Slightly obscure non-fiction book recommendations?
April 2, 2020 3:02 PM   Subscribe

My grandmother's currently stuck at home for the obvious reason, and she is feeling a bit isolated. I'd like to figure out some books we could read at the same time and chat about over the phone. Unfortunately, she's a non-fiction reader, and when I have enough time to read, I tend to prioritize fiction. I'd appreciate any suggestions the collective MeFi mind can come up with! A few caveats inside:

-Ideally, no presidential biographies or books about wars. Family members frequently pick up new/featured library books for her, and these topics end up being significantly over-represented.
-Nothing that gets too technical. She was fine with the geopolitical intrigue in Richard Rhodes' books, for example, but found the bits on the physical design of the bombs to be too dry.
-Nothing that revolves around the proverbial sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. Just not her things, you know? (Or sports, now that I think about it.)
-She's read a lot of books by well-known authors like Barbara Tuchman or Robert Caro, so slightly obscure is a good thing here.

Kindle or audiobook availability is a plus: heavy books are hard for her to hold up for too long.
posted by ASF Tod und Schwerkraft to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a nonfiction reader but I really enjoyed A Civil Action. I read it when I was going through a phase of exclusively reading books that were made into movies, so I think being familiar with the movie helped hold my attention for a type of book I personally would not tend to reach for. I ended up liking it a lot.
posted by phunniemee at 3:18 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Just's five bucks on Kindle!
posted by phunniemee at 3:19 PM on April 2, 2020

The venn for you two might be some good social history - any wide ranging look at a period of time that would include its politics, arts, culture - ooh dresses and gowns - history, geography, migration, foodways, etc - you might start with the Bill Bryson book At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
Or choose something appealing from this list on goodreads?
posted by henry scobie at 3:21 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm also not a nonfiction reader, but my favourite nonfiction book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Maybe she's already read that one though? I also enjoyed Bury Me Standing, which is about various Roma communities across Europe. Note: some casual racism.

Also, I haven't read this one since it was just released, but I just heard a podcast about This Is Chance and it seems interesting (about a female radio journalist, especially her famous coverage of the 1964 Alaska earthquake).
posted by Paper rabies at 3:24 PM on April 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

How about Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts?
posted by praemunire at 3:27 PM on April 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Orchid Thief!
posted by The otter lady at 3:28 PM on April 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. It’s a history of women making textiles.
posted by FencingGal at 3:43 PM on April 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. This is the story of Mary Delaney, who basically invented collage in the 18th century. Her flowers are stunning. Google her name to see examples. Sorry I messed up the link on my phone and couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
posted by FencingGal at 3:47 PM on April 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'd recommend David Grann or Erik Larson (I'm currently reading Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania, and it's great.

Is personal non-fiction/essay okay? If so, I'd recommend Pam Houston.
posted by punchtothehead at 3:50 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Would she like historical true crime? You could pick one of Kate Summerscale's books like The Wicked Boy or Mrs Robinson's Disgrace, or P.D. James's The Maul and the Pear Tree.
posted by amk at 3:51 PM on April 2, 2020

Older, but fascinating: Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.

Cathy O'Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. (Despite the title, Columbus isn't the focus, but rather the "Columbian exchange" of animals and plants between continents.)

A few authors to consider: Carl Zimmer's science writing is lucid and accurate, but it might be a bit too technical. Henry Petroski has written a lot about engineering and everyday life that's accessible. If you both like Bill Bryson, he has a long catalogue. Russell Shorto has written accessible books on Dutch Manhattan, science and religion, and Amsterdam.

My favorite nature writer of the moment is Bernd Heinrich. His best-known work is Mind of the Raven. Why We Run: A Natural History is not only about human evolution but also Heinrich's childhood in postwar Germany and rural Maine, and his attempt to beat the American 50K road racing record. Winter World looks at how animals survive winter in cold places.

