Adventurous Books About History
January 12, 2020 9:43 PM   Subscribe

Hit me with your favorite historical books of adventure and derring-do!

Especially those with a good audio book (I have a long commute). I enjoyed Astoria, Hero of the Empire, The Spy and The Traitor, and others like that. Yet I don’t love many books with a subhead that starts with “The inspiring true story of...” War, espionage, exploration, hubris and survival. Yes, I recognize I could not be a more stereotypical middle-aged man with this question, but you’re welcome to stay the hell on my lawn if you have some good recommendations.
posted by thomsplace to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon? Lots of exploration and hubris - less survival.
posted by rogerroger at 9:54 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

The Robert Carey mysteries by P F Chisholm are all derring-do and survival despite lots of hubris. Facts stick reasonably closely to an actual Elizabethan life. First one is A Famine of Horses.
posted by clew at 9:55 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Undaunted Courage about the Lewis and Clark expedition is my go to and I have both the audio and book versions. I think I revisit with Lewis and Clark every three years or so.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 9:57 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Oh, I should probably clarify that I’m looking for non-fiction. Though I thoroughly enjoy the novels of Alan Furst and Jeff Sahara. (Although I can’t listen to two Furst books back-to-back without getting seriously depressed.)
posted by thomsplace at 10:09 PM on January 12

The Dig Tree : The Extraordinary Story of the Ill-Fated Burke and Wills 1860 Expedition by Sarah Murgatroyd

A great read about a great adventure exploring the interior of Australia, I couldn't put it down.
posted by Arctostaphylos at 10:11 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

"Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" by Alfred Lansing is a hell of a good read.
posted by cnidaria at 10:13 PM on January 12 [5 favorites]

Grant’s autobiography

Silk and Cyanide

Outwitting the Gestapo

The Black Count (about Dumas père)

My Work is That of Conservation (biography of George Washington Carver - more moral courage than physical, but there are jawdropping physical efforts through it)

posted by clew at 10:16 PM on January 12

I know you said no novels, but the Mutiny of the Bounty trilogy from Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall skews as close to history as possible and is truly fantastic.
posted by robhuddles at 10:46 PM on January 12

Operation Mincement, about how the British fooled the Nazis into thinking they were definitely not going to invade Sicily shortly before they invaded Sicily, is a very good read. Actually, I've enjoyed a lot of author Ben Macintyre's books about MI5 and the war.

Just about anything from Erik Larson will probably fit the bill as well.
posted by robhuddles at 10:51 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I know you said no novels, but the Mutiny of the Bounty trilogy from Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall skews as close to history as possible and is truly fantastic.

I actually came to recommend The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander if you want a non-fiction option.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:34 AM on January 13

Farthest North
posted by fairmettle at 3:31 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

I recommend Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins. He's the astronaut from Apollo 11 who stayed in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon.
posted by exogenous at 6:14 AM on January 13

I just finished The Winter Fortress by Neal Bascomb, about Allied saboteurs preventing Germany from getting the heavy water it needed to produce an atomic bomb during WWII. Really liked it.
posted by lakeroon at 6:52 AM on January 13

In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick; true story of whaling ship attacked & sunk by a whale, followed by survival saga as the crew set off in search of land. Basis for Moby Dick.
posted by Bron at 8:21 AM on January 13

On the lighter side, You're Stepping On My Cloak and Dagger is a semi-comic account of the author's years in the OSS (CIA precursor) nearing the end of WWII.
posted by praemunire at 10:15 AM on January 13

Sailing Alone Around the World by Captain Joshua Slocum, the first recorded person to accomplish that feat.

Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., an account of tall-ship sailing by a Harvard-educated sailor-- most such accounts are written by officers, because they're the more educated people aboard, but Dana was a law student taking a break to help his eyestrain, and was sailing as a regular member of the ship's company, which has its quarters forward of-- that is, before-- the ship's mast. The ship is a fur-trader, so there are some descriptions of the furs that get a bit gross as Dana has to spend time processing them with sun and seawater.

Seconding, strongly, "Undaunted Courage."
posted by Sunburnt at 2:15 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

Around the World on a Bicycle by Thomas Stevens. Rode from San Francisco to Boston in 1884, and decided to keep going. Librivox link. Also available on Project Gutenberg if you don't want to make a contribution the inevitable "Bezos for President" fund.
posted by Chuckles McLaughy du Haha, the depressed clown at 8:47 AM on January 14

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War
posted by clew at 4:49 PM on January 14

Regarding Endurance, above, I'd add Shackleton's book "The Voyage of the James Caird," about the 800-mile boat journey from Elephant Island (where the bulk of the Endurance crew were stranded) to South Georgia Island, which Shackleton and 2 others then crossed in a monstrously hazardous 3 days, with no real equipment for the journey, to the whaling outpost on the other side of the island.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:27 PM on January 14

The odyssey of c. H. Lightoller by Patrick stepson. About the highest ranking survivor of the titanic, Dunkirk captain, gold rush prospector- the guy did it all.

Titanic Thompson by Kevin cook. Pro golfer and con man. Swindled al Capone (that’s adventurous)

Lieutenant nun. Killed her brother in a duel while living as a man, outfoxed the pope, exited history on her terms
posted by unknown knowns at 8:52 PM on January 19

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