Looking for novel-esque non-fiction books.
June 29, 2008 7:39 PM   Subscribe

I love Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. It's a non-fiction book about Chicago in 1893 which reads much like a novel. I'd like to read other books written in the same novel-esque style about some other cities or historic events. Know of any novel-like non-fiction reads?
posted by melodykramer to Writing & Language (47 answers total) 135 users marked this as a favorite

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning. NYC, 1977: baseball, blackout, riots, mayoral races. Excellent.
posted by dame at 7:47 PM on June 29, 2008

The Alienist, by Caleb Carr is a book about a string of murders that happened in New York city in 1896. It's fiction, but it's fiction backed by a lot of true (rich, detailed) historical facts. Fantastic book, highly recommended.

My friend and I were having this same conversation not more than a week ago. He's giving me The Devil in the White City, and I'm giving him The Alienist.
posted by jeffxl at 7:58 PM on June 29, 2008

Don't have a book recommendation, but I learned recently that this genre, taken broadly, is referred to as "literary nonfiction", and thought it might help your search. Myself, I'm a fan of Tracy Kidder, Michael Ruhlman, Steve Almond's Candyfreak, and similar stuff. Not so much with the people dying.
posted by booksherpa at 8:06 PM on June 29, 2008

Isaac's Storm - Also by Erik Larson. About the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, in 1900.

Close To Shore - By Michael Capuzzo. About a series of shark attacks on the Jersey shore in 1916.
posted by amyms at 8:10 PM on June 29, 2008

In The Heart Of The Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick. About the sinking of the whaleship Essex. This is the true story on which Moby Dick was based.
posted by FlyByDay at 8:12 PM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I almost forgot Shantaram, which is billed as a novel, but is based on the extraordinary life story of its author, Gregory David Roberts.
posted by amyms at 8:15 PM on June 29, 2008

E. L. Doctorow's The Waterworks is a great detective novel set in New York in the 1870s. The exact events are fictional (actually a little science fictional) but he captures the feel of mid-century New York really well.
posted by octothorpe at 8:16 PM on June 29, 2008

Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map would seem to fit the bill, as would Dava Sobel's books Longitude and Galileo's Daughter.
posted by jjg at 8:32 PM on June 29, 2008

As booksherpa (fittingly) said, Tracy Kidder is kind of the king of this. I'd also recommend the surprisingly enthralling Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo, about an industrial accident in Boston in 1919, in which a tank holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses exploded on the waterfront. The story leading up to the event is ominous, the actual event is literally awesome and horrific, and the investigation after the fact is fascinating and provides an interesting look at the politics and society of the time, which has eerie similarities to our own.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:34 PM on June 29, 2008

On preview, The Ghost Map is also an excellent choice.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:34 PM on June 29, 2008

Michael Lesy's recent Murder City is quite a fun non-fiction reconstruction of a slew of murders in Chicago in the 20s by ordinary citizens told in a novelesque fashion. I enjoyed it a lot, though critics, I've heard, were hard on it. To be fair, it could've been several dozens of pages shorter (it gets repetitive towards the end), but it was still a great ride.

You should look into his other work, as well. For a safer bet, his Wisconsin Death Trip is pretty much beatified by now.

PS: aren't there plenty of reasons to reconsider the term "non-fiction" in terms of Truman Capote?
posted by parkbench at 8:48 PM on June 29, 2008

The Canvas Falcons by Stephen Longstreet is about the dawn of aviation in war time. The descriptions of pilots getting drunk so that their nerves would let them fly, firing at each other with pistols and hurling molotov cocktails are worth the price of admission.
posted by dobie at 8:49 PM on June 29, 2008

Response by poster: Oh my gosh, these are AWESOME. Hello Lake Michigan beach reading :P
posted by melodykramer at 8:49 PM on June 29, 2008