Peter Sagal's recent The Incomplete Book of Running is hilarious, even to my non-running wife. The Boston Marathon bombing does enter into it, but not in too traumatic a way.

I think every title I mentioned is available in e-book and audiobook formats.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:59 PM on April 2, 2020

James Herriot's vet stories are excellent to read aloud
Also Stuart McLean Vinyl Cafe series.
posted by Ftsqg at 4:01 PM on April 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

(Quick followup: Heinrich's Why We Run is available in Kindle format but not audio. The others are in both, even Mintz's 1985 classic on sugar.)
posted by brianogilvie at 4:01 PM on April 2, 2020

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky and was really enjoyable. I got a recommendation for it here on AskMe.

How to Invent Everything by Ryan North is pretty fun. High level info on a lot of different topics and how they connect to eachother.

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber was a good read too.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:10 PM on April 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

Here are a few of my favorites:

My Life in France by Julia Child

Sisters-In-Law by Linda Hirshman (about Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O'Connor)

The Nature Principle by Richard Louv

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
posted by E3 at 4:11 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I always recommend it but: The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky.
posted by wintersweet at 4:12 PM on April 2, 2020

If she would be up for a memoir, Blonde Indian is great (it is available on kindle.)
posted by gudrun at 4:32 PM on April 2, 2020

The answer is anything by John McPhee.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:33 PM on April 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

In Cold Blood is the go-to for this -- a Pulitzer prize winning blockbuster, Truman Capote's best work. You can also both watch the Academy award winning Capote as a bonus!

Behind the Throne is a really interesting domestic history of households through time and I'm listening to it on audio via Libby. If you're Catholic or interested in the culture of religion, The Vatican Diaries is both fascinating and funny in parts and also on audio.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:41 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the best nonfiction narrative I've ever read. (If you don't trust me, check out the long list of awards and blurbs.)

Doesn't qualify as obscure but not a megabestseller.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 4:42 PM on April 2, 2020

Pauli Murray - Proud Shoes
Isabel Wilkerson - The Warmth of Other Suns

Also really enjoyed Daniel Okrent’s Last Call
posted by yarrow at 4:49 PM on April 2, 2020

Oh and Tracy Kidder - bunch of options there
posted by yarrow at 4:52 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

The answer is anything by John McPhee.

Cosigned - in particular, Oranges is a slim little volume that has something fascinating on every page.
posted by Ragged Richard at 4:59 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration
posted by Beardman at 5:03 PM on April 2, 2020

I love Robert Sapolsky's Primate's Memoir. Or maybe Michelle Obama's memoir?
posted by theora55 at 5:08 PM on April 2, 2020

Seconding The Library Book and basically anything by Kurlansky and Bryson, they are very readable and engaging. Does she have any interest areas besides the list of no's? A few books I've liked.

- Amazing Rare Things by David Attenborough. May be hard to get in an ebook but it's glorious.
- The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures by the BBC Antiques Roadshow guy.A few longish stories about art stuff and ferreting out mysteries.
- The Big Year - competitive bird watching, also made into a movie.
- The Food of a Younger Land - this would be the Kurlansky one I would suggest because it's all about foods and the WPA
- The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg - one of the best books abotu eggs you will ever read
posted by jessamyn at 5:27 PM on April 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Dream Colony: A Life in Art is about Walter Hopps, who was a curator of contemporary art beginning in the 1950s in Los Angeles and S California. He’s totally interesting and the book is engaging, it reads like an extended interview. Juicy.

Also, I highly recommend the work of Carlo Ginzburg, particularly The Cheese and the Worms and The Night Battles. Solid historical research and lively writing on 16th century witchcraft, folk tradition, and the increasingly heavy hand of the Inquisition.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 5:48 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

In True Blood got be thinking about the non-fiction of Norman Mailer. He may not be obscure to your grandmother - he was quite a literary figure back in the day - but he has definitely faded from sight. His most famous (not counting The Naked and the Dead which is fiction) is likely The Executioner's Song, and a all sorts of far-ranging topics such as the moon landing and a biography of Marilyn Monroe.

