Cullen's Columbine and Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are two of the most engaging nonfiction books I've come across.
posted by xenization at 11:34 AM on September 26, 2017 [13 favorites]

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer is very exciting. One of the most compelling narrative-driven non fiction things I've ever read.
posted by something something at 11:45 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Do you mind PROFOUNDLY SAD books? Because Howard Dully's My Lobotomy

He was lobotomized at age 12 at the behest of his stepmother. I devoured this book, but it was SO SAD.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 11:53 AM on September 26, 2017

I think travel memoirs might often do it for you. A Time of Gifts (young man hikes across Europe just prior to WWII) seems to fit the bill. He probably does mention chatting up attractive young women he meets along the way, but by the nature of his trip there's no time for anything like a love story. The In-Between Places is a modern travel narrative about walking through Afghanistan. Terra Incognita and Big Dead Place, both about Antarctica.
posted by praemunire at 11:54 AM on September 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure if you'd find them narrative-y enough, but I love all four of Sam Kean's science books:

The Disappearing Spoon - element hunting and the development of the periodic table
The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons - how the brain works and how those things were discovered
The Violinist's Thumb - discovery of DNA and development of genetics
Caesar's Last Breath - science and history all around air/gases/atmosphere

They're all science history, told in story format, and (I feel) they do a good job of explaining the state of current science in each field as well. I own all four and reread them regularly for fun.
posted by dust.wind.dude at 11:55 AM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nthing Nothing to Envy. It is about the ordinary lives of North Korean citizens, and it is the most profoundly moving and frankly gripping nonfiction book I've read. I still think of it years later. Yes, there is a romance in one of the stories, but it is a very, very minor part of the book as a whole.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:55 AM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Into Thin Air got me into mountain-climbing books. I recommend all of the following; the ones with asterisks are the ones I remember as being the most gripping.
  • High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed by Michael Kodas *
  • K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs
  • Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains by Jon Krakauer
  • No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks by Ed Viesturs
  • Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season by Nick Heil *
  • The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre by Kelly Cordes *
  • No Way Down: Life and Death on K2 by Nir Eyal *
  • Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day by Peter Zuckerman *
  • Savage Summit: The True Stories of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2, the World's Most Feared Mountain by Jennifer Jordan
  • Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man's Miraculous Survival by Joe Simpson *
  • The Climb Up to Hell by Jack Olsen
  • The Other Side of Everest: Climbing the North Face Through the Killer Storm by Matt Dickinson

posted by neushoorn at 11:57 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Two books I always see getting boosted online are The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.
posted by Flexagon at 11:57 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your examples all kinda fall into the Man Against Nature / Travel Adventure genre, so how about

"A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush"
"The Worst Journey in the World"
"Coming into the Country"
"Don't let's go to the Dogs Tonight"
posted by aspersioncast at 11:58 AM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

I found The Lost City of The Monkey God by Douglas Preston to be a great read.
posted by drinkmaildave at 11:59 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Novels by John Le Carre. Such relationships as are mentioned are side issues and usually ill-fated.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:00 PM on September 26, 2017

Two years before the mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. recounts his time as a sailor traveling around cape horn to pre-goldrush California on a ship collecting cattle hides for shipment back to the east coast. Great depiction of what it was like to be a sailor and interesting look at what California was like at the time.

You Cant' Win by Jack Black recounts his life as a Hobo. Does have some relations with women but really a minor part of a fascinating book.

Fiction but sort of in the same genre is Treasure of the Sierra Madre about some gold miners in Mexico. A bit darker than the others but definitely compelling.
posted by 12%juicepulp at 12:03 PM on September 26, 2017

E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed
Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:11 PM on September 26, 2017

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.
posted by bluebird at 12:13 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Kon-Tiki: Across The Pacific In A Raft by Thor Heyerdahl
The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
posted by kyrademon at 12:16 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

How do you feel about True Crime?
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:25 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah, duh, and Mountains Beyond Mountains.
posted by theweasel at 12:28 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow is hilarious and charming and ultimately kind of restores your faith in humanity. There's also a sequel which I haven't read yet but I'd bet will be similar. It also helps if you have read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome, one of the classic funny books of English literature that has no romance. (It also has sequels but I can't recommend those, nothing was as funny as the first.)

