Sometimes I feel it’s really hard to find good, well-written non-fiction that’s really engaging. So I’ve made a list of eight page-turners about truly interesting people and interesting stories.
My main interest has always been royalty, so of course there are two royal-related books on the list, but I feel like both of these books would be good even for people who have no past interest in royal history. I wanted to include stories that are both unique and fascinating. All of these books are also uniquely readable, and as much of a page-turner as the best novels.
The book: Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert K. Massie
The Story: The Romanov family was killed in a basement during the Russian Revolution and the communists didn’t want anyone to know about it. It took decades for the exact sequence of events to come out, and during that time a lot of interesting stuff happened.
There are a lot of books about the Romanov dynasty, and what makes this one unique is that it begins at the end, so to speak. Chronologically, it jumps around to different places and people, but the first historical event covered at all is the imprisonment and execution of Czar Nicholas II’s family. Then we learn what happened to the bodies, and how the public belatedly found out. There’s also much attention paid to Anna Anderson, the famous Anastasia pretender. Attention is also paid to all of the other pretenders and the distant Romanov cousins who think the Russian monarchy will be brought back any day now, and who engage in petty arguments over which one of them should be at the helm. The book is a little bit dated, coming from 1995, before the last two bodies were found and the mystery solved once and for all, but Massie came to all of the right conclusions and the new information that’s come out in the years since only vindicates his research. A lot of truly fascinating characters jump out of this one, including Anna Anderson; Gleb Botkin, the son of the Romanov family doctor who is a new-age type and Anna Anderson’s biggest supporter; and Grand Duchess Maria, the current “heir” to the Russian throne who has put her life completely on hold to wait for her royal destiny.
The Book: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown by Julia Scheeres
The Story: Jim Jones started a “church” (or cult, rather), brought his followers into the jungle, and made them all drink poisoned Kool-Aid (or a cheap knock-off of Kool-Aid called Flavor-Aid), and most of them died.
Not a lot of people today know anything about Jonestown, the settlement in Guyana founded by Indiana-born “Pastor” Jim Jones and his followers. Honestly, it’s best known as the origin of the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid.” In many ways, that phrase is misleading and doesn’t describe what actually went down at Jonestown. In A Thousand Lives, we learn that most of Jones’s followers had reservations about him that increased significantly in the days approaching their disastrous end. Jim Jones comes off as a drug-addicted sociopath determined to make a name for himself in the most horrific way possible. The terrifying thing about this book is that it completely shatters this idea that we all have that we could never end up in a cult like that. Jones started off as a somewhat over-the-top but reasonable sounding pastor of The People’s Temple. He preached socialism and racial equality. Many of his followers didn’t notice that something wasn’t quite right until they arrived at Jonestown, in the middle of a remote jungle, and once they got there, Jones wouldn’t permit anyone to leave. The book follows several different people, some who survived, and some who didn’t, from the beginning of their involvement with The People’s Temple until they either died or escaped.
The Book: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
The Story: North Korea is a brutal dictatorship and pretty much every single thing about living there is terrible.
I read this book and A Thousand Lives around the same time, and I was struck by the similarities. I don’t know if that speaks worse of Jonestown or of North Korea. Both stories center around control, and the control a leader can exert over his followers through both manipulation and fear. Nothing to Envy is based on Demick’s interviews with North Korean refugees now living in South Korea. We find out about the every-day reality of life in North Korea through several different families who eventually left, and some of the most gripping passages center around how they managed to escape. The two characters we hear from the most are a young couple, Jun-Sang and Mi-Ran, who met at the movies as teenagers and carried on a forbidden romance for about ten years. Despite having been together for so long, they didn’t trust each other with their reservations about the government or their desire to escape, and they both escaped and ended up in South Korea independently. In North Korea, a person feels like they’re always being watched, and they truly can’t trust anyone. And, of course, they’re always desperately hungry.
The Book: The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler
The Story: Back in “the day,” before it was acceptable to be a single mother, women who got pregnant were sent away and forced to give up their babies and then go back to their lives as if nothing ever happened.
