Non-fiction & memoir recs about social/human subjects
November 21, 2020 9:48 AM   Subscribe

I recently read Abraham Verghese's My Own Country and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking back to back. Both scratched a particular itch for me and I'm looking for other similar books that will hit me in the same place; specifics & caveats inside.

What I'm looking for:
  • The prose needs to be good. Really good. Didion's prose is tight, Verghese's is surprisingly lyrical given his main profession. Fascinating subject matter with average-or-worse prose is not what I'm looking for here. I write and edit a lot myself and am generally picky about prose quality.
  • Ideally a whole book on one theme or subject rather than collected essays, though I could be swayed on this one.
  • The book needs to be about human or social subjects. I'm really interested in people, down to the individual level; fundamentally I'm looking for non-fiction or memoir that is mostly telling interesting stories about people. Specific and individual is more welcome than general/population-level (in the way that My Own Country is painting a picture of the US during the AIDS epidemic through specific personal stories rather than political/epidemiological/population-level facts).
  • Any recommendations need to be available on the UK Kindle store.
Beyond that, anything goes in terms of subject matter. I'm definitely drawn to medical and emotional stuff, as my two examples suggest, but I suspect anything that centres human stories and experiences would work. I am very much not looking for broader non-fiction suggestions - I don't want to read about, say, plants, rocks, or ideas that aren't substantially related to people right now, no matter how interesting or well-written the book is otherwise. I particularly welcome recommendations for authors from less-represented demographics across race, gender, sexuality, geography, etc.
posted by terretu to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The Lady's Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness: A Memoir

First the writing is lyrical. I checked the book out because I was interested in the subject matter and did not expect it to be beautiful. The story she tell, of her illness and attempts to understand it because the medical profession is profoundly letting her down is fascinating. She talks about her life and those of people she meets who suffer like her while discussing the medical side so it’s well balanced. I think it will scratch your itch.
posted by lepus at 10:19 AM on November 21, 2020

I'm really interested in people, down to the individual level; fundamentally I'm looking for non-fiction or memoir that is mostly telling interesting stories about people.

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, about the people who live in a Mumbai slum, with the emphasis on people, not slum. What it's so rare is how Boo empathizes without condescension. She depicts the awful circumstances of their lives, but she still acknowledges the full spectrum of their humanity, from the grind of daily life, to their struggles to escape, to their personal failings: like the rest of us, the desperately poor are people, not angels.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:41 AM on November 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

Harumi Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, his memoir of becoming an ultra-marathoner.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:04 AM on November 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Possible suggestions:
- Oliver Sacks - On the Move (obviously there are lots of Sacks medical essay books which are also good, but his personal memoir is one of my favourites)
- Murakami - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (I'm biased because I'm a runner but this is really good even if you don't run)
posted by crocomancer at 11:05 AM on November 21, 2020

Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face is about her childhood experience of a disfiguring cancer and her subsequent life as an “ugly” person in a world that worships beauty. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but Grealy was a poet, so I’d expect the prose to meet your standards.
posted by FencingGal at 11:41 AM on November 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

Theodore Zeldin's An Intimate History of Humanity is wonderful for this. It seems to be little known, but it ticks every box you went and more.

Here's a good description from

"This extraordinarily wide-ranging study looks at the dilemmas of life today and shows how they need not have arisen. Portraits of living people and historical figures are placed alongside each other as Zeldin discusses how men and women have lost and regained hope; how they have learnt to have interesting conversations; how some have acquired an immunity to loneliness; how new forms of love and desire have been invented; how respect has become more valued than power; how the art of escaping from one's troubles has developed; why even the privileged are often gloomy; and why parents and children are changing their minds about what they want from each other."

It's wonderful, and I can't recommend it enough.
posted by underclocked at 12:15 PM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. A very interesting journal of a woman's attempt obey the biblical restrictions on women's behavior. Often amusing, generally thought provoking, especially when uncovering evidence of strong women in the Old Testament.
posted by SPrintF at 12:17 PM on November 21, 2020

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. It’s about her childhood in Pittsburgh in the 50s and the process of “waking up” from carefree childish ignorance to the awareness of the accountability of adulthood and its realities and responsibilities.
posted by malthusan at 12:47 PM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Educated by Tara Westover hit this niche for me.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:06 PM on November 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

The best non fiction book I’ve ever read is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by journalist Barbara Demick. It was recommended here on Ask Metafilter and I read it nearly ten years ago, but I still think of it often.
In NOTHING TO ENVY, Demick follows the lives of six people: a couple of teenaged lovers courting in secret, an idealistic woman doctor, a homeless boy, a model factory worker who loves Kim Il Sung more than her own family and her rebellious daughter.

Demick spent six years painstakakingly reconstructing life in a city off-limits to outsiders through interviews with defectors, smuggled photographs and videos. The book spans the chaotic years that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, the devastating effects of a famine that killed an estimated twenty percent of the population, and an increase in illegal defections.

While many books focus on the North Korean nuclear threat, NOTHING TO ENVY is one of the few that dwells on what everyday life is like for ordinary citizens. With remarkable detail, Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime in the world today. She gives a portrait as vivid as walking oneself through the darkened streets of North Korea.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:36 PM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh you should read This Is Chance!, Jon Mooallem's book about a radio reporter who talked Anchorage through the fallout from a huge earthquake in 1964. And the blurbs for that book reminded me that if you haven't already read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it will also scratch this itch—it's about cancer research but much more than that, it's about the human costs of that research. (Both of these writers are good prose writers; Jon Mooallem in particular is, in my opinion, a superlatively good prose writer.)
posted by babelfish at 4:03 PM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think you’d really like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, her memoir about gender theory, motherhood, queer family-making, and language. Nelson’s prose is devastating.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 4:21 PM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

You might like Flesh of her Flesh by Slavenka Drakulic.
posted by 15L06 at 4:52 PM on November 21, 2020

I was going to say Nothing To Envy but I didn’t remember what the prose was like. Seconding the recco above.
posted by matildaben at 6:23 PM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

You may really enjoy Kay Redfield Jamison's memoir of her life with Bipolar Disorder type 1. It is called An Unquiet Mind. The prose is absolutely devastating and she manages to capture the flavor of mania like no one else I've ever read.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 10:55 PM on November 21, 2020

I recced Gretel Erlich’s Match to the Heart here a while ago; it’s a gorgeously written story about the experience of being severely struck by lightning and her subsequent slowly dying heart, and what she learns along the way as she recovers. It’s stuck with me for years.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 12:22 AM on November 22, 2020

The Motion of Light in Water is one of the most well written and compelling memoirs I've ever read. It is about a specific time and place, yes, but definitely lots about the individual people he encounters and interacts with.
posted by latkes at 5:51 PM on November 22, 2020

God's Hotel
posted by bookworm4125 at 7:10 PM on November 22, 2020

« Older Therapist--telehealth or...   |   Where do I look for more comfortable jeans? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments