This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.
When I first read Rennie’s post announcing Nonfiction November I thought I’d sit this week out. While I might be able to think of a book or two that might possibly fit the bill I wasn’t sure I could recommend enough books worthy of a post. Even if I could, what one considers stranger than fiction is definitely in the eye of the beholder. But the more I thought about it, the more I began remembering books that might be perfect for a post like this.
Science and Nature
- Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures by Carl Zimmer – This book opened up an entirely new world to me. Parasites are fascinating!
- 10 Questions Science Can’t Answer (Yet): A Guide to the Scientific Wilderness by Michael Hanlon – Worth it alone just for the chapter “What Are We Going to Do With the Stupid ?”
- My Lobotomy by Howard Dully – True story of a kid who was railroaded into getting a lobotomy at age 12 and the life he endured years later as an adult.
- Medical Mysteries: From the Bizarre to the Deadly . . . The Cases That Have Baffled Doctors by Ann Reynolds and Kenneth Wapner – Filled with a ton of strange cases, like a young New Yorker who experiences horrific seizures whenever she hears the song “Temperature” by Sean Paul.
- The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery by D.T. Max- Imagine inheriting a disorder that keeps you from sleeping and in the end drives you completely insane.
- The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein – One has to admire a high school kid who was able to build a nuclear reactor using mail order materials and other stuff he was able to get on the open market.
- Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker – Sad, fascinating and probably the best book I’ve read on schizophrenia.
- Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal – Think you know what separates humans from animals? Think again.
- Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body by Armand Marie Leroi – Genetically speaking, human life is imperfect and unpredictable.
- The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean – Science made fun.
True Tales of Survival
- Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff – Best WWII rescue mission you’ve never heard of.
- The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon by Robert Whitaker – Try escaping through the Amazon. Alone. In 1735.
- Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng – Nien was an innocent pawn in a high level power struggle within Mao’s inner circle during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Wrongly imprisoned, she spent a decade in solidarity confinement.
- The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer – Sometimes hiding in plain sight is the safest thing to do when you’re a Jew trying to secretly pass as a gentile in Nazi Germany.
- The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal – After arriving in America a teenager, the German expat would later spend years conning an endless parade of people.
- The Devil in the White City : Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson – Perhaps America’s first serial killer.
- A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh – An entertaining and intelligent look inside the most gifted. and creative of criminal minds.
- Pilgrimage from Darkness: Nuremberg to Jerusalem by David E. Feldman – A former Luftwaffe pilot turned religious seeker would travel the world, convert to Judaism, change his name, marry a Holocaust survivor and find employment as travel guide in Israel.
- The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein – Overcoming abuse and neglect as an adopted but unloved child, undergoing gender-reassignment surgery at a time when considered highly abnormal, working as a prostitute in a quasi-legal brothel (and narrowly escape getting murdered) and in the end starting a highly successful trauma cleaning service. One of these accomplishments alone would make for great reading.
- The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker – In the early 1960s a Jewish American woman converted to Islam, moved to Pakistan and became a protegé of an influential Islamist. Then things got really weird.
- Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell – Why are some people wildly successful despite the odds?
- The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss – Alexandre Dumas might have created larger than life characters in his time. But none could compare to real life father Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.
- Humboldt’s Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey that Changed the Way We See the World by Gerard Helferich – Most amazing scientist you’ve never heard of.
- A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home by Steve Pemberton – Highly underrated memoir of man who overcame childhood abuse and is now a successful high level executive.
- Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia by Emmanuel Carrère -The long subtitle says it all.
- House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home by Mark Richard – Drunken, self-destructive, reckless and hedonistic, Richard’s life as recounted in his memoir reads like the gonzo reporting of Hunter S. Thompson.
- The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser by Warren Kozak – A great biography about a man whose admirable qualities and amazing adventures transcend all boundaries. One of those rare books about a religious figure readers of any faith, or no faith can enjoy.
Incredible Iranian Lives
- A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran by Reza Kahlili – Disillusioned with Iran’s theocratic regime, Kahlili put his life on the line to become an American agent.
- A Mirror Garden by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian – Like a real life Forest Gump, over the course of her rich and adventurous life Farmanfarmaian rubbed shoulders with long parade of celebrities. From Andy Warhol to Warren Beaty to Prince Charles the tales of her charmed life make for great reading. She even played Twister with the Shah of Iran and his royal entourage.
- Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat – Moments before she was about to be executed for opposing Iran’s revolutionary regime, Nemat agreed to marry one of her prison guards and convert to Islam. She was just 16 years old.
- Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb – If you love spy stories and covert operations then this is one must reading.
- The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt – A 15th-century book hunter uncovers a long lost copy of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and helps jump start the modern age.
- The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis by David E. Fishman – Sad, inspiring and fascinating all at the same time.
- Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford – A young, impoverished Steppe dweller running for his life with nothing but the shirt on his back goes on to conquer Eurasia.
- Where the Jews Aren’t: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Region by Masha Gessen – During the early days of the USSR the Communists established a Soviet-run Jewish homeland on the Chinese border.
- How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill – Ireland’s role in preserving and promoting rare classical knowledge is one of history’s sadly lesser known stories.
Cults and Leaving Religion
- Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – If nothing else, Scientology *is* stranger than fiction. Highly recommended.
- Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family by Veronica Chater – Not all Christian extremists are Protestant fundamentalists. Chater was raised in a strict, zealous Catholic sect that refused to recognize the Church reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
- Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman- One of the best memoirs out there when it comes to leaving a repressive religious community.
- Educated by Tara Westover – Superbly written and inspiring, the true story of a woman who broke away from her insular cultish family to pursue one heck of a higher education.
- I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams – Raised in the Jehovah’s Witness faith, Abrahams left it all behind and became a slam poet.
- Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer – Great inside look into the freak show that is the Westboro Baptist Church.
And to think I was worried I couldn’t come up with enough books for this post. Happy reading and enjoy Nonfiction November!