If you like stories of people messing about in boats, I'd also suggest Arthur Ransome's Swallow and Amazons series. They are British kids' books and utterly delightful. In fact, many kids' books would fit the bill of what you're looking for in fiction, if you are not one of those adults who dismisses children's literature.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:33 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just popping in to note that I'm fine with true crime; I thought Dave Cullen's Columbine was a great book. I wish I hadn't already read it, actually.
posted by O Sock My Sock at 12:52 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright-- incredibly well-researched and as balanced as possible, yet still reads like a gripping thriller.
posted by kapers at 1:06 PM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh, and there's also plenty of maritime stuff in Going Clear as it goes into the maiden Sea Org voyage.
posted by kapers at 1:10 PM on September 26, 2017

I get bored with most books but blew through John Temple's American Pain in a matter of days. It's the story of a pill mill in Florida, as well as a larger discussion of the larger opioid epidemic, and involves the perspectives of a lot of different people. Fascinating.
posted by lovableiago at 1:10 PM on September 26, 2017

A Voyage for Madmen. The story of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first solo round-the-world yacht race. Absolutely engrossing.
posted by N-stoff at 1:39 PM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Lost City of Z
Devil in the White City
1491, which isn't quite as narrative but I found it gripping
The Ghost Map

Also have you already read the classic Bill Bryson stuff, Notes from a Small Island, etc? It's more "bust a gut giggling" gripping, but still gripping!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:03 PM on September 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Devil in the White City is great, as is Isaac's Storm, but the same author
posted by IanMorr at 2:28 PM on September 26, 2017

The Worst Journey in The World
posted by Gotanda at 2:31 PM on September 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Praemunire is completely right about what a great book A Time of Gifts is. The author is Patrick Leigh Fermor, who had an utterly fascinating life. The complete trip (Holland to Istanbul in the early 1930s) takes three books. The other two are Between the Woods and Water and The Broken Road. And, while I have not read it myself, Mr. Structure devoured The Invention of Nature (Andrea Wulf), about Alexander von Humboldt.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 2:32 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is some relationship stuff in both but it's far from the main focus: The Push, by Tommy Caldwell, the mountain climber who was one of a group of six climbers kidnapped by militants in Kyrgyzstan (and that's just a couple of chapters!); and The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, about a German immigrant who poses as a Rockefeller (after posing as a bunch of other rich folks and possibly committing murder).
posted by Clustercuss at 3:20 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

It may not be a subject of interest to you, but I couldn't put down Eric Schlosser's Command and Control (recommended above) until I had finished it the first time.

If you like John Vaillant, The Golden Spruce is compelling.

It may not sound that dramatic, but I found Oliver Morton's Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet consistently fascinating.
posted by sindark at 3:30 PM on September 26, 2017

To add to the one mentioned above, another 'manhunt' book I found compelling is Peter Bergen's Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.
posted by sindark at 3:32 PM on September 26, 2017

Haven't read The Diamond Age, but Snow Crash has two very minor love/infatuation/sex story arcs.
posted by TomFoolery at 4:45 PM on September 26, 2017

Strong true crime narrative with no romance:
Blood Will Out - Walter Kern
The Stranger Beside Me - Ann Rule (If you like Ann Rule, she has a ton of true crime books and collections of short stories.)
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
Methland - Nick Reding
In a completely different (non-crime) direction, I also like:
John McPhee (e.g., Los Angeles Against the Mountains) - If you like that essay, he's got plenty of books
Annie Dillard (e.g., Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) - Also plenty of other books
I don't recall either of them writing about romance in their non-fiction but you could check on Goodreads to be sure.
posted by tuesdayschild at 4:56 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckas - she describes crushes and drunken trysts, but the focus of the book is on high school and college-aged drinking. I couldn't put it down.

Someone recommended Winterdance by Gary Paulsen recently in another thread and I second that - it's very funny, informative, and has zero romance.
posted by Crystal Fox at 5:28 PM on September 26, 2017

Anything by John McPhee.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:41 PM on September 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Surprised to see Simon Winchester hasn’t been mentioned yet. Just search for him on Amazon and every one is a winner.

