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Salute to Narrative Nonfiction: Journalism and Social Sciences


Narrative or creative nonfiction is somewhat newly recognized genre. Naturally, as librarians we have a great appreciation for the research, the primary source documents and interviews, but it is the narrative, the skillful pacing, the phrasing, and the insight that make it read like a thriller that set these books apart from other nonfiction. For this week's readers advisory practice we decided to pay tribute to the talented authors who do this well. We received such a strong response to the call out for favorites that we divided the list into four categories: journalism and social science, travel and adventure, science, and memoir. This is the journalism and social science edition of our salute to great narrative nonfiction.

The first author to pop into my mind is Ryszard Kapuscinski, who called his own work "literary reportage."  Through such eloquent books as Another Day of Life, about Angola in the 1970s, Imperium, about the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and The Shadow of the Sun, about Africa in the late 1950s, Kapuscinski transforms journalism into literature. His insatiable curiosity and great compassion for the struggles of ordinary people earned him a well-deserved international reputation. —Jennifer Craft, Mulberry Street

This is one of my favorite genres. I did my B.A. in History, so you can imagine all of the dry accounts I had to read, so someone who writes compelling narrative nonfiction is a true treasure. Ones that I have read and really enjoyed are Truman Capote's In Cold Blood—a great combination of investigative journalism and storytelling, Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil—I saw the Lady Chablis perform once and she's captivating, so of course I had to read a book featuring her. —Carmen Nigro, Milstein Division

"Los Angeles Police Det. John Skaggs carried the shoebox aloft like a waiter bearing a platter. The box contained a pair of high-top sneakers that once belonged to the black teenage boy named Dovon Harris. Dovon, fifteen, had been murdered the previous June, and the shoes had been sitting in an evidence locker for nearly a year." Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America isn't a mere police procedural. Leovy's narrative is absolutely spellbinding and story, suspenseful and wholly sympathetic. —Miriam Tuliao, Selection Team

In What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, Dave Eggers tells the harrowing and compelling story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan, and in doing so he contradicts the title of his very own book! This isn't an autobiography. This isn't a novel. But because it is creative nonfiction, it is what it says it is, and that is what What is the What is about. —Billy Parrot, Mid-Manhattan

Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher takes us inside the mind of famed Scotland Yard detective Jack Whicher as he tries to discover who slit the throat of three-year-old Saville Kent and threw him down a well in the middle of the night outside a rural country house in 1860 England. Full of wonderfully lurid details about the crime itself and delves into the history of detection and the history of the detective novel. It's a story you won't soon forget. —Anne Rouyer, Mulberry Street

I have several recommendations in the category of narrative nonfiction: Dispatches by Michael Herr deals realistically with the Vietnam experience for soldiers (and an embedded journalist) whose everyday life around the DMZ is fraught with harrowing violence, demoralization, fear, and boredom. In Nicholas Baker’s experimental Human Smoke human history during the rise of World War II is recounted using nothing but a series of selected primary source documents, to devastating effect. Dave Eggers's poignant and unique biographical Zeitoun tells the story of a Syrian-American's journey through the New Orleans Katrina ordeal. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is a spellbinding account of the 1990s Ebola and Marburg outbreak, a true nonfiction thriller. Finally, Erick Larson's Devil in the White City is a detailed account of the drama of the making 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which works in the freely dramatized but true story of a serial killer on the loose in this atmosphere of a city during modernization. —Jeremy Megraw, Billy Rose Theater Division

John Krakauer's work, such as Under the Banner of Heaven chronicles an isolated community of Mormon fundamentalists practicing polygamy and Into the Wild recounts the mysterious disappearance of a young hiker in the Alaskan wilderness. —Ronni Krasnow, Morningside Heights

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich is a charming book, and a great intro to the world of nonfiction for readers of all ages and skill levels. Written for children, it has the easy cadence of a fairy tale, but packs a big punch with its many interesting facts and clever connections. —Nancy Aravec, Mid-Manhattan

