Summertime is still with us and it’s not too late to find that last beach (or backyard) read. Maybe you want something exciting, something riveting, something you won’t want to put down. Thrills and adventures should abound, and oh yeah, it’d be nice if your library didn’t have a twenty-mile long hold list in every format. Perhaps you’re thinking thrillers and mysteries.
But I have a proposition for you. Have you ever thought about crossing over . . . into nonfiction?
Fascinating characters, murky motives, compelling stories—interesting subjects abound in narrative nonfiction. Like with fiction, it’s about telling a good story, about getting inside people’s heads, figuring out their motivations. But the stories are rooted in reality, the people are real, and the result is the same—a gripping story populated by fascinating people.
Do you like tales of travel in dangerous countries and inhospitable environments? Put down your Clive Cussler and consider the myriad pleasures of the The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which rambles through the Amazon in search of said lost city and some of the explorers who disappeared in its pursuit. If Grann’s book leaves you wanting more, try Skeletons on the Sahara. Dean King makes it clear that the desert is no friendlier than the jungle for hapless survivors or intentional explorers. For the more stressful aspects of exploration (starvation, madness, getting really, really lost), try Astoria by Peter Stark.
For unfriendly if fascinating environments (you’re sure to see more about those in upcoming entries), it’s hard to beat deep-sea diving, especially when mixed with shipwrecks. Most of these stories feature eccentric, tenacious characters putting themselves through the wringer in the name of fun, discovery, and pushing limits. Where Divers Dare: The Hunt for the Last U-Boat has divers putting their lives on the line to solve historical mysteries and to see how deep they can go. Likewise consider Deep Descent: Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria. This wrecked 1950s Italian luxury liner off the New Jersey coast is considered to be the Mt. Everest of wreck diving and the pursuit of its secrets has claimed many lives.
For a different kind of unfriendly environment, there’s always the intensity of spies practicing their craft during WWII and the Cold War. Many fabulous fiction writers have tried their hand at stories in these eras—John Le Carré and Charles McCarry just to name a couple. If you enjoy the tense pleasures of a spy tale well told, please do introduce yourself to Ben McIntyre. He specializes in compelling, well-researched, and even unexpectedly humorous real-life stories of WW II espionage, machinations, and mayhem. Start with Operation Mincemeat, in which a dead man is dropped off of the coast of Nazi-occupied Spain with misleading documents about the D-Day Invasion. If you’re more of a Cold War buff, McIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends details the post-WW II escapades and betrayals of notorious double-agent Kim Philby.
If your preference is for chills that have you leaving the lights on, put down that zombie apocalypse and try the real thing. Epidemics? Creepy viruses? Apocalyptic possibilities? Check, check, and check. Spillover by David Quammen follows the author from Australia to Indonesia to Africa as he talks to front-line scientists who are trying to anticipate and prevent the next . . . spillover. That means potentially deadly viruses crossing over from animals to humans and breaking out into the global population. Why worry? Some of these spillovers we’ve met before include Ebola, HIV, and the Spanish Flu. (And you’ll definitely never look at bats quite the same way again after reading this.) If you’re looking for something shorter, his pointedly-titled Ebola will also give you the heebie jeebies.
Clearly, the pursuit of adventure leads people into a variety of unexpected places and situations, and with any luck, the pursuit of a good story will do the exact same for you. If the story is the thing, don’t forget to check out some nonfiction before the summer’s over.