Also anything by Mark Kurlansky is pretty great.
posted by GatorDavid at 6:09 PM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I recently finished a ton of good stuff (much of it recommended here):

Devil in the White City and Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson*
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown

*Isaac is the stronger of these two I feel - Devil is very bloated and tends to waffle.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:29 PM on September 26, 2017

If you like medical history (e.g. something like Ghost Map or Emperor of All Maladies), I enjoyed The Speckled Monster, which is about smallpox.
posted by catlet at 6:30 PM on September 26, 2017

Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg, Pass the Butterworms or any other collection of travel essays by Tim Cahill.
posted by headnsouth at 6:33 PM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Check out Mary Roach. She's written a number of non-fiction books about such varying subjects as the history of cadavers, sex studies, and military science. They don't have a strong narrative per se, but they are very funny and engaging.
posted by tryniti at 6:51 PM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I loved The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin and have given it as a gift several times (to rave reviews).
posted by mulcahy at 7:04 PM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King covers Thurgood Marshall's work as NAACP counsel and with him dodging a lynch mob. It does not get less tense as it goes on.
posted by mark k at 8:16 PM on September 26, 2017

Lost Girls by Robert Kolker is great true crime.
posted by misseva at 8:25 PM on September 26, 2017

Hard Road West. It's the geology and geography of the California Trail, told via letters and journal entries of the settlers who traveled it, by a geologist who doesn't get too technical but also doesn't dumb things down.

Taking readers along the 2,000-mile California Trail, Keith Meldahl uses the diaries and letters of the settlers themselves—as well as the countless hours he has spent following the trail—to reveal how the geology and geography of the West directly affected our nation’s westward expansion. He guides us through a corrugated landscape of sawtooth mountains, following the meager streams that served as lifelines through an arid land, all the way to California itself, where colliding tectonic plates created breathtaking scenery and planted the gold that lured travelers west in the first place.

It's fantastic. One of my favorite books ever.

Another is Wild Trees, which is all about the excellent weirdos who hunt for the tallest redwoods on the Northern California coast and the things they discover (in addition to tall trees). So good.
posted by rtha at 9:08 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

"The Last Stand of the Tin-Can Sailors," by James Hornfischer, about the Battle Off Samar, one of the several engagements of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. A major Japanese battlefleet, including the largest battleship ever built (and the last of its kind afloat at that point), IJN Yamato, attacked a group of 6 escort carriers, 3 destroyers, and 4 smaller destroyer escorts, the latter 7 ships being referred to as "Tin Cans." What followed was about a 2-3 hour engagement which should've been a short and sweet Japanese victory, but was anything but.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:07 PM on September 26, 2017

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, an excellent telling of the story of Meriweather Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, William Clark, and the expedition by L&C which helped found a transcontinental nation.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:10 PM on September 26, 2017

Oh, one more: Positively Fifth Street by James McManus. He was a journalist sent by Vanity Fair to Las Vegas to cover the murder trial for the accused killer (and son) of casino owner Benny Binion, as well as the World Series of Poker at Binion's Casino. He covered both, the latter by playing in the tournament, and to his own surprise as much as anyone's, he played his way to the final table.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:14 PM on September 26, 2017

Blake Morrison's As If, which covers the trial of the two children who murdered James Bulger, is very good. No romantic element.

The books of Gordon Burn - mainly true crime but also some sport books - are also excellent if frequently emotionally devastating. The love story ban would exclude things like his account of Fred and Rose West, although I suspect that's not not the kind of relationship narrative you're talking about.
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 2:51 AM on September 27, 2017

The most gripping nonfiction I've read, and I've read a lot: The Long Walk
posted by luvmywife at 8:37 AM on September 27, 2017

The Soul of a New Machine won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1982.

Written for a non-technical audience, it's the story of a computer engineering team designing a next-generation computer with an all but impossible deadline and under intense pressure. Failure would have left the company unable to compete with the market leader, who already had an excellent next-generation computer.
posted by Homer42 at 9:55 AM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I found Black Hole Blues riveting, and also beautifully written.
posted by kristi at 9:59 AM on September 27, 2017

In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, about the inspiration (partially) for Moby-Dick.
posted by holborne at 2:42 PM on September 27, 2017

Sailing Alone Around The World , Joshua Slocum's autobiographical account of the first solo circumnavigate the globe, is a classic and highly recommended. Very readable and engaging.

On a similar theme, Over The Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Cicumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen. A fascinating look at an (arguably *the*) instrumental voyage of the Age of Discovery, and just how ill-fated it was, and how few made it home again.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:24 AM on September 28, 2017

Since it is Vietnam War season, what with the Burns/Novick documentary on air, I recommend A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan. Both Sheehan (as a talking head) and Vann (as archival footage) make an appearance in the documentary.
posted by thaths at 3:30 PM on September 30, 2017

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