ICYMI: Six Compelling Nonfiction Books that Read Like Fiction
Do you love nonfiction that reads like fiction?
These great books are listed in the order I read them last year and not in order of preference, because each of them made me think and feel deeply about the subject matter and I loved them all. They're fascinating and written about very different topics--race and incarceration, mental illness, sexual abuse, Russian spies, and the Irish Troubles.
What books should I add to my nonfiction Greedy Reading List of Books with Black-and-White Covers, which is apparently the look of most of the nonfiction I read during the year?
I originally posted this list in October of 2020 (I've made a few changes to the text but the list of books is the same) under the title "Six of the Best Nonfiction Books I've Read This Year."
01 Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
Patrick Radden Keefe, a journalist with an Irish name but without a dog in this particular fight, fantastically shapes the endless trails and tales from the Irish Troubles into a narrative, and he lays out the web of motivations and passionate beliefs behind the conflicts so that an outsider can begin to comprehend what occurred and why.
The most fascinating parts of this book for me were about the originally steadfast and unrelenting IRA paramilitary members who ended up emotionally and often physically broken, with haunting regrets.
Toward the end of the book, the author says, in what feels like an accurate reflection of his book:
“...I saw an opportunity to tell a story about how people become radicalized in their uncompromising devotion to a cause, and about how individuals—and a whole society—make sense of political violence once they have passed through the crucible and finally have time to reflect.”
This was nonfiction that was so compelling it read like fiction (and served as the inspiration for this Greedy Reading List).
For my full review of this book, please see Say Nothing.
02 Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
It was excruciating to read some of the many sobering realities explored in Just Mercy related to our unjust justice system, which is skewed against people of color and those without the means to effectively represent themselves.
In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson recounts his efforts (along with those of his Equal Justice Initiative colleagues) to assist some of the countless incarcerated people in dire and heartbreaking situations on death row.
This book was published in 2014, but I finally read it this year and am so very glad. Listening to Stevenson narrate the audiobook was fantastic.
This is fascinating and excruciating to read. Stevenson and his like-minded colleagues are true heroes, and the issues he raises may make readers uncomfortable, but they're all worth looking at under a microscope and using to demand the many changes in the legal system that are warranted.
Click here for my full review of Just Mercy.
03 The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War is a wonderfully paced and skillfully recounted Cold War-era story of spy intrigue, paranoia, bravery, and the twists and turns that led Oleg Gordievsky, a double agent for Britain’s MI6, to be appointed Resident in the KGB—and to ultimately help end the Cold War. Ben Macintyre deftly traces the webs of deceit, greed, bravery, and the desire for heroic glory that build to the book's climax. He does an excellent job of immersing the reader in Cold War-era mindsets, priorities, and sometimes paranoia.
The behind-the-scenes communications that were made possible by Gordievsky's insights into the Soviet leadership's motivations and fears are fascinating. This information-sharing afforded the West the ability to defuse strained and high-stakes relations, possibly averting large-scale disaster on multiple occasions.
Macintyre's nonfiction book was wonderful; it really read to me like fiction. I was hooked the whole way through.
Click here for my full review of The Spy and the Traitor.
04 Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow
This is a horrifying and fascinating look at the elaborate schemes undertaken by Harvey Weinstein and associates but also other various media, show business, and political individuals and entities to not only cover up instances but altogether deny an existing culture of male sexual power plays, rape, and various other disturbing abuses of power.
The events in Catch and Kill are carefully researched and documented, with twists and turns that feel so outlandish as to seem like fiction at times.
Farrow also explores the difficulty the long-silenced victims have in bravely deciding to tell their stories, as well as the threats to reporters who are trying to help the truth come out.
A 2020 New York Times article, "Is Ronan Farrow Too Good to Be True?" assessed Farrow's reporting, noting that his facts are true but that he sometimes amps up the drama surrounding them. Catch and Kill does feel "cinematic," but the horrors at its heart have been verified.
Click here for my full review of Catch and Kill.
05 White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
DiAngelo, a sociologist and facilitator focused on racial and social justice, explains issues essential to the productive understanding of our nation's past and current racial situation, including a basic history lesson on race and power.
She draws on specific anecdotes from her extensive experiences with white and Black people in anti-racism workshops and through her facilitation of discussions of race. The issues she explores include the self-perpetuating white institutional power structure; the general and long-term white tendency to not discuss or acknowledge race; the differences between prejudice, discrimination, and racism; and ways in which white people sometimes unhelpfully derail the productive work of anti-racism.
White Fragility is so valuable, specific, and important, it's a book that's worth underlining like crazy while you work to internalize the lessons and directives DiAngelo lays out. Click here for my full review of White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
06 Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family is the true story of a family with twelve children, six of whom are ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The family descends into chaos; there is secret abuse, and there is always the dark, disturbing force of unchecked mental illness shaping the lives of all involved.
Significant scientific advancements regarding mental illness were made possible because of the genetic material from and the cooperation of the Glavin family, and Kolker explores the scientific ins and outs in a manageable way for the reader.
This is a fascinating, disturbing, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful book. It’s absolutely meticulously researched.
I had requested this book from the library last year and when it was available weeks or months later, I had forgotten anything I'd known about its premise and happened to be home quarantining with Covid. I listened to it as an audiobook, often in the early-morning hours, and I admittedly may have been a little off, but I initially thought this not only read like fiction but was fiction. Thinking back on it, I was probably loopy on that front, but regardless, it is riveting reading.
You can find my full review of Hidden Valley Road here.