A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888-89 is my hands-down favorite nonfiction book of this sort. Its sequel, Thunder at Twilight: Vienna, 1913-14 is fantastic as well.
posted by scody at 8:50 PM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm just about to finish Devil in the White City and thought it was great. To the poster above mentioning Wisconsin Death Trip; there's also a DVD made about the same events although in a reenactment/faux documentary way. I can't really recommend it though, rather boring and slow.
posted by shucksitsjeremy at 9:02 PM on June 29, 2008

I just finished Larson's Thunderstruck and I thought it was very good.
posted by Science! at 9:12 PM on June 29, 2008

Silence on the Mountain by Daniel Wilkinson about the Guatemalan civil war and The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt (about Venice, yummy).
posted by greta simone at 9:12 PM on June 29, 2008

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea is a spectacular non-fiction treasure hunt story that is so absurdly amazing it's hard to believe it actually happened. I constantly recommend it to people, and so far everyone I've gotten to read it has gotten back to me with something along the lines of "Holy crap!" while reading it.
posted by 31d1 at 9:20 PM on June 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

The Professor and the Madman

I've just come home and had a look at my bookshelf and I came back to this thread to explicitly mention that book. There is also another good one I've read by Simon Winchester, but my memory escapes me at the moment.

Also, much of Oliver Sacks's writing is more short story-like than novel-like, but any of his books would be fine choices.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:26 PM on June 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Definitely check out In cold blood. I know a lot of people who are a fan of They cage the animals at night (about child abuse/foster care/running away) but I didn't really like the pacing. If you are interested in a first person account of the holocaust, Night is a short and engaging read.
posted by lacedback at 9:53 PM on June 29, 2008

I love this genre and almost asked this question before. Other great historical books:

Seabiscuit, Cinderella Man
posted by sandmanwv at 10:07 PM on June 29, 2008

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Anything by Oliver Sacks
posted by granted at 11:02 PM on June 29, 2008

Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson -- Power, passion, oil money, murder—all the ingredients of a fast-paced, gripping mystery novel drive this true-crime story that on its original publication leapt onto best-seller lists nationwide. To that mix, add glamorous personalities, prominent Texas businessmen, gangland reprobates, and a whole parade of medical experts. At once a documentary account of events and a novelistic reconstruction of encounters among the cast of colorful characters, this anatomy of murder first chronicles the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death in 1969 of Joan Robinson—the pampered daughter of a Texas oil millionaire and the wife of plastic surgeon Dr. John Hill—then examines the bizarre consequences that followed it. <> I swiped that description from Amazon. It's a great read, I read it when living in Houston, sortof did a Blood and Money tour around River Oaks to make it even better...
posted by dancestoblue at 11:32 PM on June 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Directly after I finished Devil in the White City, I read Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott to get my non-fiction that reads like a novel fix. Turn of the century Chicago featuring spicy drug addled harlots, mobsters and corrupt politicians.
posted by boy detective at 12:07 AM on June 30, 2008

The wikipedia article for roman à clef (or roman à clé?) lists a few.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:11 AM on June 30, 2008

The Coming Plague, by Laurie Garrett. A bit outdated, but still a gripping read on the emergence of new scary epidemics. Well-written. I loved 'Devil and the White City' and think this may strike the same chord.
posted by xholisa13 at 1:48 AM on June 30, 2008

The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill. The movie was based on it, but had some substantial changes.

Nthing "In Cold Blood".
posted by knile at 5:29 AM on June 30, 2008

I have to second In The Heart Of The Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick. Absolutely horrifying and fascinating.
posted by applemeat at 5:45 AM on June 30, 2008

I really enjoyed Manhunt by James L. Swanson, the story of "12-day hunt and capture of President Abraham Lincoln's assassin".
It begins a day or few before the assasination and reads so like a thriller I was all, "no, Lincoln, DON'T go to see that play!"

Nthing Ghost Map. Thanks for this excellent question! *favorites*
posted by pointystick at 5:51 AM on June 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really, really enjoyed Shot In The Heart by Mikal Gilmore.
posted by palomar at 6:37 AM on June 30, 2008

Wow, I literally walked into the public library this weekend and asked the information lady about a book I'd been recommended that was similar to Devil in the White City--I didn't remember the title, and she couldn't help me.