I've just recently been thinking about revisiting his books on the US in the late 1960's - Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 and The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History about the march on the Pentagon in 1967 to levitate it and stop the war. It won both a Pulitzer and the National Book award.
posted by rtimmel at 6:18 PM on April 2, 2020

She may enjoy Suzette Hadin Elgin's The Grandmother Principles, which unfortunately are not available in ebook or audiobook format.

David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years is about economics and the history thereof, including how most of the ways it's taught in school are deeply flawed.

If she likes history if it's not too focused on war or political maneuvering, James Burke's The Day the Universe Changed may be a good choice. He's the creator of the Connections series, and he goes into how small, pivotal events influence history.

Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me may not be obscure enough, but if she's not familiar with it, it could be fun to discuss.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 6:22 PM on April 2, 2020

An Ocean of Air, by Gabrielle Aitken
Longitude, by Dava Sobel
We Contain Multitudes, by Ed Yong

Three fantastic, immensely readable nonfiction books.
posted by smoke at 7:24 PM on April 2, 2020

Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History, by Todd Tucker. It's about the only fatal reactor accident caused by nuclear fission in American history, which took place at an Army installation in Idaho in 1961.

Well written enough to keep the attention of an English major (me) and scientifically solid enough to earn the endorsement of my father (a retired mechanical engineer).
posted by virago at 7:38 PM on April 2, 2020

The Radium Girls is on my hold list at the library because I've heard good things, maybe give that one a look?
posted by carlypennylane at 8:25 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Great Hedge of India, though it’s only in print (pity! Someone should record it!)

The Beak of the Finch (ebook, Audible)

Mrs.P's Journey : The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Created the A-Z Map
, Hartley; again only print (sorry! Lesser known!)

I’d look for books written when she was young or about that era because I’d want to know what someone who lived through it thought about it. My grandparents’ takes on things surprised me more than once.
posted by clew at 9:04 PM on April 2, 2020

Seconding The Big Year, its lovely.

Some lesser known non fiction I enjoyed:
The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson
Brilliant, the Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jane Brox
Bad Blood : A Walk along the Irish Border by Com Tobin. Written in the 80s, very interesting.
The Crazy Life of a Kid from Brooklyn, can't remember the author.
posted by fshgrl at 9:22 PM on April 2, 2020

Response by poster: Oh man, thanks for all the suggestions! These look amazing, and I suspect I'll have to put a bunch on my own to-read list even if I don't end up reading them with my grandmother.

Does she have any interest areas besides the list of no's?

Things that could (loosely) be grouped under post-Renaissance European history and American history probably comprise the biggest set of books I know she's read. She isn't uninterested in history that focuses wars and the events around them, she's just read a lot of it (particularly works about the two world wars) over the past year or two. Two books I know she's appreciated recently are Patrick Radden Keefe's "Say Nothing" and Margot Lee Shetterly's "Hidden Figures." I know I suggested "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" at some point but I can't remember if she ended up reading it. She's definitely interested in memoirs and biographies, and I suspect some of the social history-oriented books listed above would make a nice counterpoint to the more narrative-oriented history she's read.

That said, she's always been a relatively omnivorous reader, and as she's gotten less mobile, she started going through books even faster, so I don't think she'd have any complaints about leaving that comfort zone. "The best book about eggs you'll ever read" probably isn't something either us would have run into on our own, but I think she'd be willing to give something like it a go!
posted by ASF Tod und Schwerkraft at 10:20 PM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

This book seemed to be a bit hit among her cohort a few years ago so maybe she's read it. But if not: The Boys in the Boat.

Also the book mentioned in this FPP might be fun and interesting to her, if the older language doesn't bother her. It's "A Journey Round My Room", in which a man deals with being under house arrest on account of an illegal duel by taking some deep interest in all the objects in his room, which he reports on like a travelogue. It's available for free download at, though if you're downloading the kindle book rather than the PDF I'd go through it first to see if the OCR is of a reasonable quality.