In The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed by John Vaillant, we learn the story of a sacred tree, honored by the Haida people and revered for more than 300 years. More than sixteen stories tall it is a botanical anomaly, an environmental treasure, until an angry survivalist sets his sights on it. A nail-biting mystery interwoven with poetic passages that make you feel as if you can get lost in and smell the gorgeous aroma of one of North America's last, great wildernesses. —Maura Muller, Volunteers Office

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is the best book on American politics that I have ever read: a bilious, nakedly partisan fever-dream that could only have hatched out of the head of Hunter S. Thompson.  From the man who invented "gonzo journalism" this is the supreme example.  His spittle-flecked contempt for Nixon (except for when the talk turns to football) and Hubert Humphrey is mitigated by his reluctant, but genuine belief in George McGovern, knowing full well that, in the end, his heart would be broken. —Wayne Roylance, Selection Team

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test stands as the definitive account of the Sixties counterculture. Thom Wolfe embeds himself with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters as they discover the mind-altering effects of LSD. They add in color, light, sound (and people!) until the infamous Acid Tests explode into a collective happening that still influences our culture today. The Pranksters visit with Timothy Leary, the Beats and the Hell's Angels themselves in this very madcap romp. —Charlie Radin, Inwood

For my money, the king of current narrative nonfiction is Michael Lewis. If he needed an assistant, I would go in a heartbeat. What impresses me is the variety of topics he writes about and makes you actually understand. Who knew I would ever understand flash trading or the 2008 financial crisis in such robust and human ways. The Big Short and Flash Boys will change your mind and your life. Flash Boys is one of my top picks for new books that were published in 2014. I honestly think Michael Lewis should be required reading for all Americans. The most meaningful nonfiction book of my entire life is Reviving Ophelia by Dr. Mary Pipher. It's old now, but I read it as a tween and read it once a year through young adulthood. It's not a super heavy-hitter like Our Bodies, Ourselves or The Feminine Mystique but it still addresses societal pressures on young women and the toll it can take. —Leslie Tabor, Assoc. Dir. for Neighborhood Libraries

I loved Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, which follows the stories of several people living in a slum next to the airport in Mumbai, from an enterprising teen collecting the garbage of rich people, to a ruthless, unofficial, slumlord. Although Boo is a journalist, her moving narrative reads more like fiction than fact. It's a story of families striving for a better life, and about the injustices and tragedies along the way. —Rabecca Hoffman McDonald, Kingsbridge

My recommendation is Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy. An interesting narrative of all that can be learned about a person, a neighborhood or a society by just going through their garbage over a period of time.  You never thought garbage can be so fascinating! —Jean Harripersaud, Bronx Library Center

The first chapters of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August are as dramatic as any family epic. However, her story's dysfunctional family took out millions of on-lookers. The author brings to life again the people and events that led to World War I. —Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Curator of Exhibitions Library for Performing Arts

I enjoyed Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin. This book is geared towards young adults, but I would definitely recommend it to adults of any age. Author, Steve Sheinkin, provides information on the development of the atomic bomb, and he tells about the key individuals who are involved. The book is very informative, but what makes it stand out is that the information is presented like a thriller novel. There is intrigue, suspense, and chapters that end on cliffhangers! —Madeline Crosby, Dongan Hills


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Michael Hastings is another

Michael Hastings is another great one. His books fly because you're so engrossed in the narrative of the story. I'd also add Mark Bowden to the list--both Black Hawk Down and The Killing of Osama bin Laden. This is one of my favorite subsects of journalism and nonfiction, so I have plenty of suggestions. :)

Terry Pratchett

Could you recommend more of the same? I miss the Turtle and the 4 Elephants. Also, where can I purchase said books?? Book stores are in an EXTREME dearth in the Bronx. Zelazny was (is) also a favorite of library was "borrowed" so I'm attempting to replace it. Thanks in advance!

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