So, I just figured it out. It's called A Prayer for the City and it follows (now governor) Ed Rendell through a term as mayor of Philadelphia. i haven't read it yet, but it was strongly recommended to me.
posted by Pax at 7:09 AM on June 30, 2008

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's the diary written by a journalist (so it's actually a readable diary) who lived through the Russian occupation of Berlin at the end of the war. It details all the small (and not so small) things that the women and children had to do to keep themselves alive through starvation, violence, and mass rape while their men were away and (later) present but unable to stand against the Russian occupiers. I know, sounds like a real crowd pleaser, eh? Really, this is an amazing book. Dark, yes, but unbelievably worth it.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:45 AM on June 30, 2008

2nd Manhunt. I just finished it a couple days ago and thought it was fantastic.

BTW: Best thread EVAR.
posted by jtfowl0 at 11:19 AM on June 30, 2008

Response by poster: WOW! THIS IS AWESOME. Thank you book-non-fiction-novel-lovers. <3 Melody
posted by melodykramer at 12:21 PM on June 30, 2008

Best one I've read in a long time - The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer" by Jim Steinmeyer. Lots of great stuff about vaudeville in New York and London in the 1890s, crazy stories about magicians, live entertainment, and American popular culture, all told through the story of a bullet-catching fraudulent genius magician impersonator.
posted by mattbucher at 12:30 PM on June 30, 2008

Not historical, but give The Wild Trees a try - I found it fascinating.

Also, if you don't mind more of a short story format: Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I nth The Professor and the Madman - I was very disappointed to see several people beat me to the rec.

At the library, you might try the librarian on "narrative non-fiction."
posted by timepiece at 1:04 PM on June 30, 2008

There is also another good one I've read by Simon Winchester.

I wonder if you're thinking of Krakatoa: the day the world exploded. If you're on the road, Winchester's voice is fun to listen to.
posted by ikahime at 1:47 PM on June 30, 2008

I loved "Triangle - The Fire that Changed America" about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 NYC. Within about 15 minutes the blaze killed 146 mostly poor, immigrant workers. The coverage of the politics surrounding the tragedy is fascinating.

My initial interest was sparked by a YA book (Rachel) in my teens, and this was the perfect adult "sequel" to fill in the details.

Ghost Map was absorbing - I read it while having the flu last winter. Great combo!
posted by orchidarea at 9:26 AM on July 1, 2008

For some older examples, check out some books by Walter Lord. My two favorites are A Night to Remember about the Titanic and Day of Infamy about Pearl Harbor. Nonfiction, but vividly told.
posted by pmurray63 at 7:26 PM on July 1, 2008

"A Night To Remember" (The granddaddy of the genre, a book based on hundreds of survivor interviews that recounts stories so gripping or dripping with irony that they simply can't be true and yet are) and "Under the Banner of Heaven" are books people (rightly) get rabid about. Also, another vote for "The Alienist" and for Larson's "Isaac's Storm," which may be even better than Devil.
posted by CunningLinguist at 12:54 PM on July 2, 2008

And heaven forbid we should forget the basic killer diseases Hot Zone is the one to start with. Richard Preston is a good science writer.
posted by ptm at 12:54 AM on July 17, 2008

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. It was the second most engrossing history book I have read, after Devil in the White City.
Also, this is may be a little tougher sell, but I strongly suggest The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. His life from childhood through the his Vice Presidency. Fascinating and it read like a novel. I ran to the shelves to grab the second volume (Theodore Rex) the moment I finished.
posted by ezabeta at 8:56 PM on July 29, 2008

I felt the same way about the first volume of William Manchester's Churchill bio - old Winston's youth was the stuff of an absolutely gripping adventure novel.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:06 AM on July 30, 2008

Another recommendation if you can find a copy: Alistair MacLean's biography of Captain Cook.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:04 PM on November 5, 2008

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