(I checked Project Gutenberg and the Mobileread collection but both only have it in the original French. The Amazon ebooks seem to be the same as what you'd get at
posted by trig at 3:22 AM on April 3, 2020

As usual, I didn't read the question all the way through and didn't notice that you were looking for books that had e-editions as well.

Atomic America is available in a Kindle edition, as well as other e-formats.

The author, Todd Tucker, has written an article for American History that summarizes why this accident was so dangerous. The reactor had been incredibly poorly maintained, and the danger to the public was a lot greater than anybody realized at the time.
posted by virago at 3:41 AM on April 3, 2020

Sorry, it looks like the link to Tucker's article doesn't work!

I'll try it again: Going Nuclear in Idaho Falls
posted by virago at 3:49 AM on April 3, 2020

These might fall under too well-known but I really loved Longitude (about how they finally figured out how to calculate it) and Paris To The Moon (about moving to Paris with your family), and - if it’s not too Sex drugs and rock and roll - Kitchen Confidential
posted by Mchelly at 4:39 AM on April 3, 2020

Barbara Tuchman- A Distant Mirror
David Oshinsky- Polio, an American Story
Anya von Bremzen- Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking
posted by donut_princess at 4:58 AM on April 3, 2020

I strongly 2nd the recommendation for SALT by Mark Kurlansky.
Also she might enjoy "Girl Sleuth" which is about the many women who wrote the Nancy Drew books.
posted by nkknkk at 5:52 AM on April 3, 2020

Also, if you can get your hands on it, Harpo Speaks (Harpo Marx's autobiography) is one of my favorite memoirs.
posted by Mchelly at 6:48 AM on April 3, 2020

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World (Stephen Berlin Johnson, 2006)

The Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812 (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 1990)

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies (Jason Fagone, 2017)

Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies (Charles Perrow, 1984)

Cosigning Pauli Murray's memoir, mentioned upthread.
posted by Weftage at 7:17 AM on April 3, 2020

Coming back to add a couple of surprisingly absorbing books:

The Elements of a Home: Curious Histories behind Everyday Household Objects, from Pillows to Forks by Amy Azzarito

The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean by Trevor Corson
posted by gudrun at 12:07 PM on April 3, 2020

A lot of the books already recommended are on this goodreads list, Microhistory: Social Histories of Just One Thing.

(Kurlansky's Salt reminded me of The Pencil, which I misremembered as being by him but is actually by Henry Petroski—and that led me to this list.)
posted by sjswitzer at 2:49 PM on April 3, 2020

I cite this one a lot, but I just love it a lot: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, all about Alexandre Dumas’s dashing father.

Timothy Egan’s books, especially The Worst Hard Times, about the Dust Bowl.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 6:16 PM on April 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I read lots of history. For me at the time I read them, these 3 were quite broadening.

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World
Noel Malcolm

The 2nd half of the 16th century in the eastern Mediterranean, organized around various members of an Albanian family who served Venice, the Ottoman Empire, and other important players in that time and place.

Sugar in the Blood
Andrea Stuart

The author's family history and slavery in Barbados, from the 17th century to the present.

From the Ruins of Empire
Pankaj Mishra

An African & Asian perspective on colonialism.
posted by kingless at 4:20 PM on April 4, 2020

Timothy Egan’s books, especially The Worst Hard Times, about the Dust Bowl.

Seconding this. Such a great book.
posted by fshgrl at 2:12 AM on April 5, 2020

Nthing John McPhee. Specifically:

Levels of the Game and A Sense of Where You Are - I am completely uninterested in sports, and I found both of these fascinating (especially Levels of the Game)
The Control of Nature

If you'd like some shorter things to read in between full books, the McPhee collections are also great, especially Giving Good Weight.

Also nthing The Warmth of Other Suns.
posted by kristi at 4:37 PM on April 6, 2020

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