Top Ten Tuesday – Nonfiction for People Who (Think They) Don’t Enjoy Nonfiction

Top Ten Tuesday is an original meme from the awesome team at The Broke and The Bookish. 

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love nonfiction. As a former history student I know that truth is all too often stranger than fiction. Unfortunately the genre is sometimes seen as boring and dry. This is a real shame, because in the hands of a skilled writer, nonfiction can be as thrilling, exciting and rewarding as any novel.

Here are my picks for 10 nonfiction titles that are perfect entries into this fascinating genre. I’ve tried to include a variety of different styles and subject matters – there truly is a nonfiction title out there for everyone.

1. In the Heart of the Sea / Nathaniel Philbrick : Rampaging whales hellbent on revenge, shipwrecks, cannibalism, madness, survival, and adventure – this gripping account of the event that inspired Moby Dick is history at its most intense. It’s about to be released as a movie, too, so make sure to read the book before heading to the theaters.

2. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks / Rebecca Skloot : A skillful, sensitive study of the complicated intersections between science, ethics, race, economics, family relationships, and politics in recent American history, focusing on the story of Henrietta Lacks and her unique cells.

3. 52 Loaves / William Alexander : The humorous, eye-opening and at times quite touching account of one man’s obsessive quest to bake the perfect loaf of bread.

4. Into Thin Air / Jon Krakauer: This personal account of an ill-fated Everest expedition is nonfiction at its most gripping. Hold on, because things are about to get intense.

5. Thunderstruck / Erik Larson: Larson is one of the true masters of narrative nonfiction, creating thrilling, awe-inspiring works that skillfully weave multiple story lines together that build to a satisfying conclusion. Any of his recent works would be fine choices, but Thunderstruck is particularly engaging – a cops-and-robbers story of detectives, scientists and murderers caught up in a desperate race to the finish.

6. One Summer / Bill Bryson: Bryson is another established nonfiction master who likely needs little introduction, and whose signature style blends quality research, witty writing and wry humour. Selecting just one of Bryson’s many excellent titles is a challenge, but I have to recommend this brilliant account of a pivotal year in American history. This is history as it should be written – engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, and absolutely fascinating.

7. The Disappearing Spoon / Sam Kean : Passion, obsession, betrayal, adventure, murder and madness abound in this study of the history behind the development of the periodic table. Think science is boring? Think again.

8. Still Life / Melissa Milgrom : Ready for something a bit off the beaten track? Take a peak inside the weird, wacky and wonderful world of taxidermy.

9. Packing for Mars / Mary Roach : So….how does one use the toilet in space? The wonderfully irreverent Mary Roach tackles this and other fascinating, if not entirely polite, questions about space travel in this hilarious yet informative account. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

10.What If? / Randall Munroe : Brought to you by the mind behind the nerd-favourite web comic XKCD, this collection of short essays uses hard science and a bit of imagination to tackle outlandish theoretical questions, like : what would happen if every human on Earth jumped at the same time? Real science, real humour, real entertainment.

And there you have it – ten nonfiction titles that prove that this genre is anything but boring. Let me know what you think! Did I miss any of your favourites?

June Book Club – “Who Killed Janet Smith?”

“Who Killed Janet Smith? – The 1924 Vancouver Killing That Remains Canada’s Most Intriguing Unsolved Murder”

Literary Nonfiction. WHO KILLED JANET SMITH? examines one of the most infamous and still unsolved murder cases in Canadian history: the 1924 murder of twenty-two-year-old Scottish nursemaid Janet Smith. Originally published in 1984, and out of print for over a decade, this tale of intrigue, racism, privilege, and corruption in high places is a true-crime recreation that reads like a complex thriller. Anvil Press is pleased to be reissuing this title as part of the City of Vancouver’s Legacy Book Project. This new edition features a Foreword by historian Daniel Francis.

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Let me preface this mini review by saying that I read a lot of nonfiction. Some of my favourite authors are narrative nonfiction specialists, and as a former history student I am fascinated by the past. Imagine my disappointment, then, when this novel turned out to be a bit of a snoozefest, and a confusing one at that.

The story is indeed intriguing – a Scottish nursemaid is shockingly murdered, and doubt is cast upon some of Vancouver high society’s most influential and powerful figures. At the same time, the appalling institutionalized racism of the era comes into play, as a Chinese servant is dragged ruthlessly into the investigation. Corruption, privilege, cover-ups, kidnappings, wild parties and illicit affairs – this true story has the makings of a exciting period drama. In fact, when I initially read the book’s blurb, I was reminded of American novels such as “In the heat of the night” or “To kill a mockingbird”, where race and justice collide.

Unfortunately, as is all to often the case with nonfiction writing, “Who killed Janet Smith” reads more like a textbook than a novel. This is perfectly acceptable if you’re a student, but less enjoyable if you’re trying to get through the book in time for your next book club meeting. Dry, dry, far too long, and dry…..There is also an incredible array of characters, many of whom are referred to by different names and titles over the course of the book (full names, Christian names, initials, titles…) making for a very confusingly dry reading experience.

It’s always been a bit of a pet peeve with me, as a history fanatic, when people complain about how boring and pointless they found their history lessons in school. History isn’t boring! Uninspired teachers and dry textbooks may be boring, but history is anything but, and in the right hands, it can be as thrilling and engaging as any work of fiction.

For anyone interested in some thrilling narrative true-crime nonfiction, I would recommend the peerless Erik Larson.

The Devil in the White City – Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

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“Erik Larson–author of #1 bestseller IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS–intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death. Combining meticulous research with nail-biting storytelling, Erik Larson has crafted a narrative with all the wonder of newly discovered history and the thrills of the best fiction.”

Thunderstruck

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“Tells the interwoven stories of two men–Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication–whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time. Set in Edwardian London, an era of séances, science, and fog, and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world transformed, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.”

Next month we’re tackling Scandinavian fiction, which is a genre I know little about, so my hopes are set fairly high!