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While there are so many nonfiction books that interest me, I don’t naturally gravitate to them. What I’m really looking for in my reading is a great story, and the best nonfiction books and authors do just that. It takes a special talent to write a nonfiction book that reads like fiction and is as riveting as the best fiction novels.
So I tend to look for creative and narrative nonfiction books–books where the author uses literary techniques to tell a riveting, true story. Memoirs also tend to fall in this category; because they are writing their own stories, great memoir writers have the ability to convey the emotions and deep characters that are in the best fiction.
I wrote about some of my favorite riveting nonfiction books in a previous post:
Since then, I’ve read just a few more that could be added to the list. Since these are my favorite type of nonfiction books, I’m looking forward to reading recommendations for other Nonfiction November participants, who are linking up on Rennie’s blog at What’s Nonfiction?
Memoirs, Creative, and Narrative Nonfiction Books that Read Like Fiction
As a young child, Tara Westover's upbringing seemed almost charming and old fashioned. Living on a mountain in Idaho, the family strived for self-sufficiency based in faith and closeness to one another. As Tara grew up, however, she realized that their lives were driven by paranoid survivalism, religious extremism, abuse, and possibly mental illness.
Tara's memoir traces the path from her cloistered upbringing--during which she never set foot in school--to her eventual education at BYU, Cambridge, and Harvard.
But more important than her formal educational path is her move toward awareness and a sense of self that wasn't allowed in her mountaintop life. Educated explores her attempts to reconcile this new sense of self and the boundaries she learns to set with the love and longing she feels for her family.
An incredible read both for the excellent writing and the author's thoughtful, unblinking, nuanced look at herself and her own life.More info →
Ishmael Beah was a regular 12-year-old boy in Sierra Leone when the war came. He went to school, hung out with friends, and loved to dance and rap in local talent shows. All of that was lost in an instant as the rebels rampaged through villages, killing everyone they found. He found himself on the run. After surviving for months, at times with a small group of boys, at times completely alone, starvation and desperation brought him to a village that seemed safe. Instead, he was pressed into service by the government army, drugged, and trained as a killer. Beah tells his story in a way that is both matter-of-fact and fully cognizant of the innocence that was stolen from him and so many other children. A word of warning: this was so hard to read--at times I struggled to continue, knowing that things were only going to get worse. That it's a true story, for Beah and for thousands of other children, made it feel important to finish.More info →
I've seen this memoir recommended by readers for years, but it was actually the movie trailer that prompted me to pick it up. My impression was that the book was dark and heartbreaking, while the trailer gave the impression that it was about a carefree, inspiring family. I hadn't yet seen the movie when I read this, but I did find the book heartbreaking. Walls seems to cling to the uplifting moments of her childhood, when her father in particular infused their family with a reckless sense of freedom and privilege in their free-spirited rootlessness. While there are appealing elements of his spirit, ultimately the parents' selfishness and neglect is breathtaking, but the resourcefulness of the children is inspiring. (And thankfully, the movie trailer was somewhat misleading. It did stay pretty true to the spirit of the book.)More info →
As Hurricane Katrina headed toward New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun never considered leaving. He was used to riding out the storm and keeping watch over his painting business and the properties he and his wife, Kathy, owned. Kathy and the four kids would leave, eventually making their way to Arizona to stay with friends, but Zeitoun stayed. As everyone knows, New Orleans soon turned into a disaster area. Zeitoun was largely isolated from it, staying on the second floor and roof of his home at night and paddling through the nearby neighborhoods by day, feeding dogs and helping people who needed it.
He and a friend are in a home he owns, visiting a tenant, when heavily armed authorities burst in and arrest them all. Thus begins an imprisonment filled with indignities, no standard rights, and accusations of terrorism. It's an insightful look into one of the only parts of the machine that seemed to run like clockwork during Katrina: arrests and imprisonment.
This book is especially interesting not just for its content, which paints Zeitoun as quirky but noble, but also for its aftermath. Since Katrina and the writing of this book, Zeitoun and Kathy divorced, and he was accused of trying to beat her with a tire iron and then with soliciting a hitman in prison to kill her. He was acquitted of both but later convicted of stalking her. He was recently freed from prison after a deportation order couldn't be carried out because of the war in Syria.
It's always interesting to look at the larger story outside of a book, to find out if there are other perspectives or if new events have occurred since the writing--particularly when a person in a nonfiction book is portrayed in a certain way. I believe that most of the story in Zeitoun is probably true, but I also believe that people can be nice to dogs, help out a few neighbors, and still do other horrible things.More info →
As the Russians advanced on Hungary during World War II, Olga Wagner and Tibor Zoltai and their families flee the country. Tibor is pressed into service for the Germans and eventually taken prisoner by the Americans. He nearly starves. Olga and her family make their way to Austria and pursue options for emigrating. It's there that Olga and Tibor's lives intersect. The two families eventually go to Canada under the country's friendly system of indentured servitude for refugees. After years on the move, Olga and Tibor finally marry and settle in the United States, building their family and successful lives in academia and immigration aid. This was a fascinating look at how World War II affected the people of Hungary (a perspective I was unfamiliar with) and one couple's struggle to survive. The author was a colleague of my dad, and I attended the University of Minnesota (where Tibor spent most of his career) and once lived close to where the Zoltais settled in the Twin Cities, so this felt close to home.More info →
What are your favorite nonfiction books that read like fiction?