You know the good old days, right? The 1950s! Before abortion and premarital sex corrupted our pure American culture. This book details the behind-the-scenes horror experienced by young women who had the misfortune of falling pregnant unmarried. The book is made up of individual chapters, each telling the first-person story of one of the women Fessler interviewed. The stories all follow similar themes. Usually, the women were sent to maternity homes and had their children taken moments from birth. Most of the women would have preferred to keep their children, but felt as though they had no choice, and none of them were able to take their babies back, though several tried. Though the stories share some similarities, each woman’s perspective is unique and each woman interprets her experience a little differently. I feel like this is one of those aspects of history that people don’t want to talk about, something that happened in American society we’d rather pretend didn’t. Of course, that’s the side of history I’ve always been most fascinated with. This book is rather rage-inducing at times, but consistently engrossing and informative.
The Book: Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby
The Story: SeaWorld, and other similar parks, make a lot of money off of the suffering of intelligent, compassionate animals, and sometimes the animals go a bit psychotic and harm their trainers.
After I saw Blackfish, I was pretty mad at SeaWorld, and I wanted to learn more. Death at SeaWorld covers some of the same themes as Blackfish, namely the damage caused by orca captivity, but in much more depth and with more diverse perspectives. The story is told through the stories of several different people, including scientists, SeaWorld trainers, and activists, over several years. The book also devotes considerable length to the captivity industry as a whole, and how it shaped the way society views orcas. I’ve recently begun to view marine parks as something of a 20th century oddity; future generations will probably fail to understand why these places existed or what could possibly have motivated people to visit them. Death at SeaWorld would be the best resource to try and explain it.
The Book: A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard
The Story: Jaycee Dugard recounts how she was kidnapped and held against her will for eighteen years, having two children in the process.
I don’t usually go for “true crime” stories, and this is anything but. Jaycee Dugard is an amazing writer, and her story is so raw, terrifying, and heart-breaking that I couldn’t put it down. The media focuses on the more sensational parts of her account; the kidnapping, the rape, giving birth in a shed. But honestly, what Jaycee documented best was the everyday reality of having your life completely controlled by an abuser. Her kidnappers, Philip and Nancy Garrido, would give Jaycee pets and then take them away on a whim. They took away her name, and did everything they could to undermine her identity. They controlled every aspect of her life, and threatened her with unspeakable horrors if she tried to break free. Jaycee uses the diaries she kept while she was being held captive as a spring-board to describe her state-of-mind during the eighteen years she was kept by the Garridos. It’s fascinating, and completely different from most similar memoirs because Jaycee has a lot of writing talent in her own right.
The Book: The People’s King: The True Story of the Abdication by Susan Williams
The Story: King Edward VIII abdicated his throne in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. Or actually, maybe we don’t know why exactly he did it.
The second royal book on my list, and the least depressing book I’m going to mention, is Susan Williams’s account of the Edward VIII abdication crisis. I’ve been fascinated with this story for years, but her book really put me into obsession mode. Her theory, that Edward VIII was “pushed out” by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin for political reasons, is always going to be a little controversial. I feel like you can take what you want of it and leave the rest in some ways, because while she more than adequately backs up her theory with contemporary documents, very rarely has any historical decision only been caused by one factor. This book is very readable, and because it focuses on the abdication, and not Edward VIII’s whole life as most other books do, she can get into a level of detail most authors can’t. Williams is also the only feminist to analyze this story, and even probably the only author who isn’t a raging sexist. For instance, she manages to give a brief account of Wallis Simpson’s life without speculating on her genitals or suggesting her first husband abused her because of something she must have done to make him mad. If that seems like a minimum standard of historical discourse, clearly you don’t read a lot of royal biographies.
The Book: Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes
The Story: In 1910-12, Robert Scott and his band of explorers sought to be the first people to reach the South Pole. Let’s just say it ended badly.
Ranulph Fiennes is probably the most respected explorer alive today. And yes, he does have a cousin who’s an actor, if you must know. He is the perfect person to write about Scott’s expedition because he’s been through a lot of the same things himself. Fiennes’s book is, in many ways, a response to the very unfavorable way history has judged Robert Scott. Fiennes feels that the people who are going out of their way to criticize the choices Scott made have no idea what they’re talking about, and he is here to school them. Robert Scott comes off as a driven, talented, and intellectual man who wanted to forward scientific thinking as much as he wanted to make history. I have a lot of respect for the dangerous situation these men put themselves in. There’s a lot of interesting human drama packed into this book as well, from the arguments Scott got into with the other men to his tragic, heart-breaking letters home to the wife he hadn’t seen in over a year.