Monday 19 November 2018

Non-Fiction November - Week 4

Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction with Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction.

Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. 
Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? 
If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? 
Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? 
What are your favourite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? 
And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

When I first saw this week's question, my first reaction was 'uh-oh'! But then I remembered a conversation that Mr Books and I had a few weeks ago about this exact same topic.

He had just finished reading The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman and was raving about how it read like a thriller more than a book about science, which led us to discuss the merits of narrative non-fiction.

We agreed that good narrative non-fiction consisted of sound research mixed with compelling character development and a pleasing story arc.

Since that discussion I have qualified my view of narrative non-fiction to exclude memoirs or biographies. Memoirs and biographies, being the story (or part thereof) of someone's life are by definition already a narrative. Choices are made about what facts to include or not and it's all about interpretation, memory and personal agenda. Even those drier than dust bio's that include absolutely every single detail, attempt to take the reader on a journey.

A fictionalised account of someone's life (like the books Paula McLain writes about Hemingway and his wives) is what I call fictionalised history. It's based on real life events, with real life people, but conversations have been imagined and the timeline altered to assist the storytelling. Facts and fiction are blurred. I do enjoy these books at times, but often feel frustrated about not knowing which bits are real and which bits aren't.

Perhaps I'm splitting hairs?

Narrative non-fiction, for me, is when a non-fiction book that could be presented as dry statements of fact, with analysis, interpretation and commentary like a textbook or reference book, is instead presented in a story-like format. The facts and figures are revealed by means of anecdotes, sketches or a good old fashion yarn. Often the author inserts themselves into the story so that we can see the journey that their research took them on.

All kinds of non-fiction books can take a narrative turn. But it's the quality of the writing that turns them into one of my favourites. Over the years my picks have been:

Lifestyle books

Travel books

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bryson combines history, geography and the personal in most of his books. This one is my favourite.

Tragedy and its aftermath 

Done with sympathy, compassion and journalistic research, the best examples of this method are moving, informative and enlightening.

Life, death and our health in between

Science as story.

Unpalatable history 

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

When told as a story, these atrocities can be a little easier to digest.

Epic History

Anything by Michael Wood.
During the 90's Wood made several BBC series featuring various historical events or big names like Alexander the Great, the Trojan War and the Conquistadors. Each series came with it's own book.
They were immensely readable, fast paced and usually included Wood's own journey in these famous footsteps.

Biography mixed with science, geography or historical events

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

Cooking with extras

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell 
When a cook book is more than just recipes.

Foodie books

I'm a sucker for a good foodie books - they usually combine history, geography, science and a great story.

My TBR pile is bursting with plenty of narrative non-fiction. The hard part is deciding which one to read next.

The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China by by Huan Hsu

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel

The Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentlemen Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Have you read any of these?


  1. I've lingered over your post for a good twenty minutes now. Thanks to you the staff at the Brazoria County Library will be quite busy for me today.

    You really need to look for The Library Book when it arrives in your world. American Wolf is also fabulous, if you have any interest in nature.

    I certainly hope we have lots more time to read in heaven. Not even retirement is giving me that.

    1. I'm glad you found some temptations in my list Deb...I'll look out for The Library Book too - thanks for the tip:-)

  2. I don't think you're splitting hairs about fictionalised history. It often irritates me so much and I always want to know what is fiction and what isn't. I loved In Praise of Slow, but didn't it didn't strike me when I read it that it was like reading fiction - I'll have to look at it again. I also loved Bill Bryson's books - and thought about including A Walk in the Woods in my post. I read Longitude years ago - and will look at that again too.

    1. I wasn't sure whether to put In Praise of Slow into this post as it was a long time ago that I read it. However it had such a big effect on me and has become such a big part of MY story (including yoga, meditation and taking time to enjoy the processes of what I'm doing) that I decided to include it after all.

      I have a lovely illustrated Longitude that I hope to pour over one day soon....

  3. We've got lots of favourites in common (like Carl Honore, Michael Pollan, Norman Doidge and Simon Winchester). We even have some overlap in our TBRs for this category it seems. And, obviously, we share the problem of too many choices, too many GOOD choices, in terms of what to read next.

  4. Great list of recommendations! Notes from a Small Island sounds intriguing. Nature writing can be hit or miss for me, but Bryson really knows how to bring history and geography to life.

  5. I haven't read any of those but I've heard of a few. I would NOT like fictionalized accounts of real people either. That would bug me.

  6. Oooo -- Love and Hunger sounds so good! Adding it to my bursting-at-the-seams TBR...

  7. I've only read one of these -- Being Mortal -- but I loved it. The Invention of nature has been on my TBR for a long time now.

  8. I've read one off your TBR list, Dava Sobel's Longitude. It's probably just me :) but I wanted more math...

    The Humboldt biography has just been added to my list of things to read. Thanks!

    1. It was one of my favourite reads of 2016:-)

  9. This is such a fantastic and thoughtful meditation on this topic! And I don't think you're splitting hairs at all about the fictionalized accounts of lives. I don't like that either for the same reasons of being bothered about what was true and what wasn't.

    I love the categories you chose! I haven't read Notes from a Small Island but have read a few others from him so I'll get to that one eventually. Wonderful post!

  10. I agree with your hair-splitting. While memoir and biography are good examples of narrative nonfiction, the books I find more interesting are the ones where I they didn't have to be narrative and yet that's how the author chose to do it. Solid research and rich storytelling gets me every time :)

    1. I'm having an interesting experience with a fictionalised bio at the moment (White Houses by Amy Bloom). Struggling with the first person narrative and frustrated by the 'what's true and what's not' factor certainly not enjoying it as much as I had been led to believe by other reviews....I think it has solid research, but it's lacking in the rich storytelling department for my tastes. Right now it feels like a struggle to finish it.

  11. Re: TBR #NonFicNov dd 27.11.2018
    You said you read just 14 non-fiction this year....but the books you did read were toppers!
    Ghosts of the Tsunami I just had to read as well as the Australian best-seller The Arsonist by C. Hooper. I'll have to wait a few months but I have the book on e-book pre-order.
    I hope to read as many books as I can from my #NonFicNov TBR in 2019.
    Just have to wait an see how far I come! Thanks for your comments!


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